Shrum Looks Back on Nearly Four Decades of Political Campaign Work

Posted June 18, 2007 at 3:06pm

It’s hard to distill a career that included work on eight presidential campaigns, 30 Senate victories and a slew of mayoral, gubernatorial and Congressional runs. [IMGCAP(1)]

But Bob Shrum hits the highlights of his nearly 40-year career in politics in his book “No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner,” which came out earlier this month.

Shrum’s lips are somewhat sealed on the 2008 presidential race because he will be a commentator for MSNBC. But the silver lining in that — and his retirement from campaigns — is that he is free in his book to speak candidly about his experience.

“This book is not an authorized book in any way, shape or form,” he said in an interview. “I didn’t check with anyone. These folks know the history will be written. … All I’ve done is report what happened and put my name on that.”

Shrum gives an unvarnished view of the candidates he worked for — The New York Times said that former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) “will wish this book had never seen the light of day” — and criticizes himself, too.

The author got his start in the business in 1970 as a speechwriter for New York Mayor John Lindsay — “the only time in my life,” he writes, that he “went to work for a Republican.”

Lindsay switched parties and ran for president as a Democrat in 1972, but Shrum didn’t think he could win and went to work for Sen. Ed Muskie (D-Maine) in the first of what would be many presidential campaigns.

Go through American history from that point forward and, chances are, Shrum was involved in the politics of it in some capacity.

After Muskie lost the 1972 primary, Shrum worked for George McGovern’s unsuccessful bid. His 10-day stint with Jimmy Carter in 1976 introduces some of the harshest language in “No Excuses.”

Shrum’s resignation letter to Carter, he discloses, stated, “your strategy is largely designed to conceal your true convictions, whatever they may be. … I am not sure what you believe in, other than yourself.”

Carter was a fine ex-president, Shrum writes: “I just wish he could have skipped the intermediate step.”

But the bulk of the book is reserved for three presidential campaigns: Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy’s in 1980, then-Vice President Al Gore’s in 2000 and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s in 2004.

“I’m proud of a lot of campaigns, and there are some I’m not so proud of,” Shrum said. “It’s very hard for me to pick the best one.

Shrum credits the famous speech he wrote for Kennedy for the 1980 Democratic National Convention in New York as a boost to his career. In it, he described Ronald Reagan’s views on unemployment insurance, cities, Social Security and pollution, and posited that Reagan was “no friend of labor … no friend of this city and our great urban centers across this nation … no friend of the senior citizens of this nation … no friend of the environment.”

“The joy of 1980, even though we didn’t win, but the joy of the Kennedy campaign and the fact that we kept going,” Shrum said in the interview.

“The great speech he gave and the fact that Kennedy was generous enough to give me credit for that speech, it really helped my career.”

As for the most recent presidential election, Shrum regrets that he pushed a skeptical Edwards to vote for the authorization of force in Iraq in 2003. He believed that because Edwards was so junior in the Senate he could not afford to open himself to criticism that he was weak on terrorism.

In retrospect, he writes, he “violated a principle I’d learned long before — candidates have to trust their own deeply felt instincts. It’s the best way to live with defeat if it comes, and probably the best way to win.”

Shrum also writes that Jim Jordan, Kerry’s campaign manager during its slow start, conveyed to Kerry that he could “go ahead and vote against [authorization] if you want, but you’ll never be president of the United States.”

Again with the benefit of hindsight, he writes, “it is clear that Kerry should have voted against the Iraq war”; the campaign also should have “hit back early and hard at the Swift boat attacks,” he writes.

While the candidates for whom he toiled hardly come across as saints, Shrum said one purpose of “No Excuses” was to honor those candidates.

“This book gives a sense of what politics is really like behind the curtain,” he said. “Those who were portrayed as stereotypes and stick figures, many of them are heroes, human heroes.”

Bob Shrum will sign copies of “No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner” at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.