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Robert Shrum holds the key to a candidate’s success

The Warschaw Chair in Practical Politics talks about that ‘one indispensable quality’ at his USC Dornsife installation

Robert Shrum at Sept. installation
Political consultant Robert Shrum speaks at his formal installation. (Photo/Steve Cohn)

During a ceremony to commemorate his installation as the inaugural Carmen H. and Louis Warschaw Chair in Practical Politics, veteran political consultant Robert Shrum identified the one indispensable quality for a candidate or office holder’s success.

“That quality is authenticity,” said Shrum, who holds the chair at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “FDR, the Kennedys, Ronald Reagan and John McCain of 2000 were preeminently themselves and that was the heart of their appeal. Whether or not you agreed with them, they took issues seriously, but they didn’t take themselves too seriously.”

For example, Shrum noted how John Kennedy, during his 1960 campaign, replied to a young schoolgirl who asked him about being a war hero. Kennedy answered simply that it was entirely involuntary — they sank his boat.

“Authenticity is not something political operatives can confer,” Shrum said. “But it is something that they can undermine or destroy.”

I have no doubt Bob is just the leader we need to complement all of these initiatives and transform our students into their generation’s movers and shakers.

Steve A. Kay

Shrum recalled a 1986 meeting with Barbara Mikulski, who became the first female Democrat ever elected to the Senate on her own. At the time, she was thinking of running for office and several consultants had already told her to change her image to fit in with the ideals of the television age. As a woman who was ‘short, plump, loud and ethnic,’ how should she be presented on television, she had asked Shrum.

“I replied, ‘As short, plump, loud and ethnic,’ ” he said. “Now, after almost 30 years in the Senate, she is unbeatable. She has a cultural connection with Maryland that transcends issues and partisan trends and ties. She’s authentic.”

Fulfilling the Warschaw vision

The ceremony, held on Sept. 17 at Town & Gown, brought together Carmen and Louis’ daughter Hope Warschaw, senior university administrators, and Shrum’s family and friends. Also in attendance were Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Bobby Shriver, candidate for L.A. County Supervisor.

The late USC Honorary Trustee Carmen Warschaw — a political activist, philanthropist and USC alumna — established the chair to help create civic-minded students.

USC Provost Elizabeth Garrett offered the university’s gratitude to the Warschaw family for providing the endowment. Carmen Warschaw’s vision for the unique chair was to support a faculty member who would bridge the gap between political theory and student involvement in the democratic process, she said.

“The endowed chair was one of Carmen’s highest priorities, and we are confident that the inaugural chair holder, Professor Robert Shrum, is among the best practitioners of politics in the world to implement her vision,” said Garrett, senior vice president for academic affairs.

Dean Steve A. Kay noted the ways that USC Dornsife imbues its students with both the political theory and practical skills they need to enact real and lasting change, including courses in applied politics, programming from the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics and a new Washington, D.C., program launching next spring. As the Warschaw Chair, Kay said, Shrum will be the cornerstone uniting all of these diverse efforts.

“I have no doubt Bob is just the leader we need to complement all of these initiatives and transform our students into their generation’s movers and shakers,” Kay said.

Several irons in the fire

Shrum’s efforts are already underway. This semester, he is teaching the applied politics course “Great Races: From City Hall to the White House.” He has launched a speaker series in the Department of Political Science called “Political Conversations,” which brings prominent figures into dialogues with students about national politics. He is also planning to teach a Maymester course in Washington, D.C., next spring that will engage students with politicians and policymakers.

At the ceremony, Hope Warschaw shared her memories of her mother and father’s involvement in California politics and their commitment to USC. The Warschaws were instrumental in starting the Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life at USC Dornsife, which hosts an annual Warschaw lecture series, and helped reenergize the Unruh Institute of Politics.

“Those of you who knew my mother knew she had two great loves besides her family — USC and politics,” Warschaw said. USC was where Carmen and Louis cemented their love — they married in college — and it was where they first joined the Young Democrats, she noted.

Warschaw recounted that for a long time her mother had been thinking about how she could give back to the school where she felt her adult life had started. Carmen Warschaw believed the chair would be a perfect way to strengthen the political science department’s curriculum in practical politics.

“I have known Bob Shrum and [his wife] Marylouise Oates my entire adult life,” Hope Warschaw said. “It finally occurred to me that Bob embodied everything that my mother was looking for in a chair holder.”

An eventful political career

Shrum’s career in politics began in the 1970s, when he was hired as speechwriter for then-New York City Mayor John Lindsay. He went on to serve as speechwriter for Sen. George McGovern in his 1972 campaign for president. From 1980 to 1984, Shrum served as speechwriter and press secretary to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

He was a senior adviser to Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000 and to John Kerry’s campaign four years later. He was a consultant to the successful campaign of Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel in 1999; to the British Labour Party in its 2001 and 2005 parliamentary campaigns; and to winning national campaigns in Ireland in 1997 and 2002.

In the past four decades, Shrum has navigated 30 winning campaigns for U.S. Senate and eight winning campaigns for governor. He has advised campaigns for the mayors of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver, Dade County and San Francisco, as well as for the Speaker and the Democratic leader of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Shrum also helped write the concession speech Sen. Kennedy delivered at the 1980 Democratic National Convention. Many said the powerful speech overshadowed Jimmy Carter’s acceptance of the presidential nomination.

“For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die,” Kennedy’s speech famously concluded.

To close the ceremony, Kay presented Shrum with a wooden chair inscribed with the university seal. He also presented Hope Warschaw with a miniature version of the chair.

Of Hope and her parents Louis and Carmen, Shrum said: “I’m honored to hold a chair that bears their name.”

Shrum said he is enthused to share his expertise with students at USC Dornsife.

“The practice of politics passes through constant revolution,” he said. “The train brought us the whistle stop. Radio brought a media scene of conventions and campaigns. Then for nearly half a century of TV advertising, the most important political rallies have been two or three people around a television set.

“In the end, social media may prove to be direct mail on steroids. While the techniques move on, I believe the decisive role of message endures. And to explore those with students, to let them experience past campaigns in real time as people did at the time, to prompt them to deconstruct speeches, ads, code words, the nuances of theme and message — to think critically and creatively about politics, for me, this is not a job but a privilege.”

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