Bob Shrum, the pricey Washington hired gun, is the tête pensant of John Kerry’s campaign. A veteran of the latter-day JFK’s Senate races, Shrummy, as he’s known to friend and foe alike, attached himself to Kerry like a mollusk early on in this presidential effort. He’s the first to have the senator’s ear in the morning and the last to whisper in it at night. Not much gets by Shrummy, who is known for his sharp elbows.
Unless Kerry is caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy (to borrow ex–Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards’ colorful metaphor for a campaign-crippling scandal), the junior senator from Massachusetts will be coronated in Boston as the Democrats’ nominee. So it’s not too early to pose the question: Is Shrum up to beating Karl Rove?
Shrum is a Democratic political consultant so much in demand that, before he signed on to Kerry’s campaign, inside-the-Beltway journalists were speculating in print on which candidate would win “the Shrum primary.”
A Harvard-trained lawyer, Shrum first made his reputation as a gifted speechwriter. He wrote for New York Mayor John V. Lindsay, was the principal pen for Edmund Muskie’s 1972 White House run — then switched to George McGovern when Muskie’s campaign imploded. In 1976, he signed up to work for Jimmy Carter — but after only 10 days he quit and publicly blasted Carter in a letter that hit the front pages, telling Carter “I don’t believe you stand for anything other than yourself.” Most of all, Shrum crafted Senator Edward Kennedy’s speeches for a decade. It was writing for Teddy that cemented the mystique of the Shrum magic touch. The most famous speech Shrum ever wrote was undoubtedly Teddy’s 1980 Democratic Convention soliloquy, “The dream shall never die” — there was hardly a dry eye in the house when it was over.
Shrum eventually left Teddy to capitalize on his connection to the Kennedy name and set up as a consultant and ad maker. His specialty: giving a populist flavor to a campaign. Shrum was the man behind the curtain in Dick Gephardt’s xenophobic Japan-and-Korea-bashing ’88 presidential campaign. Shrummy tried the same shtick for Bob Kerrey’s 1992 White House bid — it flopped, in part because, as Joe Klein later reported, Kerrey afterward “admitted he didn’t believe a word he was saying.”
Shrum didn’t work for Bill Clinton — but, during the height of the Monica mess, he faxed a speech to Clinton recommending Bubba admit to “sexual contact” with Lewinsky, say “none of this should have happened,” and apologize. Clinton refused to grovel, instead choosing a nonspecific admission to a relationship that “was wrong” in a TV address attacking Ken Starr — and got impeached. Remember Al Gore’s credibility-stretching switch late in the 2000 campaign to “the people against the powerful” theme that briefly revived his sinking fortunes? That was Shrum, brought in as a doctor for the ailing Gore campaign.
Populism has made Shrum quite rich. He took on a little-known but quite wealthy trial lawyer named John Edwards and created the 1998 ad campaign that put Edwards in the Senate. The same year, Shrum took a pile of dough from a super-rich empty suit named Al Checchi and tried to make him governor of California. Shrum campaigns made election-year populists — and senators — out of rich-as-Croesus department-store heir Mark Dayton in Minnesota, Goldman Sachs head Jon Corzine in New Jersey, and deep-pocketed lawyer Bill Nelson in Florida.
Shrum, together with snarling strategist James Carville and pollster Stan Greenberg, formed the Democracy Corps to give guidance to Democratic candidates. Their consistent counsel in a series of influential memos: eschew debate over foreign policy, stick to domestic issues. A 2002 memo released just before the Iraq war vote counseled congressional Democrats who wanted to win to support the war — just as Kerry did. Shrum has an ego as big as the Goodyear blimp, a take-no-prisoners personality that brooks no disagreements, and exudes a boundless self-confidence in his own judgments that has a Medusa-like effect on insecure candidates, who become addicted to Shrummy like Rush Limbaugh to Oxycontin. Shrum, who jumped on board with Kerry in February of last year, is hungry for a presidential winner after so many failed campaigns, and so has allowed little daylight between himself and Kerry ever since.
There was a movement to try to dump Shrum in the wake of Kerry’s disastrous speech announcing his candidacy. Kerry’s campaign manager, centrist Jim Jordan, and communications maven Chris Lehane (a Clintonista) wanted the speech to attack frontrunner Howard Dean. (Lehane had crossed swords bitterly with Shrum in the Gore campaign, demanding that Gore attack Bush’s competence to be president — which Shrum opposed.) The political press corps started writing about “the Shrum curse.”
And there was the matter of Shrum’s campaign help for another wealthy candidate — Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. There’s a bit of hypocrisy in this tale. Shrum and his wife, Mary Louise Oates, have long had a particular interest in the gay-equality movement. When the Human Rights Campaign, the wealthiest gay lobby, endorsed GOP pit bull Senator Al D’Amato of New York for re-election, Shrum and his wife resigned from the HRC board in protest. (The HRC CEO who engineered that endorsement, Elizabeth Birch, is now the Dean campaign’s “senior advisor” in charge of the gay vote.) But to Shrum, Arnold’s Republicanism was somehow less repugnant than D’Amato’s.
However, when the Kerry campaign shakeup came, it was Jordan and Lehane who were unceremoniously fired, while Shrum stayed on the Kerry campaign plane, sticking closer to his tiger than ever. Jordan was replaced by Mary Beth Cahill, like Shrum a former Teddy K. staffer with a sharp-edged, ball-crushing style. Cahill brought in a raft of new staffers, many also with Kennedy links (like communications director Stephanie Cutter).
Was Shrum responsible for Kerry’s remarkable turnaround in Iowa that set the senator on the road to nomination? Not exactly, according to Kerry’s hometown paper, The Boston Globe, which credits adman Jim Margolis (a member of media consultant Frank Grier’s stable) with creating a spot featuring Kerry’s Vietnam boat mate Del Sandusky praising Kerry’s “unfailing instinct and unchallengeable leadership,” an ad that overcame voter ignorance of Kerry’s wartime service as revealed in focus groups. At the same time, another Kerry ad slammed candidates who want to raise taxes on the middle class (meaning Dean and Dick Gephardt). This one-two punch, coupled with an infusion of Shrum-style populism on the stump, proved the winning formula.
Shrum is the master of the slash-and-burn negative campaign ad — a good skill to have when going up against the likes of Karl Rove. But, with his overstuffed bank account and three decades as a Washington insider, does the wealthy Shrum — now 60 — still have the common touch necessary to convert the NASCAR dads and soccer moms to the Kerry cause against a White House command skilled at manipulating the electorate? Put another way, can Shrummy make a credible sow’s ear out of Kerry and his silk purse? Can Shrum create a campaign that resonates deeply enough with voters to withstand the inevitable gay-baiting attack on the “Boston Democrats” that the gay marriage Massachusetts court decisions affords the Republicans?
The answers may well tell us whether George Bush can be defeated in November.