Media consultant hones Townsend public image

Always Democrat, Shrum respected by both sides

Election 2002

October 29, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Robert Shrum sealed his reputation as a lyrical speechwriter 22 years ago, when he drafted the words with which Sen. Edward M. Kennedy relinquished his presidential aspirations: "For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."

Since then, Shrum has made his name and fortune with no-holds-barred efforts to win races for Democrats. A political idealist for hire, he has sculpted the campaign themes and honed the images of candidates whose politics he wishes to advance - George McGovern, Richard A. Gephardt, Al Gore, among others.

This fall, the media consultant is working behind the scenes for gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, crafting speeches and television advertisements, targeting audiences for those ads and refining her public image.

When Townsend promised in recent weeks that "your fight is my fight" - her words echoed classic Shrum rhetoric. When she began challenging her Republican opponent on affirmative action and minimum wage, that, too, was classic Shrum.

For this, he has earned respect on both sides of the political aisle. "Shrum's at the top of the league," says Scott Reed, who was campaign manager for Republican Bob Dole's 1996 presidential run.

Sometimes he draws fire, however. Shrum has been accused of flooding the airwaves with his clients' ads to drive up his fees - $3.5 million in the 1998 California Democratic gubernatorial primary alone, according to a Washington Post analysis.

And, just as Shrum, 59, is considered by admirers to give the purest voice to the ideals of his party, critics say he also gives Democrats their surest bite. Four years ago, Campaigns & Elections, a nonpartisan publication, declared Shrum's handiwork in the Maryland governor's race that year's most "brutally effective" political advertising.

Those allied with Townsend's opponent, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., say Shrum uses his skills dishonestly. "He's a character assassin," says Paul Schurick, the campaign spokesman for Ehrlich. "That's how he sells himself. He does it brilliantly."

Ehrlich campaign officials are so certain that Shrum will try to smear him that they are seeking pre-emptively to disarm the media consultant with TV spots chastising Townsend for distorting Ehrlich's record in her commercials, and by repeatedly raising the issue of race - in an effort to neutralize the topic.

Not wishing to draw attention from his candidate, Shrum declined to be interviewed for this article, but his face and biting wit have long been known in the tight political circles of Washington. For him, an enjoyable evening is being surrounded by close friends, good food, fine wine and unceasing argument over politics and policy.

Born in June 1943, Shrum moved as a boy with his family from Connellsville, Pa., to Culver City, Calif., where his father was a tool-and-dye worker for the Hughes Corp. As an undergraduate at Georgetown University, Shrum excelled at debating; while attending Harvard Law School, he taught rhetoric and speech across the Charles River at Boston College.

Instead of practicing law, he joined Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie's campaign in 1972 and switched to the Democratic nominee, South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, after the Muskie campaign imploded.

Brief time with Carter

In 1976, he signed on as a speechwriter for a centrist Southern governor named Jimmy Carter. The job lasted 10 days.

"I don't believe that you stand for anything other than yourself," Shrum wrote to Carter. The 32-year-old aide's resignation made front-page news as Shrum castigated the Georgia politician for his ambition and unwillingness to cut defense spending.

He found a more natural home with Kennedy, the brother-in-law of McGovern's running mate, Sargent Shriver, and a truer reflection of Shrum's own liberal and populist values.

Shrum is considered unusually adept at an array of political tasks by friends and foes alike. Need a graceful speech? If you're a Democrat, call Shrum. Trying to develop a campaign theme? Want to shape your ad campaign? Bone up on debate techniques? Call Shrum.

In a hotel room in the summer of 1980, the consultant played the role of President Carter to ready Ted Kennedy for the standard convention ritual of primary foes clasping hands in unity. (Despite the coaching, Kennedy bounded about the podium, eluding Carter's grasp on national television.)

Over six weeks this summer and fall, Shrum acted as a reporter grilling Townsend, Kennedy's niece, during repeated two-hour sessions held between campaign stops at his Wisconsin Avenue offices or the Baltimore law offices of an undisclosed Townsend supporter.

In a typical session, Townsend stood at a lectern, while a Democratic state lawmaker (whose identity campaign aides will not disclose) pretended to be Ehrlich. Aides, including campaign spokesmen Michael Morrill and Peter Hamm, sat around a conference table making observations and snacking on potato chips and soft drinks.

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