For nearly four decades, political consultant Bob Shrum has been one the most influential voices of the Democratic Party and a populist icon for his campaigns that stressed a “people vs. the powerful” message.
“I believe that the essence of being a Democrat is about standing up for the people,” Shrum told the Boston Globe in April 2004. “You can come up with any variation of words to convey it, but from the beginning, that is what the Democratic Party is fundamentally about.”
Shrum, who retired from consulting in early 2005, has worked with practically every major Democratic figure — from George McGovern to Al Gore, from Ted Kennedy to John Kerry. But, despite crafting successful media campaigns for dozens of U.S. senators, governors and big-city mayors, he has failed to help elevate a candidate to the Oval Office.
Shrum has been a speechwriter or principal media advisor on several presidential campaigns, his last being John Kerry’s unsuccessful 2004 run. His firm, Shrum, Devine & Donilon, worked on the campaign’s media and advertising strategy, receiving payments worth almost $2.5 million according to the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis of 2003 and 2004 Federal Election Commission records.
Shrum and another Kerry media adviser, Jim Margolis of the political consulting firm GMMB, were also involved in the formation of a consortium they named Riverfront Media, created exclusively for the campaign to produce most of Kerry’s television ads and to make the media buys. Riverfront received more than $150 million in payments from the Kerry campaign and the Democratic National Committee, the Center found.
In the spring of 2004, Shrum and his partners had a dispute with Margolis regarding how they would be paid by the Kerry campaign, according to Joe Klein’s book, Politics Lost. There had been a handshake agreement to split the profits evenly. But, when the Kerry campaign reduced the 9 percent commission the consultants would receive from television buys, there was trouble. Shrum and his partners reportedly wanted more than half of the final cut. According to media accounts, Margolis wouldn’t agree to that, and in the end, his firm ceased its involvement in creating Kerry’s ads, but continued to purchase media time.
Such behind-the-scenes drama involving Shrum — communications director Chris Lehane, speechwriter Andrei Cherny and campaign manager Jim Jordan reportedly also left the Kerry campaign after feuding with the consultant — has been a running storyline in his career.
Shrum graduated from Harvard Law School, but never took the bar exam or practiced law. Instead he took a job writing speeches for New York City Mayor John Lindsay and worked on his 1972 presidential campaign. In that same primary season, he later worked as a speechwriter for Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie’s presidential campaign. But, when Muskie dropped out of the race, Shrum signed on with his opponent, Democratic nominee George McGovern, composing the South Dakota senator’s famous “Come Home, America” acceptance speech.
Four years later, Shrum joined Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign. But he quit less than two weeks later, resigning in a tersely worded letter to the future 39th President recounted in Jules Witcover’s book, Marathon: The Pursuit of the Presidency 1972-1976: “I am not sure what you believe in, other than yourself,” Shrum wrote.
His next presidential defeat, in 1980, led to the signature moment of Shrum’s career, penning client Edward Kennedy’s concession speech for the Democratic Convention in New York City. The memorable speech concludes, “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.” He went on to work as the senator’s speechwriter and press secretary for the next few years.
In 1985, Shrum formed his first media consulting firm with Patrick Caddell and David Doak. The group split less than a year later, though, when Caddell alleged that his partners had kept money they owed him. Doak and Shrum worked together for another decade, helping get Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Alan Cranston of California elected to the Senate and David Dinkins as mayor of New York City.
However, the “Shrum Curse,” as it’s become known, continued unabated. Shrum worked on the failed presidential campaigns of Richard Gephardt and Michael Dukakis in 1988, Bob Kerrey in 1992, and Al Gore in 2000.
Shrum’s firm was responsible for one of the more infamous presidential ads — a Kerrey campaign spot that depicted the Nebraska senator as a hockey goalie denouncing foreign imports. The ad closely mirrored a spot Doak and Shrum had produced for Gephardt’s presidential campaign, both in its message and its tag line. More problematic, though, was that the ad seemed to conflict with Kerrey’s earlier support for free trade. Kerrey later called the ad “lousy” during a debate with his Democratic rivals and told the Wall Street Journal in July 2004 that he faulted himself for approving it.
Shrum’s ads have occasionally taken on a negative tone. While working on the failed Texas gubernatorial campaign of Jim Mattox, his firm created a commercial that questioned whether Mattox’s opponent, Ann Richards, had ever used cocaine. “What illegal drugs did Richards use as a 47-year-old officeholder?” the ad asked. “Did she use marijuana? Or something worse, like cocaine? Not as a college kid, but as a 47-year-old elected official sworn to uphold the law.”
Another controversial Shrum-produced ad aired during Maryland Gov. Paris Glendening’s 1998 successful re-election campaign. It criticized his Republican opponent Ellen Sauerbrey’s record on civil rights, citing her vote against a 1992 bill that died in the Democrat-controlled Maryland General Assembly. Though Sauerbrey claimed the ad misrepresented her record, Shrum told the Baltimore Sun in March 2000 that he stood by his work on the Glendening campaign. Campaigns & Elections magazine cited the ad as the “most brutally effective attack spot of 1998.”
Doak, Shrum, and Associates Inc. broke up in 1995, and Shrum continued his consulting business with Tad Devine; Mike Donilon joined the firm later that year. Shrum had a wealth of success with the Senate campaigns of John Edwards of North Carolina, Jon Corzine of New Jersey and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, along with the re-election campaigns of Washington, D.C., Mayor Tony Williams and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.
But one of Shrum’s biggest non-presidential disappointments was the 1998 California gubernatorial primary loss of Alfred Checchi. The former Northwest Airlines co-chairman spent roughly $40 million of his own money on the campaign — then a record — but won only 13 percent of the vote. The Washington Post reported that Shrum’s firm was paid “as much as $2 million,” not including expenses, although Shrum has disputed the figure.
Shrum did eventually help lead a candidate to the California governor’s mansion, assisting on the 2003 campaign of Arnold Schwarzenegger. A 2004 report in Ireland’s Sunday Business Post speculated that the Republican turning to Shrum was likely a reflection of his close relationship with the Kennedy family.
And, although he was not involved in either of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns, Shrum helped draft several of his State of the Union addresses. However, the most famous speech Shrum ever wrote for Clinton was never used. Shortly after the Monica Lewinsky affair was exposed, Shrum was asked to compose an apology to the American public. The speech, which was abandoned in favor of a more defiant text, began, “No one who is not in my position can understand the remorse I feel today. I have fallen short of what you should expect from a president.”
Shrum, Devine & Donilon also has had an international impact. The firm has helped candidates win elections in Ireland, Great Britain, Bolivia and Colombia, and has done consulting work for former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
The firm also dabbled in the corporate sector, working with MCI on a campaign that called for opening local telephone service to greater competition and with Pizza Hut to create two spots that targeted rival pizza chain, Papa John’s. Shrum once also reportedly participated in a strategy session for New Coke.
Following Kerry’s defeat in 2004 Shrum left his consulting business, although his firm did work on Jon Corzine’s successful race for New Jersey governor in 2005. The firm has been renamed D&D Media.
In February 2005, Shrum joined New York University as a senior fellow and professor. The longtime strategist is also involved with Democracy Corps, a nonprofit political advocacy organization he founded with consultants James Carville and Stanley Greenberg, and is a frequent guest on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews.
Help support this work
Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you.