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Fight Club

Bob Shrum v. John Edwards

Political junkies have been awaiting the new memoir by Bob Shrum, the famed consultant to a string of Democratic presidential candidates, including Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. After compiling an 0-8 record in presidential campaigns, Shrum has taken something of a beating from the political and media establishment of late, and he has been conspicuously absent from the 2008 campaign thus far. But it seems he's determined to play a role after all, as is clear from his forthcoming book, No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner.

As befits a canny campaign veteran, the book is self-serving in some places and remarkably tough in others. Shrum devotes several passages, for instance, to his feuds with Kerry's initial 2004 campaign manager, Jim Jordan, who was eventually forced out. Among other things, Shrum blames Jordan for a "rancid" mood inside the campaign and for dismissing the value of the Internet even as Howard Dean was harnessing it to historic effect.

But no one comes in for rougher treatment in this book than Shrum's former client, John Edwards.

Shrum discovered Edwards during the North Carolinian's first Senate campaign in 1998. Shrum writes that, after his encounter with Edwards, he telephoned his business partner and declared, "I think I just met a future President of the United States." But that view would change dramatically.

Shrum went on advising Edwards for several years, including as Edwards was contemplating his vote on the fall 2002 Iraq war resolution. In the one passage of the book already widely leaked, Shrum recounts how he and other political advisers pushed Edwards into a vote for the resolution that Edwards--and, even more so, his wife, Elizabeth--didn't want to cast. The episode didn't make Shrum look great. But the real damage is to Edwards, who comes across as a cipher taking orders from his handlers. As Shrum puts it: "[H]e was the candidate and if he was really against the war it was up to him to stand his ground. He didn't."

(Edwards aides have said Shrum exaggerates the importance of this meeting and wasn't in other pivotal meetings where Edwards deliberated. But, as an aide to a rival campaign recently pointed out to me, in a moment that passed largely unnoticed, Edwards seemed to confirm the basic thrust of this story during the first Democratic presidential debate last month in South Carolina. "I was wrong to vote for this war," Edwards said. "And the lesson I learned from it is to put more faith in my own judgment." It does sound as though Edwards is admitting that he allowed handlers to overrule his conscience.)

By early 2003 Shrum faced a choice: Would he work for Edwards's presidential 2004 campaign? Or would he go with another longtime client and friend, John Kerry? (Shrum had already ruled out two other would-be candidates seeking his services: Joe Lieberman had become "too monochromatic ... the Republicans' favorite Democrat," while Dick Gephardt's "time had passed.")

Shrum decided to go with Kerry. By now, he was coming to see Edwards as a lightweight--"a Clinton who hadn't read the books," as he puts it. Edwards didn't take the news well. Shrum writes that, in a dramatic early 2003 phone call, Edwards told him: "I can't believe you would do this to me and my family. I will never, ever forget it, even on my deathbed." The relationship has been poisoned ever since.

That surely helps to explain why No Excuses repeatedly portrays Edwards as a hyper-ambitious phony. Nowhere is that clearer--and more startling--than in a passage recounting Kerry's first meeting with Edwards during the summer 2004 running-mate selection process. Kerry had qualms about Edwards from the start, Shrum writes, but grew

even queasier about Edwards after they met. Edwards had told Kerry he was going to share a story with him that he'd never told anyone else--that after his son Wade had been killed, he climbed onto the slab at the funeral home, laid there and hugged his body, and promised that he'd do all he could to make life better for people, to live up to Wade's ideals of service. Kerry was stunned, not moved, because, as he told me later, Edwards had recounted the 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. Kerry said he found it chilling, and he decided he couldn't pick Edwards unless he met with him again.

It's a stunning story--enough so to strain credulity. When I asked one person close to Edwards about it, he argued that Shrum's account makes no sense because Edwards had publicly recounted similar versions of the funeral home story before--and thus wouldn't possibly have claimed on either occasion that he was telling it for the first time. The person cites a 2003 Boston Globe story in which Edwards's pollster, Harrison Hickman, recalls warning Edwards that his first run for the Senate could be a nasty experience: "And John looked at me and said, 'If you've ever had to get up on a medical examiner's table and hug your son goodbye, you know that there's nothing worse that can happen to you,'" Hickman recalled. Whether this disproves Shrum's account will be up to readers to decide. (An Edwards campaign spokesman adds that, as with other instances in the book, Shrum wasn't present and is relaying secondhand information.)

Regardless, Kerry wasn't too creeped out to choose Edwards as his running mate after further meetings. One reason, Shrum suggests, was that Edwards agreed "absolutely" not to run against Kerry in 2008--an assurance Shrum considers to have been insincere. (Edwards, meanwhile, has previously denied saying this.)

But the two men didn't coexist happily. The Kerry campaign was upset that Edwards didn't use more aggressive rhetoric on the campaign trail, Shrum writes. And Shrum portrays Edwards as not entirely ready for prime time. In a prep session before Edwards's one debate with Dick Cheney, Shrum writes, "Edwards came across as unsure and nervous." The session adjourned so Edwards could spend more time reading his briefing books. Shrum writes that Kerry later told him "that Edwards called [Kerry] before the debate in a state of 'panic.' He was worried; maybe he wasn't ready; could he pull this off? Kerry, who thought Edwards was suffering a peculiar but baffling case of stage fright, told his running mate that he'd ... do a great job." (Though Kerry was ultimately disappointed in Edwards's performance, Shrum writes.)

Shrum says that, in the end, Kerry "wished that he'd never picked Edwards, that he should have gone with his gut" and selected Dick Gephardt. And the feelings between Kerry and Edwards seem fairly mutual. After Kerry reached out to Edwards in the wake of his wife's disclosure of a recurrence of cancer, Shrum writes, "Kerry told me that the Edwardses simply stopped returning calls or talking to him and Teresa."

Kerry, by contrast, comes off fairly well. Shrum paints his 2004 candidate as a good man--albeit one prone to maddening gaffes (including one about a "global test" for military action that prompts Shrum to hurl his cellphone against a wall, smashing it to bits). "When his back was plainly against the wall ... Kerry was bold and decisive. At other times, he tended to second-guess, revise, fiddle, confer with anyone in sight, and try to placate everyone around him. For him, I think the easier days in the White House might have been harder. But in a crisis, I believe Kerry would have shown the right stuff as president."

Given that Shrum doesn't seem interested in causing added pain for Kerry, incidentally, it seems reasonable to assume that the anti-Edwards material in this book--like the story involving the mortuary--are included with Kerry's assent. In other words, it may be both Shrum and Kerry who are knifing Edwards here.

It's hard to say whether the ghost of Shrum will have a real impact on Edwards's campaign. No Excuses does tend to reinforce nagging doubts about whether Edwards is a manufactured candidate with outsized ambitions but muddy convictions.

Needless to say, the Edwards campaign doesn't appreciate Shrum's literary debut. "Bob is obviously more interested in selling books than reporting honestly and accurately about what happened. It's just kind of sad," Edwards spokesperson Mark Kornblau said in an e-mail statement.

And it's true that Shrum's constant swipes at Edwards feel like axe-grinding. Why the bitterness? The source close to Edwards cautions that Shrum had sought a bigger role in Edwards's campaign than the candidate was willing to grant. (Shrum himself hints at this in the book, saying Elizabeth Edwards had feared he would be "too visible and dominant a force in the campaign.") Thus, Shrum may have signed up with Kerry only after feeling maligned by the "future president" he'd discovered in North Carolina back in 1998. It's hard to know for sure. Which is, after all, the essential quality of a tell-all Washington memoir--and especially one from a spinner as experienced as Bob Shrum.