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Harry Stein
Take No Prisoners
For Bob Shrum, politics is war, and anything goes.
28 September 2007

No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner, by Robert Shrum (Simon & Schuster, 544 pp., $28)

No Excuses, the memoir by veteran Democratic operative Bob Shrum, is one of the best books about politics ever written—by the worst person in the business today. In the course of its nearly 500 pages, Shrum is brutally, entertainingly honest about the behind-the-scenes behavior of many of the most important political figures of the past two generations, at least on the Democratic side. He also reveals himself as manipulative and petty, egomaniacal and deeply insecure.

But what is ultimately most alarming about Shrum is that, as this era’s leading Democratic guru, he has had such influence over all these years in shaping—make that distorting—the public discourse. For if there was any doubt, his own unapologetic testimony makes manifest his contempt and loathing for those who fail to embrace his own paleo-liberal worldview. This is a man who credits his ideological foes with not the slightest decency, but rather sees them as an evil to be purged from public life. And in service of this noble mission, no behavior seems beyond the pale.

Shrum himself righteously decries the character of the public debate when it suits his purposes—which is to say, when it involves conservative attacks on liberals. He rails against the “racist” Willie Horton ad, as well as, quite properly, against the ones that showed Georgia senator and Vietnam-era amputee Max Cleland alongside Osama bin Laden. Yet he boasts about his role in what remains the single most despicable political spot of the modern era: the ad he created for the pro-affirmative-action side against the l996 initiative to ban racial preferences in California. “It began with film of a Klan rally and a burning cross,” he crows, “then cut to (David) Duke walking onto a stage . . . as the narrator said ‘He’s not just another guy in a business suit. He’s David Duke, former head of the Ku Klux Klan. And he’s come to California to support Proposition 209.’”

A man whose views were forged in the sixties and seem not to have been altered a jot by events over the intervening years, Shrum first attracted notice, and more than a little admiration, from liberal commentators when he walked away from candidate Jimmy Carter’s campaign because the Georgian proved insufficiently “progressive” for his tastes. (Presumably Carter’s views are more acceptable to him these days). He soon found a new political hero and benefactor in Ted Kennedy, about whom the otherwise hardboiled and cynical Shrum is almost comically starry-eyed and credulous. He actually professes to buy Kennedy’s version of Chappaquiddick, which he claims the “Kennedy haters” have ruthlessly distorted by spinning “false conspiracy theories.” He regards the senator’s policy prescriptions as deeply noble, even those that history subsequently discredited. Shrum reports, for instance, that when Kennedy’s 1994 Senate opponent Mitt Romney urged welfare reform to “stop paying children to have children,” and even Shrum himself was inclined to give a little on the issue, “Kennedy exploded. He couldn’t believe he was hearing this from me. He was rich—and he wasn’t prepared to keep his Senate seat by taking food out of the mouths of poor children. If that was the price, well, they needed the help a lot more than he needed the Senate.”

But Kennedy, and Shrum’s other mentor, George McGovern, are exceptions to the rule. Otherwise, Shrum cuts little slack here even for ideological soul mates. Indeed, he seems eventually to have rubbed just about everyone the wrong way, and little wonder. Forever portraying himself as the smartest person in the room and taking credit for everything from Lloyd Bentsen’s devastating riposte in his debate with Dan Quayle (“Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”) to John Kerry’s 2004 comeback against Howard Dean, the man must be as hard to take in life as he is often weirdly riveting in print.

When No Excuses was published in June, mainstream reviewers tended to focus on two revelations from the Shrum-led presidential campaigns of 2000 and 2004. The first involved the 2000 New Hampshire primary in which, fearing defeat in a tight race with Bill Bradley, Al Gore’s handlers dispatched the vice presidential motorcade to the heavily pro-Bradley southern part of the state at rush hour to prevent voters from reaching the polls. The second portrays John Edwards as a phony in a far more devastating way than anything having to do with his mansion or exorbitantly priced haircuts. Shrum reports that, desperate for the vice presidential nod in 2004, Edwards told John Kerry “he was going to share a story with him that he’d never told anyone else,” confiding that after his son’s death “he climbed on the slab at the funeral home, hugged his body, and promised he’d do all he could to make life better for people . . . Kerry was stunned, not moved, because, as he told me later, Edwards had recounted the same exact story to him, almost in the exact same words, a year or two before—and with the same preface, that he’d never shared the memory with anyone else.”

Yet what might be the most meaningful revelations in the book are inadvertent— the ones that expose the casual collusion between the media and the Democratic candidates they favor. Shrum notes in passing, for instance, how during Kennedy’s abortive presidential run sympathetic reporters protected him by not reporting his frequent verbal gaffes; and how during John Kerry’s 2004 primary run, CBS had film of the candidate pretending to puff a joint as Kerry supporter Peter Yarrow sang “Puff the Magic Dragon.” The film reached Washington “in time for Face the Nation, but Bob Schieffer’s reaction was, Not on my program.” Shrum doesn’t speculate about what Schieffer’s reaction might have been had the film instead portrayed Kerry’s eventual GOP opponent.

Then there’s the pivotal moment, in the wee hours of election night, 2000, after Florida had been declared for George W. Bush and Al Gore had set off for the Nashville War Memorial to concede. “My cell phone rang again,” Shrum writes. “It was a senior network correspondent who assumed I was in the motorcade and warned me: The Florida numbers are wrong; don’t let him concede.”

There’s more—much more—such stuff, in this fascinating, infuriating book. For some readers, the biggest disappointment will come at the end, with Shrum’s announcement that he’s leaving the consulting business. It’s an odd time for him to do so; not only has the entire Democratic establishment seemingly embraced his worldview, there is a good chance that this time around Shrum might have achieved his lifelong dream of electing a president. On the other hand, if there’s anyone out there who might be able to derail the Democratic juggernaut, Shrum—with his arrogance and profound misunderstanding of the American people—might be the guy.

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More by Harry Stein:
Two Truth Tellers, Two Reactions
Air Balls
No Respect
More . . .
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