Robert Shrum – Senior Adviser, John Kerry Presidential Campaign

Interviewer: Dr. Michael Nelson

Read or Download a complete transcription of the Robert Shrum interview.

by Eric Morgenson

University of Nebraska, Omaha

Robert ‘Bob’ Shrum served as Senior Adviser and Media Consultant for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential run, beginning in November of 2003.  Kerry and Shrum worked together on Kerry’s 1996 U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts, which set the stage for their close relationship during much of the 2004 campaign. The Atlantic quipped shortly after his selection that “Shrum can expect to exert the leverage over Kerry that he lacked during his short tenure with Carter—aides whisper that the nominee (Kerry) talks to Shrum more than to anyone but his wife.”1

Although Shrum had experienced dozens of successes in state and U.S. Senate races, including John Edward’s 1998 senatorial campaign in North Carolina, he has also come to be known for his failing record for presidential campaigns at zero successes in eight attempts.  This lack of success has been dubbed the “Shrum curse.”2 The concept of the curse arose during John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, including when writers at The Washington Post suggested that Kerry was “battling not only President Bush, but also the history of his ever present aid-de-camp [Shrum].”3

John Kerry selected Shrum to help run his campaign for the presidency due to his reputation as one of the best campaign advisers in the business. Before his involvement in the Kerry campaign, Shrum considered working for John Edward’s 2004 Presidential campaign. He would later prove instrumental in uniting the two former opponents when, by his own account, he convinced Kerry to select the North Carolina Senator as his running mate.4

Shrum advised the Kerry campaign to run on a platform of populism with emphasis on domestic issues, a continuation of a policy that he lauded from his earliest days of working in Democratic campaigns.5 In an August 2004 profile of Shrum, The New Republic’s Franklin Foer went so far as to refer to Shrum as “the poet laureate of populism,” as well as crediting him with the creation of the phrase “the people versus the power.” Critics of Shrum and the Kerry campaign argued that they relied too heavily on populism and domestic issues, given that the Bush campaign made the election about defense and terrorism. As Foer argued, “The rap most frequently leveled against him (Shrum) goes something like this: He believes so intensely in economic populism that he deploys it in each and every campaign, whether it is appropriate or not.”6 In addition, others complained from within the Democratic Party, and within the Kerry campaign, that Shrum mishandled major scandals, such as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign, which had a negative impact on Kerry’s campaign. Because of this, and other perceived missteps, Shrum lost influence at the end of the 2004 campaign. Some commentators also took issue with the quality of Kerry’s speeches, and expressing surprise that Shrum could not improve the overall value of Kerry’s oratory, with Franklin Foer deriding the Kerry campaign in August of 2004 for “absence of message.”7

Some political commentators, including Vanity Fair’s Michael Wolff drew comparisons between Shrum and Republican strategist Karl Rove who directed the Bush reelection campaign.8 Others, including The New Yorker staff writer Ken Auletta, argued that the Shrum-led Kerry campaign could not compare to the Rove-inspired effectiveness of the Bush campaign, and that Shrum’s strengths as a speech writer were not necessarily compatible with running a presidential campaign.9 During the course of the election season, members of both the political right and left regularly criticized Shrum. The accusations matched those that had plagued him throughout his political career, including his propensity to isolate the candidate, and his tendency to push rivals out of his way, which created a hostile environment in the campaign.10 Shrum’s work on the Kerry campaign of 2004 marked the eighth time that Shrum had served as an advisor to a Democratic presidential campaign, and the eighth time his candidate had failed to win the race. After the election of 2004, Shrum retired from political life. In 2007 he published his memoir No Excuses: Confessions of a Serial Campaigner. As of September 2014, Robert Shrum holds the Warschaw Chair in Practical Politics at the University of Southern California. He has also continued since 2004 to work as an opinion journalist, writing for, The Week, Huffington Post, The Daily Beast and the Los Angeles Times among others.

Shrum graduated with a Bachelors degree from Georgetown University and a law degree from Harvard Law School. He began his work in national politics as a speechwriter for 1972 Democratic presidential candidate Edmund Muskie, who lost that year’s Democratic primary to George McGovern. Shrum made a national name for himself after penning Ted Kennedy’s concession speech at the 1980 Democratic primary, a speech which helped place Kennedy into the Democratic spotlight for years. Shrum would go on to work with several high profile campaigns, including with Al Gore in the 2000 Presidential campaign, as well as with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2001.11

1Ryan Lizza, “Kerry’s Consigliere.” The Atlantic, May 2004. (accessed May 10, 2014).2Ken Auletta, “Annals of Communication: Kerry’s Brain.” The New Yorker, September 20, 2004. (accessed May 10, 2014).3Mark Leibovich, ““Loss Leader: At 0- 7, Advisor Bob Shrum is Well Acquainted With the Concession Speech.” The Washington Post, September 10, 2004.

4 Robert Shrum, “Kerry’s Regrets About John Edwards.” time, May 30, 2007.,8599,1626498,00.html (accessed May 10, 2014).

5Auletta, “Annals of Communication.”

6Franklin Foer, “The Boss: Profile of Democratic Strategist Bob Shrum.” The New Republic, August 2, 2004. (accessed May 12, 2014).

7Leibovich, “Loss Leader”; Foer, “The Boss.”

8Michael Wolff, “Kerry’s Karl Rove” Vanity Fair August 2004

9Auletta, “Annals of Communication.”

10Mark Leibovich and Jim VandeHai, “New Blood at Heart of Kerry Campaign.” The Washington Post, 17 September 2014.

11Leibovich, “Loss Leader”; Foer, “The Boss.”