Each day at the Democratic convention in Boston, a team of 10 speechwriters would convene in a windowless office behind the Fleet Center podium to help compose and polish that night's speeches. In the spirit of camaraderie, the speechwriters discussed making T-shirts for themselves.
One suggested a design featuring the slogan "Reverse the Curse" over a picture of Bob Shrum, the Democratic strategist whom many perceived to be presidential candidate John Kerry's closest adviser. "The Curse" referred to Shrum's career-long slump in presidential campaigns, a well-catalogued losing streak that runs from George McGovern to Al Gore.
The shirts were never made for fear of offending Shrum. But the slogan endures as a joke among Kerry staffers. The implication is that Kerry is battling not just President Bush, but also the history of his ever-present aide-de-camp. It also underscores the degree to which Shrum's 0-7 win-loss record in presidential elections has become ensconced in the psyches of the campaigns he orchestrates.
Talk of the Curse becomes rampant when Shrum's candidates sputter. And Kerry is sputtering, down nine points in a new Washington Post poll after leading Bush for much of the summer. His campaign has been called listless and unfocused, words that were also applied to Shrum's last presidential enterprise, the Gore campaign (a forbidden comparison within Kerry headquarters).
Kerry spokesmen, predictably, say the campaign is moving forward. And Shrum loyalists, also predictably, reject any talk of a curse -- just as Boston Red Sox players say they don't believe in curses when reminded that the team hasn't won the World Series since 1918. ("Reverse the Curse" is a rallying cry among Red Sox fans.)
But curses sometimes have prosaic explanations. As Kerry's campaign mishandled the controversy over his service on a Navy Swift boat in Vietnam and Republicans ridiculed him at their convention last week -- apparently to good effect -- critics started to rehash old complaints about Shrum. They say he relies too heavily on populist rhetoric, that his comfortable position inside the Beltway made him slow to recognize the potency of the ads purchased by the Swift boat group, that his aggressiveness led to backbiting within the campaign.
Brash, vehement and often brilliant, Shrum, 61, has been an institution in Democratic politics for more than three decades. He has evolved from a one-dimensional speechwriter to a full-service adviser to all manner of Democratic hyper-strivers. He keeps a hand in nearly every facet of a candidate's marketing -- making ads, writing speeches, crafting the message, preparing them for debates. He was a constant in Gore's orbit in 2000 and is ubiquitous in Kerry's now.
Presidential candidates keep clinging to Shrum in the same way that Sox fans (like Kerry) cling to the faith that this year, surely, things will be different.
Basking in the moment
Shortly after Kerry's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention last month, Shrum -- who helped with, but didn't write the speech -- was holding court in a bar at the Four Seasons hotel in Boston. He was sitting with a group of friends and sipping white wine, his face flushed. The room was populated by a roster of media and Hollywood A-listers such as Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, Charlie Rose and Rob Reiner, many of whom visited Shrum's table to congratulate him.
Kerry has long denied that Shrum had outsize authority in his campaign. When people caution Kerry about Shrum -- and many have -- he says he is aware of Shrum's strengths and weaknesses. Campaign spokesmen downplay his role, offering variations on "Shrum is part of the Kerry team," and that he works at the pleasure of the candidate and campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill.
Shrum, too, has tried to keep a low profile. He has granted few on-the-record interviews during this campaign. (He didn't return several phone calls from The Washington Post requesting an interview for this story.) And he has stayed off TV, a departure from past presidential campaigns. Tad Devine, Shrum's partner at the political consulting firm of Shrum, Devine and Donilon, has been a far more public face for the campaign.
But the degree to which Shrum had become linked to Kerry was rendered vividly by the triumphant scene at the Four Seasons. Shrum, who is at once impeccably well dressed and chronically disheveled, was beaming as he made his way through a mob on his way to the bathroom. He looked as much like a candidate as a behind-the-scenes operative. "I thought we were going to have to set up a rope line and stanchion around him," says Democratic consultant Michael Feldman, who was in the room.
It was vaguely reminiscent of Election Night four years ago, the stunned glow that washed over Shrum's tearful face when it seemed, for an instant, that Gore had beaten Bush.
"Bob kept saying, 'Finally, finally,' " says a Gore aide who was with Shrum that night. "He didn't really know what to do with himself."
With the Kerry campaign consumed by problems after the convention, though, several leading Democrats have pointedly criticized Shrum in recent weeks. Bill Clinton adviser and CNN commentator James Carville harpooned Shrum relentlessly to reporters at the Republican convention last week. Clinton himself was critical of the campaign's reluctance to attack Bush -- a position Shrum had advocated -- in a phone call to Kerry while he awaited surgery in a New York hospital, according to a source with knowledge of the call. Shrum's brand of old-style liberalism -- steeped in the tradition of his political patron, Ted Kennedy -- is anathema to the centrist, New Democrat ethic that got Clinton elected twice.
Clinton used to call Shrum occasionally for help with speeches. Shrum wrote a remorseful speech that Clinton was supposed to give on the night of his testimony before a grand jury, in which he admitted to his affair with Monica Lewinsky. But Clinton went with a more defiant tone instead. And when Clinton's speech was panned, he took offense at Shrum's public discussion of the speech not given. Shrum still keeps a draft of it framed in his office.
As part of a shake-up of his campaign, Kerry last week elevated the role of John Sasso, a Massachusetts operative with long ties to Kerry. Sasso will now serve as Kerry's chief adviser on the road, a role that, unofficially, had been Shrum's. Kerry's expanding team also includes former Clinton aides Joe Lockhart and Joel Johnson, and increasingly, Carville and Paul Begala. There is a belief among people close to Kerry that the "Clintonistas," as they are sometimes called, will provide a fresh blast of energy for a campaign that had become inert.
The Clintonistas also bring credibility that no one in Kerry's immediate circle -- including Shrum -- can match. "You tend to listen extra hard to Clinton people," says a mid-level Kerry aide who didn't want to be identified because he's not an official spokesman. "They've actually won one of these."
Depending on who is talking, Shrum is either in Kerry's doghouse, or his influence has been diffused by the high-level additions. Ultimately, though, campaign sources say, Shrum is a survivor. He has, for example, worked strenuously to cultivate Lockhart, with whom he had clashed in the past.
Kerry, meanwhile, does feel loyalty to Shrum, who helped him win reelection to the Senate in 1996 in what many consider the toughest race of Kerry's political career.
Shrum and Kerry have been frequent social companions. Shrum was with Kerry last week on Nantucket, a short hop from Shrum's vacation house on Cape Cod. Teresa Heinz Kerry is friends with his wife, Mary Louise Oates, a former society columnist for the Los Angeles Times. (Like many people of Shrum's acquaintance, Kerry calls him "Shrummy." As a duo, he and his wife are known as "Oatsey and Shrummy.")
Shrum's tastes and quirks are a common topic of conversation in political circles. He does not drive, a fact his friends attribute to his horrifying skills behind the wheel. It is common to see him in the back seat of a car driven by a young aide, an image that reinforces a somewhat regal bearing. He loves gourmet food and fine wines and has his suits handmade by a Georgetown tailor.
His manner can be strikingly brusque. He will sit quietly in a meeting for several minutes, chewing nicotine gum, sometimes removing it from his mouth and stretching it around the rim of a can of Diet Coke. He will then jump in and express his opinion with utter self-assurance.
"Shrum has an air of sounding as if his arguments are not only the best arguments, but they are the only arguments," says Dan Payne, a Boston media consultant who worked for Kerry in 1996 until he was replaced by Shrum.
"He's someone who puts things on the table, and ultimately that is helpful in the heat of battle," says Alan H. Fleischmann, the chief of staff for former Maryland lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who worked closely with Shrum on her unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2002.
People who have worked with Shrum over the years marvel at his mastery of "capture the candidate," the art of winning and keeping the ear of the principal while circumventing -- or eliminating -- competitors within the campaign structure.
Last fall, Kerry was trailing badly in the polls and fired his campaign manager, Jim Jordan, a persistent Shrum rival. In a conference call with his staff, Kerry had to dampen the perception that Shrum's dominion had been enhanced with Jordan's departure. One person on the call asked Kerry, "Is Bob Shrum running the campaign now?" To which Kerry said, "Bob Shrum is a speechwriter."
'The hope still lives'
The speechwriter occupies a special place in a presidential campaign. "Politicians always put a greater importance on what they say in speeches than in their ads," says Democratic consultant Bill Carrick. Carrick, who worked with Shrum in Ted Kennedy's 1980 presidential campaign and later in his Senate office, calls Shrum "probably the best political wordsmith of my generation."
Shrum made his mark by writing Kennedy's concession speech at the 1980 Democratic convention, which many consider one of the seminal speeches in modern political history.
"For all those whose cares have been our concern," Kennedy said, "the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die." The words became synonymous with an idealistic liberalism that flourished in the left wing of the Democratic Party for a generation.
Robert M. Shrum was born in Connellsville, Pa., and raised in Los Angeles, the son of a tool-and-die worker for Hughes Corp. He attended Georgetown University on a National Merit Scholarship and graduated from Harvard Law School. He worked for New York Mayor John Lindsay and then the 1972 presidential campaign of Edmund Muskie, before jumping to George McGovern as a speechwriter. He joined the Jimmy Carter campaign in the same capacity in 1976, which would have ended the Shrum curse shortly after it started, except that Shrum quit after 10 days, and with about as much fanfare as an unknown 32-year-old speechwriter can muster.
"Governor Carter," Shrum wrote in a letter of resignation to the future president, "I have decided that in light of my own convictions and in fairness to you, I should leave the campaign without delay." The letter found its way into Jules Witcover's "Marathon: The Pursuit of the Presidency, 1972-1976." Shrum went on to tell Carter that "I don't believe you stand for anything other than yourself."
After Kennedy's presidential campaign, he spent three years as Kennedy's press secretary and developed a close bond with the Massachusetts senator. After leaving Kennedy's office, Shrum joined with Carter maestro Pat Caddell and consultant David Doak to launch a lucrative political consulting firm. With the explosion in television advertising, a political consultant could reap millions by taking a cut -- usually 15 percent -- of all campaign advertising purchases. According to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal -- and confirmed by a high-level official in the Kerry campaign -- Shrum stands to earn $5 million on the presidential race, win or lose.
Shrum, who would break with Caddell and eventually with Doak, took on new partners -- Tad Devine and Michael Donilon -- and his subsequent clientele would include a roster of successful Democratic senators and governors, as well as unsuccessful presidential candidates.
Shrum has become emblematic of the modern celebrity operative, a phenomenon in which the strategists behind the winning candidate become stars in their own right. This can drive an impression that such operatives are motivated by ego, their bank accounts and the next job, rather than a faith in the candidate and his politics.
"The successful presidential campaigns have not been run by mercenaries," says Jerry Rafshoon, a longtime adviser to Carter. "There's a reason there was a Massachusetts mafia, with John Kennedy, or a Texas mafia with Bush or Johnson, or a California mafia with Reagan, or a Georgia mafia with Carter. It's always been a small group of people who believe in the candidate, not in promoting themselves, or building their businesses."
Shrum's friends say he gets a bad rap. Presidential elections are hard to win, they say, especially for Democrats -- only two of whom have won in Shrum's adult life.
Instead, they say, Shrum should be judged by his skill at writing speeches and crafting a campaign's message, and by his success in non-presidential contests. Shrum has helped elect roughly one-third of the Democrats now serving in the Senate.
Shrum's friends are both loyal to him and cognizant of his flaws. They admire, above all, his liberal fervor, his savvy and his unyielding commitment to what he believes. They say he makes too easy a target.
"He gets too much blame when things go wrong and never enough credit," says Donna Brazile, who ran Gore's campaign in 2000. "You hear all these stories, but I think Bob is misunderstood. This is a very powerful person. He has a lot of powerful friends and a very powerful personality. And he's had to fight hard to get his seat at the table. . . . And I thank God he's out there fighting on my side."
He is, by these measures, a great success story. He is rich, famous and, despite his losing streak, still in great demand -- Kerry, John Edwards and Dick Gephardt all vied for his services in 2004.
Shrum's ascent up the Washington ladder would seem complete, except for that last elusive step. And yet, his history in presidential elections trails him like the dark cloud over Joe Btfsplk, a character from the comic strip "Li'l Abner."
Before a debate for Democratic presidential candidates in South Carolina in spring 2003, Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) walked into a Columbia hotel suite to find Shrum prepping Kerry for the debate. "John," Hollings said to his Senate colleague, and pointed to Shrum. "I didn't know you wanted to lose this election."
Hollings was making a joke. But there were uncomfortable grins all around.