Transcription – Robert Shrum Interview

Q:              The Swift Boat ads started running about a week after the convention was over, got a lot of play on cable news programs.  How did you all react to those ads and decide what to do about it?

SHRUM:     Well, Kerry’s instinct, which turned out to be completely correct, was to respond immediately.  There were two barriers to an immediate response. One argument which was, it’ll get them more attention, [00:53:00] I never took seriously, I mean, people always — you know, either they’re going to get attention or they’re not, and you know, if you think they’re a problem, you respond to them.  When we made the decision to accept federal funding, it meant that the moment Kerry accepted the nomination — and during that speech, by the way, when he asked people to go to and give money, we raised millions of dollars in 30 seconds, which we couldn’t spend, by the way, because he just accepted the nomination.  You could give it to the DNC, for example.  And the implication of the decision to accept federal funding was that you would not be advertising on television in August because Bush’s convention was in early September, yours ended in late July.  He could keep spending, raising and spending primary money outside of the limits because he was not in federal funding either, and then starting in early September, he would have [00:54:00] his $74 million, whatever it was, to spend to Election Day, and you would have $74 million minus whatever you spent in August.  So, that was the first reason that, you know, there was a kind of decision which we should have just simply overturned, that we weren’t going to be on TV in August.  The second problem — or not problem — the second thing was that Mark Mellman’s polling was telling us that this wasn’t having much impact.  And it wasn’t until about, you know, 7, 8, 10 days in that Mark came around to the view that this was hurting, and that we had to deal with it.  Kerry, at that point, said, “I am dealing with it, we are dealing with it, I don’t care what any of the rest of you say.”  But he had been right at the start — we should have responded immediately.

Q:              Was this an example of where you wanted Edwards to be out there?

SHRUM:     No.

Q:              No?

SHRUM:     No, Edwards — [00:55:00] Look, this, you had to respond to this directly, and Kerry did it in a speech and we did it in TV ads.  And as I said earlier, by the time we got to election day, and especially after the first debate, people didn’t have any doubt that Kerry could be commander-in-chief.  I mean, a majority of Americans thought he could be commander-in-chief, thought he could do the job.  He passed that threshold.  What the Swift Boat ads really did to us was disrupt our own campaign for a two-or-three-week period.

Q:              Well, as you said, you had to run a three-month general election campaign on $75 million.  Bush, only a two-month general election campaign on $75 million.  But that — The predicate of that is you decide to take federal funding.  What went into making that decision?

SHRUM:     I was — Well, there was a big division in the campaign.  Mary Beth Cahill wanted to take federal funding, and actually, I think lobbied very, very hard [00:56:00] for it.

Q:              On — With what arguments?

SHRUM:     That it would be distracting and take time from Kerry and Edwards’ schedule to raise the money, and you know, the places where you would fundraise, Los Angeles and New York, for example, were not places that were in contest, that we already were going to carry them.  You know, my response is, you know, we do have airplanes, and you know, we can do a fundraiser at night, and we also are raising a huge amount of money on the internet.  It got pretty — It was a pretty brutal argument inside the campaign.  I mean, Tad Devine and Ron Rosenblith, who was an old friend of Kerry’s, and someone who I had worked with all the way back in the Kennedy campaign, they were just absolutely convinced, as I was, that — and Ron really lobbied this hard, really pushed [00:57:00] for a long time, that it was key to Kerry winning the election, and that this time gap in August was really bad.  Tad had actually, at one point, said in a meeting with the candidate, “If, you know, if you take federal funding, I think you’re making a decision that will lose you the election.”  And you know, obviously, I suppose that I’m giving the arguments the spin of my own belief, but that’s because I believe them.  And then somebody argued inside the campaign, “Well, of course Shrum wants Kerry outside of federal funding because he gets a percentage of the television advertising and there’ll be more television advertising.”  And so, without consulting either of my partners or Bill Knapp, who ran, and still does, SKD, and who we had brought in [00:58:00] to work with us on the media, I got up and I went and got in the plane.  Kerry was flying to Nantucket, and I was just going to go over for a day to a house we had in Sagamore Beach, on the Cape.  And I said, “Look, here’s the argument that’s being made.  So, here’s my answer:  whatever we were going to spend on media in — if you take federal funding, that’s what we’ll take our percentage on, and anything above that, we’ll take no percentage.”

Q:              That’s putting your money where your mouth is.

SHRUM:     Well, I wanted to win the election.  I mean, you know, we actually gave up commissions in the last couple of weeks, too.  I wanted this guy elected.  And — You know, but I think, you know, there was a lot of pressure from the good government types, from the New York Times, the Boston Globe, all those people, to take federal funding.  There were people who said, “Well, Bush can raise more than Kerry can, if we’re outside [00:59:00] federal funding.”  I said, “Well, there’s no evidence of that, given what’s happened in the primaries.”  So, I think it was a close call in which he ultimately decided to take federal funding, and I know that he would now say that was a mistake.

Q:              What about the role of the 527s?  I mean, you mentioned the Swift Boats ad and the Ashley ad — those are both 527 groups that were pro-Bush.

SHRUM:     I think their 527 groups did better than our 527 groups.  And I can’t really talk to you much about it because I couldn’t talk to our 527 groups.  I mean, I took seriously the prohibition in the law.  You know, I do think it’s interesting that in the Bush campaign, message was very clear:  he’s the guy who’s going to protect us from terrorism.  Their first ad that they ran was an ad about — that showed pictures of the World Trade Center after it was crashed.  In Ohio, you have this [01:00:00] Ashley ad at the end, along with the Osama bin Laden tape.  That was their campaign.

Q:              The debates, you said that Kerry got focused pretty early on, that first debate.  Can you talk about it — and talk about it in some detail — how he got ready for that debate?  And —

SHRUM:     Well, first of all, Jim Baker made a mistake, which Vernon Jordan picked up immediately, and I agreed with him on it.  They said they would only do three debates if we let national security be the first debate.  And your first reaction to that is, well, you know, that’s Bush’s strong suit, so he wants to start on his strong suit, so we should insist that it be the way the Debate Commission wanted it, which was on domestic issues and the economy.  Vernon’s view and my view was that this was a grand opportunity, that if Kerry could win there in the national security debate and win [01:01:00] the national security debate, that would be a really big moment for us.  So, Vernon agreed to it, you know, and there were people in the campaign, Mary Beth did not want him to agree to it, but he agreed to it.  And that’s where — And we ended up with the national security debate.  And then we went off, I believe, to Wisconsin, and did a three-day prep.  Kerry’s a very good debater and he’s very focused when he preps.  And one of the things — one of the things we had always tried to do, and had been very difficult, was break the connection between 9/11 and the Iraq War.  And Kerry actually went into the debate with the mnemonic in his head, “He says Saddam, you say Osama,” and the moment finally came, when [01:02:00] [Jim] Lehrer asked a question about would you — how would you decide whether or not to go to war, future wars, Mr. President, etc., and he said, “We went to war because we were attacked.”  And then talked all about Iraq and Saddam Hussein.  And Kerry says, “We weren’t attacked by Saddam Hussein — we were attacked by Osama bin Laden, and the president took his eye off the ball.”  And Bush, who at that point should have just quieted down and not said anything in response, he didn’t have to respond, and just let the debate move on, said something like, “Well, of course I know we were attacked by Saddam Hussein — by Osama bin Laden,” which made the thing worse.  So, it was — but it wasn’t just that.  It was Kerry’s overall mastery in that debate was very clear to most people, and [01:03:00] the polling showed considerable — it showed that people thought that Kerry had won the debate by a good margin.  And our poll numbers in the horse race went up, and we were back, basically, to the kind of tie race that we had all along.  He then won the — we did the same kind of prep for the second debate, same kind of prep for the third debate.  He won all three debates.  There was — Which no one has ever done.  I’d rather win the White House and lose the debates, by the way, but Kerry won all three debates.  The third debate, and to this day, I don’t know why he did this, in the vice presidential debate, Edwards had mentioned Dick Cheney’s daughter, you know, in a complimentary way, and that she was gay.  And nobody kind of noticed.  It was fine.  Kerry, [01:04:00] in the third debate with Bush, mentioned Mary Cheney.  And I think the question was, is homosexuality or being gay an inherent characteristic or is it something developed by the environment or choice, or something.  And Kerry obviously said it’s inherent, and then said we should have compassion or tolerance, or whatever, toward everybody, everybody should be treated equally.  And you know, look, the vice president’s daughter, Mary Cheney, is gay.  And as soon as I got to the spin room, I understood that the entire Bush argument about the third debate was going to be, “How dare he bring up Mary Cheney,” because they couldn’t argue the substance of the debate.  So, that was a blip in the third debate, and [01:05:00] he had never done that in practice.  You know, in practice debates, he had never come remotely close to doing that.

Q:              To making a remark like that?

SHRUM:     Yeah, and it wasn’t a mean remark.  It was just, if he’d said it in the practice debate, we would have said, “Don’t say it,” and we’d actually talked after Edwards had done it in the vice presidential debate.  And we agreed and he agreed that we wished Edwards hadn’t done it.  Although he didn’t get criticized for it, he could have.