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 December, 2008

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 A Profile of Connellsville's Political Strategist Bob Shrum

“So this year let us offer new hope, new hope to an America uncertain about the present, but unsurpassed in its potential for the future.”
Sen. Ted Kennedy,
1980 Democratic National Convention Address
 

Bob Shrum: From Connellsville to the Consummate “Serial Campaigner”

The words above could have easily been spoken by our current president-elect. Barack Obama’s message of hope for a brighter future can be found in all of his speeches. It’s no wonder Ted Kennedy became one of the first big name Democrats to endorse him last winter.

If you read the entire speech delivered hours after Kennedy lost his bid to gain his party’s nomination for president 28 years ago, you can almost hear the voice of Obama – except with that familiar Massachusetts accent.

What’s even more fascinating is the man who wrote that famous speech hails from Connellsville, Pennsylvania. He’s one of us.

Robert Shrum, son of Cecilia (her father, Matthew J. Welsh had been a life-long Democrat and Pennsylvania Assemblyman) and Clarence Shrum (whose western Pennsylvania roots stretched back to the American Revolution) had penned one of the most important political speeches in American history.

I had not known that until one afternoon just before the recent election. I saw Shrum on MSNBC as part of one of those frequent political pundit’s roundtables.

The subject of that particular discussion had been the then recent “racist/redneck” claims made by Rep. John Murtha that had stirred quite a bit of controversy.

Shrum’s response to the dustup included his acknowledgement that he knew Murtha and the area, because he’s from CONNELLSVILLE, PENNSYLVANIA.
I Googled his name in seconds. I found his email address in minutes. Within an hour, he’d accepted my offer to interview him once the election was over.

My friend Google told me I’d better be on my game, because this Connellsville native has played a major role in most of the important presidential races in recent memory.

So I’d have to leave those, “What’s it like being from Connellsville,” questions unasked.

I’d learned that Shrum had worked in varying capacities for: Ted Kennedy, Edmund Muskie, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, John Kerry, Bob Kerrey, John Edwards, Michael Dukakis, Dick Gephardt, Harris Wofford and Barbara Mikulski, and on 26 successful campaigns for U.S. Senators, governors, victorious mayors – I might add, just to name a few. All had one thing in common – they’re Democrats.

Whether Shrum was acting as a political consultant, media consultant or as a speechwriter, he’s fully appreciated the fact (and I do too) that it all started in Connellsville.

He’d come by his allegiance to the Democratic Party at an early age. He was born in 1943, and by the time he turned five, he and his parents celebrated the election of a Democratic president together.

In his memoir, “No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner,” he writes that his earliest political memory was in 1948, when his parents banged “pots and pans in the middle of the night when (Harry) Truman came from behind to beat Dewey.”

Three years later, in 1951, Shrum’s father moved the family to Los Angeles suburb of Culver City. That may not have been the happiest time in Shrum’s young life.

According to the Connellsville Daily Courier on October 8th, 1951 Clarence Shrum put up a few household items for sale. One of those items may have been of great interest to his young son – a Hopalong Cassidy rug.

I didn’t have the heart to ask Shrum if that had been something that had adorned his bedroom floor. But speaking with him, I knew Hopalong Cassidy (a man he eventually did meet at his Hoppyland amusement park near L.A.) would have been one of his childhood heroes.

“I loved going to the Soisson and Paramount Theatres in downtown Connellsville. I remember spending my trolley car money on the movies, and having to call my mother to come pick us up,” he says.

That, of course wasn’t his only Connellsville adventure.

I told him that it was too bad he'd moved west a year before Truman paid Connellsville a visit during his reelection campaign in 1952 - stopping at the train station just off the city's downtown.

Shrum didn't respond to the visit as much as he did to the mention of the train station. “We used to go down to the train station and ride to Pittsburgh all the time,” he replied as if I'd opened some pleasant memory he'd stored away for years.

And besides, although he didn’t mention it to me, he’d actually started working on Truman’s behalf out in California that year, by “manning” the telephone as a nine year-old.

Shrum’s memories of Connellsville are vivid. (He moved back briefly in 1954, and he’s only made a few visits back over the years. His last was in the early 1970’s.)

Yet, Hetzel’s Drug Store, the Moonlite, Starlite and Comet Drive-ins, and Father Geibel (not the school – but the man the school was named for - Father Henry Geibel) are among his fondest memories of the area.

You could almost feel him mentally walk up the hill on Crawford Avenue as he spoke.

This came from a man, who at the age of 16, had worked diligently for the election of John F. Kennedy.

He’d been a volunteer for the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles that year – and he found himself face-to-face with the future president. “John Kennedy was a luminous presence in that room, a presence tempered by his easy manner and ironic smile,” he wrote in No Excuses.

There would be many more face-to-face meetings with presidential aspirants along the way.

But before that could happen, Shrum enrolled in Georgetown University. From there he went to Harvard Law School. And in both places he received honors as a powerful debater.

In fact, in 1965, while he hadn’t been back to Connellsville in more than a decade, I’ve found clear proof he and his family had certainly not been forgotten.
FORMER LOCAL PUPIL NAMED TOP DEBATER IN COLLEGE CONTEST, the headline read in the Daily Courier on May 13th, 1965.

Shrum had won top honors in a national debate contest involving students from 40 colleges. The subject of the debate appeared an easy one for the life-long Democrat from the life-long Democratic family: “Resolved that the United States Should Establish a Public Work of the Unemployed.”

57 years after he joined his family in a night of revelry comprised of mere pots and pans after that Truman victory, Shrum still sings his exuberant praise of Democratic policies.

He’s an obvious supporter of president-elect Obama. He is also aware that the nation’s supposed “center-right” leanings are – if anything – a myth.
“Things move in cycles,” he says. “The one thing for sure is the age of the Reagan Revolution is over.”

Shrum currently makes frequent appearances on MSNBC, when he’s not busily writing political columns for the New York Times, L.A. Times, New York Magazine or The New Republic. He is also a Senior Fellow at New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, where he teaches a number of courses.

There are, perhaps, more high stakes political roads to travel for Mr. Shrum. But I’m sure, after talking to him, he still has fond memories of the roads that led him to where he is today.

They’re ones that wind through Connellsville.