Robert Shrum, the political consultant whose words and ideas have helped define the Democratic Party for 40 years, has signed a contract to write his first book.
At age 62, Mr. Shrum has been a writer for most of his career, and is, in his way, one of America’s best-known. Phrases like “Come home America” and “The dream shall never die”—both part of the political lexicon—are his. But beginning with a stint as a speechwriter for John Lindsay (a Republican who became a Democrat in the early 1970’s), Mr. Shrum has given and sold his words to others. The only books he’s taken credit for writing are a series of debate manuals that he wrote for the American Enterprise Institute to help pay the bills at Harvard Law School.
The new volume, sold for six figures to Simon & Schuster and expected to be released in the spring of 2007, will be all his.
“It’s about politics and what I’ve seen, the lessons I draw from it,” Mr. Shrum told The Observer in a telephone interview, adding that he didn’t think the book would fit into the usual categories of political publishing. “I don’t know how you separate the fabric of your experience from the vision you have of where the party is or where the party ought to come out.”
Mr. Shrum declined to discuss the book in any further detail, though it was sold based on a thick partial manuscript, according to his agent, Flip Brophy.
Mr. Shrum’s stories and views will be eagerly awaited by a Democratic Party endlessly struggling to define itself. The book will appear as Democrats prepare for another round of Presidential politics. Mr. Shrum has worked on eight Presidential campaigns, all of them ending in defeat in either the primaries or in the general election. (He also worked briefly for Jimmy Carter before the Georgian won the 1976 Presidential election.) He’s played a happier role in a host of Senate races, and has been a longtime advisor to Senator Edward Kennedy, though his career spans the Presidential campaigns of Edmund Muskie, George McGovern, Richard Gephardt, Al Gore and John Kerry.
Mr. Shrum has also become a controversial figure inside the Democratic Party. He is associated, sometimes in caricature, with economic populism and a focus on the domestic issues that usually poll well for the Democrats: education, health care, jobs. He is sometimes blamed for Mr. Gore’s choice, as the sitting Vice President, to pledge to take on “powerful interests.” And, as with all losing campaigns, he’s been one of those to take the blame for Mr. Kerry’s defeat.
Word of Mr. Shrum’s book emerges as Mr. Kerry positions himself for another run at the Presidency, and there has been no break between the two men, whose relationship has been described more as one between peers than as employer and employee. None of the key players in that campaign—campaign manager Marybeth Cahill, aides John Sasso and Michael Whouley, or Mr. Shrum—has indulged in public finger-pointing or performed detailed postmortems of the race.
“I suppose there are enough recriminations coming from other quarters,” Mr. Shrum said.
“Anybody who says, whether they win or lose, that there weren’t mistakes in their campaign is not being very honest. There are no perfect campaigns,” he said.
But electing Mr. Kerry would never have been easy, he added. “The slope was very, very high, because it was fundamentally a security-9/11 election. That’s how Bush began, and it was the only positive case he ever made.”
Asked if he had regrets, Mr. Shrum said that had the Kerry campaign known that, contrary to public polls, Florida would go heavily to Mr. Bush, the campaign could have sent more resources—including Mr. Kerry—to Ohio.
“I don’t accept the notion that it was unwinnable, because we almost won,” he said.
But the interest in Mr. Shrum’s book will extend well beyond the 2004 campaign.
“It’s not a campaign book—it’s a memoir,” said his agent, Ms. Brophy, who (like Mr. Shrum) declined to say what the book had been sold for. “It’s a memoir of a very important political consultant, and it’s kind of a history of the Democratic Party for the last 50 years.”
The publisher of Simon & Schuster, David Rosenthal, described Mr. Shrum’s book as “a memoir with political life lessons thrown in.” Its editor is Alice Mayhew, a pillar of political publishing, whose authors include Bob Woodward.
The book, which Mr. Rosenthal said was bought in an “informal auction” for more than $100,000, will be based on a partial manuscript that is “chock-filled with anecdotes.”
It should be. Mr. Shrum already exists in a cloud of anecdotes, told and retold during last year’s campaign as he kept himself off cable television and out of the give-and-take between surrogates for Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry. He’s a cheerfully eccentric figure in an increasingly buttoned-down and professionalized business. There’s his legendary resignation from Mr. Carter’s campaign: “Governor Carter, I have decided that in light of my own convictions and in fairness to you, I should leave the campaign without delay. I don’t believe you stand for anything other than yourself.” He has a lucky scarf that he reportedly regrets not wearing to Al Gore’s Nashville headquarters in 2000. He and his wife, the writer Marylouise Oates, have a wide circle of well-placed friends. He’s a master of internal campaign fights, and his successful battle for control of the Kerry campaign became the stuff of political legend.
“He knows more about the past and thought processes than anyone I know in politics,” said Leo Hindery, a Democratic fund-raiser and friend. “He tells great stories, but he’s never written it down.”
Though Mr. Shrum wouldn’t discuss the contents of his forthcoming book, his thoughts these days are on the potential for Democrats to seize the initiative in national politics.
“There’s no question that ultimately it is unsustainable to say that the war [in Iraq] was a mistake, but somehow or other we should protract it indefinitely,” he said of an issue whose treatment by the Kerry campaign remains controversial in Democratic Party circles.
“The solution for us isn’t slogans; the solution for us is to stand up for what we believe,” he said. “If we’re not willing to stand up against a President with a 35 percent approval rating, when can we stand up?”
Mr. Shrum, though he has said that he’s through with his political consulting business, isn’t entirely out of the game. He was a close, informal advisor to Jon Corzine in his successful run for Governor of New Jersey this year.
“I find the way most of the press reads this to be extraordinary,” he said of the New Jersey contest, and of the decision by the Republican candidate, Doug Forrester, to run a television ad with a harsh quote from Mr. Corzine’s ex-wife.
“The press kept writing that the race was closing. If you actually thought you were closing in a race and had a chance to win, would you really run that ad? Would you throw a Hail Mary?” he asked. “The media that denounces negative advertising fell in love with it. Then they say how regrettable this all is.”
Mr. Shrum also wasn’t buying Mr. Forrester’s contention that the association with an unpopular President cost him the race.
“I read these things in the paper, like Forrester’s crybaby act blaming Bush—when, in fact, Forrester had, in all of the private data that I saw, a net negative in terms of his personal favorability. He wasn’t much better off than Bush, and they knew it, and that’s why [Forrester] was never in his [own] ads.”
Mr. Shrum is also a New Yorker now. He recently took a post at New York University’s Wagner School, and he and Ms. Oates occupy faculty housing on West 15th Street, where Ms. Oates’ voice on the answering machine informs callers, “We’re in a New York state of mind.”
And the Democratic loyalist seems a fairly contented citizen of Bloom-Burg, though he is not registered to vote here, and though he said before the election that Mr. Ferrer’s best shot at winning was to link Mr. Bloomberg with Mr. Bush.
“He’s clearly been an effective Mayor,” Mr. Shrum said. “It’s hard to make that case [i.e., that Mr. Bloomberg is a Republican] when the biggest ideas Bloomberg advanced were fundamentally Democratic ideas: government responsibility for dealing with the housing problem, for example. This is somebody who, when he faced a fiscal crisis, raised taxes.”