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Up close and personal from the campaign bus

It was 1988. Robert Shrum, quadrennial strategist for Democratic presidential candidates, was asked to help Lloyd Bentsen prepare for his vice presidential debate with Dan Quayle. Shrum had read that Quayle claimed he was about the same age John F. Kennedy had been when he was elected president.

What an opening, Shrum thought. So he asked Bentsen whether he had known JFK. Yes, he had served with him in the Senate. Would Bentsen feel comfortable telling Quayle he was no JFK? Sure.

That's how the famous political zinger was crafted, Bentsen's retort to Quayle's JFK reference during the debate:

"Senator [Quayle], I served with Jack Kennedy," Bentsen said. "I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

Robert Shrum -- the hidden man behind the Democratic candidates for some 30 years -- had struck again.

Now he's written his memoir, and it certainly won't please all the critics.

This book has been panned for, among other things, being a political ego trip -- what autobiography isn't? -- telling tales out of school about candidates' private comments and failing to provide a definitive answer to the claims about the "Shrum Curse," his involvement in eight losing Democratic presidential campaigns.

All debatable points.

This reviewer has a different bone to pick with Shrum's memoir: The campaign minutiae, especially from the Al Gore and John Kerry campaigns, may be too detailed. All but the most committed hard-core political junkies will reach for the fast-forward button in the nearly 100-page chapters on Gore and Kerry.

Still, there's a lot to like about this book.

Shrum provides enough anecdotes and up-close looks at king-sized personalities to make this a decent read.

Those who like their politics raw and detailed will get an inside view of the campaign trail, complete with all its tree stumps and sinkholes.

Shrum's strength comes from his seat on so many campaign planes and buses. He's been there, right there, and few observers can reveal so much about the art of campaigning.

The author is at his best when he scans his decades of politicking for trends. For one, he notes that so many presidential candidates were shaped -- perhaps even flawed -- by a formative lesson earlier in life. Former Nebraska Sen. Robert Kerrey saved his own life in Vietnam by improvising, not following the plan. Bill Clinton learned he can talk his way out of anything. Al Gore's father taught him that the way to become president was to be the smartest person in the room. And George W. Bush's refusal to admit mistakes or change course goes back to seeing his father's presidency shattered by reneging on his famous "Read my lips: No new taxes."

Shrum also provides a fascinating insight about the tough road any Catholic Democrat faces in getting the party nod. The Catholic Church never beat up on non-Catholics Clinton or Gore for being pro-choice. John Kerry, though, faced plenty of opposition from within his church.

"If that attitude persists, the implication is clear: It will be risky for Democrats to nominate a Catholic, because any Democratic nominee will be pro-choice ... so that no Catholics need apply, at least in the Democratic Party."

Shrum gets high marks for his candor. He seems to adore Teddy Kennedy, has high praise for Gore and Kerry and not so much for Clinton or Jimmy Carter.

His take on Clinton: "He was a great politician -- for himself, if not always his party or its principles -- but he wasn't what he most hoped to be: a great president... Nor did Clinton measure up to what seems to me to be the other test of presidential greatness: whether a president has renewed and enriched America's idea of itself."

When Shrum quit Carter's 1976 campaign, he wrote in his resignation letter, "I am not sure what you believe in, other than yourself."

The author suggests Gore and Kerry would have been good presidents, better presidents than campaigners.

"They both had core convictions -- and at times their consultants, advisers and fellow officeholders did them a disservice by urging them onto apparently softer, safer, more cautious ground," he writes.

Shrum doesn't hesitate to recount some private exchanges that show candidates in their weakest moments.

When Shrum opted to work for Kerry instead of John Edwards in the 2004 campaign, Edwards replied, "I can't believe you would do this to me and my family. I will never, ever forget it, even on my deathbed."

The author has his fingerprints all over recent political history, including helping Ted Kennedy with his eulogy for John F. Kennedy Jr., a tribute that included perhaps the best line in this book:

"We dared to believe in that Irish phrase," Kennedy said, "that this John Kennedy would live to comb gray hair."

Shrum provides plenty of great lines here, proving that it helps to have a speechwriter's touch on the written page -- even if Shrum himself doesn't type.

Take this description of James Carville:

"His swagger, his shaved head, his stories and aphorisms spilling out in a hyperkinetic, sometimes profane geyser of heavily accented phrases and half-sentences -- I'd never encountered anyone in politics like this."

No need for any ghostwriter here.

Gene Warner is a veteran News reporter.

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>No Excuses:Concessions of a Serial Campaigner

By Robert Shrum

Simon & Schuster, 521 pages, $28

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