The Magazine

The Magic Shrum

When he touches a Democratic presidential candidate, they lose.

Apr 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 30 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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No Excuses

Concessions of a Serial Campaigner

by Robert Shrum

Simon & Schuster, 544 pp., $28

Any conservative down in the mouth for this or that reason could do a lot worse than to pick up Robert Shrum's memoir of his long life in politics, published last year, and settle in for several hours of bliss. And there it all is: thirty-plus years of liberal nose-dives, from George McGovern's epic loss to the unloved Richard Nixon, through Ted Kennedy's 1980 defeat by the unloved Jimmy Carter, to the martyrdom of Al Gore at the hands of the chads and Antonin Scalia, to the fragging of John Kerry at the hands of the Swifties, to the unjust ascension of the Bushes and Reagan, as fresh as the days they occurred.

Legendary scenes are relived in all of their poignancy: Kennedy's meltdown with Roger Mudd before primary season, Gore rehearsing his victory speech on the day of the 2000 election, Shrum calling Kerry "Mr. President" on Election Day 2004. The tone through it all is one of sweet sorrow: In his long career, Shrum managed to become rich and famous, and elected a lot of senators, but he somehow contrived to lose all of the big ones, and became legendary in political circles for his zero-for-eight record in electing a president. The back cover of the dust jacket shows Shrum with five major Democrats--McGovern, Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Gore and Kerry--but only one of the five actually got to be president.

He was the one who did not hire Shrum.

Poor Shrum seems to exist in a state of denial, regarding his clients and cause. He claims that if Gerald Ford had not freed Poland from Soviet control in the presidential debate in 1976, Jimmy Carter would have not been elected, the Republicans would have borne the burden of the "economic and geopolitical woes of the late 1970's," and Ted Kennedy, not Ronald Reagan, would have become the next president.

It never seems to occur to him that these woes were created by liberal governance, were greatly expanded by Carter's misjudgments, and were cured in the end by conservative nostrums, not only by Reagan here in this country but by his friend Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain and his protégé Rudy Giuliani in the sewer that once was New York.

He seems to believe that Kerry and Gore "belonged in the White House"--as opposed to George W. Bush, who didn't, except perhaps as a waiter--on the basis of qualities he never identifies. Instead, as his accounts of their endless and flailing quests for a "message" make evident, they had no reason for running beyond their own sense of entitlement, and were passionate about nothing so much as their own self-regard. Shrum tells us that both Kerry and his client John Edwards cast votes in favor of going to war in Iraq wholly in hopes it would advance their ambitions, and then tried to withdraw them for much the same reason.

A key exchange in regard to their tunnel vision about themselves takes place on the day in December 2003 when Kerry, who had endorsed Gore at his lowest point in 2000, discovers that Gore, without a word or a warning to anyone, is about to endorse Howard Dean for president. Astounded and angry, Kerry asks to speak to the former vice president. Shrum and an aide give him the number.

"Kerry dialed it," Shrum writes, "and a few seconds later, said 'Al, it's John Kerry.' The line went dead. When Kerry redialed the number, Gore's phone was turned off."

In terms of his sensitivity, his manners, and his respect for and consideration of others, this tells you all you need to know about Albert Gore Jr.

Aside from the joy of reliving the Kerry-Gore losses, there are two other reasons for loving this book. One is a piece that ran a year ago in Rolling Stone, that well-known house organ of the right-wing hate machine, called "The Enemy Within," an exposé of consultants, and of Democratic ones in particular, that paints Shrum as a shakedown artist who wrings enormous sums out of his credulous clients while giving them dreadful advice.

According to this, while Republicans work for a flat fee in presidential elections, Democrats work on commission, a system the piece says amounts to a license to steal: "Over the past two presidential elections," Rolling Stone estimates, "that racket has cost the Democrats at least $10 million more in consultant fees than it did the Republicans. Even top GOP advisers, who usually counsel that greed is good, are amazed by exorbitant fees."

Mark McKinnon, the top Bush strategist in both his elections, thinks the cash that flowed into Shrum's coffers could have been spent better in Florida in 2000 or in Ohio in 2004. Even then, the ads that Shrum did make were terrible: "We paid our consultants millions and got retread Mondale ads," complained Tony Coelho, a 2000 Gore aide.

In the 2004 contest, it was the same, only worse: