Transcription – Robert Shrum Interview

Q:              Well, that first debate, something else the Bush people insisted on was the sort of red light.

SHRUM:     Oh, the time limits and the lights?  Well, that was fabulous because I — the other thing, that I was all for those.  You know, sometimes your caricature of people is completely wrong.  Kerry is capable of being totally disciplined, and Kerry never went over time, never got the red light turned on.  Bush got the red light turned on.  And the other thing is the great unsolved mystery, is what was that box on the back of Bush’s back?  I have no idea.  I mean, you know, some people in the campaign said, “Well, maybe [01:06:00] it’s so they could tell him things during the debate.”  I said, “I cannot imagine that anyone would do that because you’re standing there in front of 80, 100 million people, and you have to talk, and somebody’s talking in your ear.”  I said, “I don’t know if any of you have ever done television, but when you’re on TV, if you’re getting feedback of your own voice, it’s distracting.  If you’re getting somebody else talking at you while you’re trying to talk, it’s incredibly distracting.”  So, I still have no idea what that box was.  Maybe [Ken] Mehlman will tell you what the box was.

Q:              Well, maybe so.

SHRUM:     Or an ill-fitting suit.  (laughter)

Q:              The debates, as you say, polls showed, media commentary supported it, Kerry won every one.  But it seems that the Bush campaign came out with the two sort of vivid memories.  One was “global test” in the first debate —

SHRUM:     Didn’t hurt us at all.

Q:              — and then the Mary Cheney things.

SHRUM:     Yeah, the global test thing didn’t hurt us at all.  They tried to do that after the first debate.  That had no traction — [01:07:00] it just sank.  And the first debate, there was no possible spin for them coming out of that first debate, I think, because Kerry had done so well.  On the Mary Cheney thing, was useful spin for them.

Q:              So, my question is, can you win every debate and lose the debates?

SHRUM:     Yeah, but I don’t think that happened.  I think Kerry won the debates, and you know, as I said, to win the presidency, I’d be happy to trade and lose all the debates and win the presidency.  That’d be fine.

Q:              Well, especially because you were involved in debate prep.  Can you talk about what the — you said three days’ prep.  What’s that like?

SHRUM:     It’s intense and very disciplined.  At least, it was with Kerry.  And I had done so much debate prep with him in ’96, although our first debate prep, when I was hired in early September, was actually on his boat.  It was just the two of us, going from Nantucket over to Fall River, where he was putting the boat in [01:08:00] dry dock for the winter.  And we just spent, like, three hours getting ready for the next debate, which I think was the next day.  But that was just because I’d just arrived, but we had a very disciplined process in ’96, and a very disciplined process in 2004.  You had folks like Ron Klain, you know, who was very involved with Obama in this, doing these big books.  So, you get ready for the debates, what are the likely questions, what are the likely answers?  You’d then try to boil it down.  You have all the big books, but you want to boil this down to something more manageable, like the 25 or 30 most likely questions.  You have somebody who is playing your opponent, in this case, Greg Craig was playing Bush, and brilliantly so.  I mean, although Greg was better than Bush was, but he really had Bush down.  [01:09:00]  And then you go through a series, you start with some informal sessions where you talk about the questions and answers, then you do a series of practices, which aren’t the full hour, hour-and-a-half, but are maybe 20 minutes, and then you do some full debates.  And after each talk, and Mary Beth had made a rule that limited — everybody could talk, we could all talk, but it limited who could talk to Kerry.  You know?  So, I could talk to Kerry, Sasso could talk to Kerry, and there was some room for Ron Klain to talk to Kerry, but everybody else — so, it was a very disciplined process.

Q:              You resisted a generalization earlier about governors and senators, maybe you’ll resist this one, too, but incumbent presidents invariably —

SHRUM:     Lose the first debate.

Q:              — lose the first debate because they just [01:10:00] don’t want to do that kind of homework.

SHRUM:     Well, actually, Reagan lost the first debate in ’84 because he was over-prepared.  They spent days and days and days hammering on him, and he was just lost in all this morass of detail.  But the evidence isn’t — Clinton didn’t lose the first debate in ’96 to Dole, but he was debating Dole.  So, yeah, there’s some indication that this is true, although I think it’s a dangerous generalization based on a very small number of cases.

Q:              OK.  The —

SHRUM:     Carter lost the first and only debate to Reagan because whatever prep he did, Reagan did two brilliant things in that debate:  the first was he told people he wasn’t going to take America to war, and the second was, he wasn’t going to take away their Social Security and Medicare, and he did that one with a very memorable line, “There you go again.”  [01:11:00]  Even though Carter was actually technically accurate in what he was saying about Medicare, Reagan had opposed it, Reagan disposed of the whole issue with a smile and a line.  So, I don’t resist the generalization — I’m just not sure that we have enough examples to be certain of it.  If you make a different generalization, which is a lot of incumbent presidents have spent four years in the White House, where people are mostly saying, “Yes, sir,” and so they don’t necessarily like the prep process, I would accept that.  Kerry actually liked the prep process and was very good at it, and ironically, played Romney in the debate preps with Obama in 2012.

Q:              You know, we’ve talked about the public features of the campaign, but I know there was a huge focus on voter registration and turnout by both campaigns, including the Kerry [01:12:00] campaign.  Can you describe that?  Was it focused on certain states you identified?

SHRUM:     Yeah.  It wasn’t what I did, I mean, number one.  Number two, I was strongly in favor of it.  I was also strongly in favor of using the internet to whatever extent we possibly could.  I mean, you couldn’t use it — the internet, in those days, couldn’t give you the kind of data that you can get now, that say — lets you almost micro-target television advertising,  which the Obama campaign did very well in 2012.  But if you had told me — and Donna Brazile, I think, would have, who cares deeply about all these turnout operations and GOTV operations — that that many people were going to vote, I would have said, “There’s no way we’re going to lose.”  You know, you get voter turnout that high, there’s no way we’re going to lose.  And [01:13:00] of course, I believe the lever of social issues was used to get a lot of otherwise marginal voters, who were fundamentalists or evangelicals or conservative evangelicals, in places like Ohio, to turn out.  And you know, we had a very good get-out-the-vote operation.  We got out a lot of vote.  They got out some vote nobody expected to come out.