30-second summary

  • Bob Shrum has swapped life as one of the top US political consultants and speechwriters for life in academia – but he has no regrets. 
  • A key priority for a candidate and their team is to build a good relationship with the media, says Bob Shrum, as “fighting with them gets you nowhere”.
  • Shrum’s three key principles for speechwriters– “Hear the person you are writing for in your mind’s ear, really know the candidate you are writing for, and don’t ask people to do what they can’t do. Humour, for example, doesn’t work for everyone.”

“Authenticity, a command of substance, a sense of principle, and a willingness to listen and decide that you’ve been wrong” – just a few of the traits displayed by strong leaders, according to Bob Shrum. And he should know.

Shrum, who is now director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics and Carmen H. and Louis Warschaw Chair in Practical Politics at the University of Southern California, spent more than 30 years in the trenches as speechwriter, advisor and strategist in elections the length and breadth of the United States. While unsuccessful on the US presidential stage – although he clocked up many victories with prime ministers and presidents internationally – his domestic track record includes 30 victorious campaigns for the US Senate and 10 for governor.

He first came to national prominence while writing speeches for Senator George McGovern in the 1972 presidential campaign. Shrum helped write Senator Ted Kennedy’s 1980 Democratic Convention speech, which concluded with the now famous line: “the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die” – and he cites the late senator for Massachusetts as someone who understood the value of honesty over sycophancy.

“A good leader has a constant openness to at least some people around you who can disagree with you and argue the other side,” says Shrum. “Kennedy once told me that ‘you always have to have two or three people around who were allowed to tell you when you were being a dumb s-o-b’, and that you should reward them rather than punish them.”

The impact of the press

Of course, leaders from any sphere – politics, business, sport or others – often grapple with how they are portrayed in the press. The public image is often at odds with how they behave – for good or ill – when the microphones are switched off and the cameras have pivoted elsewhere. That’s where strategists and advisors like Shrum earn their fee: shaping a positive image with the target demographics in the electorate, regardless of pundits’ praise or scorn. Easy to say, hard to do.

Take another of Shrum’s candidates, former Vice President Al Gore. “He is highly intelligent, spontaneous and funny, and gave an acceptance speech in 2000  which moved the polls somewhere between 12 and 16 points,” says Shrum.

“Yet the stereotype was that he was a stiff, and the press loved promoting that stereotype. At times he could be stiff, but that’s because he was so deeply into substance – it’s not who he was as a person. The press really does play a huge role in creating these images of people. That doesn’t mean you can’t break out of them – as Gore did at the Democratic Convention – but it’s real, and it can be a real problem.”

So, how do you address that? Do you seek to build relationships with the media? “Sometimes you have to go over the head of the media – which is what Gore did with his acceptance speech,” replies Shrum. “He spoke faster than he normally did, so he didn’t sound like he was lecturing them. Initially the press wasn’t sure it had worked until they saw the polls over the next couple of days.”

Despite his still palpable frustrations, Shrum firmly believes that little is achieved by denigrating the media – it’s better to focus on staying positive than falling into a cycle of perpetual confrontation. “The one way you can’t deal with them is to fight with them,” he says. “This gets you nowhere. President Trump has done it, but he has done it in a way that leaves him with an increasingly shrinking base.”

The communications game

Since Shrum stepped back from election-to-election campaigning – his final joust saw him senior strategist for the narrowly defeated presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004 – the advent of social media has injected a new rhythm and transparency into contests large and small. Nowadays, candidates and elected officials use Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and so on to help them get the message out and create that often elusive positive image in the eye of the voter.  Shrum – while on Twitter himself – believes that it is absolutely not the be-all and end-all. “I believe that social media is another vehicle for communication, not the central vehicle for communication,” he says.

“The Clinton-Trump campaigns of 2016 spent the vast majority of their communications budget on television advertising. Where that advertising is seen, and how it is seen, will change as the media continues to change. Because people will be able to watch what they want, when they want, there will be more internet advertising, but television advertising will still be important. In fact, I think television advertising – at least for the foreseeable future – will still play an important role in campaigns.”

Speech therapy

As befits an accomplished wordsmith, Shrum is a fervent believer in the enduring power of speeches – even in today’s age of the tweet and the ten-second soundbite. Asked why and he says it’s because so many of them have shaped events, and continue to do so.

“I’ve seen so many of them matter,” he says. “Barack Obama’s speech to the 2004 Democratic Convention made him a serious presidential contender, for example. But you have to be good at speeches. Ronald Reagan was very good at speeches. Bill Clinton could – at times – be very good at speeches. His 1998 State of the Union speech averted what could have been a rush on his presidency after the revelation of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. First, he got Democrats on their feet and then at the end found a unifying theme by talking about John Glenn and the space programme. He came out of that speech with the country approving of his conduct as president, whatever doubts they had of him as an individual.”

He is also dismissive of any suggestion that speeches should talk down to people. “This new idea that somehow or other you have to use barroom language is ridiculous,” he says. “Reagan and Kennedy, who were probably in the last half-century the two best presidential communicators, always sought to elevate people not through archaic language but in language that made people think better of themselves and think better of the country.”

So, what are his tips for budding speechwriters? What does he tell his students about crafting soaring oratory that lingers long after the echo has faded from the arena? The question is the first to prompt a pause in our conversation.

“I’ve always thought it very difficult to teach speechwriting,” he admits, “but there are a couple of principles that are important. The first is more reality than principle, but you have to be able to hear the person you are writing for in your mind’s ear. You’re not just writing words on paper like an essay – you need to able to hear how they are going to sound coming from the person you are writing for.”

The second involves knowing – really knowing – the candidate. “The best relationships between principals and speechwriters have occurred when they have worked together for a while, or they have established an instant rapport,” he says. “There needs to be an almost unspoken understanding between the two of them about what the principal should be saying.

“And thirdly, you shouldn’t be asking people to do what they can’t do. Some people can be extraordinarily effective at humour, but not everyone is good with what Ted Kennedy called ‘openers’. There are people who are perfectly decent, genuine, gifted people who just aren’t good at it – so their speechwriters shouldn’t try to force it as it won’t work.”

Back to campus

Based in sunny Los Angeles, Shrum is quick to reject any suggestion that he may step back into the arena. “I did it for a very long time,” he points out. “My generation – the 60s generation – came to the party very early and we have stayed a very long time. I love what I’m doing now. I love living in Los Angeles, which is where I grew up, and I love the students, so I don’t anticipate going anywhere else.”

Good news for his students, less good news for future candidates.

 

FURTHER READING

  • The story of speechwriting for President Obama. How did David Litt go from junior campaign volunteer to writing speeches for President Obama? He tells us how and why speeches still matter
  • From Washington to The West Wing. Eli Attie tells us about life as Vice President Gore’s chief speechwriter, his subsequent role on The West Wing and the secrets of effective political communication
  • Life in the foxhole: the new rules of the communications game. Few know how to navigate the terrain of government communications better than Obama White House veteran Eric Schultz. Speaking to the Gov Actually podcast, he tells us about getting the message out – DC style…
  • Winds of change. Few understand the mechanics of US elections better than Matthew Dowd. A veteran of both sides of the campaign trail, he tells us about his experiences and why change is coming to America…