Diary - Robert Shrum

The "curse of Shrum" is that, supposedly, I have worked for every losing Democratic presidential nom

On Cape Cod, where I'm writing my book on four decades of progressive politics in America, it's been raining for days, and parts of Massachusetts are flooding. In Washington, George Bush, weighed down by Nixonian approval ratings, is struggling to keep his head above water. Today he's being pummelled by his allies on the religious right. They are demanding that he make a gay-bashing constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage his top priority. But what about Iraq, gas - that is, petrol - prices, the budget deficit and healthcare costs? Americans want their government to focus on big issues. If Bush instead panders to the petty prejudices of his political base, he'll fall below Nixon's low water mark.

I go to Boston to debate immigration on national television. The show is called Hardball and my sparring partner is Kate O'Beirne from National Review,

a magazine that opposed civil rights in the 1960s. Now right-wing Republicans are playing on the anti-immigrant backlash. They're kicking Bush hard because he's supporting the Kennedy-McCain

approach, which includes not just border security but "earned legalisation" for the 11 million or so illegal immigrants already in the United States. I tell Kate that if Kennedy, McCain and Bush all agree on something, it must be a pretty sensible policy. As an ultra-conservative senator who co-sponsored a different piece of legislation with Ted Kennedy once said: "Either it's an idea whose time has come, or one of us hasn't read the bill." On this one, Bush has read the politics right: if the Republicans alienate Hispanic voters, they won't win another national election for a generation.

Over coffee at the Little Store in Sagamore Beach, the locals tease me about my emphatic hand gestures on television. Someone mentions the obits and those of us who are old enough to remember him mourn an actor who played Clarabell the Clown, a character on Howdy Doody, the best-loved children's show of the 1950s. But there's no shortage of clowns today. In the next 36 hours, the Senate will vote to make English the official language. It's a blatant attempt to denigrate Hispanics. And it's ironic to watch politicians mandate the use of a language that many of them barely speak.

A friend receives a hand-delivered copy of the new Economist and faxes me the latest "Bagehot" column. This Bagehot reports that I run "a lucrative political consultancy", advise an anti-reform Gordon Brown and will turn him into Al Gore. And supposedly - this is labelled "the curse of Shrum" - I have worked for every losing Democratic presidential nominee in six elections, but never for Bill Clinton. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

I did consult for President Clinton when he was under near-mortal attack in his second term - and for Democratic candidates who fell short in presidential primaries. But in more than 30 years, the only Democratic nominees I have worked for professionally are Al Gore, who won and had the election stolen, and John Kerry, who almost won.

Contrary to the account in the Economist, I did not become close to Gordon Brown when he was "holidaying" on Cape Cod. I came to know him well in London in the 1990s. I'm friendly with Tony Blair and many others in the Labour Party; Philip Gould's daughter lived at our house during a summer internship in Washington. As the magazine blithely failed to note, I did advise Labour in the 2001 and 2005 general elections. Watching the Prime Minister and the Chancellor in countess strategy discussions, I can testify that they are equally committed to reform. I seem to recall that it was Brown who actually made the Bank of England independent and cut capital gains taxes.

Finally, I don't run any consulting firm, lucrative or otherwise. I teach at New York University's Graduate School of Public Service - and I do have that book contract.

How did the article get so many basic facts wrong? Rereading it, I'm struck by the Economist's condescending criticism of Brown's "Scottishness". Is that the acceptable equivalent in Britain of the ugly appeals to prejudice now playing out on the floor of the US Congress?

This article first appeared in the 29 May 2006 issue of the New Statesman, They can play, but they can never win