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My Forty Years in Politics
By David Axelrod
Would Barack Obama have been elected president without David Axelrod?
That question is less far-fetched than it may seem. To be sure, Obama is a man of prodigious talents - the most magnetic presidential candidate since Jack Kennedy, whip smart, fiercely competitive, burning with passion and ambition even as ice water runs through his veins. He was going places in a hurry long before he had political advisers.
Yet a strong case can be made it was the partnership he formed with Axelrod and then with the campaign staff Axelrod assembled that propelled him to the White House. Axelrod is too self-effacing and loyal to take credit, but his new memoir, 'Believer: My Forty Years in Politics,' reinforces the view that leadership is becoming less about a single, heroic individual and increasingly about extraordinary teams.
After a decade-long acquaintance, Obama and Axelrod first joined forces in 2002 when Obama began exploring a run for the United States Senate a couple of years later. At the time, Axelrod was the more accomplished: Since learning the bare-knuckle ways of big-city politics writing for The Chicago Tribune, he had become the guru of Chicago political advisers, running - and usually winning - dozens upon dozens of campaigns.
For all of his early promise on a law school faculty and his seat in the Illinois Senate, Obama in 2002 had no money, no political organization and a name that rhymed with the world's most famous terrorist. And he had just lost a race for Congress, so that he was one defeat away from political oblivion. Both he and Axelrod knew a Senate race was a Hail Mary.
What yoked them together was more than their desire for an upset: They shared a deep, progressive belief that politics should be a calling, not a business, and that at its best, politics was a means to extend opportunity and dignity to all. Obama at 41 was still green and idealistic; after years of trench warfare, Axelrod at 47 worried he was becoming too cynical and hoped Obama could restore his faith.
Axelrod does not directly address the point, but it surely made a difference in working for Obama that he was schooled in big-city racial politics. He had helped Harold Washington, the first (and legendary) black mayor of Chicago, get re-elected, and had run successful mayoralty races in a half-dozen other cities. Experience had taught him how to shape a coalition of blacks, Hispanics and white liberals that would lift a black Democratic candidate to victory and create a more inclusive politics. (Such coalition building made Obama the first urban president in more than a century.)
That 2004 Senate race built the foundations of Obama's presidential run four years later. Axelrod proved to be a superb strategist and message maestro. He was the one who came up with the tag line for Obama's ads in that race, 'Yes We Can!' 'I loved the . . . line,' Axelrod writes, 'because it gave voters a stake in making change happen. It wasn't just about him. It was about what we all could do together.' Obama thought it corny, but his wife, Michelle, disagreed; it stayed in and became the rallying cry then and in future campaigns.
For that Senate race, Axelrod also recruited a partner from his consulting firm, David Plouffe, to help out. That proved a brilliant move. Obama came to believe as strongly in Plouffe's talents as he did in Axelrod's, so that in his presidential run four years later, he made Plouffe his campaign manager and Axelrod continued as strategist and message meister. Together, they were as essential to Obama in 2008 as Louis Howe was to Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. Plouffe quietly created a grass-roots ground game that shocked the Hillary Clinton campaign; in learning how to channel Obama, Axelrod caught lightning in a bottle.
As a journalist, Axelrod learned how to write for a mass audience, so he tells stories well from Obama's campaigns and from the first couple of years at the White House, where he was the top political adviser. Some of his tales are familiar, and at 509 pages, it's a long read.
Even so, what emerges is important: a portrait of political campaigning that is more like what we hope than what we fear, that rises above the machinations and muck. Almost a decade ago, Joe Klein wrote a memorable book, 'Politics Lost,' savaging the 'pollster-consultant industrial complex.' He opened with Bobby Kennedy's stirring, impromptu speech at a campaign rally the night of Martin Luther King's assassination. That speech, Klein said, was the last high point of political campaigning. Strikingly, Axelrod returns to that same night and writes again and again of how he wants to restore Kennedy's aspirational politics.
Axelrod is not above sharp jabs and hard-nosed politics. He is, after all, from Chicago. But over the course of 40 years and 150 campaigns, he has earned a reputation on both sides as one of the good guys. Family tragedies along the way - especially his daughter's epilepsy, which began in her infancy - have also kept him grounded.
Obama doesn't always walk on water in this account, but he comes close: high-minded, reflective, unruffled. He and Axelrod have occasional blowups in which Obama is condescending and sometimes profane; Obama also keeps an emotional distance. But the two smooth things over quickly and move on. Unlike some other Obama-insider memoirists, Axelrod chooses not to dis. (One mystery: Why does one of the most powerful people around Obama, Valerie Jarrett, virtually disappear here? What is Axelrod not telling us?)
But there are prices to be paid for writing with devoted loyalty. For one thing, Obama emerges as two-dimensional. He, like most presidents, is an unusually complicated person. But given how consequential his presidency is, one would like to understand him far better than we do.
Axelrod also shies away from the hard questions of why President Obama has fallen short of the dreams inspired by Candidate Obama. Instead, he makes a stout defense - indeed, the best I have read - of the Obama years. He believes Obama inherited the worst mess of any modern president and accomplished more in his first years than anyone since Lyndon Johnson. As for Obama's losing some of his fizz, Axelrod says, that's because governing is tougher than campaigning.
Fair enough, but one day down the road, an Obama confidant must explain why he connected so movingly as a candidate but, to many of his supporters, seems emotionally remote today. Why did a man with a grand strategy for campaigning lack one for governing, especially overseas? Why did he put together a superb team in his presidential campaign but not in the White House? Why has he allowed that same White House team to marginalize so many talented cabinet officers? Why? Why?
The person who can best answer sits in the Oval Office. Judging from his first book, Obama has the talent to write the best presidential memoir in modern times. It is worth waiting for. But for now, David Axelrod has written a highly readable, uplifting account of the candidate he loves - and, reassuringly, has shown politics can still be a calling, not a business.
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President Obama despises Maureen Dowd - absolutely loathes the Pulitzer Prize - winning New York Times columnist. He's annoyed by Mitt Romney. And the president's messaging guru and top gun, David Axelrod, has little regard for Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton's erstwhile chief strategist.
Those are a few of the gossipy take-aways from Believer: My Forty Years in Politics, Axelrod's hotly-anticipated (by political junkies) memoir that goes on sale today.
Yet those anecdotes represent just the sort of slicing and dicing of a serious work of political and personal history that Axelrod - Axe to his friends - sees as yet another example of the media's relentless marketing of sensationalism and triviality.
'More than anything, this is what's terrible about modern media and how these books roll out,' Axelrod says. 'I was determined to write a book that wasn't going to be characterized by some titillating nugget that had about a three-day half-life, but rather an entire story of my life and the conclusions that life has led me to. I wanted to write a book that people might want to read years from now and not just today's publication because they wanted to find out who had been knifing who.'
A lovely sentiment. But Axelrod, who likes to think of himself as a real-world idealist, surely knew not to get his hopes up.
A couple of weeks from 60, he's a former shoe-leather newspaper reporter (in the political sump pit of Chicago, no less) who, during his four decades as a Democratic media consultant, has practiced the dark arts of campaigning with the best and the worst of them.
Believer - which is not as slavishly cult-like as the title indicates, since it acknowledges that, yes, Barack Obama has rough edges and human imperfections - tracks Axelrod's career from his early childhood in New York City, when, at age 5, he attended a rally featuring candidate John Fitzgerald Kennedy and caught the political bug.
It recounts his precocious beginnings as a journalist, writing a political column at age 18 for the Hyde Park Herald; his parents' divorce and his father's subsequent suicide; and his guilty conscience over his own role as an often-absent parent, working on out-of-town campaigns while his wife, Susan, kept the family together as they confronted the challenge of raising a daughter seriously disabled by epileptic seizures.
'It was painful to write some of that,' Axelrod says, noting that he as he put together the family chapters, he sent them to his eldest son, Michael, as a cautionary note: 'Don't do to your kids what I did to you.'
The book treats Hillary Clinton, a client before she was an opponent - and today Axelrod's preferred 2016 presidential candidate - with admiration and respect, even when her operatives are dissed, and even when Axelrod reports that she considered a post-2008 primary conversation with him, aboard the Obama campaign plane, about as welcome as a root canal.
'I think she's going to be the [Democratic] nominee, and I will strongly support her,' says Axelrod, who claims that 2012 was his final campaign and that he has retired once and for all from political consulting; these days he presides over the Institute of Politics, which he founded in 2013 at his alma mater, the University of Chicago. 'She's in a very strong position - not to say that she's guaranteed anything,' Axelrod says of Clinton. 'The question - and only she can answer it when she becomes a candidate - is what kind of candidate she'll be.'
Axelrod continues: 'I thought she was not a very good candidate in 2007, when she was encased in this armor of inevitability. And she became a very compelling candidate in 2008 when she threw off that armor and threw caution to the winds, and really connected with people in a very visceral way about the struggles of their lives. And the fact that she herself looked vulnerable made her more accessible.'
On the Republican side, Axelrod says Jeb Bush, with his relatively enlightened views on immigration and education reform, would be a strong general election contender 'if he can get through the primaries without being forced to make a Faustian bargain with the more extreme elements of his party.'
Axelrod is skeptical of the presidential buzz surrounding Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. 'So he goes to Iowa and gives a good speech to a few hundred activists ... and he's the flavor of the month,' he says. 'Presidential politics is like pole vaulting. Everyone can clear the early bar. But then the bar gets raised. And the reality is, how do you handle it when it gets really, really rough, when you're under constant scrutiny, when everything you say becomes an issue?'
Axelrod has had some recent personal experience along these lines with the release of his book. Even though his publisher, Random House subsidiary Penguin Press, tried to enforce a strict embargo on reporting about its content - going so far as to require recipients of hardcovers to sign non-disclosure agreements - it was entirely predictable that an outlet like the New York Daily News would get its hands on an unauthorized early copy and highlight the nasty bits.
The most garish headlines generated by last week's leak involve a close Mitt Romney aide's fiery rebuttal to an anecdote from Election Night 2012. In Believer, Axelrod recounts the president's 'slightly irritated' and 'unsmiling' reaction to Romney's concession phone call.
Upon hanging up, Axelrod writes, Obama told a group of aides witnessing his end of the conversation that the Republican candidate had just complimented Obama's 'great job of getting out the vote in places like Cleveland and Milwaukee.' The president allegedly added: 'In other words, black people. That's what he thinks this was all about.'
In response, Romney's personal campaign aide - who had arranged the phone call - promptly called Axelrod a big fat fibber in suggesting that the former Massachusetts governor had made a veiled racial reference. 'I was so appalled that he just made that up,' Garrett Jackson insisted. 'I hope it's David Axelrod that concocted this crazy line and not the president.'
In his interview with The Daily Beast, Axelrod sticks to his story, and points out that other Obama operatives present during the phone call recalled the president's reaction in exactly the same way - especially Campaign Manager Jim Messina, who tweeted: 'Every word of @davidaxelrod mitt e-night call is true. I was standing with axe & POTUS. That's what happened.'
'I admire his loyalty - I have no beef with him,' Axelrod says about Garrett Jackson's outburst. 'There was no implication that Romney was trying to be ungracious. He was complimenting the campaign. This was at the end of a long battle and they each saw this through their own lens, and the president reacted ... He thought it was kind of a cramped way of analyzing what had just happened in the election. So I think this is just one of the kerfuffles in the run-up to a book release.'
Perhaps Axelrod's juiciest yarn - at least for some the self-absorbed, self-dramatizing pundits who traffic in the journalism biz - concerns a visit Maureen Dowd paid to the candidate on the 2008 Obama campaign plane.
'When we brought her to the front of the plane,' Axelrod writes, 'Obama proceeded to blister her for a previous column she had written. No one got under Barack's skin more than Maureen... He was patronizing and disrespectful...After that awkward encounter, she seemed to take particular delight in psychoanalyzing Barack and belittling him in print, which only deepened his contempt... 'Why are you friends with her?' he would demand after Maureen sent one of her acid darts his way.'
'Axe' also makes short work of Clinton strategist and pollster Penn, currently Microsoft's chief strategy officer, whom he describes as 'bloodless and calculating' during their brief stint toiling together, and tangling with each other, on Hillary's successful 2000 Senate race.
Penn 'saw his mission as quashing any liberal impulses of the candidate or the campaign, and he justified himself with fuzzy polling numbers and smug self-assurance that made every conversation grating,' he writes. 'I felt he spent as much time manipulating his clients as providing constructive counsel.'
Axelrod claims: 'I don't wish Mark ill ... The underlying premise of the book is I believe politics has meaning ... I believe politics is the way in which we organize ourselves to try and move the wheel of history and try to shape the future in a positive way. There's nobility in that calling.'
Axelrod adds, however, that Penn 'represents a not-rare view that politics is really a business. It's about winning elections, that's the ultimate goal, and political consulting is about making as much money as you can make. In certain ways, Mark became a surrogate of a style of thinking about politics that I strongly object to.'
By the end of the 2008 presidential campaign, David Axelrod, the self-described food-stained savant of US politics had put on 35lbs and looked like a doughy Michelin Man. Yet he had achieved immortality.
He had taken Barack Obama from improbable outsider to the country's first black president. After more than 150 campaigns and candidates who left him 'disappointed, appalled and, worst, ashamed', Axelrod had crafted a message for a man who made the world giddy at the simple possibilities bound up in the cry, 'Yes, we can!'
As the man with the walrus moustache wept, CNN called it for Obama, and all that was missing was a West Wing soundtrack of rousing trumpets and stirring strings.
Believer is a thrilling ride. Axelrod came of age in the 'wild, wild west of Chicago', where a candidate was as liable to be heading for the penitentiary as the seat of power. He dumped one candidate who asked where the Pope stood on abortion only to hitch up with another who also fell short: 'Holy crap,' I thought. 'This guy has a debate in 12 hours and he's shitfaced!'
The amazing rise of Obama was like being shot out of a cannon, he says, and it still reads like a political fairytale. Unfortunately, six years of hindsight makes it all but impossible to read without thinking, 'Yes, but look at what happened next'.
Hope and Change were dashed on the rocks by Republicans in Congress. Whatever Obama has achieved, Axelrod notes, he has been compelled to do it alone. Obama saved the car industry, reined in the banks and did what Bill Clinton could not by passing health insurance reforms to give millions cover, but he had to jam it all through Congress and paid a heavy cost, as the Tea Party revolution wiped out Democratic control of Capitol Hill.
When Marine One whirls him out of Washington for the final time in January 2017, he will leave behind a political morass more sludgy and toxic than ever. Mr Obama could never match the outsize expectations he had first stirred, Axelrod concedes.
But what a run and what a story. Axelrod, a former journalist ,takes us into the hotel rooms and debate preps where Mr Obama sneaks a cigarette behind Michelle's back, almost has his nose broken during a stress-relieving basketball game and sometimes swears prodigiously ('Motherf***er's never happy,' he says of Axelrod at one especially heated moment).
The air goes out of the book when they win the White House. Mario Cuomo, former mayor of New York, coined the phrase, 'You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose', and Axelrod ruefully repeats it.
He claims never to have been bored in Washington, but his two years away from family sound hellish. 'A relentless, bone-wearying, pressurefilled grind,' is how he describes life in the White House.
Ed Miliband has recruited him to sprinkle magic on Labour's general election campaign. Every race is different, but the protocol is the same, he says. Understand the arguments for and against, test them in polling, take two or three that work best with the targeted voters, and weave them into a narrative that tells you who your candidate is and why they are running. The winner is usually the one who defines what the race is about.
The book is a must for politicos; for journalists, it is worth the admission price to learn that on the wall of the Chicago Tribune, where Axelrod worked as a cub reporter, there was a sign that read: 'If your mother says she loves you: check it out.'
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