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David Axelrod

The political consultant, 64, on why he’s done with presidential campaigns and what law made him cry

Illustration by Kathryn Rathke
Illustration: Kathryn Rathke

It’s hard to avoid the cynical side of politics. It got to points where I thought about quitting because I didn’t want to succumb to that. One was in 2002. I was going through this sort of existential crisis when Barack Obama called. He had lost to Bobby Rush by 30 points in a race for Congress and was at a crossroads. He said, “I’ve got one race left in me. I promised Michelle I’ll get a real job if this doesn’t pan out, but I want to run for the U.S. Senate.” That race helped reinvigorate me.

Going through a presidential campaign at a very high level is an extraordinarily demanding, taxing deal. Your mind is racing 24 hours a day, you don’t sleep, you don’t eat well, you’re traveling constantly, you’re under constant pressure. Now I have two grandchildren, and I don’t want to do that again.

I have a lot of regrets about the sacrifices I inflicted on my wife and children when I was pursuing my career. I persuaded myself that it was important to do. Now I look back and realize there were actually more important things I needed to do, and the fact that I didn’t make time for those things is a source of embarrassment and shame.

The higher you go in politics, if you’re not able to reveal who you are, you’re not going to succeed. I think Hillary Clinton learned that in the last election. With Donald Trump, for all of his shortcomings, you never hear anybody say, “Gee, I wish he’d just speak his mind.” I said a long time ago that presidential campaigns are like MRIs for the soul. Whoever you are, people find out. And if you try to hide it, they know that, too.

Seeing Ed Burke topple is like watching a statue in Grant Park be pulled down. But these revelations are healthy reminders that times have changed and government should change with them.

The years I spent as a journalist were some of the best of my life. I lived for the story. From the time I woke up to the time I went to sleep, I was thinking: Did I miss something? Is there a call I haven’t made? A lot of skills I learned were essential to my work in politics, the first of which is narrative. Campaigns are about telling a story of who you are and where you want to lead. So you learn how to ask questions and what questions to ask. But people will surprise you with the answers. If you’re a reporter and you’re no longer ready to be surprised, it’s time not to be a reporter anymore.

I got married when I was 24. It was probably too young, but I met the woman of my dreams. Susan is a very independent woman, and that’s what attracted me to her. She has always been willing to be candid with me. I trust her judgment more than anybody else’s.

Two years after getting married, we had a daughter, Lauren, who had very serious epilepsy. It consumed us for many years. When I was Obama’s political adviser and we were working on the Affordable Care Act, the best political advice was, “Don’t do this because it’s risky, and we have a lot of things going on right now. Seven presidents have tried this. Seven have failed.” But the other part of me had almost gone bankrupt when I was a young reporter and insurance wouldn’t cover Lauren’s medications and other things she needed. We were paying a thousand dollars a month out of pocket, and we couldn’t change providers because she had a preexisting condition. The care she got probably saved her life, but I had experienced the worst of the health care system.

The night the Affordable Care Act passed, I wept. We were all together in the White House, and I went into my office, closed the door, and cried. Because of what the president had done, and what we had done to help him, there were kids and families that wouldn’t have to go through what my family went through. And that made everything real.

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