Interviewee: Robert Shrum
Current: Warschaw Chair in Practical Politics, University of Southern California
In 2004: Senior Advisor, John Kerry Presidential Campaign
Interviewer: Dr. Michael Nelson
Fulmer Professor of Political Science, Rhodes College
Fellow, SMU Center for Presidential History
December 11, 2013
This transcription has been prepared according to the strictest practices of the academic and transcription communities and offers our best good-faith effort at reproducing in text our subject’s spoken words. In all cases, however, the video of this interview represents the definitive version of the words spoken by interviewees.
Q: OK. I doubt there’s ever been anything that’s the equivalent of what came to be called the Shrum Primary in the lead up to an election, as there was in 2004. What’s the Shrum Primary, and why would there be such a thing?
SHRUM: Well, it was a journalistic artifact. It was because I had previously worked for John Kerry, I had previous worked for John Edwards, I had previously worked for Joe Lieberman. And so, there was this whole sense — the press created it. You know, I found it annoying, actually.
Q: Obviously there’s a back story to this, which is your long involvement in multiple Democratic campaigns for president, as well as senator, governor, and so on.
SHRUM: Yeah, well, I’d done the John Edwards campaign in 1998, when he came out of nowhere to get elected to the Senate in North Carolina. Thought he was immensely [00:01:00] talented. I had been a friend of John Kerry’s for almost 40 years, and in 1996, when he faced a really tough race against [Bill] Weld, I’d been brought into that race in the beginning of September. Lots of people — Lots of the smart guys in Boston didn’t think we could win at that point, and we won by seven or eight points. And I’d worked on Joe Lieberman’s reelection campaign. So, that’s the back story.
Q: And maybe additional part of the back story is you were an experienced practitioner of presidential politics as well, right?
SHRUM: Well, I’d been involved in the Gore campaign, and I’d been involved in — very involved in Dick Gephardt’s campaign in 1988. That was the fourth person. That’s why the Shrum Primary encompassed four people, because not only had I done Gephardt’s race in ’88, where he surprisingly won the Iowa caucuses, but we ran out of money on Super Tuesday. I mean, we were leading in all the Super Tuesday states [00:02:00] and then we didn’t have the money, and the whole thing just collapsed. And I’d done Dick’s congressional races after that, and actually had urged him to run for president in 1992. I mean, we had the meeting in 1991, and I said, “This is your time.” He said, “Well, the Gulf War is on, Bush is very popular.” I said, “The Gulf War’s going to be over and the economy is going to become a very big issue, and you’re ideally set up to do it.” Like a lot of people that year, he just took a pass because he thought Bush was unbeatable. And Gore took a pass, and it opened the way for Bill Clinton.
Q: Speaking of Gore, I mean, during the first year or two after the 2000 election, there was a lot of speculation about whether he would run again. And I know that in Lieberman’s case, at least, [00:03:00] it was Gore deciding not to run that he felt cleared the field for him. Did you — Did you — It’s a bit of a counterfactual, but if Gore had decided to run, would that have changed the character of the 2004 contest?
SHRUM: Oh, I think Gore would have won the nomination had he decided to run. He did something very rare in politics: he had the mourning period that I think anybody who loses the presidency does. I mean, George McGovern told me that Walter Mondale once asked him, “When does it stop hurting?” — and these are two guys who lost 49 states — and McGovern said, “Never.” But for a lot of these — For anyone who loses the presidency, and especially if, in Gore’s case, you actually believe you won it, you were elected, just not inaugurated, there’s a period of about six months, a year, when you’re really down. But what [00:04:00] he did coming out of that period was transform itself from a politician into a prophet. And I think he was too committed to what he was doing on climate change and everything else to think about 2004.
Q: Did you talk with him at all about running in 2004?
SHRUM: No. Well, I talked with him several times, but it was always clear to me that he was not going to run in 2004. I mean, we worked on an op-ed together that he wrote for, I think, the Washington Post, defending the use of the slogan, “The people, not the powerful,” in 2000, and saying that he just wished he had done more of it, not less of it.
Q: Why, going through the candidates who you’d worked through — worked for before, why didn’t you go with Edwards?
SHRUM: Well, a lot of people assumed that I would, that we would, that my firm would. And [00:05:00] I just wouldn’t — I said to everybody, “I’m not going to make any kind of commitment till after the midterm elections.” And, as it resulted, not do Kerry’s reelection campaign in 2002. And you know, I was sitting on the porch at Teddy Kennedy’s house, my wife and I, with Vicki and Teddy, in Hyannisport, in the fall of 2002. And he said, “Look, you have to make your own decision, but I really think you should work for John Kerry.” That would have surprised a lot of people, too, because they assumed that Kennedy would build a relationship with Edwards, was going to be for Edwards. I decided that Kerry was the Democrat who had the best chance to beat Bush, number one. Number two, that he was fully prepared to be president. And actually, suggested at one point to Edwards that if he just went home to North Carolina and ran for reelection, there was a good chance he wouldn’t [00:06:00] ever get to that election because he might be picked as the vice presidential nominee. When I saw him, I made the decision with my partners, and when I called John Edwards to tell him, he was quite angry. I mean, he said, “I’ll never forget what you have done to me and my family, even on my deathbed.” And I said, “Well, John…” Then we got along a little better when he wanted to be picked as the vice presidential candidate, later on.
Q: Did that surprise — Did that surprise you? I mean, having had —
SHRUM: So, the vehemence of the reaction surprised me.
Q: And Lieberman?
SHRUM: I was — I didn’t agree with Lieberman on — I mean, I had worked for him and I could see him in the Senate; I didn’t think he should be president.