Hatchet Man: The Rise of David Axelrod

From our December 1987 issue: On the man who would be the Obama’s chief campaign strategist

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The gray Ford Tempo sedan is rumbling along country roads between Des Moines and Knoxville, Iowa. It is a hot June morning, and the air conditioning in the Ford is jacked up high. Jeanne Simon, the wife of U.S. Senator Paul Simon, sits in the back seat, next to political consultant David Axelrod. The senator, who has just announced for the Presidency, is riding up ahead in another car, and for half an hour Axelrod dishes out gossip, wisecracks, and political advice to Simon’s alter ego.

Axelrod is a tall, black-haired man of 32 with crafty eyes, a thick mustache, and a high part. When he was the Tribune’s chief political writer, Axelrod used to appear on Channel 11’s Chicago Week in Review; afterward, viewers would ask the host, “Who’s the guy who looks like Hitler?” Actually, Axelrod looks more like some exotic rodent that might come out of the woods at night to topple your garbage. His forelock is invariably mussed and his shirttail out—"like an unmade bed,” sighs Axelrod’s mother.


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Jeanne Simon—a former state representative—and Axelrod talk about Illinois Attorney General Neil Hartigan a bit, then Victor DeGrazia, the Machiavellian associate of former governor Dan Walker. Seeing an opening, Axelrod plants a bug in Jeanne’s ear: “Paul needs more manpower out here. The caucuses are won in the field, by your guys sitting in people’s living rooms. You need more field organizers.” Jeanne nods, and then Axelrod asks, “What do you think the statistical odds are that Dan Walker would have married two women named Roberta?” The talk drifts to the fate of a hapless campaign manager. “Bad campaign managers get passed along like venereal disease,” quips Axelrod. “Oh, David,” giggles Jeanne.

Oh, David, indeed. As the Tempo bounces on deeper into the Iowa countryside and the conversation continues apace—scuttlebutt has it that Downstate congressman Ken Gray isn’t going to seek re-election from Simon’s old district; in the pocketbook Paul Simon is “tight as a tick,” Jeanne says, laughing—Axelrod feels satisfied that he has made his point. Ostensibly he has come to Iowa to travel with Simon for a few days, to critique the senator’s stump speech and presentation and deliver some advice.

Axelrod wants the best for Paul Simon, both because he is devoted to the man and because the best for Paul Simon could well be the best for David Axelrod. In October Simon named Axelrod his national media consultant. So picture Axelrod the kingmaker. “It’s possible that David Axelrod is going to be one of the most important people in the country within the next 12 months,” predicts Phillip Krone, a veteran political adviser for Chicago’s Regular Democrats.

Axelrod’s rise has been swift. In 1984, he left a plum job as chief political writer at the Tribune to stage Paul Simon’s successful campaign to unseat Charles Percy from the U.S. Senate. Since then, he has gone on to arrange media strategy for a host of other candidates, among them Adlai Stevenson, George Dunne, Harold Washington, and, lately, a few beyond Illinois. Axelrod and his staff at Axelrod & Associates, including partner Forrest Claypool, a production manager, and a time buyer, operate out of a starkly furnished River North loft. They research the vulnerabilities of an opponent, isolate the issues to stress, orchestrate press conferences, write and produce commercials, and book them on the air. The firm has had its share of losses, but that is nothing Axelrod apologizes for: “I’m going to have a somewhat mixed record,” he says, “because I work for a lot of insurgent candidates.”

Of course, Axelrod-primed insurgents occasionally end up in debacles, or what else would you call Stevenson’s last gubernatorial race against the incumbent James Thompson? Moreover, despite an avowed policy of working with reform Democrats, Axelrod has sometimes danced with fixtures of the Machine, like Richard Elrod and Neil Hartigan. Those little two-steps invariably turned out badly. Axelrod’s holier-than-a-hack image is also soiled by a penchant for airing negative television commercials. “Now, when you put on negative ads, whipping the other guy, they always say you are debasing the process,” says Axelrod, by way of justification. “But if you run positive media, playing up your guy, they call you an idiot.”

And the last thing David Axelrod wants to be called is an idiot.

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