Each day at the Democratic convention in Boston, a team of 10 speechwriters would convene in a windowless office behind the Fleet Center podium to help compose and polish that night's speeches. In the spirit of camaraderie, the speechwriters discussed making T-shirts for themselves.
One suggested a design featuring the slogan "Reverse the Curse" over a picture of Bob Shrum, the Democratic strategist whom many perceived to be presidential candidate John Kerry's closest adviser. "The Curse" referred to Shrum's career-long slump in presidential campaigns, a well-catalogued losing streak that runs from George McGovern to Al Gore.
The shirts were never made for fear of offending Shrum. But the slogan endures as a joke among Kerry staffers. The implication is that Kerry is battling not just President Bush, but also the history of his ever-present aide-de-camp. It also underscores the degree to which Shrum's 0-7 win-loss record in presidential elections has become ensconced in the psyches of the campaigns he orchestrates.
Talk of the Curse becomes rampant when Shrum's candidates sputter. And Kerry is sputtering, down nine points in a new Washington Post poll after leading Bush for much of the summer. His campaign has been called listless and unfocused, words that were also applied to Shrum's last presidential enterprise, the Gore campaign (a forbidden comparison within Kerry headquarters).
Kerry spokesmen, predictably, say the campaign is moving forward. And Shrum loyalists, also predictably, reject any talk of a curse -- just as Boston Red Sox players say they don't believe in curses when reminded that the team hasn't won the World Series since 1918. ("Reverse the Curse" is a rallying cry among Red Sox fans.)
But curses sometimes have prosaic explanations. As Kerry's campaign mishandled the controversy over his service on a Navy Swift boat in Vietnam and Republicans ridiculed him at their convention last week -- apparently to good effect -- critics started to rehash old complaints about Shrum. They say he relies too heavily on populist rhetoric, that his comfortable position inside the Beltway made him slow to recognize the potency of the ads purchased by the Swift boat group, that his aggressiveness led to backbiting within the campaign.
Brash, vehement and often brilliant, Shrum, 61, has been an institution in Democratic politics for more than three decades. He has evolved from a one-dimensional speechwriter to a full-service adviser to all manner of Democratic hyper-strivers. He keeps a hand in nearly every facet of a candidate's marketing -- making ads, writing speeches, crafting the message, preparing them for debates. He was a constant in Gore's orbit in 2000 and is ubiquitous in Kerry's now.
Presidential candidates keep clinging to Shrum in the same way that Sox fans (like Kerry) cling to the faith that this year, surely, things will be different.
Basking in the Moment
Shortly after Kerry's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention last month, Shrum -- who helped with, but didn't write the speech -- was holding court in a bar at the Four Seasons hotel in Boston. He was sitting with a group of friends and sipping white wine, his face flushed. The room was populated by a roster of media and Hollywood A-listers such as Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, Charlie Rose and Rob Reiner, many of whom visited Shrum's table to congratulate him.
Kerry has long denied that Shrum had outsize authority in his campaign. When people caution Kerry about Shrum -- and many have -- he says he is aware of Shrum's strengths and weaknesses. Campaign spokesmen downplay his role, offering variations on "Shrum is part of the Kerry team," and that he works at the pleasure of the candidate and campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill.
Shrum, too, has tried to keep a low profile. He has granted few on-the-record interviews during this campaign. (He didn't return several phone calls from The Washington Post requesting an interview for this story.) And he has stayed off TV, a departure from past presidential campaigns. Tad Devine, Shrum's partner at the political consulting firm of Shrum, Devine and Donilon, has been a far more public face for the campaign.
But the degree to which Shrum had become linked to Kerry was rendered vividly by the triumphant scene at the Four Seasons. Shrum, who is at once impeccably well dressed and chronically disheveled, was beaming as he made his way through a mob on his way to the bathroom. He looked as much like a candidate as a behind-the-scenes operative. "I thought we were going to have to set up a rope line and stanchion around him," says Democratic consultant Michael Feldman, who was in the room.
It was vaguely reminiscent of Election Night four years ago, the stunned glow that washed over Shrum's tearful face when it seemed, for an instant, that Gore had beaten Bush.
"Bob kept saying, 'Finally, finally,' " says a Gore aide who was with Shrum that night. "He didn't really know what to do with himself."