No Excuses : Concessions of a Serial Campaigner

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  • Copyright: 2008-06-24
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He was named byThe Atlantic Monthlyas "the most sought-after strategist in the Democratic party." He was targeted byNational Reviewas the Democratic Party's "poet goon." From his unique perspective, Robert Shrum gives us an epic and personal story of the struggle for power in America during the past four decades.With wit and humor, rare candor, and a wealth of detail, he vividly recounts the real personalities and real forces that shaped the outcome of the closest and most important elections of our time. We are there with Shrum in the back rooms, on the planes, and in the motorcades with Ted Kennedy, Al Gore, John Kerry, John Edwards, and Bill and Hillary Clinton.Shrum reveals the manipulations and limitations of old and new forms of political persuasion, from the historic and sometimes controversial speeches he wrote to the negative ads he created for national and statewide candidates, from prepping presidential nominees for critical debates to the deployment of the new political weapon, the Internet.He lifts the curtain on decisive moments. Did John Kerry and John Edwards actually believe in the Iraq war they voted for? What was the real reason the Kerry campaign didn't respond faster to the Swift Boat attacks? Why didn't Al Gore let Bill Clinton campaign all-out in 2000? How did Clinton get through the first perilous week of the Lewinsky scandal?This is a provocative journey through recent history: George McGovern's antiwar campaign of 1972, the improbable rise of Jimmy Carter, Senate campaigns that made historic breakthroughs and shaped the presidential contests of the future, the gifts that made Bill Clinton a great politician -- and the circumstances and calculations that kept him from being a great president.As strategist, adviser, and often friend to the leaders he enlisted with, Shrum shows them as they are, with their strengths and human weaknesses -- as well as his own.Assailed as a populist who pushed the Democratic Party, in a phrase he coined, "to stand for the people, not the powerful," Shrum argues that unlike Republicans from Reagan on, Democrats fall short, politically or in office, when they trim their convictions and walk away from fundamental issues -- like universal health coverage.This is one of the most fascinating books ever written about the victories and defeats, the causes and candidates, the "flawed heroes" that drive the high drama of American politics.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The ""Shrum Curse""
A Fortunate Youth
""Come Home, America"": Writing the Words That Moved One State
Almost to the White House
The Dream That Wouldn't Die
Three People Around a Television Set
My Bridge to the Twenty-first Century
An Inconvenient Campaign
The 9/11 Election
A Note on Methods and Sources
Table of Contents provided by Publisher. All Rights Reserved.



The Dream That Wouldn't Die

Among contemporary American political leaders, Edward Kennedy is the best known for the longest time, the best understood, and the most misunderstood.

For more than twenty years, he was a prime entry in the lexicon of the "great mentioner," the culture's mythic but powerful gatekeeper to the list of those routinely described in the media as being "mentioned" for president. After he was elected to JFK's Senate seat in 1962, he was one of the most junior senators but one of the most famous. So in his early days, at President Kennedy's suggestion, he walked the corridors of Capitol Hill, entered the offices of his senior colleagues unannounced, and asked the receptionist if "the Senator" had a few minutes to see him. It was a gesture of respect, seemingly effective, Kennedy told me years afterward -- until he sat down with the Senator of Senators, Richard Russell of Georgia, who'd been in office since 1933. Kennedy had read up on each of his colleagues. For Russell, he thought he'd found the ideal grace note. He said he hoped the Georgian would help him learn the ropes; after all, they did share a rare kind of kinship: they'd both come to the Senate shortly after turning thirty. Russell didn't smile. "Senator," he drawled, "there is one difference. By then, I'd been elected Speaker of the Georgia House and then Governor." Ted Kennedy loves to tell the story.

His first chance for the White House came sooner than anyone could have imagined. After RFK's assassination in 1968, there was a sudden movement to draft "Teddy," who had just given a speech pledging to "pick up the fallen standard." How close did he come to a nomination he didn't seek? Bill Daley, who served as secretary of commerce in the Clinton administration, shared with me his insider's perspective as we were embroiled in the 2000 Gore campaign. Just before the '68 convention, Bill walked into his parents' home. His father was Chicago mayor Dick Daley, the last great big-city Democratic boss. Bill found the basement filled with stacks of ted kennedy signs. I thought we were for Humphrey? he asked his father. Not if Kennedy will take it, was the answer. But those signs never saw the light of the Convention Hall as the last Kennedy brother shied away from running.

Many years after Chicago, Kennedy told me he worried that he wasn't ready for an all-out campaign in 1968. It was only three months after the trauma of a second assassination -- and he was concerned about his brothers' children and his own. He decided he could wait for another time. In one election cycle after another, all the way into the mid-1980s, Kennedy would lead in the polls as the Democrats' choice for their next nominee. It was in the mid-eighties, on a flight from South Africa, that he looked back on it all and said he'd learned that in politics you couldn't necessarily pick your time; when the door was open, you had to go through it. He didn't run in 1972, I'm convinced, not simply because of the accident at Chappaquiddick but because Nixon looked unbeatable. In 1976, Ford, too, was an incumbent and Kennedy would have to forgo a reelection campaign for the Senate. But as 1980 approached, the door seemed to be opening; yes, Carter was the Democratic in-cumbent, but increasingly beleaguered even within his own party. After what seemed to be the failed presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter, Democrats from some of the party's top operatives to the grass roots were beginning to look again to a Kennedy restoration.


When Carter shut down the process of governing amid the energy and economic woes of the summer of 1979, the nation watched with mingled fascination and apprehension as he retreated to Camp David for a week of séances with philosophers, historians, religious, labor, and business leaders, and a sprinkling of governors and members of Congress. As the president of the United States sat on the floor listening and taking notes, his guests told him what was wrong with America. Vice President Mondale, who had left Camp David early, was convinced, as his top aide Jim Johnson told me, that what was happening was "crazy." Mondale, Johnson said, seriously considered resigning the vice presidency. Coming down from that mountaintop, Carter delivered what would become known as the "malaise" speech. That word wasn't in the text, but it was in an earlier memo from his pollster Pat Caddell and became a trademark phrase as it leaked out of the Camp David sessions. Ironically, though I didn't realize it at the time, the speech's description of a "crisis of confidence" in the country echoed Robert Kennedy's warning amid the turmoil of 1968 that there was "a deep crisis of confidence...in our leadership." There was another irony: Carter spoke of a president "who feels your pain"; the line didn't work for him the way it did when Bill Clinton recycled it a decade and a half later.

The suspension of the presidency while Carter was at Camp David, his subsequent nationally televised jeremiad, and then his sudden decision to fire five cabinet members put more pressure on Kennedy to challenge the incumbent. Senate Democrats worried that Carter at the top of the ticket would drag them all down. At the top of the White House, there was a sense of bravado -- or maybe it was wishful thinking -- that a Kennedy challenge might be good for Carter. Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan's assistant Tom Donilon remembered Jordan arguing that facing and defeating Kennedy would redeem the president's apparent weakness and strengthen him for the general election. This would prove to be a colossal miscalculation.

Kennedy hadn't announced, but the first confrontation was looming -- on his home turf, in Boston, at the dedication of the John F. Kennedy Library in mid-October 1979. It was the prelude to a campaign that would change my life, bringing me back into national politics not for a year but for a quarter century. Kennedy would become a close friend. And it was in that 1980 campaign that I met my future wife.

I was in the crowd on that sunny day as Carter, Kennedy, and the Kennedy family sat with stiff cordiality on the platform in front of the library. No one was prepared for Carter's artful and witty gambit. The president borrowed a riff from JFK and with an uncharacteristically light touch applied it to the otherwise unspoken political drama that was on the minds of everyone in the audience:

I never met him, but I knew that John Kennedy loved politics, he loved laughter, and when the two came together, he loved that best of all.

For example, in a press conference in March 1962, when the ravages of being president were beginning to show on his face, he was asked this two part question: "Mr. President, your brother Ted said recently on television that after seeing the cares of office on you, he wasn't sure he would ever be interested in being President."

The audience laughed. Carter smiled, and so did Kennedy -- he had to. But Carter was just warming up:

And the questioner continued: "I wonder if you can tell us whether, first, if you had to do it over again, you would work for the presidency and, second, whether you can recommend this job to others?" The president replied, "Well, the answer to the first question is yes, and the second is no. I do not recommend it to others -- at least for a while."

The laughter reached a crescendo, but Carter wasn't finished:

As you can see, President Kennedy's wit and also his wisdom is certainly as relevant today as it was then.

The successive waves of mirth that rolled across the lawn were real, but there was an almost palpable sense of unease among those preparing the return to the New Frontier.

I had no doubt I wanted to be part of that journey. But aside from a few perfunctory interactions after I'd met Kennedy on the McGovern plane, the only time I'd spent with him was during a weekend when Sarge and Eunice Shriver had invited me to Hyannisport. It was the first time I got a sense of him as a person. On the patio at the Shrivers' for drinks before dinner, I chatted with Rose Kennedy, who asked me question after question about my background, what my father did, where I'd gone to school. Then she called out: "Teddy, Teddy." He came over. Look at all Bob's done -- she recounted it to my chagrin -- and he didn't have any of the advantages your father and I gave you. Kennedy was bemused in the easy way I'd get used to in future years, and sat down to ask me more about myself.

I discussed the idea of joining the 1980 campaign with Dick Goodwin. Of course I should do it, Dick said. He was going to Washington for a strategy meeting at Kennedy's McLean home and he'd get it done. Later in the campaign, Goodwin told me it hadn't been all that easy. Steve Smith, Kennedy's brother-in-law and my future good friend, at that point wasn't thrilled about the idea of hiring "Shrum." He had turned on Carter, Steve objected, why not us? According to Dick, Kennedy himself wryly observed that quitting Carter probably shouldn't be a disqualification -- after all, he was about to run against him. (And the notion that I'd resign in protest again was far-fetched; you can only do that once in a lifetime unless you're an unguided missile -- but maybe Steve worried that I was.) Goodwin took out a checkbook, wrote a check to Steve for $10,000, tore it in half, gave one half to him and kept the other one himself. If Shrum did anything crazy, Dick said, he'd give Steve the other half and he could cash the check. Kennedy said, in effect, let's give it a try -- and Dick told me later that the check would have bounced; he didn't have $10,000 in the bank.

In late October, Steve offered me a job. I'd travel with Kennedy -- one week on the plane, one week off -- an obvious safety valve; if necessary, I could be removed quietly and permanently to the headquarters. I'd be working with Carey Parker, who'd be on the plane all the time. Carey, I'd quickly learn, not only had an incisive, first-rate mind; he also had a rare kind of selflessness that invariably put Kennedy's interests first. For the next nine months, we'd share a hotel room, a row of seats on the plane just behind the candidate, and a dual mission -- to find the right words to navigate through a chaotic political season -- and at each stop to find a couple souvenirs Carey could take home to his two young children. (Parker has worked in Kennedy's office so long, since 1969, and shaped so much legislation, that one could almost think of him as a 101st senator.)

Stories were swirling around Washington that CBS correspondent Roger Mudd's interview with Kennedy was "godawful." What had happened, as the Kennedy staff recalled it, was that Mudd, an old friend, had said he wanted to talk to Kennedy in Hyannisport just before his annual summer camping trip with his children, nieces, and nephews. Mudd wanted some shots of that, too. The only staffer with Kennedy, as he and Mudd sat on the lawn to videotape their conversation, was his young and inexperienced administrative assistant Rick Burke. Mudd's early questioning didn't focus as expected on what Hyannisport meant to Kennedy and his family -- this was no "soft" interview. Instead, Mudd zeroed in on Chappaquiddick, where Mary Jo Kopechne, one of RFK's former campaign workers, had drowned ten years before when Ted Kennedy's car went off a bridge. In response, Kennedy awkwardly described that night as "the incident." He sounded unfeeling, but it was actually a protective shell over the deeply painful feeling of someone who'd seen too many deaths in his life, and could hardly bear to be responsible for one. Small decisions can make a big difference in politics. If there'd been a press secretary at the interview, he might -- and should -- have interrupted early on, told Kennedy there was a phone call, walked into the house with him, and advised him to call the whole thing off, telling Mudd they'd have to resume at a later date -- which would never come.

A second Mudd interview was scheduled to fix the first -- this time, in Kennedy's Senate office. But when asked why he wanted to be president, Kennedy lapsed into a shorthand of half-sentences, pauses, and a halting list of issues. He sometimes talked -- and still talks -- that way. So did JFK and RFK. Edward Kennedy once ruefully said to me, he'd gotten used to it growing up; there were sessions around a crowded dinner table where you had to resort to that kind of verbal shorthand to get a word in edgewise. But even if his two brothers had their own moments of broken syntax, that wasn't how the country remembered them. In 1980, the last Kennedy brother was to be compared not just with Jimmy Carter but with idealized images that had been powerfully imprinted on the national consciousness.

So the overture to his official announcement that he was taking on Carter was an off-key, nationally televised, press-amplified train wreck of an interview that previewed the weakness of a Kennedy strategy based on the premise that since he was far ahead, he should measure his words carefully to avoid sounding too "liberal" or taking sharp issue positions. This strategy didn't fit the candidate; it made someone with strong convictions awkwardly self-conscious about what he could and couldn't say. Edward Kennedy is the worst politician I've ever seen at saying nothing.

In fact, the interview wasn't as bad as the pre-broadcast hype, but that didn't matter; what mattered was the filter through which it was perceived. Yet at least initially, Kennedy's lead in the polls was barely dented. What proved to be far more damaging was something else that occurred just before the announcement: fifty-two American diplomats were seized by "students" loyal to the Ayatollah Khomeini, whose fundamentalist regime had taken over Iran after the fall of the Shah, one of America's closest allies for nearly forty years. At first, what would become the Iranian hostage crisis looked like another headline that might be resolved in a few days. We easily came up with a response for Kennedy: Whatever our other differences, as Kennedy soon said in a speech in New Hampshire, "As a united people, we support our government's efforts to bring the hostages home...on this issue, at this hour, we remain one nation, indivisible..." Little did we know that what was in store wasn't an hour but a year of crisis; that Carter would invoke the hostages to skip the primary debates and turn the early contests to his advantage by asking Democrats to vote for him to send a clear message of resolve to the Iranians. Ultimately, Carter would pay a high price, but not until the fall.

When Carey and I finished it, Kennedy's November 7 announcement speech was long on rhetoric and short on substance -- which only drew more attention to what happened in the question-and-answer period that followed. A reporter asked the candidate if his wife Joan, sitting on stage, was going to campaign with him. She was living in Boston while he was spending most of his time in Washington. The Kennedy partisans booed the question, but he quieted them and she came to the microphone. "I look forward to campaigning for him," she said. "And not only that. I look forward very, very enthusiastically to my husband's being a candidate and the next President of the United States." Her voice, as one wire service characterized it, was "quivering." Joan told us over and over in the following months that she wanted to be out on the trail; but whenever she was, the stories conveyed the impression that Kennedy was forcing her to do it. Larry Horowitz, who ran the Health Subcommittee, was one of the doctors who always traveled with us in case someone made an attempt on Kennedy's life. He was also a valued confidant. After one of Joan's appearances, Horowitz said that he thought her presence was doing us more harm than good. It was a trap we and she couldn't get out of, no matter how hard she tried.

After the announcement, Kennedy barnstormed from Maine to Chicago, to Tennessee and across the South, and then to Hartford, Connecticut. In a booming voice, he delivered a muted message -- and the press noticed it. When he could talk about an issue like health care, he went on and on. I told him that one answer he gave, which clocked in around 20 minutes, could best be described as "everything you ever wanted to know about health care -- and a hell of a lot more besides." I didn't know how he'd react. He laughed and said, Okay, I'll keep it shorter. As I was to learn, Kennedy was one of those uncommon politicians who genuinely want some people around who say what they think instead of what will please the principal; as he asked me later, "What good does it do to have a bunch of advisers who just agree with you? I can agree with myself if that's what I want."

Carey and I spent the first week working with Kennedy on Q and A and trying to settle on a stump speech. When I told Kennedy I was getting off the plane and would see him again in seven days, he asked why. I replied that was the deal -- I'd been slated to spend one week on, one week off. "Well, I'm the candidate," he said, "and the deal is you're staying."

The first contest, where a Kennedy victory could all but knock Carter out, was Iowa. Our polls there were strong, as they were almost everywhere, but our first visits weren't promising. Constrained by a cautious front-runner strategy from saying what he really felt, Kennedy sometimes got distracted and slipped up. He was churning through a stump speech with the amorphous theme of "leadership" when instead of referring to "farm families," he called them "fam farmilies" and talked about the long-defunct "Wabash Railroad." We couldn't get much attention with the hostage story dominating the news, but we broke through this time -- all over the national media. On the way back to Iowa for our next visit, I suggested a joke -- what Kennedy called an "opener" -- for the first stop: "I have returned to Iowa to talk about the important issues of fam farmilies and the Wabash Railroad." The candidate stared at me across the top of his half glasses. No, he wasn't going to do that. Carey Parker warned me that I shouldn't have done it; he was afraid I'd replanted the phrase in Kennedy's mind and we'd hear it that night. Sure enough, that's what happened. Kennedy paused as soon as the words were out of his mouth. The audience laughed nervously. Kennedy broke the tension in the smoke-filled hall: "There must be something in the air out here" -- he said as he stretched out his hand and stretched out the words for emphasis. The assembled Democrats roared. Kennedy, expected to be what his brothers were assumed to have been, was an easy target when he made a verbal gaffe. Eventually, the reporters traveling with us, who came to respect him for never complaining about the coverage, relented: One night, after 12 or 14 hours of campaigning, he said "United Notions" instead of "United Nations." The crowd chuckled, but the glitch never made the news.

In November, we flew to Los Angeles to give a speech to a public interest law organization run by Charlie Palmer, a lawyer and former leader in the antiwar movement who'd taken a leave to work on our issues staff. Charlie was with us for the event and Doris Kearns Goodwin was traveling with the campaign for a few days. She and I were planning to have dinner in L.A. together, but Charlie wanted us to have a drink first with him and his wife. I demurred on the grounds that I was tired -- and I was. I'll never forget Charlie's response: "You really have to meet Marylouise; you're going to love her." Doris already knew her and it was surprising that I didn't. I was in law school when she'd been Gene McCarthy's deputy national press secretary in the 1968 campaign against Lyndon Johnson. After that, she was a leading force in the Vietnam Moratorium and the National Welfare Rights movement. I should have encountered her somewhere along the way, but I hadn't.

I thought Charlie had said that Marylouise worked for theTidings, the Catholic weekly in Los Angeles, so in the bar of the Bonaventure Hotel downtown, where the seating areas were pods floating far above the lobby floor, I started interrogating her about the new Pope, John Paul II. As we chatted, she figured out my mistake -- and she lightheartedly corrected me. She was Catholic, she did have a divinity degree from Yale, but she worked at "theTimes-- theLos Angeles Times." She looked tired; Charlie was assigned to the headquarters in Washington and she was driving the carpool for her young son and his classmates while copyediting sections like "Food" with headlines like "Lenten Soufflés Make a Light and Lively Repast." She'd been sent to copyedit on the soft side because she was regarded as too political, "too left," to be a reporter, even though she'd been UPI's youngest national reporter in the 1960s. She would soon end up as theL.A. Timessociety columnist -- where of course she wrote more about political events than debutante balls. Despite the tiredness, and the obvious tension between Charlie and her, I found her fascinating, funny, and insightful. After the two of them left, I told Doris I wished I knew Marylouise better. I didn't see her again until she and Charlie had split up three years later. But his initial observation was right: I was going to fall in love with her -- and marry her in 1988.

It was an expensive campaign; we had a chartered and specially equipped United Airlines 727, and we had to keep hopscotching from Iowa and New Hampshire to New York, Florida, and California to raise money. We were in San Francisco in early December when Kennedy spoke his mind -- and the truth -- about the Shah, and the roof caved in. Kennedy had repeated his standard answer about the hostages -- on this "we're all united as Americans" -- so many times he didn't even talk about it anymore. We'd had a long day and some of us wanted to go out for dinner. Kennedy said fine; all he had left was a run-of-the-mill interview with Rollin Post, a local television correspondent. Most of the senior staff was in a restaurant miles away when Post nudged Kennedy not about the hostages but about the Shah himself. It was Post's last question: Ronald Reagan had said the Shah should be permitted to remain in the United States because he'd been a "loyal ally" for years; what did Kennedy think? He should have refused to be drawn; his mantra about unity wasn't exactly on point, but it was good enough. But Kennedy was frustrated. Carter's approval rating had risen in one month from 32 to 61 percent -- not on the basis of something he'd accomplished, but because of a crisis he'd inadvertently provoked by admitting the Shah into the country for medical treatment. That was what had triggered the seizure of the hostages. When we returned to the hotel, a worried advance man rushed up and informed us that Kennedy had told Post, on camera, that the Shah was "violent...corrupt"; he'd stolen "umpteen" billions of dollars.

I drafted a statement that night reaffirming the candidate's commitment to national unity regardless of his views of the Shah; the critical line was: "Support for the hostages is not the same as support for the Shah." We convened in Kennedy's room in the morning and conferred on the phone with operatives and advisers back in Washington. They didn't think the episode was such a big deal; if Kennedy issued a statement, he might just ramp up any reaction to his original comment -- which, after all, had nothing to do with the hostages. We ought to wait until we got to Reno, our next stop, to see if he needed to say anything more at all. By the time we landed, all hell had broken loose. Carter's press secretary Jody Powell and his campaign chair Bob Strauss had lambasted Kennedy for dividing the country at a time when Americans needed to stand together. Without quite saying it, they questioned Kennedy's patriotism. I took the clarifying statement out of my briefcase; we made a few changes; Kennedy approved it, and we raced to catch up with the news cycle. But it was too late; the time difference with the east coast was working against us. The networks had already put their packages to bed. Instead of making it harder for the Carter forces to go after him, Kennedy's clarification, although we never called it that, was now just a footnote to a negative story that was all the more memorable because he'd said the Shah had stolen "umpteen" billions -- a non-number that stuck in every viewer's mind.

Carter's agents had cleverly exploited our delay. So did Reagan, whose defense of the Shah had inspired Post's question to Kennedy. Reagan, himself an announced candidate, happily weighed in against Kennedy -- he preferred to run against Carter, who in this month of the hostage crisis had built a 14-point lead over him. As Reagan's adviser Mike Deaver told me long afterward, their campaign never thought that was more than temporary. We had violated a first rule of politics: When you have a problem, fix it before it gets worse.

By now, Kennedy himself sensed that events had overtaken -- and were overwhelming -- the campaign's cautious strategy. At least on the surface, on the bubble of the hostage crisis, Carter no longer looked like a certain loser in the fall. With Kennedy's own poll lead among Democrats evaporating, he increasingly chafed against the constraints of his own "message box." He had to draw some real differences with Carter on issues that mattered to him -- and the electorate. He couldn't just talk about "leadership"; it was his own leadership that was now in question. One day in mid-December, as we campaigned through Iowa, he said he wanted to toughen up his stump speech. Carey Parker wasn't there -- he'd taken a day off. So I came up with some language on oil company profiteering and antitrust action against big conglomerates, along with a tougher critique of Carter on health care. The reaction from our Washington headquarters might have gotten me thrown off the plane, but Kennedy said, look, it was his idea, he wanted to do it and he'd done it. In reality, we couldn't improvise our way out of a downward slide even if we ratcheted up the rhetoric, as Kennedy did again in a speech to the United Mine Workers: "In 1976, we thought we ended 8 years of Republican rule. We were wrong. In 1980, it is time to end 12 years of Republican rule and put a real Democrat back in the White House."

We considered a nationally televised speech on the economy. With the country again facing an energy shortage and long gas lines, with the inflation rate in double digits and rising, I was convinced that we couldn't shy away from Kennedy's belief in government as an instrument of national purpose. Instead of the Carter drift and Reagan's call to laissez-faire and tax cuts, I thought Kennedy should forthrightly offer a plan for gas rationing and wage and price controls. Surprisingly, so did Steve Breyer, the chief counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee that Kennedy chaired and the intellectual architect of airline and trucking deregulation, the landmark legislation that confounded the cliché that Kennedy always favored "big government." But what could be more "big government" than a wage and price freeze -- or controls? As the economy deteriorated, Breyer wrote in a December 22, 1979, memo to Kennedy, we have "to contrast you, as a president with a coherent strategy for dealing with the economy, as against Carter, who does not have one...the freeze seems the best of the wage/price alternatives....Most of the economists surveyed would see [gas] rationing as an acceptable way to deal with dependence upon OPEC." The briefing book that Breyer put together then wouldn't be put to use for another month, until after Kennedy was routed in the Iowa caucuses.

We didn't move at this point in part because we thought we had a good chance to get at Carter: the January 6, 1980Des Moines Registerdebate with him and the other challenger, California governor Jerry Brown, whose only role in the few primaries he participated in would be to siphon anti-Carter votes from Kennedy. We headed to Palm Beach right after Christmas for debate prep. While we were there, Kennedy asked if I'd like to bring my parents to supper; with my father retired, my parents had moved to south Florida. My mother's first reaction was she didn't have time to do her hair. My father didn't care: "We're coming." When they arrived, a couple of advance men carried my mother, who had a broken leg that wasn't fully healed, up the front steps of the Kennedy mansion. Senator Kennedy showed them around, taking my mother's arm, while doing what parents like most, praising their son or daughter. Rose Kennedy was, as she had been the first time I met her, full of questions and interested in the people she met. I could see my family gradually relaxing, and was soon listening to my mother and Kennedy's mother discuss their mutual devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. For me, it was a happy evening in a hard season; my mother talked about it for the rest of her life -- and we always reminded her that it was all right that she hadn't been able to do her hair.

While we were in Palm Beach, just ten days before the debate, Carter suddenly pulled out on the grounds that he couldn't take time off from the hostage crisis: "I don't think there is any way I can leave Washington," he explained to the editor of theDes Moines Register. TheRegistercountered by offering a debate in Washington, to be broadcast to Iowa. Carter declined this, too, on the predictable ground that he couldn't spare any time for politics -- although he had more than enough time to invite Democrats from Iowa and the early primary states to come to Washington and meet with him in the White House.

Not only had the debate been cancelled, but after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late December, Carter now had a new foreign policy crisis -- and was benefiting from it. He addressed the nation on television, slashed grain exports to the Soviets, and took the issue to the UN Security Council. The press was consumed with Afghanistan -- and the Iranian threat to try one or more of the U.S. hostages for spying. A Kennedy relaunch, an economic speech, even one with big proposals, would be a blip in the news -- and probably would be seen as an act of desperation. But Kennedy was through with temporizing, even if he couldn't refocus the campaign on the economy. He came out against the grain embargo, and was criticized for pandering to Iowa's farmers. He knew that might happen, but didn't care; he was going to say what he thought. He also thought Carter was on the wrong track in Afghanistan. The time to stop the Soviet invasion was before it happened, not by embarking on an election-driven policy of renewed cold war with Moscow and intervention in Afghanistan, which, Kennedy observed to me, led God knew where. (Funding the anti-Soviet guerrilla forces would ultimately give rise to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda; Kennedy was more right than he knew.)

We saw the trouble we were in -- not just in Iowa but everywhere -- during a side trip the candidate insisted on taking to Indianapolis for a dinner honoring his Senate colleague Birch Bayh. The trip made no political sense at this point, but Kennedy had given his word and we flew through an ice storm to get there. After an introduction long on praise for Bayh and short on any appeal for his own cause, Kennedy had to sit patiently and apparently unperturbed at the head table as Bayh delivered a speech that all but endorsed Carter. It was so graceless that some of the more boisterous members of the press corps, who couldn't believe we'd knocked around the sky for this, retreated to a corner and popped balloons while Bayh was droning on. Back on the plane, in the front compartment with Kennedy, I said, "What a son of a bitch." No one on the staff disagreed. But Kennedy couldn't get mad at Bayh. Sixteen years before, when the small plane carrying him, Bayh, and Bayh's wife to the Massachusetts State Convention had crashed, Bayh had climbed back into the burning fuselage, pulled out a paralyzed Kennedy, and saved his life. Kennedy was constantly reminded of the crash by the continuing back pain that plagued him every campaign day. And it was one of the reasons that he sometimes, as I put it, "biffed and farbled" when the pain hit while he was speaking -- an explanation we weren't going to offer to the press. Kennedy was disappointed in Bayh but he didn't want to hear anyone bitching about him. Bayh, he said, had a pass, and always would.

The day before the Iowa caucuses, Kennedy appeared onIssues and Answers, then the ABC network's Sunday interview show. The briefing materials suggested that he lower expectations and refuse to predict he would win: "[I] expect to do well...[it's] a long campaign; only just beginning." But despite all the discouraging signs, all the straws in Iowa's wind, and all the polls, we heard a rosier prognosis at lunch on caucus day at Kennedy's McLean, Virginia, home. Steve Smith, Kennedy's longtime political counselor Paul Kirk, and most of the campaign's top echelon were there. Our political director Carl Wagner had given someone else the "honor" of delivering the "good news." The polls weren't looking good, but what mattered in Iowa was intensity and who actually showed up at a caucus. The Kennedy campaign had 30,000 hard identified -- "id-ed" -- supporters, more than the entire total attendance at the caucuses four years before. There was a strong chance Kennedy would win -- or if he didn't, that it would be a lot closer than people were predicting.

After lunch, Kennedy asked me to stay for a few minutes. Casually dressed in slacks and an open shirt, standing in the foyer of his home, he put out his hand, wobbed it toward the floor like a plane falling from the sky, and offered his prediction: "This baby's going down." He's had this experience before, I thought -- for real. The tone in his voice suggested he was through with easy reassurance. Whatever he did, he'd do it his way from now on. I didn't know what that was, or would be. He said Carey and I should prepare a concession statement. We'd need it: Kennedy did get his 30,000 "id-ed" caucus goers, but Carter got twice as many in an Iowa Democratic turnout that set a record.

The day after, we cancelled Kennedy's public schedule and began a series of meetings where we analyzed -- or argued -- the future, if any, of our 1980 campaign. Though I was the newcomer in an enterprise whose central figures had been with Kennedy for years, I was given room to speak my mind. And I did: Kennedy had to stay in, I said. Carter had no idea where to take the country. He was being temporarily propped up by foreign crises he'd caused or didn't know how to cope with. There were strong arguments on the other side coming from others: The polls were bad everywhere, we couldn't raise money, how were we going to win? If Kennedy continued, he'd be beaten again and again until he was destroyed as a national force. After one session, Steve Smith, who was still pretty dubious about me, backed me into a corner and said something like, Do you care about this guy? I do. He's my best friend. And if you keep giving him this kind of advice and he takes it, you're going to ruin him. I responded that I had to tell Kennedy what I thought was right for him.

Two nights after the Iowa defeat, Carter gave his State of the Union address. When we gathered afterward, Kennedy was full of fire. He thought Carter was beating the drums of a phony war with the Soviets by hinting that through Pakistan, we'd aid an Afghan resistance. That country was no more a decisive theater in the cold war than Vietnam, Kennedy said. As for Carter's proposal for draft registration, Kennedy was against it, period; and as for boycotting the Moscow Olympics, we'd be punishing our own athletes more than the Soviets. I said that Carter had decided to ride this crisis and the hostages as his only route to reelection. In the State of the Union, he'd offered nothing on the economy or energy except recycled and token proposals. Kennedy noted wryly that Carter's third big "action to strengthen our nation's economy" was to "continue our successful efforts to cut paperwork."

The eight of us in the room were still split; we had one more go-round. I didn't think arguing the money or the polls mattered anymore. So I cleared my throat and said that in addition to his big differences with Carter, and Carter's bleak prospects in the general election, there was another reason Kennedy had to continue: The rap on him from critics and Kennedy haters was that when things got tough, he ran away. I didn't mention Chappaquiddick; amid the silence in the room, I knew it would have been a step too far -- not only needless, but painful. Kennedy had entered the race when it looked easy, I continued. His critics alleged he'd done it just out of ambition. He had insisted and, I believed, there was something more at stake. If he dropped out now, no one would think he had run for president out of principle or for the party; he'd be labeled a quitter forever. I finished and, for a few long seconds, no one said a word as Kennedy just looked at me. He said: "Thank you" -- and added that he'd heard enough, it was time to take a vote. Who thought he should withdraw and who thought he should continue? We each gave a one-word answer. The vote, Kennedy said, was 4 to 4 -- and he was in the race to stay: "Let's get ready and go."

The political waters were rough, but Kennedy was about to become a different kind of candidate -- the only kind he was comfortable being -- a candidate freed of the cautionary straitjacket of the front-runner. Any strategy designed primarily to hold on to a lead risks losing it, especially in primary contests where voters don't have to cross party lines to switch candidates. But now Kennedy was determined to run, to win or lose, on the basis of what he really believed, in a campaign that would demonstrate his resolve in adversity and the strength of his commitment to progressive values. We scheduled a speech at Georgetown University for Monday, exactly one week after the Iowa caucuses.

The speech was finished in an all-night session at his McLean home. Allard Lowenstein, the spearhead of the "Dump Johnson" movement in 1968, showed up early in the evening. I don't know if he'd actually been invited, but Al could appear at Kennedy's house during the campaign without prior notice. The Secret Service would call from the gate at the top of the driveway; Kennedy would let him in; and Al, with memos, speech ideas, and rolled-up clothes popping out of his bulging briefcases, offered his advice -- and was offered a guest room to sleep in overnight.

There were reams of paper, including a draft of the foreign policy section from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and memos and notes from Steve Breyer and Paul Kirk. Kennedy sifted through the alternatives and then turned in as we turned to the task of fashioning a semifinal product. We decided that Kennedy ought to begin starkly, with the mistakes in Afghanistan -- Carter's statement that he was "surprised" by the invasion, the emptiness of responding with a call for draft registration, and the hyperbole that characterized the Soviet move as the gravest threat to peace since World War II. We crafted six principles that should guide America's response, the first of which would have an eerie resonance a quarter century later in Iraq: "It is impractical to rely on a doctrine that requires us to stand astride the Persian Gulf solely on our own."

There were two passages that Tony Lake later told me especially provoked the president's ire. The first condemned the administration for saying and doing nothing as Soviet forces gathered on the Afghan border, and then drawing "a line in the dust that was already rising from the tread of Soviet tanks." The second offending passage insisted that the cause of nuclear arms control should not be sacrificed in the course of responding to the Soviet invasion. The United States had to be realistic about its own national interests; the issue wasn't whether we liked the Russians: "It is less than a year since the Vienna Summit, when President Carter kissed President Brehznev on the cheek. We cannot afford a foreign policy based on the pangs of unrequited love."

Kennedy had directed us to be blunt about the hostage crisis; he just wasn't interested in safe words that weren't true. And before he delivered the speech, the candidate would strengthen the language: the Carter "policy seems headed for a situation of permanent hostages" -- something Kennedy had been aching to say ever since he'd been pilloried for his comments in San Francisco.

It was well past midnight. With the first part of the speech finished, Al Lowenstein went to bed. Carey and I would still be up for hours. We segued from crisis abroad to crisis at home with words I had scribbled on a piece of paper at the start of the drafting process -- a pledge to "speak for all the Americans who were ignored in the [Carter] State of the Union address." Kennedy would now coin a phrase that would be picked up by others across the years, and repeated word for word by George W. Bush in 2006: "We must cure our addiction to foreign oil." Breyer had already done the backup work on gas rationing and wage and price controls. Kennedy didn't think a wage-price freeze was an ideal solution; but the shock of a freeze was the only answer to the inflationary spiral other than recession -- which would soon hit under Carter and then again under Reagan. No one who would be hearing the speech could doubt at this point that Kennedy was in the race to stay, but I was determined to save the explicit words for the end so that, in a rolling series of pledges -- on civil rights and equal rights, on economic fairness and health care, on the environment, and on the central issue of war and peace -- Kennedy could repeatedly bring the audience to its feet with a defiant refrain: "I have only just begun to fight."

As we drove onto the campus, we encountered a roiling sea of students. They jammed the stairwells up to the third floor where Kennedy was to speak on the stage of Gaston Hall, the gilded, frescoed setting where I had debated as an undergraduate. I found a place to pace, just outside the balcony doors in a secure holding area. On the other side, there were more reporters and television cameras than we had seen since the announcement speech. Kennedy received a thunderous reception, and the story commanded the evening news. Finally, he was running on his own terms.

We had debated whether to address Chappaquiddick directly. John Douglas, a low-key Washington superlawyer and Robert Kennedy's assistant attorney general, had written a memo the day before the speech urging that Kennedy be "personal," explain how "experiences, including Chappaquiddick, have brought you to where you are." This was too pointed, but we all knew what Douglas meant. Paul Kirk was convinced Kennedy had to confront the issue head-on, but I resisted doing it at Georgetown: it would consume the coverage; Kennedy wouldn't be heard on anything else; we'd be centering our relaunch on an argument where our best hope was to limit the damage. Kirk bought that argument -- and Kennedy himself was determined to take a clear shot at Georgetown at getting the message out. But he also agreed with Paul that he had to try and limit the political fall-out of Chappaquiddick in coming contests in Maine and New Hampshire, where day after day the right-wingManchester Union Leaderwas delivering a fusillade of allegations and fabrications about the accident and its aftermath.Reader's Digest, at the time a commonplace in American homes, had weighed in with its own Chappaquiddick hit piece.

So we decided to spend precious, dwindling campaign resources to broadcast a half-hour version of the Georgetown speech just in New England. The broadcast would start with Kennedy talking plainly and directly about Chappaquiddick. Paul Kirk drafted and redrafted suggested language. Carey Parker, who was wary of the idea, got a brief handwritten note -- I think from Paul: "AllNew England people want reference to Chappaquiddick" -- presumably our political people. Kennedy was resigned as he reviewed and revised the text with Parker and me and then recorded the speech. He was also fatalistic about yet another attempt to explain Chappaquiddick even if he knew it had to be made. The Kennedy haters wouldn't be swayed, but perhaps he could move the doubters.

I don't know that the speech achieved even that much, but doing it seemed to lift a burden from the candidate. I also knew that he believed that he was telling the truth. Personally, I had no doubt after an earlier, unguarded moment in his office when theWashington Stardisputed his account of the direction of the tides when, according to his story, he had swum the waters between Chappaquiddick and Martha's Vineyard after the accident. His reaction, when we discussed theStar'sreport, was adamant: He said he didn't care what they wrote, goddamn it, he had swum across; he knew what the tides had been like that night and he'd never forget it. But how could we respond to theStar? Larry Horowitz asked. With the truth, and that's the truth, Kennedy said, whether they believe me or not. As we were talking about how to handle the issue, we learned, from a series of maps and tidal surveys, that Kennedy was right. He had no way of knowing the material would turn up, but he had been unwilling to look for another way to handle theStar. The Carter forces would exploit Chappaquiddick, while barely mentioning the word, to stall Kennedy's momentum as he began to come back in the 1980 race two months later. There's no way for the electorate to know a candidate as those around him do. But the tragedy, not just for Kennedy but for the progressive cause, was that he likely would have been president even before 1980 -- except for Chappaquiddick and the false conspiracy theories it spawned.

Excerpted from No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner by Robert Shrum
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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