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The Boss

Robert Shrum, John Kerry's chief strategist and speechwriter, is considered the poet laureate of populism--the man who injected the phrase "the people versus the powerful" into Democratic vernacular. Over his 35-year career, Shrum has been responsible for many of the memorable lines to leave the mouths of such Democratic eminences as Ted Kennedy, George McGovern, and Al Gore. But one of his most telling speeches won't ever be collected in an anthology of great oratory.

For many years, Shrum plied his trade on behalf of Richard Gephardt. And in 1997, he began priming his client for a presidential run. Shrum wanted to signal Gephardt's intentions loudly, so he wrote him a stemwinder, to be delivered at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government--a pugilistic declaration that the Missourian would challenge Gore for the nomination in 2000 and reclaim the party from the rule of centrists. The speech derided New Democrats, "who set their compass only off the direction of others, who talk about the political center but fail to understand that, if it is only defined by others, it lacks core values."

If Gephardt's address hasn't entered the pantheon of momentous Democratic speeches, it made quite a stir at the time. The Clinton White House was so livid at Gephardt that officials didn't even bother hiding their ire behind anonymous quotes. "It sounds like politics over principle, especially given [Gephardt's] flip-flops on multiple issues," then-Clinton adviser Rahm Emanuel told The New York Times. To discredit the Gephardt-Shrum critique, the White House conceived a clever counterattack. President Clinton summoned Ted Kennedy to deliver a defense of his administration. "The American people don't care about New Democrat or old Democrat. They care about the quality of their lives, " the liberal lion intoned at the National Press Club, deflecting the barrage that his fellow populist had delivered only nine days earlier.

But, when the texts of the Gephardt fusillade and the Kennedy rebuttal are set next to one another, a careful reader may notice certain similarities-- similar sentence structures, similar rhetorical patterns. As it turns out, the echoes aren't coincidental. The speeches shared an author: Bob Shrum.

Political strategists who play at the highest level of presidential politics usually have short shelf lives. If they lose, they retire into relative obscurity--see, for example, Bob Beckel (Walter Mondale, 1984), Susan Estrich (Michael Dukakis, 1988), and Scott Reed (Bob Dole, 1996). If they win, they abandon campaigns to parlay their success into lucrative celebrity--see, for example, James Carville. Shrum is the exception to these laws of mortality. As the Gephardt-Kennedy interchange illustrates, he seems to be everywhere at all times in Democratic Party politics. Yes, he was Gore's chief brain for the 2000 general election. But that failure didn't taint him. In fact, he has reprised the role in the current campaign. This spring, a Kerry adviser told The Washington Post that Shrum was "the person who has the most influence on what comes out of John Kerry's mouth on any given day." His campaign colleagues describe him as Kerry's answer to Karl Rove. And even that understates his significance in the party, since he counts 13 of the Senate's 48 Democrats as his clients. Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta says, "He dominates the field. If he weren't in politics, there might be an antitrust investigation of his monopoly."

At the same time Shrum has amassed this power, he has also acquired another reputation. Democrats talk about the "Shrum Curse," a phrase so widespread that even The New York Times has written about it. Shrum has now worked on seven presidential campaigns--and racked up a grand average of .000. But this is an unfairly damning statistic. After all, except for Bill Clinton's strategists, most Democratic operatives over the past several decades have lost. There's a better summation of Shrum's career than "curse." Call it the "Shrum Paradox," whereby a fairly average consultant has achieved extraordinary predominance. Shrum hasn't built his consulting empire on strategic brilliance. His success is the result of qualities that matter far more in contemporary campaigns: superb infighting skills and an ability to sell his own myth--to brand himself as the top-drawer political consultant. The problem is that, going into the Democratic convention, strategic brilliance is just what Kerry needs.

The Shrum brand traces back to a single evening in August 1980. Already a veteran of three losing presidential campaigns at the age of 37 (John Lindsay, Ed Muskie, George McGovern), Shrum had just suffered his fourth consecutive defeat. Ted Kennedy had battled Jimmy Carter almost all the way to the end of the primaries, and now at the convention Shrum scripted the final speech of the campaign. With nothing left to lose, Shrum swung for the rhetorical fences, producing an elegant prcis of 1970s bleeding-heart liberalism, written in a distinctly Kennedyesque cadence with an almost nineteenth-century formality. "Long after the signs come down, and the crowds stop cheering, and the bands stop playing, may it be said of our party in 1980 that we found our faith again, " the speech famously concluded. "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." Kennedy knew there would be a rush to claim authorship of the speech. As a token of his loyalty, he leaked to the press that it was Shrum's pen that had scrawled the text.

It is rare, almost unprecedented, for speechwriters to segue into careers as full-service political consultants--cutting ads, advising on daily message and meta-strategy. But Shrum understood that writing provided him a competitive advantage. He would tap a truth about politicians: They are far vainer about the words spoken on the podium than the ads that appear on their behalf. "They hire Shrum," says one operative, "because they want to sound lyrical. Deep down, they're hoping that they can sound like Teddy, too." Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, who worked with Shrum in Kennedy's Senate office, recalls glimpsing Ernest Hollings on the eve of his 1984 presidential bid. "I need me a Shroom," Hollings barked in his South Carolina twang. "I need a Shroom who can make me sound good in these speeches."

Prospective clients aren't just wooed by Shrum's residual Kennedy mystique; they are wooed by Kennedy himself. Shrum is genuinely tight with his old patron, for whom he served four years as press secretary and even wrote poignant eulogies. "They are almost family," says Democratic fund-raiser Bob Burkett. (Kennedy does a hilarious Shrum imitation.) And Kennedy helps Shrum's business. In his biography of Kennedy, Adam Clymer recounts the senator advising Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski to hire Shrum. As one political consultant told me, "Kennedy calls and says you can do very well with Bob, and he adds a measure of sincerity to Shrum's claims. If a senator or Senate candidate is a star-fucker-- and many of them are--Shrum is perfect."

Over the years, Shrum has deepened--and polished--his brand. The typical Democratic consultant has a rather earthy uniform: While he (or she) may have a closet filled with Saks suits, they do their most serious work in blue jeans. In that way, they retain the look of the youthful idealist--Carville circa The War Room, Joe Trippi circa his fourteenth Diet Pepsi of the day. Shrum, on the other hand, is known to amble into the Wayfarer bar in Manchester, New Hampshire, with a purple scarf draped over his shoulders. There will be a Zegna tie around his neck and Hugo Boss socks around his ankles.

Shrum was once a noted schlub himself. In the early '80s, his friends and partners noted his disturbingly irregular bathing habits and astonishingly ugly neckwear. "He basically didn't care about how he looked. He didn't care about being overweight. He didn't have the money to buy fancy clothes," says Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe, who has known Shrum since the 1960s. Then, in 1988, he married Los Angeles Times society columnist Marylouise Oates. (Oatesie and Shrummy, they call each other.) Oatesie remade Shrummy as a fop, and the new threads perfectly fit his carefully tended image as a consultant: Shrum could sell himself as the luxury brand in Democratic consulting, the Louis Vuitton of strategists.

Indeed, Shrum has become a status symbol in his own right. From his Washington home in Massachusetts Heights, he ran a legendary salon, with a bar stocked with top-shelf liquor and a long dining room table stocked with top- shelf guests. Shrum provides his clients entre into the highest social strata. He was so close to the doyenne of Democratic fund-raising, Pamela Harriman, that he traveled with her to Barbados and served as an usher at her funeral. It was at his house that Mary Matalin met James Carville, and it was movie mogul Lew Wasserman who set Shrummy up with Oatesie. Warren Beatty and Henry Winkler attended the wedding. It's not a coincidence that rich men making their first run for high office are the ones most drawn to Shrum--from Jon Corzine to John Edwards. The arrivistes find Shrum's insider credentials too powerful to resist. And even many studied politicos find themselves succumbing. According to one Democratic strategist, the Clintons feared Shrum's social power. During the 1992 primary, Shrum served as an adviser to Senator Bob Kerrey, who viciously attacked the Arkansas governor. But, once in the Oval Office, Clinton made a calculated decision to ignore these slights, importing Shrum to help polish his State of the Union speeches. "The Clintons gave Shrum work," says the former White House official, "because they didn't want him as an enemy."

Like any true luxury brand, Shrum delivers highly attentive white-glove service. In the heat of Gore's 2000 campaign, as he traveled the country with the vice president, Shrum still phoned each of his senatorial clients every day. He doesn't just massage the candidates, he cultivates their wives. When he wanted to work on the Kerry campaign, he spent considerable time schmoozing with Teresa Heinz Kerry. He has sent Oatesie shopping with Elizabeth Edwards for campaign outfits. "Shrummy always works the wives hard," says one of his former colleagues. "He lived near Teresa Heinz and used her as a way of getting in. He had convinced her that he was needed."

In the end, Shrum achieves that great clich of customer service. He becomes more than an employee; he is a friend. There's no better example of this than John Kerry. Shrum first went to work for Kerry on his 1996 Senate race. Although they'd co-mingled at Georgetown soirees and lunched together, the race bonded them. Shrum helped rescue the campaign, providing the decisive change in strategy that staved off William Weld's challenge. But their relationship now transcends politics. "They talk about food, wine, European travel, and ideas," says one Democratic operative. Both this summer and last, Shrum traveled to Kerry's summer home in Nantucket so they could spend some quality time together. As Burkett puts it, "There's a tremendous level of comfort and compatibility. The guys like each other. I've seen them involved, and there's an affinity there." Shrum is not shy about announcing this affinity. Colleagues on the campaign report that pet Shrum phrases include: "When John and I were sailing, he said ..." and "John told me...."

At times, Kerry worries about being seen as his consultant's marionette. During the primaries, he told Shrum he didn't want him to be the public face of the campaign. So, although Shrum prepped Kerry for debates, he was rarely allowed to travel to debate sites--not for post-match spin, not even for behind- the-scenes rapid response. Last November, in an emotional conference call to his staff during which Kerry announced he had just fired campaign manager Jim Jordan, one aide bluntly asked, "Is Shrum now running the campaign?" Kerry replied that he wasn't. "No, look, he's a strategist." But there was an unmistakable irony to Kerry's denial. By firing Jordan, Kerry had removed Shrum's fiercest critic from the campaign. He was, in effect, denying Shrum's influence at the very moment it had become undeniable. The Shrum brand had triumphed once again.

The story of how Shrum achieved dominance in the Kerry campaign makes for an excellent case study of his infighting style. Despite his longstanding relationship with Kerry, Shrum arrived on the campaign only after a prolonged flirtation with John Edwards. (ABC's daily news roundup, The Note, dubbed the competition for his services the "Shrum Primary.") But the Kerry campaign was filled with competing power bases. Rivals called it "Noah's ark" because the campaign had two of everything--pollsters, advertising firms, et cetera. It was a system that seemed almost designed to prevent any individual from obtaining too much influence.

In fact, Kerry practices a fairly democratic style of decision making. He likes his advisers to resolve issues by coming to a consensus. There's no bigger fan of the conference call. Even if he weren't a masterful inside player, Shrum would do well in this system. At Georgetown, he was a collegiate debating champion. "Unless you're prepared to do battle relentlessly, he'll overwhelm you with his intelligence and words. He will not sit back and give up because somebody disagrees with him. Nobody is able to stand up to him and out- argue him," says the consultant Mark Fabiani, who spent stretches of the Gore campaign quarreling with Shrum. But Shrum's powers of persuasion can't always carry the day. It is then, when he fails to win in the conference calls, that he exploits his relationship with Kerry, repeating his case via a back channel. For instance, he used private conversations to convince Kerry to abandon public financing last November. And, during the writing of the candidate's announcement speech in September, Shrum lobbied Kerry hard to adopt his version of the text.

But what distinguishes Shrum isn't just his flair for argument or his relationship with Kerry; it's the skill with which he maneuvers among campaign advisers. He knows how to align himself with stronger factions and how to crush weaker ones. Last fall, a debate raged within the campaign. On one side stood campaign manager Jim Jordan and media adviser Chris Lehane, who wanted the campaign to take a firmer stand against Howard Dean and to have proxies point out the contradictions in the Vermont governor's record. On the other side stood Kerry's Massachusetts-based operatives, such as John Sasso and Tom Kiley, who believed that attacking Dean could redound against Kerry, making him look like a nasty guy. Based on his track record, Shrum's view would have seemed obvious. After all, he has built a reputation for his relentlessly slashing style. Most infamously, during the 1990 Texas governor's primary, his firm produced ads for Jim Mattox leveling nasty, unsupported charges against Ann Richards: "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?'' During the Kerry campaign, however, he bucked his aggressive instincts. According to one former Kerry staffer, he did so for the most Machiavellian reason. "He could see the writing on the wall. Jordan was going to be removed eventually. It was just a question of when. It was better for him in the long term to align himself with the Massachusetts Mafia."

Shrum's alliance with the so-called "Massachusetts Mafia" has yielded fantastic results. Over the course of the campaign, the biggest threats to his power have acrimoniously left the campaign. Lehane quit in September, Jordan was fired in November, celebrated adman Jim Margolis unhappily departed in April, and speechwriter Andrei Cherny followed soon after. There are explanations for each of these departures that have nothing to do with Shrum. But the pattern is suspicious. Donna Brazile, a good friend of Shrum's who also tangled with him during the Gore campaign, told me, "Bob is a tenacious fighter. I've been with him. He's a dirty, nasty street fighter. Actually, he's the kind that we desperately need in the Democratic Party. We have so many peace- loving Kumbaya people. Bob doesn't have a problem hitting."

Unfortunately, Shrum's talent for fighting his way to power doesn't necessarily translate into a powerful message for his clients. The rap most frequently leveled against him goes something like this: He believes so intensely in economic populism that he deploys it in each and every campaign, whether it is appropriate or not. And, indeed, there are comic examples of Shrum overusing William Jennings Bryan-esque rhetoric. When Bobby Kennedy's ninth oldest child, Max, launched his hapless campaign for Congress in 2001, Shrum provided him with rote lines like, "I want to fight for all of you." Coming out of Kennedy's mouth, the populism sounded hilariously phony--a fact that even Kennedy himself conceded in a New York Times Magazine profile. Moreover, Shrum campaigns have occasionally been exercises in demagoguery. His 1988 speeches for Gephardt excoriated Ivan Boesky and Wall Street elites; his ads menacingly portrayed the threat of Asian trade.

But the charge of knee-jerk populism is overblown. Most of Shrum's rhetoric is less ham-fisted than that employed during the Kennedy campaign and less vitriolic than that of the Gephardt race. Protectionism, for instance, only makes rare appearances. And, while he does use the verb "to fight" frequently in speeches and slogans, he's hardly the only Democrat to do so. Even Clinton's 1992 campaign ubiquitously sprinkled "fighting" words throughout speeches (e.g., pledging to "fight for the forgotten middle class"). One Democratic consultant, not particularly friendly to Shrum, told me, "What are you supposed to say, 'I'm working on changing health care?' No, 'I'm fighting for health care' works much better. We all use that same formulation. Bob is unfortunately the one guy who gets beat up for it."

And Shrum has hardly steered the Kerry campaign in a "people versus the powerful" direction. In fact, almost every time Kerry advisers have pushed to adopt populist lines, Shrum has argued against them. Last October, aides heatedly debated how to defuse the Dean challenge. A slew of advisers--from Jordan to Cherny to strategist Mark Mellman--worried that voters viewed Kerry as a creature of Washington. To counteract this impression, they wanted spots and speeches to emphasize his lifelong combat against "special interests," from his days as a prosecutor to his senatorial investigation of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. Mellman and Jordan pushed for Kerry to describe himself as "fighting" for the public interest, using vocabulary straight out of the old populist playbook. But Shrum argued that voters would never buy the idea of the patrician Kerry as the defender of the everyman. (And, in private, he told one colleague he didn't want to be blamed for a failed foray into populism.) Instead, Shrum wanted Kerry to argue that he, not Dean, was the genuine progressive in the race. While Dean had flirted with the Democratic Leadership Council in the '90s, Kerry had been toiling in the Senate on behalf of liberal causes. This was the rare argument Shrum didn't win. Beginning in late October, Kerry speeches began warning lobbyists, "Don't let the door hit you on the way out." Soon after, Kerry ads started ominously depicting lobbyists trekking through Gucci Gulch.

In truth, Shrum's greatest weakness is not the ideological inflexibility for which he's often derided--even in private he did not urge Kerry to take more liberal positions on gay marriage and the Iraq war--but rather a strategic myopia. According to one consultant who has worked with Shrum, in the heat of a campaign, "He's far more tuned into focus groups and polling data than moral arguments." He has a gift for churning out pithy lines and spin that will win a newscycle but a harder time devising a grand message for the campaign. He may be an excellent tactician, but former congressman Tony Coelho, who chaired the Gore campaign, told me, "My concern is how good of a strategist he is. In the campaign, Shrum against Karl Rove, I'm not sure that we end up with the long stick." Indeed, during the Kerry campaign, Shrum hasn't produced anything comparable to the leitmotifs that Rove provided Bush in 2000. There's nothing akin to Bush's "compassionate conservatism" or his relentless emphasis on "restoring honor and dignity to the Oval Office"--or, for that matter, to Edwards's "two Americas."

The absence of message is visible in Shrum's ads. In many of the spots, Kerry speaks directly into the camera. (Shrum ads don't have many visual metaphors.) Admittedly, the ads all touch on potent themes--at least focus groups have responded to them. In one recent ad called "Paperwork," Kerry describes a major problem with U.S. health care: "It's all paperwork. Administrative overhead. ... We will save literally billions of dollars in health care costs in America by becoming more streamlined and more efficient." But, ideally, political ads should do more than turn focus-group dials in a positive direction. They should build a cumulative impression of Kerry. "Who is going to remember his outrage over paperwork?" one operative asked me. And, unfortunately, the spots aren't well-suited to building a cumulative impression. They haven't had consistent phrases or ideas. The operative quips, "What are they on--their thirteenth or fourteenth slogan?"

There's another surprising weakness in the campaign: Kerry's oratory. Given Shrum's reputation for producing spellbinders, Kerry's major speeches have been remarkably bland. At least in part, this can be traced to Shrum. Aside from George McGovern's 1972 "Come Home America" convention address, Shrum has produced truly great speeches only for Ted Kennedy. As Adam Clymer told me, "His best collaboration was with Kennedy. Bob knows how to write things that Ted says well." The problem is that the rhetoric that works for Kennedy often falls flat for other candidates. A cadence and compound sentence structure that sounds gorgeous flowing from Kennedy's mouth sounds antique and windy coming from Kerry. ("Today, with confidence in the courage of our people to change what is wrong and do what is right, I come here to say why I am a candidate for President of the United States.") And, in the end, Shrum exacerbates Kerry's shortcomings. "Kerry has a tendency toward florid, long-winded oratory," says one former campaign adviser. "Bob certainly isn't the guy to correct that."

In his work for John Kerry so far, Shrum has made a string of right choices-- not to attack Dean, not to accept public financing, not to excessively deploy populist rhetoric. But the convention marks the moment when the campaign can no longer rely on tactics to mask the absence of strategy. Kerry needs a message, a big reason for voters to pick him. Without one, Bob Shrum might find himself zero for eight.