The Guy Behind the Guy

By Jon Keller | Boston Magazine |

“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.” — 1980 Democratic National Convention concession speech written for Senator Edward Kennedy by Bob Shrum

On the evening of Thursday, July 29, a limousine escorted by police will glide past the hapless working-class Bostonians who couldn't take the week off from work to avoid the nightmarish traffic caused by the closing of I-93. It will pull up to a heavily guarded VIP entrance at the FleetCenter and disgorge the putative modern-day torch bearer of “the cause . . . the hope . . . and the dream.”

All eyes will be on the wealthiest member of the United States Senate, John Forbes Kerry, as he prepares to deliver a nationally televised speech that could be his best chance yet to exchange his albatross image as a Massachusetts liberal for that of a populist alternative to George W. Bush. In the stadium's luxury boxes, party bigwigs and donors who have bet huge amounts of dough on Kerry will be buzzing with anxious speculation. Can Kerry excite the party faithful, as Ted Kennedy did in the 1980 concession speech that stole the show from nominee Jimmy Carter, with a similarly rousing homage to old-time party gospel? Or will he confirm himself as an out-of-touch, pandering Beltway phony?

Among those insiders, equal attention will be paid to another very wealthy man likely to emerge from the car with Kerry, if not from his own stretch limo. That would be Robert M. Shrum, the balding political guru responsible for the crucial message Kerry will deliver that night, the master speechwriter counted on by Kerry to transform his banal rhetoric into something soaring, inspirational, and marketable. Shrum is expected to have banged out a speech that unites the anti-Bush base and lures those up-for-grabs swing voters. If no single moment short of the climactic October debates is more important than Kerry's nomination-night manifesto, then no single person in the campaign's cast of thousands is more important than Bob Shrum.

That should give this city full of desperately anti-Bush Democrats serious pause as they idle in the convention gridlock. The 60-year-old Shrum is paradoxically both the premier success story of modern-day political consulting and its most spectacular failure. And in Boston this month he faces perhaps his most formidable challenge since he consulted on the marketing of New Coke: convincing southern NASCAR dads and Wal-Mart moms of the populist empathy of a windsurfing New England multimillionaire from Louisburg Square.

If you've ever been stirred by the raw populism of a   Democratic senator's C-SPAN speech vowing to fight for the working man and woman against the powerful forces of corporate greed, chances are you've been moved by Shrum's work. For three decades, as the Democrats have groped for identity, Shrum has been the party's most admired speechwriter, forcefully and consistently spinning a populist tale of the battle between the haves and the have-nots — most memorably in that legendary 1980 speech for Kennedy. Despite his exorbitant price tag, competition for Shrum's services in the presidential nominating process is so intense it's sometimes referred to in political circles as “the Shrum primary.”

But when the “John and Bob Show” plays the FleetCenter on acceptance night, those familiar with the Shrum story will be wondering: What has Kerry really bought? A brilliant wordsmith who can give him the soul he seems to lack? Or an out-of-touch faux-populist whose involvement in the campaign will merely reinforce the candidate's rap as a gold-plated phony and leave the party beaten as he limos off in search of the next opportunity to fail?

Bob Shrum's fingerprints have been found at the scene of an uninterrupted string of Democratic presidential catastrophes over the past 30 years. Ed Muskie and George McGovern in 1972. Kennedy in 1980. Richard Gephardt and Michael Dukakis in 1988. Bob Kerrey in 1992. The only successful Democratic candidacies of the era — Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 — were Shrum-free affairs. (Shrum worked for 10 days for Carter, but quit in a huff.)

Even after Shrum added to that litany with his disastrous 2002 attempt to transform silver-spoon Beltway insider Al Gore into the candidate of the common man, he remained the most sought-after catch of the primary season. And Shrum is tighter than tight with Ted Kennedy, Kerry's campaign savior. All good reasons, it seems, for Kerry to ignore the thread that runs through Shrum's failed presidential campaigns: blind devotion to an ideology that went out of style 30 years ago.

Shrum is, however eloquently, a one-trick pony, selling a 1960s populism bristling with the imagery of class warfare. When Kerry declares himself — in the same language used by dozens of Shrum candidates over the years — “a fighter” against “the powerful forces” of corporate greed and wealthy special interests, he is preaching the Shrum gospel.

Shrum didn't respond to interview requests. But then, he doesn't need to do much self-promotion anymore. A survivor of bitter breakups with old business partners and countless campaign power struggles, Shrum's clout goes largely unchallenged now. He replaced popular ad man Jim Margolis at the top of the Kerry campaign after a dispute over money and is now “the person who has the most influence on what comes out of John Kerry's mouth on any given day,” as a Kerry adviser told the Washington Post.

There's a problem with that setup. Once upon a time, “arousing the working masses to claim more money from the evil rich was a way to win elections,” says Michael Barone, coauthor of The Almanac of American Politics. But now, Barone notes, “it's not a winning message. Clinton understood that the country and the economy had changed. Bob doesn't get that.” And while the Kerry campaign claims to be tricking out old-time populism with such New Democrat accessories as tax incentives for corporate investment, it's questionable whether class-warfare rhetoric of any kind can be sold by the blue-blooded likes of a nominee who told a Georgia audience his views on drug abuse among the young were “not palaver.”

“Kerry's not the standard populist candidate,” says Dan Payne, a longtime adviser to Kerry. “He's had the opportunity to play the populist in Massachusetts politics and he's just never done it because he doesn't feel comfortable with it. It's not gonna work for him.”

No wonder top Republicans have hailed Shrum's presence astride the Kerry campaign as perhaps the best medicine for what ails the Bush re-election effort. There are already troubling signs that decades of defeat can't stop Shrum from recycling the same old spin. The 1980 Kennedy speech featured outrage that, while the working class struggles to afford healthcare, “members of Congress have a medical plan that meets their needs in full.” Kerry's stump speech promises to “make the same healthcare plan that senators and congressmen get available and accessible to anybody in America.” The details — how to pay for and administer universal healthcare — remain, then as now, unresolved. Shrum's candidates, says Payne,   “get squeezed into the same mold whether they belong there or not.”