Shrum made his mark by writing Kennedy's concession speech at the 1980 Democratic convention, which many consider one of the seminal speeches in modern political history.
"For all those whose cares have been our concern," Kennedy said, "the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die." The words became synonymous with an idealistic liberalism that flourished in the left wing of the Democratic Party for a generation.
Robert M. Shrum was born in Connellsville, Pa., and raised in Los Angeles, the son of a tool-and-die worker for Hughes Corp. He attended Georgetown University on a National Merit Scholarship and graduated from Harvard Law School. He worked for New York Mayor John Lindsay and then the 1972 presidential campaign of Edmund Muskie, before jumping to George McGovern as a speechwriter. He joined the Jimmy Carter campaign in the same capacity in 1976, which would have ended the Shrum curse shortly after it started, except that Shrum quit after 10 days, and with about as much fanfare as an unknown 32-year-old speechwriter can muster.
"Governor Carter," Shrum wrote in a letter of resignation to the future president, "I have decided that in light of my own convictions and in fairness to you, I should leave the campaign without delay." The letter found its way into Jules Witcover's "Marathon: The Pursuit of the Presidency, 1972-1976." Shrum went on to tell Carter that "I don't believe you stand for anything other than yourself."
After Kennedy's presidential campaign, he spent three years as Kennedy's press secretary and developed a close bond with the Massachusetts senator. After leaving Kennedy's office, Shrum joined with Carter maestro Pat Caddell and consultant David Doak to launch a lucrative political consulting firm. With the explosion in television advertising, a political consultant could reap millions by taking a cut -- usually 15 percent -- of all campaign advertising purchases. According to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal -- and confirmed by a high-level official in the Kerry campaign -- Shrum stands to earn $5 million on the presidential race, win or lose.
Shrum, who would break with Caddell and eventually with Doak, took on new partners -- Tad Devine and Michael Donilon -- and his subsequent clientele would include a roster of successful Democratic senators and governors, as well as unsuccessful presidential candidates.
Shrum has become emblematic of the modern celebrity operative, a phenomenon in which the strategists behind the winning candidate become stars in their own right. This can drive an impression that such operatives are motivated by ego, their bank accounts and the next job, rather than a faith in the candidate and his politics.
"The successful presidential campaigns have not been run by mercenaries," says Jerry Rafshoon, a longtime adviser to Carter. "There's a reason there was a Massachusetts mafia, with John Kennedy, or a Texas mafia with Bush or Johnson, or a California mafia with Reagan, or a Georgia mafia with Carter. It's always been a small group of people who believe in the candidate, not in promoting themselves, or building their businesses."
Shrum's friends say he gets a bad rap. Presidential elections are hard to win, they say, especially for Democrats -- only two of whom have won in Shrum's adult life.
Instead, they say, Shrum should be judged by his skill at writing speeches and crafting a campaign's message, and by his success in non-presidential contests. Shrum has helped elect roughly one-third of the Democrats now serving in the Senate.
Shrum's friends are both loyal to him and cognizant of his flaws. They admire, above all, his liberal fervor, his savvy and his unyielding commitment to what he believes. They say he makes too easy a target.
"He gets too much blame when things go wrong and never enough credit," says Donna Brazile, who ran Gore's campaign in 2000. "You hear all these stories, but I think Bob is misunderstood. This is a very powerful person. He has a lot of powerful friends and a very powerful personality. And he's had to fight hard to get his seat at the table. . . . And I thank God he's out there fighting on my side."
He is, by these measures, a great success story. He is rich, famous and, despite his losing streak, still in great demand -- Kerry, John Edwards and Dick Gephardt all vied for his services in 2004.
Shrum's ascent up the Washington ladder would seem complete, except for that last elusive step. And yet, his history in presidential elections trails him like the dark cloud over Joe Btfsplk, a character from the comic strip "Li'l Abner."
Before a debate for Democratic presidential candidates in South Carolina in spring 2003, Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) walked into a Columbia hotel suite to find Shrum prepping Kerry for the debate. "John," Hollings said to his Senate colleague, and pointed to Shrum. "I didn't know you wanted to lose this election."
Hollings was making a joke. But there were uncomfortable grins all around.