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The making of Al Gore

High profile political consultant basks in spotlight


© St. Petersburg Times, published August 13, 2000

WASHINGTON -- It was one of the most coveted Washington social invitations of the century, a White House party marking New Year's Eve 2000. And among the many A-list guests, including Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson and Will Smith, was a stocky, balding man in his mid 50s whose name has never appeared on a movie marquee: Robert Shrum.

In bygone days, Shrum, a professional political consultant, would not have been considered a potential guest at a party for the nation's most powerful and glamorous people.

"It used to be that consultants were very much heard and not seen," said Peter Fenn, a long-time Democratic consultant who still maintains a low profile.

But times have changed. And Shrum not only travels in the upper echelons of Washington society, he also appears frequently as a spokesman for the Democratic Party on NBC's Meet the Press and other news shows usually reserved for senators and heads of state. In some political races, in fact, he is better known than the candidate he is advising.

While Shrum's celebrity has helped build his reputation as someone with the authority to speak for the Democratic Party and has qualified him for a key role in Al Gore's presidential campaign, it is not always an asset. His critics -- and there are many, including a few embittered former business associates -- see him as an opportunist who takes advantage of naive political candidates by charging top dollar for mean-spirited, cookie-cutter campaign advice.

"Shrum, to put it mildly, is (as) rich as Croesus," another consultant, Jay Nordlinger, recently wrote in a savagely negative piece published in the conservative magazine National Review. "And he got that way, first by being capable, and second by connecting with politicians who are themselves rich. The deeper a candidate's pockets, the more likely Shrum is to be in them."

Shrum's remarkable success has put him at the center of a raging debate over the controversial role consultants now play in American politics. In many ways, his career crystallizes these ethical questions: Should so much political power be invested in so few unelected people? Do consultants overcharge their clients and thus drive up the cost of elections? Are consultants responsible for the gutter tactics that now prevail in politics?

Even many of the men and women who themselves make a living as political consultants are currently questioning the ethics of what they do. A recent survey conducted by political scientists at American University found half of the consultants queried believe members of their profession engage in unethical business practices either "sometimes" or "very often."

Intense competition between a rapidly expanding number of consultants is said to be the cause of this perceived erosion in ethics. Once a small fraternity, the consultant ranks have grown to more than 5,000 practitioners today as a result of the rapid influx of special interest money into the process.

"There is tremendous pressure to succeed," acknowledged Tad Devine, one of Shrum's partners in the Washington-based firm of Shrum, Devine & Donilon. "It's a tough business."

Shrum declined to be interviewed for this story, and many of his critics refused to speak on the record. But Devine strongly defended his partner as one of the most brilliant minds in politics -- a man who spurns unethical tactics and who is motivated solely by a genuine desire to create a better society in the United States.

"It's just bad judgment to do things that are unethical in political campaigns," Devine said. "Unethical behavior only backfires on you."

Years of work

From his youth, Shrum seemed to be cut out for crafting political messages. While other young people his age were protesting the war in Vietnam or doing drugs, Shrum, a scholarship student at Georgetown University, was molding himself into a top-notch college debater.

With degrees from Georgetown and Harvard Law School, he entered the world of politics in the early 1970s by writing speeches for a variety of politicians including John Lindsay, Ed Muskie, George McGovern and Jimmy Carter. But he found his ideological home in the early 1980s on the staff of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who has been his political mentor ever since.

Over the years, many Democrats have relied on Shrum-written speeches to turn the political tide in their favor. In fact, in late 1997 when Kennedy carried on a highly visible quarrel with Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., Shrum wrote the speeches for both men. Yet perhaps Shrum's most famous speech is one that was never delivered: a profusely apologetic statement that President Clinton refused to deliver at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Devine said Shrum's success stems from his facility with language and his responsiveness to the changing political climate.

"Bob is as quick on his feet as anyone I know," his partner said. "He has a quick mind and a tremendous grasp of language."

Even Shrum's enemies agree.

Nordlinger observed: "For his clients, particularly Ted Kennedy, he has written some of the most lapidary, most soaring Democratic oratory of our time."

As Shrum's success has grown, so has his reputation for lavish living. His Georgetown home is a salon where some of the nation's most fashionable people -- including the president of the United States -- are wined and dined. He makes frequent trips to Italy, his favorite country. And his friends poke fun at him for cultivating rich and famous acquaintances. Mark Fabiani, an old Shrum buddy who also works for the Gore campaign, recalled that as the two men left a political meeting in Washington recently, Fabiani joked: "Can we drop you off at (Washington Post publisher) Katherine Graham's house, Bob?" To which Shrum replied, "No, I'm having dinner with Alan and Andrea" -- meaning Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan and his wife, Andrea Mitchell, an NBC correspondent. "He wasn't joking," Fabiani added.

Likewise, author Richard Reeves observed in a recent interview with the Sacramento Bee that his view of political consultants changed when he attended a dinner in New York City where Shrum was honored along with Jordan's Queen Noor and playwright Arthur Miller.

"That seems to me a raise in status. They (consultants) are right up there with queens and great writers," Reeves said.

Big bucks clients

Anita Dunn, a media consultant who most recently ran former Sen. Bill Bradley's failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, says people in her line of work must face "an inherent conflict of interest" when they encourage their clients to spend millions of dollars on TV advertising.

The conflict, she says, occurs because a media consultant usually gets a percentage of whatever the candidate spends on television -- sometimes as much as 15 percent. Therefore, the more the candidate spends, the more money the consultant makes.

This is precisely the wrinkle Shrum, among others, is accused of exploiting. And the evidence critics point to in Shrum's case is the 1998 campaign of multimillionaire businessman Al Checchi for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in California. Checchi spent $40-million, much of it on television commercials, and lost.

In the eyes of many consultants, Shrum took Checchi for a ride.

Of course, whenever a candidate loses, there is plenty of finger-pointing. Some critics say Checchi, as do many wealthy candidates, tried to use money as a substitute for any commitment to issues.

"If a candidate needs a campaign consultant to tell him who he is, he's not going to win," veteran pollster Peter Hart said.

Dunn said Shrum breached the ethics of the business, in her view, by agreeing to work for Checchi after having previously represented one of his opponents, then-Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif.

"Shrum knew the negatives of Harman," Dunn said.

In the end, of course, both Checchi and Harman lost to Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, who went on to win the general election. One reason Shrum gets more rich clients than most, according to insiders, is that he does not hesitate to ask his prominent friends to pitch new business for him. Two of Shrum's long-time clients, Sens. Kennedy and Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., have been known to intervene personally to persuade other politicians to hire Shrum.

So while Shrum's celebrity contacts have been mocked, Devine says they do help him in what has in recent years become a cut-throat competition among consultants for the most high profile campaign accounts.

This year, Shrum's reputation for going after rich candidates was reinforced when he took on another multimillionaire candidate, Jon Corzine. The former chairman of Goldman Sachs spent about $30-million in a primary election to win the Democratic nomination for Senate in New Jersey.

Shrum's partner, Devine, said Corzine got his money's worth and his victory over former Gov. Jim Florio was sufficient proof.

"We try to help people win," he said. "That's why we have more clients who are U.S. senators."

Critics also accuse Shrum of spreading himself too thin by taking too many clients, a charge his firm denies. This year, in addition to representing Gore and Corzine, his client list also includes Florida's Democratic candidate for Senate, Bill Nelson.

An 'attack dog'

Winning or losing is, of course, the only real measure of a campaign from the point of view of most consultants. And Shrum is by no means the only political professional who recognizes that the way to win, in some circumstances, is with negative advertising.

In fact, the most common cliche in politics is the newly minted candidate who declares he will not use negative advertising, then changes his mind when it turns out he cannot win without going negative.

Devine says one of Shrum's foreign clients, Colombian President Jose Pastrana, learned this lesson the hard way. When he rejected negative advertising, he lost; when he agreed to attack his opponent on television, he won.

What makes Shrum's negative ads different from some is that he has been known to use his creative intellect to produce the most pointed attacks in the business. And therein lies the reason people use words like "attack dog" to describe him.

Perhaps the most controversial of Shrum's campaign ads was one he produced in 1998 for Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening. The ads said Glendening's GOP challenger, Ellen Sauerbrey, had voted against the "civil rights act," and had "a civil rights record to be ashamed of."

Some politicians cried foul because the vote in question was against a measure that the state legislature's Democratic majority also opposed. And Campaigns & Elections magazine branded it the most negative ad of the 1998 election season.

Devine defends the ad on grounds it was true. He says negative ads are not unethical unless they deal in lies or half-truths.

As he did in the Glendening-Sauerbrey race, Shrum can always be depended upon to paint his client's Republican opponent as too conservative. While his attacks are usually effective, they do not fit all circumstances. Critics say Shrum lacks the finesse and inventiveness of the late Bob Squire, who was seen as the Democrats' most effective media guru until his death late last year.

"The Democratic Party is definitely missing Squire," says GOP pollster David Winston.

A personal cause

Shrum's defenders say he is motivated by a love affair with politics and his conviction that Democratic politicians should be running the White House and Congress -- not by a desire to get rich.

"He loves doing it," Fabiani says. "He loves the debate, the argument, the persuasion of people."

Also speaking in Shrum's defense, his wife, Marylouise Oates, a novelist and former newspaper reporter, notes that her husband does plenty of work on a pro bono basis for liberal causes. A number of worthy humanitarian groups also have benefited from fundraisers at their home.

This year, Fabiani says, Shrum has been working "18 hours a day" to assist Gore, first in his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination and now in his general election bid. He estimates Shrum will earn $1-million for more than a year's work on this campaign, a fraction of the total spent on the presidential contest.

For the Gore campaign, Shrum and his firm have joined in a partnership with several other well-known consultants, Carter Eskew and William Knapp, to form a temporary media consulting alliance that handles advertising for both the presidential campaign and the Democratic Party. Their cut of the media buys is said to be less than 10 percent.

Shrum's friends say he has invested a great deal of effort in the Gore campaign because, despite his impressive record of victories in the United States and other countries, he has never done media for a successful presidential candidate.

"This is his year," Oates says.

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