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The Shrummy Returns?

Jul
29
2004

Posted by Bill Whalen
Such is the nature of presidential politics — it ain’t what you say, but who helps you say it. Hours before the speech of John Kerry’s life, the Punditocracy wants to know whose fingerprints are on the final draft.
Two weeks ago, the soon-to-be nominee told us that he was holing up at the Vineyard, writing the speech himself in longhand, with ink and paper. Today, the question is which legendary Democratic wordsmith gets to apply the finishing touches. As it turns out, JFK 2004 is reaching deep into the other JFK’s stable and tapping into a couple of New Frontier scribes: Ted Sorenson and Richard Goodwin.


Curious about their writing styles? Check out John Kennedy’s acceptance speech at the 1960 convention and Lyndon Johnson’s, four years later in Atlantic City.
A curious note about these speeches: Kennedy’s sounds better than it reads; Johnson’s reads better than it sounds. But that’s a reflection of the two men’s speaking styles, not these writers’ talents.
Is it possible for Kerry to fail in tonight’s endeavor? Only if he takes a pratfall off the stage. Otherwise, look for the speech of his life – a good speech, but not a great speech. That’s because Kerry simply isn’t a great speaker.
Kerry won’t come out a loser tonight. But he can deny himself the full measure of success, or so I deduce after reading the following ominous passage in this morning’s New York Times: “. . . while relying more heavily on his top consultant, Robert Shrum, the author of Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s most celebrated oratory.”
That’s the same Bob Shrum who coined “the dream will never die” in 1980. The same Bob Shrum who was a lead engineer on the Al Checci trainwreck here in California in 1998. The same Bob Shrum who told Al Gore to go to the left in 2000. The same Bob Shrum who told Chris Lehane to go easy on George Bush’s qualifications that same year. Mr. Shrum writes pretty words. But, at times, his advice can be pretty bad.
As you watch tonight, here are two tell-tale signs that a “Shrummy” has been turned loose in the Fleet Center.
First, listen for some variation of the word “fight”. Shrum candidates inevitably are “fighters”, will “fight for working people”, will “take your fight” to the opposition. Tonight, you can expect John Kerry to be fightin’ mad about poverty, health care, veterans and civil right. But will he will fightin’ mad about wanting to fight terrorists? Therein lies the Democratic credibility gap. Jimmy Cater told conventioneers on Monday night that he was “proud” of how America reacted to 9/11. Red-state America wants red meat.
The second “Shrummy” sign: listen for anecdotes about regular folks Kerry met on the roads from Iowa to Boston. Lots and lots of stories about real people, real names, real stories. Gore did this ad nauseum during the last election – and it cost him. Remember when “Saturday Night Live” spoofed him (“She tells me that she spends $40 million a month on prescription drugs, and some months she can’t even afford it”)?
In this regard, this year’s Democratic National Convention isn’t so much Ted Kennedy’s last hurrah as it is perhaps the last hurrah for Kennedy-style politics. Shrum is the power behind the throne of the Kerry campaign. He’s outlasted a slew of Kerry aides – the senator’s first campaign manager, a media consultant and a speechwriter – who didn’t see things Shrum’s way. Shrum was most likely pivotal in putting John Edwards on the ticket (Edwards being a Shrum client in his 1998 Senate race). If Kerry loses this fall, maybe the dream doesn’t die. But the dream of Ted Kennedy pulling strings in the executive branch, from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, does take a fatal hit.
It’s the Republican’s Hobson’s Choice: Defeat John Kerry and Ted Kennedy doesn’t get to run HHS. But defeat John Kerry and here comes Hillary ’08.
- – -
If indeed Kerry’s speech is 55 minutes, then it’s perhaps 5,000 words in length. I’m listening for seven words that he may or may not say: “the war in Iraq was a mistake.”
So far in this contest, Kerry won’t utter those words. Lesley Stahl trued to get him to say it during the recent “60 Minutes interview”. All Kerry would say is he differs with the manner in which President Bush took the nation to war. In other words, he’s hung up on process when voters are looking for something a little more heartfelt.
The last JFK was the last presidential candidate to go straight from Congress to the Oval Office. Since then, Congress (the Senate in particular) has been a graveyard for president ambitions. Why? Because legislators aren’t executives. They talk about process, not action. Such was Bob Dole’s problem in 1996. Ask him about health care and he’s go into legi-speak about committee hearings and mark-up bills. Voters hate process; they want vision.
On Iraq, Kerry suffers from the same malady. Iraq merits a yes-or-no answer. Republicans sense this and began hitting on it earlier today in a memo distributed to convention media http://www.demsextrememakeover.com/072904memo.asp; watch for the GOP convention to continue the theme of Kerry as a waffler on Iraq, hoping to force him to take sides as a pro-war or anti-war candidate.
Tonight in Boston, John F. Kerry hopes to be the new battle-tested JFK. He’ll be swayed by an aide joined at the hip to Teddy the K. With Republicans trying to turn the nominee into a more dovish RFK before all is said and done.

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