September 26, 2004 | home
Bob Shrum is one of the biggest names in the campaign business—but is he prepared to take on Bush?
The New Yorker Issue of 2004-09-20
Robert Shrum, a senior adviser to John Kerry, is probably the Democratic Party’s most celebrated speechwriter. But Shrum, who has made speechwriting a specialty, dislikes being described by what he does best. “I don’t want to be a speechwriter,” he insists, and he is eager to make clear that he has broader strategic responsibilities in the Kerry Presidential campaign. According to Kerry’s former campaign manager, Jim Jordan, “Anything having to do with words and message, Bob had the last word.”
Shrum, who is sixty-one, is not widely known beyond the small and insular world of politicians, consultants, and the journalists who cover them, but in that world he is considered a major force. At first glance, he seems to be well cast for the 2004 contest against George W. Bush. He has helped to shape the campaigns of seven Presidential candidates and of nearly one-third of the Democratic members of the United States Senate. The political- and media-consulting firm of Shrum Devine Donilon, at which Shrum is the most senior of three partners, has also worked overseas—for Prime Minister Tony Blair, of Britain, Ehud Barak, of Israel, and the Presidents of Ireland, Colombia, and Bolivia. Of the ten Democrats who ran for the White House this year, Shrum Devine Donilon worked at various times for four—Kerry, John Edwards, Richard Gephardt, and Joe Lieberman. After a serious flirtation with Edwards, whom Shrum had helped in his winning Senate race, in 1998, Shrum signed on with Kerry in early 2003.
Consultants like Shrum—and like Karl Rove, who oversees the Bush-Cheney campaign—play an increasingly singular role in modern politics. Much the way that agents in Hollywood perform what used to be the task of the major studios (bringing together directors, writers, and stars), consultants now have the function once reserved for the political parties. They vet a candidate for the public and the press and help to shape a candidate’s message. They also provide friendship—if not psychotherapy. “Shrum is family,” Senator Bill Nelson, of Florida, said. “I cry and he cries for me.”
But empathy, speechwriting, and an aptitude for political combat—prepping a candidate for a debate, touching the right tactical bases—are not necessarily the talents of a successful political strategist. Within the Kerry organization, there is no real counterpart to Rove, whose background in direct mail gives him an advantage in a contest where the turnout in every county in a contested state may be crucial, and whose control of a campaign’s message is close to absolute. The Kerry organization, by contrast, is more segmented. Mary Beth Cahill, the Kerry campaign manager, has been focussing on operations, and Shrum has been the de-facto chief strategist. Last winter, he was on the road full time with Kerry. “Bob likes to control access to the candidate,” Harold Ickes, a former White House deputy chief of staff, said. “And, if you control the speeches and the ads and the message, you control a big part of the campaign.”
As national security and terrorism have come to dominate the public debate—an agenda that Rove and Bush have helped to frame—Kerry supporters have worried that Shrum’s populism, an intense focus on domestic issues like jobs and health care, may prove to be a fatal weakness. Shrum, after all, has never worked for a successful Presidential candidate—from George McGovern, in 1972, to Al Gore, in 2000. The two Democrats to win the White House in the forty years since Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater—Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton—were centrist candidates; they managed to woo back white male voters who had deserted the Party. Carter, who was elected in a post-Watergate atmosphere, called himself a moderate Democrat; Clinton, who was running against a weakened George H. W. Bush and an erratic third-party candidate, Ross Perot, defined himself as a New Democrat. Shrum was absent from both races. And his Senate races have been largely confined to so-called “blue” states, which voted Democratic in 2000. “No one is better than Bob at writing a speech that sings,” John Podesta, Clinton’s former chief of staff, told me, “but that is a very different thing from driving a simple, clear, and coherent message about where Kerry would take the country.”
Many Democrats are mystified by the direction of the Kerry campaign. “If you look at the last several months,” Jimmy Carter’s former strategist, Hamilton Jordan, said in early September, “and you look at the Abu Ghraib scandal, and the war in Iraq not going well, and a sluggish economy, and job losses in swing states like Michigan and Ohio—you’d say Kerry should be ten points ahead now. . . . The fact that we’re talking about Vietnam, not Iraq, is an indication” of Kerry’s failure to present the campaign on his terms.
The Presidential campaign is far from over, and Democrats have an almost genetic predisposition to panic. But, if there was a turning point this summer, it came in August, after the Democratic National Convention. In his acceptance speech, Kerry had defined himself by his experience in the Vietnam War. “I know what kids go through when they are carrying an M16 in a dangerous place and they can’t tell friend from foe,” he said, and six days later was attacked in ads about his wartime service by a group calling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Shrum had told me in June that he thought a more sober electorate in a post-9/11 world was impatient with negative attacks. At first, the Kerry campaign, thinking that the charges were so blatantly false that they would disappear, said little. “I believe the campaign responded in a timely fashion to the Swift Boat attacks,” Shrum told me in August, after the campaign had waited more than two weeks to aggressively rebut the charges. “And I believe the public believes that Bush is behind the attacks and that they are not true.” But, to judge from recent polls, the public reacted to the smear tactic; a war thirty years old had become an issue. Last week, I asked Shrum why the Kerry campaign wasn’t ready for attacks, given the history of campaigns by Rove and by Lee Atwater, who ran George H. W. Bush’s 1988 campaign against Michael Dukakis. “I think we did see the negatives coming,” Shrum said. “I think we were fully prepared. My thought is that personal stuff like the Swift Boat stuff doesn’t work, but a negative campaign based on issues that people think are relevant does work.” Shrum went on to say that at the time “not one person in the Democratic Party called to say we should respond sooner. And, by the way, no one said, ‘Don’t talk about Vietnam.’”
Even when Kerry did respond—for instance, when Bush challenged him to say how he would have voted on the Iraq war “knowing what he knows now”—he tended to ad-lib answers that, in the context of a modern, high-tech campaign, sounded muddled. (“Yes, I would have voted for the authority. I believe it was the right authority for a President to have,” he said on August 9th, adding that Bush and his advisers badly mishandled the war.) A senior Kerry adviser, who insisted on anonymity, told me that “the campaign has a clear message, but the candidate sometimes doesn’t,” though perhaps the real problem is that the candidate cannot always deliver that message effectively. In his acceptance speech, Kerry several times mentioned Iraq but in an almost oblique way, as when he said, “We need a President who has the credibility to bring our allies to our side and share the burden, reduce the cost to American taxpayers, and reduce the risk to American soldiers.” On the stump, when he departs from the written text, Kerry meanders; he often seems unaware of having to make a connection with an audience.
Inevitably, there have been personnel changes in the campaign. By May, it was clear that Kerry’s communications director, Stephanie Cutter, was overextended, and reporters said that dealing with the Kerry press office was like calling the D.M.V. In June, travelling reporters complained to Kerry, and he called Michael McCurry, who had been Clinton’s press secretary, and asked him to oversee press relations. McCurry declined, but he offered to help, and that month Debra DeShong, who was the communications director at the Democratic National Committee, began to report to Cutter. Complaints persisted, particularly on the road, and in late August Joe Lockhart, who succeeded McCurry in the Clinton White House, joined the campaign to travel with Kerry and work with the press.
Recently, a number of former Clinton aides—among them James Carville, who was the Clinton campaign’s chief strategist in 1992, and Stanley Greenberg, who was Clinton’s pollster that year—began helping out, many of them informally. One Kerry campaign staffer described the reaction to this infusion as mixed, but said, “People feel their arrival coincided with Kerry going much more clearly on the attack. I think that’s inspiring people.” Already in place were some of Senator Edward Kennedy’s former aides, including Cahill, who had been Kennedy’s chief of staff, and Cutter, who had been his press secretary. John Sasso, who ran the Dukakis campaign in 1988 and whom Kerry, last spring, named as his general-election manager on the Democratic National Committee, became in effect a new senior adviser, travelling full time with Kerry. (Michael Whouley, who was an immense help to Kerry in the Iowa caucuses, will replace Sasso at the D.N.C.) Clinton himself, before undergoing heart-bypass surgery, spoke at length with Kerry from his hospital bed. The candidate also relies on Shrum’s two partners, Mike Donilon and Tad Devine, as well as on fifteen or so advisers who participate in a 7:30 a.m. daily-strategy conference call presided over by Cahill. This polyphony of advice, one former Kerry aide said, threatens to divide the Kerry campaign “into postwar Berlin with four zones.” Inevitably, Kerry will now spend less time listening to any single adviser, including Shrum. “I believe the complaint earlier in the campaign was that I was doing strategy all alone, and it was never true,” Shrum said. “Adding strengths is a good thing, not a bad thing.”
In this way, though, the Kerry campaign at times has looked like a reverse image of the Bush campaign, which is disciplined and organized, and has kept its internal disputes well hidden. As the Democratic strategist Paul Begala puts it, Karl Rove has tried to present “Bush as strong and decisive, and Kerry as weak and a waffler”—a constant theme during the Republican Convention. But the campaign has become increasingly angry. Minutes after Bush finished his acceptance speech in New York, Kerry, in Ohio, said, “For the past week, they have attacked my patriotism and even my fitness to serve as Commander-in-Chief. Well, here is my answer to them: I will not have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could’ve and who misled America into Iraq.” Last week, the Vietnam War became an issue again. Democrats seized upon new evidence that seemed to show that George W. Bush had used political influence to be assigned to the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War.
By early September, Bush’s approval rating was up by nearly ten points, and some polls had him ahead of Kerry by as much as eleven points. The recent changes in the Kerry campaign staff have come amid rumors about further shakeups at the top, with Cahill a primary target. “Mary Beth is doing a superb job,” Shrum told me. “She is going to run this campaign. And we will win this campaign.” The second rumored target is Shrum, to which he said, “It’s all bullshit.”
There have been tensions inside the Kerry campaign almost from the start, the sort of complaints that have followed Shrum throughout his career: of pushing rivals out of the way, of isolating the candidate, of blurring the message. “Shrum was always a divisive force,” Gore’s former campaign chairman, Tony Coelho, said. “The issue is that Shrum likes to take control.” A senior official in the Gore campaign, who asked to remain anonymous, said, “Look at every campaign that he’s involved with. There are body bags.” This environment is what David M. Halbfinger, of the New York Times, described as “the Shrum curse”—a phrase that greatly annoys Shrum.
In the summer of 2003, Shrum was feuding with Jim Jordan, the campaign manager, with Chris Lehane, the communications director (with whom Shrum also battled during the Gore campaign), and with Andrei Cherny, the chief speechwriter. Jordan was upset that Shrum, in the words of someone to whom he confided, insisted on “secret meetings with Kerry” so that he could weigh in last. When Kerry officially announced his candidacy, that September, Jordan and others believed that Cherny’s speechwriting style, embracing short sentences, would make Kerry sound more natural as a speaker.
There were arguments over how best to compete with Howard Dean, whose opposition to the war in Iraq had galvanized many Democrats. Shrum believed that Kerry looked and sounded Presidential—that attacking a fellow-Democrat would undercut this advantage. In September, four months before the Iowa caucuses, Lehane, whose more forceful strategic approach increasingly differed from Shrum’s, quit and went to work for Wesley Clark. (Lehane refuses to comment.) In November, Kerry fired Jordan and replaced him with Cahill. A friend warned Cahill that taking the job would be “like becoming the mayor of Beirut.” When Shrum was asked about his internal battles with Jordan, he said, “I promised Kerry not to talk about it. He asked all of us not to.” (Jordan, like Lehane, will not comment.)
In the next few months, Cahill established her authority. With Shrum’s help, Kerry began to seem warmer in public forums; he also became more animated, as when he started to mock Bush’s “Bring them on” remark during the early months of the Iraq war. He waived public financing in the primaries, as Dean had done—and as Bush was doing—thus freeing himself from spending restrictions; and he and Shrum decided to shift their resources to the first contest, the caucuses in Iowa, effectively abandoning the New Hampshire primary. The campaign also introduced a series of advertisements that contrasted sharply with the procession of mostly Shrum-produced television ads on a checklist of issues—health care, lost jobs, Big Oil, and the drug companies. These new spots were more personal—two thirty-second biographical ads, in particular, evoked Kerry’s Vietnam service—and were produced by the political media consultant Jim Margolis, whose communications firm had been working for Kerry since early 2001. They were helped in no small measure by the surprise participation of a Kerry crewmate, a former Green Beret lieutenant named Jim Rassmann, whose life Kerry had saved.
Two weeks before the Iowa vote, on January 19, 2004, Shrum had told the conservative columnist Robert Novak that Kerry would win. “Shrum has seldom made such forecasts to me about his clients in the more than thirty years I have known him, but when he has they have been accurate,” Novak, a friend of Shrum’s, wrote after the caucuses.
Shrum remembers a moment on the night of the Iowa caucuses when he and Kerry were seated across from each other on the campaign bus. Shrum wore a magenta cashmere scarf that his friend the attorney Robert Bennett had given him in 1999, which he had come to believe brought good luck. A Fox News reporter handed him the network’s entry-poll result, indicating that Kerry would win. “I look at it and I almost started to cry because it had been so long,” Shrum recalls. “It was very cold, it was dark, and I handed it across the aisle to Kerry, and he looks at it and he gets up, and I get up, and he hugs me.”
“The candidate has to have someone whom he believes and believes that he has some magic that will pull him through,” the media consultant Carter Eskew, who hired Shrum to work for Gore in 2000, said. “What happens in these campaigns is that there are these critical moments where judgments have to be made and decisions have to be made with completely imperfect information, so it has to be on gut, on faith, and if the candidate doesn’t have someone in whom he has that faith he’s in trouble.” Kerry and Shrum had a natural affinity: they are both Catholic, were born the same year, and have the same political hero—John F. Kennedy. Above all, Shrum helped Kerry win a close reëlection contest against William Weld, the Massachusetts governor, in 1996.
The former Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey, who is now the president of the New School, in New York, and who employed Shrum in his 1992 Presidential campaign, says that Shrum is “fortunate to be working for a candidate he knows very well and who is capable of taking charge and remaining calm down the stretch.” But Kerrey, who respects Shrum, points out, as others have, that Shrum’s successes have all been in state races. “Managing a campaign on the national stage—especially in a rapidly changing technological environment—coupled with the temporarily silenced tensions in the Democratic Party, is orders of magnitude more difficult.”
One day last May, when the campaign seemed to be going well, Bob Shrum was in his office doing several things at once: hurriedly eating Chinese food from a container, talking on the phone, wiping his brow, and pounding the carpet with his foot; Nicorette gum wrappers lay on his table, the detritus that comes with being a onetime heavy smoker. He is bald, somewhat overweight, and has the pasty complexion of someone rarely exposed to light. His walls are covered with testimonials to a lifetime of liberal causes—framed news stories of politicians he has worked for, and letters from, among others, Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, and the politician to whom he is closest, Ted Kennedy. (Shrum has written speeches for many of the Kennedys, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, the California governor, who is married to Maria Shriver. “I helped write his inaugural address,” Shrum said. “He’s an old friend of mine.”)
Many of his speeches are eerily similar—in their populism, in their liberalism, in the rhythms of their language. “A classic Shrum speech has two hallmarks: it’s populist (‘I’m on your side’), and it’s rhetorical (‘Sail against the wind’),” Martin Kaplan, who wrote speeches for Vice-President Walter Mondale and is now the associate dean of the U.S.C. Annenberg School for Communication, in Los Angeles, said in an e-mail. They are filled with invocations to “fight” against a sinister consortium known as the “special interests.” One could hear Shrum in Al Gore’s acceptance speech in 2000, when he said, “Whether you’re in a suburb or an inner city, whether you raise crops or drive hogs and cattle on a farm, drive a big rig on the interstate or drive e-commerce on the Internet, whether you’re starting out to raise your own family or getting ready to retire after a lifetime of hard work, so often powerful forces and powerful interests stand in your way, and the odds seem stacked against you, even as you do what’s right for you and your family.”
Robert Shrum grew up with the language of liberalism; a framed photograph of F.D.R. was on display in the Shrum house, in Culver City, California. His father, Clarence, a tool-and-die maker, was the first Shrum to vote Democratic; his mother, Cecelia, enrolled Bob and his sister, Barbara, in Catholic and Jesuit schools. Shrum attended Loyola High School, in Los Angeles, and became a member of the debate team. He preferred books to fraternizing. “One of the great blessings of my life is that I had an education that people don’t get anymore,” Shrum said. “I went to a Jesuit high school and I had to read the Iliad in Greek, which I wasn’t very good at but which I learned a lot from. I sort of fell in love with the ancient world.” He also fell in love with politics. He joined the Culver City Young Democrats in high school, and when he graduated, in 1960, he volunteered to work in John Kennedy’s campaign for President. (In a stroke of geographic luck, the Democratic National Convention was held that year in Los Angeles.) He was assigned to the office of Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s press secretary, where he fetched coffee, rewrote minor press releases, and took visitors up to J.F.K.’s suite. One day, he escorted Averell Harriman, the former New York governor, who asked if he’d ever met Kennedy. Harriman insisted that Shrum accompany him. “Kennedy engaged me in this conversation about where I was going to go to college,” Shrum remembers. He still speaks worshipfully about J.F.K.
Shrum was the valedictorian of Loyola, and won a National Merit Scholarship. The college he chose to attend was Georgetown. He joined the debate team, and was judged the nation’s best college debater at the National Debate Tournament in West Point. Laurence Tribe, a law professor at Harvard, who became a friend, remembers judging an intercollegiate debate contest in 1962 which Shrum won. “He was both very logical and very persuasive,” Tribe recalls. “Most debaters in college debate one subject over one year and carry around three-by-five cards. They are machine guns without any particular aim.”
In 1965, Shrum received a partial scholarship to Harvard Law School; he won the Ames Competition for the best appellate advocacy. But he didn’t want to be a lawyer; he skipped the bar exam, and took a job in the speech department at Boston College, where he doubled as the debate coach. (With a teaching deferment, he escaped the draft.) After Shrum told Tribe that he imagined writing speeches for someone like Ted Kennedy, Tribe approached people he knew in Kennedy’s office and on the staff of New York’s reform mayor, John V. Lindsay. Shrum was hired to replace Jeff Greenfield, now of CNN, in writing speeches for Lindsay.
In the 1972 Presidential campaign, Robert Squier, the political media consultant, got Shrum a job as a speechwriter for Senator Edmund Muskie, the early front-runner for the Democratic nomination. Anne Wexler, then a liberal activist in Connecticut and now a Washington lobbyist, thought that Muskie was too cautious, but she approved of his message. “I voted for your speeches,” she remembers telling Shrum when they met. After Muskie dropped out, Shrum was recruited to the McGovern campaign. He wrote McGovern’s “Come home, America” acceptance speech (come home, that is, from Vietnam), which many believed foreshadowed McGovern’s disastrous candidacy and which, in any case, almost no one saw, because it was delivered at about 3 a.m. in the East. When McGovern lost forty-nine states to Richard Nixon, Shrum was unemployed.
In the next several years, Shrum was a Kennedy Fellow at Harvard; wrote a column for Rolling Stone with his close friend Patrick Caddell; and worked for McGovern in the Senate. In 1976, Caddell became the chief pollster for Jimmy Carter, and urged Shrum to sign on with the Carter Presidential campaign.
Shrum lasted only ten days, according to Jules Witcover’s book, “Marathon.” After the Pennsylvania primary, which clinched the nomination, Shrum wrote a letter of resignation to Carter, addressing him as if he were a conservative heretic: “I was disturbed to discover that you might favor a substantial increase in the defense budget in spite of your previous pledge to reduce that budget” was one of many complaints. The letter, as Witcover reports, “was not intended to be made public.” Shrum took refuge in the Boston home of two friends, the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and her husband, the writer Richard Goodwin. Carter’s team saw Shrum as an ideologue; for Richard Goodwin, who had worked closely with Robert Kennedy, Shrum was “a true believer” in “what we used to call ‘liberalism’ and now call ‘progressive’ principles.”
Three years later, Shrum, on Goodwin’s recommendation, helped with Ted Kennedy’s doomed challenge to Carter’s renomination. (At the Convention, Kennedy delivered the speech that, in its conclusion, has become a Shrum signature: “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”) Shrum believed, as Ralph Nader does today, that there was little difference between the two parties’ nominees. (Shrum now calls Carter “a great ex-President.”) After Kennedy lost, Shrum became his press secretary, and later joined Caddell and the political consultant David Doak to establish a media-consulting firm. The Caddell-Shrum partnership lasted less than a year, and, when it ended, the two were no longer on speaking terms. A Washington journalist recalls that Shrum could be “frighteningly volatile,” and Caddell had a similar reputation. Doak Shrum, as the firm then became known, worked on a variety of statewide efforts, including the winning campaigns, in 1986, of Senator Barbara Mikulski, of Maryland, and Senator Alan Cranston, of California.
In 1988, Shrum went to work for Dick Gephardt’s Presidential campaign. (Gephardt was Shrum’s second choice; he had hoped that Mario Cuomo would run.) Gephardt campaigned as a “fighter” for forgotten Americans, including workers whose jobs were being shipped abroad, and won the Iowa caucuses. But Dukakis won the New Hampshire primary, and, five weeks after Iowa, Gephardt left the race.
Shrum has been accused of making ads that, like his speeches, are merely variations on favored populist themes, and some of this criticism can be traced to an ad that he and Doak made for Bob Kerrey in 1992. (The ad bore a strong resemblance to spots that had been used by Gephardt in 1988.) In this ad, Kerrey, standing in a hockey rink, denounced Japanese trade practices—a surprise to those who knew him as a supporter of free trade. (The tagline for Gephardt’s 1988 ad threatening South Korea with new tariffs was “It’s your fight, too.” The tagline for Kerrey’s was “Fight back, America!”)
Recently, Kerrey recalled that his campaign chairman had had to step down because of illness, and had recommended the veteran consultant Tad Devine as a replacement. Kerrey agreed, but Devine wanted a free hand to bring in a fresh media team—Shrum and Doak. They “didn’t know me,” Kerrey said. He described how candidates, feeling the pressure to avoid gaffes, say the same thing repeatedly. “And when you become automatic,” he said, “it’s less likely that the part of you that has to kick in when someone shows you a television ad and you should say, ‘Jesus, that’s not me. I’m not going to run that television ad’— Instead, you just automatically say, ‘You guys must know what you’re talking about.’”
Shrum worked once more with Ted Kennedy, in 1994, in a difficult reëlection campaign against Mitt Romney, who is now the governor of Massachusetts. “At key moments in Ted Kennedy’s life, when he needed him for a speech or anything, Bob was there,” Doris Kearns Goodwin said. Kennedy, echoing Bill Nelson, said, “He’s sort of an extended part of our family.” It was Kennedy who recommended Shrum to Kerry in 1996, in Kerry’s race against Weld.
By then, the Shrum-Doak partnership had ended just as bitterly as had Shrum-Caddell. Shrum began a partnership with Tad Devine, which endures to this day (as does his relationship with Donilon). By the time of the Kerry-Weld race, Kerry’s prospects for reëlection seemed weak. Shrum’s contribution was to respond to Weld’s attacks and help shift the focus of the campaign away from issues like crime, welfare, and taxes. Instead, the moderate Weld was portrayed as a lackey of Newt Gingrich and other conservatives. “Beginning in September, the Kerry campaign turned on a dime,” Weld, who credits Shrum, recalls. “It became more focussed. The death blow was linking me to the Republican right and having me morph into Gingrich or Jesse Helms.” It wasn’t true, but Kerry won, with a margin of seven per cent.
The Kerry-Weld race was a reminder that Shrum, over the years, has shown that he can fight as nastily, and unfairly, as anyone. Shrum today acknowledges that at times he went too far. In 1998, he initially planned to work in the California gubernatorial primary for a former law-school classmate, Representative Jane Harman, but then agreed to work with the businessman Alfred A. Checchi; his ads charged that Harman had voted against Medicare and home health care. In 1990, an ad he did for Jim Mattox, who challenged Ann Richards for the Democratic nomination for governor of Texas, said, “Did she use marijuana, or something worse, like cocaine, not as a college kid, but as a forty-seven-year-old elected official sworn to uphold the law?” When Shrum was asked about that, he said, “I’m not going to talk about the ad except to say the ad was wrong.” Did he do it? “My firm did it, and therefore I take responsibility for it.” In 1990, in Florida, Shrum helped to plan Bill Nelson’s gubernatorial-primary run against Lawton Chiles—a campaign that made an issue of the fact that Chiles, who won the primary, had been treated for depression. This history makes it all the more puzzling that the Kerry campaign so far has been relatively mild-mannered.
For a consultant, financial motives may trump ideology, as Jerry Rafshoon, who ran Jimmy Carter’s media operation and advised Howard Dean this year, points out. “Shrum is an example of what’s wrong with the political-consultant culture,” Rafshoon said. “It’s a profitable business for so many people. He has one campaign, a populist us-versus-them campaign. It’s the same campaign over and over. He’s a mercenary. He’d like you to think he’s an idealist.”
This issue was examined by Susan B. Glasser, of the Washington Post, in an analysis of Checchi’s race in the California primary. Checchi, with Shrum as his leading consultant, spent forty million dollars of his own money, a record at the time, and won just thirteen per cent of the vote, losing to Gray Davis, whose campaign slogan—“Experience money can’t buy”—was written by Shrum’s ex-partner Doak. Shrum’s strategy was to use negative ads, which made the newcomer sound like just another politician—not the image that Checchi had hoped for. Pat Caddell, a friend of Checchi’s, warned the candidate that Shrum, along with the pollster Mark Penn, had incentives to spend lavishly.
In addition to a flat fee that eventually totalled five hundred thousand dollars, Glasser reported, Shrum’s firm asked for a twelve-per-cent commission on the gross amount spent on television advertising, which turned out to be just over twenty-nine million dollars. (Checchi’s lawyers reduced the fee to 2.9 per cent.) Shrum produced a hundred television ads, Glasser reported, only forty of which aired, yet four hundred thousand dollars’ worth of production costs for those ads were paid in early 1998 to another firm, Georgetown Post, which was in the same building as Shrum’s firm. (Shrum told Glasser that he had no financial interest in this firm.) Finally, on Shrum and Penn’s recommendation, the campaign spent two million dollars on a direct-mail firm. Later, it emerged that Penn was paid forty-five thousand dollars by the direct-mail firm for what he said was helping to “target” where mail should be sent, and Shrum was paid an additional thirty thousand dollars to help write the copy. In all, Glasser reported, Shrum’s firm, which that year was engaged in many other races, was paid “as much as” two million dollars, “not counting expenses.” (“The piece is not an accurate reflection of what happened in that campaign,” Shrum told me, and he added, “The amount of money she said we made is not accurate. We made less.”)
There was a happier outcome in 2000, when Shrum worked on Jon Corzine’s successful run for the Senate in New Jersey. Corzine, a former co-C.E.O. of Goldman Sachs, spent sixty-three million dollars, most of it his own money, and was a satisfied customer. “Contrary to the popular view, he was the most disciplined adviser I had with respect to money,” Corzine said of Shrum. “He was constantly pushing me away from my own instincts to try to push more forcefully into the television medium.”
Shrum’s personal life is centered on Marylouise Oates, whom he met in the early nineteen-eighties, when Oates, who was divorced and had one child, worked at the Los Angeles Times, as a copy editor and then as a gossip columnist. They found that they shared an interest in theology (Oates, who had dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania, earned a degree from the Yale Divinity School), as well as in art, politics, and Italy. Shrum proposed to her over dinner at Spago, in Los Angeles, in 1987, and asked that they be married in a Catholic ceremony. Ted Kennedy held an engagement party for them. They bought a house in Washington, and commuted for a couple of years until her son, Michael Oates Palmer, graduated from a California high school.
Shrummy and Oatsie, as they call each other, talk on the phone perhaps ten times during the day. “She keeps Bob in touch with a much broader group of people,” said Donna E. Shalala, a former member of the Clinton Cabinet, who is the president of the University of Miami. “He doesn’t have time to listen to everyone, and Oatsie is a world-class listener.” They swap gossip and talk about politics and about the new novel she is writing. (Her first was set in the antiwar movement of the sixties; two others were co-written with Barbara Mikulski.) Shrum doesn’t cook, doesn’t shop for his own clothes, doesn’t know how to operate his elaborate home-entertainment system, and doesn’t fix things, and, because he is easily distracted, Oates won’t let him drive a car.
Shrum and Oates believe in many of the same liberal causes, with gay rights near the top of the list. The gay activist and writer David Mixner, who worked with Oates in Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 campaign, considers her his “best friend” and Shrum one of his oldest friends. “She’s been one of the biggest champions of gay-and-lesbian rights—as has Bob—since 1978,” he said. Mixner, who lives in Washington, said that between the nineteen-eighties and the early nineties nearly three hundred friends of his died of aids, and in that period the Shrums gave time and money to help build “a primary-care network of support for people with aids.” Oates is today the official liaison of the gay-and-lesbian community to the Kerry finance committee.
In Washington, a group of friends consider themselves part of what they call “the Oates/Shrum meal plan,” and it includes the lobbyist Anne Wexler and her husband, Joe Duffey; David Mixner; Robert and Ellen Bennett; Andrea Mitchell, of NBC, and the Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan; Susan Spencer, of CBS, and Thomas Oliphant, of the Boston Globe; Jon Corzine; the NBC producer Tammy Haddad; Linda Douglass, of ABC, and her husband, the lawyer John Phillips; and the former Los Angeles Times reporter Kathleen Hendrix. Shalala describes Oates as “a world-class networker. When I was in D.C., I talked to her every day.”
Oates, who is sixty, wears oversized square eyeglasses with colorful frames. Her blond hair is in a bob, and she wears little makeup; she talks rapidly, describes friends or waiters as “a peach,” and has a gift for friendship. “We are two odd ducks,” she said one night in early summer during dinner at Tosca, the couple’s favorite Washington restaurant. “We are so lucky to have found each other. And good kissers, too!” Shrum winced when she said this, but his hand moved from the banquette where they were sitting and rested on her back.
I asked her to describe Shrum’s talent. “He’s standing between us and the end of civilization. No shit,” she said, and laughed hard. He winced again. “The conservatives in this country are so determined to take apart not just the last ten years but the New Deal,” she went on. “Why are we telling people whose children have diseases that can be cured by stem-cell research that some guy, George Bush—who doesn’t go to church, by the way . . .”
“Oatsie, please,” Shrum softly interjected.
“No, I’m saying it on the record. I have a master’s degree in theology.”
“Oatsie, stop. Please.” Under the table, in a faint rumble, his foot slapped the carpet.
She said, “Has he told you yet how he hears people’s voices in his head?”
He tensed. “Please don’t,” he said, almost inaudibly.
“When Shrummy’s writing a speech, he hears the person he’s writing the speech for in his head,” she said. “That’s why all Shrummy’s speeches sound like the person he’s writing for.”
“I don’t want to be known as a speechwriter,” he said, resignedly. Speechwriters are anonymous, like servants. (Michael Palmer told me that during the 2000 campaign Shrum would write a speech “and in every interview Gore would describe how he worked on the speech on his own computer. It frustrates Bob. What hurts his feelings is when his work is not acknowledged as existing.”)
“Well, you can be known as a strategist!” Oates declared.
“Being able to write decently is almost a disability,” he said.
“Excuse me, who’s selling our brand of groceries? We have a brand of groceries—it’s called the Democratic Party grocery. Who is saying, ‘This is a good canned soup for you. It’s got a lot of nutrition. It’s got Social Security, and health care. It’s got mammograms for women before they’re fifty-five. It’s got a Pap smear’?”
Shrum tried to interrupt, but she announced, “Shrummy, you have the voice of our party!”
When I asked about his vices, Oates did not pause for breath: “When Shrummy comes to a decision that something is right—this is the upside of his downside and the downside of his upside—he is immovable. I think it’s all these years and years of Jesuit training that basically says, there is a right answer . . .”
He strained to get in a word and temper what might be viewed as harshness: “The people on the other side aren’t bad; they’re just wrong.”
“I think they’re evil,” she said.
“If you just sit there and say they’re evil, it gets in the way of understanding,” he said. “It makes you feel self-righteous.”
One day, I asked Shrum what might prompt him to quit a campaign today. He said that he would not work for a candidate who “exploited race” or was “homophobic” or opposed “making the society fairer”—or who didn’t “tell the truth to the country.” He drew a distinction about truthtelling. “It’s fundamental that you don’t lie about issues of war and peace, because people get killed. I don’t make adverse judgments about Franklin Roosevelt and Lucy Rutherford.” (In 1998, during the height of the Clinton sex scandal, Shrum recalls, he was asked to write a response. His draft, which is framed on the wall outside his office, began, “No one who is not in my position can understand the remorse I feel today. I have fallen short of what you should expect from a President.” Clinton, instead, denied any involvement with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky.)
Still, it is often considered shrewd politics to lie about one’s opponent, or at least exaggerate his flaws, and Shrum has repeatedly shown a talent for this—in the Kerry-Weld race, the Chiles-Nelson race, and others. In preparing for Gore’s 2000 race, Carter Eskew believed that the campaign needed a go-for-the-throat media team, and in 1999 he recruited Shrum’s firm, along with Bill Knapp, who also created television spots for Gore, and the pollster Mark Penn. But in joining the Gore campaign Shrum was, in effect, replacing someone he called “a mentor,” Bob Squier.
Shrum believed that it would be a mistake for Gore to attack Bush’s competence. “It would have made Gore seem condescending,” Shrum recalls, aware that this is how Gore was eventually perceived in the debates. At the same time, he pushed for his populist message, which was not always a comfortable fit with Gore, who was a hybrid of populist and New Democrat. In an appearance on CNN’s “Capital Gang” after the Democratic National Convention, Kate O’Beirne, of the National Review, accused Gore of waging “class warfare.” Shrum replied, “You may call it class warfare. I think it’s just standing up for people, for the middle class and for working families.” Shrum still insists that Gore is a true populist. Marty Kaplan, the onetime Mondale speechwriter, said, “Gore’s populism seemed more poll-generated than organic to his history and character.” Kaplan is among many who have pointed out that, if populism did not quite fit Al Gore, it doesn’t fit the patrician John Kerry in the least.
By the time of the 2004 campaign, Shrum wanted no part of old disputes. When he was told that Tony Coelho had called him “divisive,” he said, “I have nothing adverse to say about Tony.” When he was asked about his split with Caddell, Shrum said, “I kind of miss his friendship.” Inside the Kerry campaign, however, Shrum was not so reticent. In April, Andrei Cherny, who had been Kerry’s chief speechwriter, left to take a job at the Democratic National Committee. “I had nothing to do with Cherny’s leaving,” Shrum said, but that is not what friends of Cherny believe. That month, Cahill, the campaign manager, realizing that Kerry would have more to spend on advertising than had initially been expected—some hundred and twenty million dollars—decided to reduce the nine per cent of each dollar that the Shrum and the Margolis firms split. She proposed to shave it to about seven per cent, and told the two firms to work out how they would divide it. Since Shrum and his two partners worked full time in the campaign, he proposed that Margolis accept less than half. But Margolis had worked for Kerry without pay from January of 2001 until September of 2003, and his payroll included fifteen media buyers; he was unwilling to become less than an equal partner. Cahill recused herself from the negotiations, which Margolis took as a sign that Shrum had the upper hand. Margolis resigned (though he still buys advertising time for the campaign). Cahill quickly recruited Bill Knapp to replace him.
Despite the turnover, there has probably been less infighting than in previous Shrum campaigns. Coöperation has been on display at Cahill’s morning conference call. “When I pose a question, there is usually a long silence,” Cahill said, “and Shrum is not afraid to be the first to move into the silence and speak. That is a very valuable quality in a person. Everyone else wants to be right.” John Sasso, Kerry’s most senior adviser on the road, said of Shrum, “He’s got a creative mind. He’s always proposing ideas. The thing I applaud is that he is always willing to put his stake in the ground and say, ‘This is what I believe.’”
The atmosphere may not endure as the Kerry campaign restructures and rivalries form. The task facing the campaign is to reverse the polls, and to counter the attacks on its candidate by the Bush campaign and groups like the Swift Boat veterans. Senior Bush campaign officials say that they were baffled by the Kerry campaign as it unfolded over the summer, and they blamed the candidate. “I think Kerry’s a flawed candidate, but they have an A-team,” Bush’s chief media adviser, Mark McKinnon, said. “They are smart enough to adapt. The question is: Can Kerry?” Not everyone agreed that Kerry had an A advertising team. Linda Thaler Kaplan, the C.E.O. and chief creative officer of the Kaplan Thaler Group, who helped create the “Kodak Moment” ads, thinks that Kerry’s television ads are mediocre. “There’s no metaphor, there’s no poetry,” she said. “The ads look like a by-product of so many focus groups—they cram in as much information as possible. Everyone sits around and says, ‘Gee, you didn’t mention. . . .’”
These spots, thirty in all since the start of the campaign, usually featured Kerry or Edwards looking into the camera or giving a stump speech. (One, a health-care spot called “Paperwork,” showed Kerry making a speech and vowing, “We will save literally billions of dollars in health-care costs in America by becoming more streamlined and more efficient.”) The ads featured the same jumble of issues, the same “He’s a husband and father. A hunter, hockey player . . . tough prosecutor, advocate for kids . . . a combat veteran. . . .” They aired locally in about twenty so-called “battleground” states, where the contest was still close.
Tad Devine defends the ads, saying, “If we were twenty points ahead, we might run a ‘Morning in America’ ad”—referring to the 1984 Reagan ad. “What we’re doing is trying to talk to voters who are persuadable, and we feel that the way to talk to them is to talk about John Kerry and who he is and to offer specific issue content. . . . Our job now is not emotion. We are trying to reach swing voters, so that they know more about John Kerry and associate him with issues.” Mike Donilon believes that Madison Avenue makes a mistake in thinking that a candidate is sold “like a product. . . . The goal is not to create some new sizzle, some dramatic moment. It’s really to let people know who Kerry is.”
Still, media advisers in the Kerry camp had a financial incentive to recommend more advertising. They will divide among themselves about eight million dollars of the advertising budget—with Shrum Devine Donilon getting about five million dollars. By contrast, the Bush campaign’s McKinnon says that he is paid a flat salary (which he refuses to disclose), and he asked for advice from a dozen advertising executives around the country who met weekly to propose and scrutinize ads. The Kerry campaign did not assemble an outside team, and turned down a chance to use an advertising campaign created by the filmmaker Errol Morris.
A more urgent problem was that until August Kerry did not have the kind of rapid-response team that Bill Clinton had put together in 1992 and that Bush now had. Bush’s team, which is directed by Steve Schmidt, the deputy communications director, has digitized every Kerry vote and speech and newspaper article, and assigned people to monitor every Kerry appearance. In early summer, the Bush team recorded every national broadcast and cable newscast and had four people watching multiple television sets at campaign headquarters in Arlington; the Kerry campaign had one volunteer watching three television sets and scribbling notes in a room on the seventh floor of Kerry’s McPherson Square headquarters, in downtown Washington. And while fund-raising on the Internet had gone well—about thirty-five per cent of the $233.5 million that Kerry had raised through July was generated via Web donations—Kerry was far behind Bush in other ways. By August, the Kerry campaign had collected two million Web addresses and five hundred thousand Web volunteers. In contrast, the Bush campaign had collected more than six million Web addresses and a million volunteers. According to Matthew Dowd, a Bush strategist, “We can now instantly talk to ten per cent of the fifty-five million votes we need to win the election.”
James Carville worried that Kerry’s message was cluttered with too many facts. Every campaign, he says, revolves around a basic question: “Do you want change? Bush tries to change the subject to: ‘Do you want a waffling candidate?’” Kerry and Bush are playing the hands they should, he told me in late spring. But, he went on, “If I show his picture to focus groups and half the people can’t say, ‘Oh, he’s the guy who . . . ,’” then Kerry is not selling himself. “They have to see Kerry and associate something with him. The communications business is the only one in the world where you multiply by subtracting. The less you say, the more you’re heard.” By September, Carville’s view had not changed. Shrum, when he addressed the subject, sounded like someone delivering a Shrum speech. “I think Kerry’s message right now is clear,” he said. “Bush has taken us in the wrong direction and made the wrong choices versus a new direction for America.”
Kerry’s choice of John Edwards as his running mate was popular among Democrats, but, in announcing his pick, in early July, Kerry in effect declared that domestic issues, not national security, were at the core of his campaign. Kerry spoke of “the threats we face,” but only in passing. What this campaign “is all about,” he declared, was the economic disparity between the haves and the have-nots, and he vowed that he would “fight” to create jobs and “fight” for universal health care. Andrew Sullivan quickly pointed out on his blog “that the Kerry campaign is fundamentally not about the war on terror. It’s about economic inequality. And the premise is that an unequal country is not truly a united country.” Sullivan dismissed the “fight” refrain as “Shrummery.” As if to underscore this point, within a day Shrum’s firm had produced seven new TV commercials, only one of which focussed on national security. Shrum believed, as he told me, that on national security “Kerry crossed the threshold on that issue at the Convention.”
In preparing his acceptance speech for the Democratic Convention, Kerry asked several speechwriters—including the Kennedy-era veterans Theodore Sorensen and Richard Goodwin—to submit drafts, which went to Shrum. Shrum also told nearly everyone who asked that he had not written Kerry’s speech—that Kerry had. And he said that Teresa Heinz Kerry had written her own “terrific” speech on the Convention’s second night, even though many Democrats thought it less than terrific, because it was more about her than about her husband. (At the Convention, soon after Shrum told me that Teresa Kerry had written her own speech, an aide to Mrs. Kerry hugged Shrum and thanked him for helping.) Later, Shrum sat on the edge of a couch in a hotel suite with Oates, David Mixner, and another gay-activist friend, Jeff Soref. He wanted to see John Edwards’s acceptance speech, and he preferred to watch on television. Keeping his eyes on the screen, he sipped Cabernet Sauvignon, ate popcorn, quivered every time a cell phone rang, and moved his lips along with the speech, announcing at various points, “Wait until the next line.” He would be in the Fleet Center on the next night, when Kerry spoke; the candidate had invited Shrum and his wife to sit in the Kerry box. “No one has ever done that for me,” Shrum said.
“Shrum-A-Lot” is the name that Oates pasted to a sign over the front door of the two-story gray shingled house on Cape Cod where she spends six months a year, working on her fiction, and where Shrum comes to stay on most weekends. There is one other sign visible from the street, a blue Kerry-Edwards poster on the living-room window. The Shrums’ bookcases contain more volumes about Popes than about Presidents, more travel books than novels. The walls are dominated by seascapes, including a signed lithograph by Ted Kennedy, which was a present. Among the many photographs is one taken at Shrum’s sixtieth birthday party: Kennedy kissing Shrum on the forehead while he leads a group of friends in singing “Happy Birthday.”
On a late-summer day, Shrum sat in a white wicker rocking chair on the porch out back, facing Cape Cod Bay, with Provincetown in the distance. His normally pale face had been touched by the sun, which turned his skin pink. His wife had prepared and left on a wicker table a lunch of brisket of beef, tomatoes and mozzarella, coleslaw, green salad, two hard cheeses, a loaf of French bread, brownies, and ice cream. Shrum was more relaxed than I had ever seen him.
“Elections are not like an Oscar, an award for past performance,” he said. “They’re a referendum on where a candidate wants to take the country in the future—that is, if you pass the threshold of people feeling comfortable with you.” He expected that the polls would show the Presidential race seesawing back and forth into the fall, and thought that the debates would be critical. By late last week, Kerry had accepted three Presidential debates and Edwards had agreed to one Vice-Presidential debate; Bush was expected to agree to two encounters with Kerry.
Shrum is aware of critics who think that he is an old-style liberal of the McGovern-Kennedy type, and no match for Rove. Pat Caddell, one of these critics, said, “Saying he’s ‘chief strategist’ is a joke. It’s like me saying I’m a musician! Bob illustrates the misconception that slogans are visions. Both campaigns illustrate this, but it was most apparent at the Democratic Convention. Instead of talking about issues, they said, ‘Oh, we’re going to make John Kerry look strong on defense by repeating it again and again.’ This is emblematic of what Shrum does. It’s about words, which is what a debater or a speechwriter thinks.”
When I repeated Caddell’s observation, Shrum’s eyes narrowed and he said, “The strategic decisions John Kerry has made so far have been very smart.” He left it at that. When I talked to Shrum last week, he insisted that Kerry was doing fine; he sounded unconcerned about Dick Cheney’s assertion that a vote for Kerry left the nation more vulnerable to attack—not “smart politics,” he said. (Kerry, for his part, called Cheney’s statement “outrageous and shameful,” and declared that Bush and Cheney “will say anything and do anything in order to get elected.”) “You’ve got to keep your eye on where you think you have to go,” Shrum said, adding that a new, aggressive candidate—one eager to take on Bush’s record on the war in Iraq and the economy—is emerging.“John Kerry in the closing days of campaigns is a terrific candidate, and that’s what we’re going to see in the last two months of the campaign,” Shrum said, a reminder of how Kerry had rebounded in the primaries. Shrum went on, “I don’t know what Rove does, but we are a collegial group of people.”