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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Axelrod grew up in a small apartment in a high-rise housing development in New York City. His mother, Myril, had been an education reporter for the experimental Marshall Field IV-owned Manhattan newspaper PM in the late 1940s, and she named David and his older sister, Joan, with an eye toward memorable by-lines. The driven Myril became a vice-president of the advertising firm Young and Rubicam. Her husband, Joseph, was a psychologist in private practice, a man Myril describes as “morose and depressed.” Joan, now a psychologist herself, differs: “You could say he was depressed, but that’s not what came through to us. Love did.” The Axelrods separated when David was seven and divorced when he was 15.

Myril and Joe had a more than passing interest in liberal New York politics, and their son wolfed down newspapers from the time he could read. When Robert Kennedy ran for the U.S. Senate in 1964, David handed out flyers at the Bronx Zoo. Later he stumped for mayoral candidate John Lindsay and Presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey.

David entered the University of Chicago in 1972, majoring in political science. “One of the things I found difficult was that the focus at the U. of C. back then was on nothing that happened after 1800,” he says. “Everything was theoretical. I was frustrated. See, I was on the South Side of Chicago, with all its problems, and in school the subject matter was arcane. As a defense mechanism I started writing about politics.” His outlet: the Hyde Park Herald, where at 18 he was spinning out a weekly political column. “I covered the hell out of that area,” says Axelrod immodestly. “I was pretty aggressive.”

Only a year later a policeman came to Axelrod’s apartment to give him the news that his father had committed suicide. “We were very close,” says Axelrod. “He was always very supportive. I think my father’s problem was that he was there for everyone, but he had no one himself. His dying meant that in one fell swoop I had to grow up fast, but more than anything else I missed him.”

Axelrod’s output at the Herald captured the attention of leftish political guru Don Rose, who recommended Axelrod for a summer intern’s job at the Tribune when he graduated. There were 13 young prospects that summer, bucking for four permanent slots at the paper, and Axelrod considered his chances nil. On the contrary, he proved “a standout” as an intern, according to Sheila Wolfe, the editor in charge of the program, and he was hired.

“I felt I had made the big leagues,” says Axelrod. There were some small scoops (he was facile enough to crash Michael Bilandic’s wedding to Heather Morgan and share hors d’oeuvres with veteran alderman Vito Marzullo), but mostly he flourished on a steady diet of “murder and mayhem, you know, the regular stuff.” In 1979 he was handed the task of covering Jane Byrne’s seemingly quixotic stab at the mayoralty. “She was fearless and very determined,”

Axelrod says. “She was convinced she was going to win and when she did, all of a sudden I was hot.”

Soon after, Tribune political reporter William Griffin was lured over by Byrne as her press secretary, and Axelrod assumed his second-banana status under then political editor Richard Ciccone. As he covered the Byrne administration, Axelrod’s relationship with the Mayor soured. Once, when Axelrod asked a question, she replied, “David, if I respected you I’d answer, but I don’t respect you.”

Ciccone was elevated to managing editor in 1982, and Axelrod became the lead political writer, with his mug shot topping his own column. His style took second place to his reporting. “Axelrod was the first political reporter at the Trib who was really associated with the liberal reform movement,” says Don Rose. “He was sympathetic to the movement, open to its plaints, and he developed a lot of contacts. One of the reasons he looked good was because the people he had developed associations with were on the ascendancy, like Harold Washington. He brought the Tribune into another era.” He was glib, and he turned into a fixture on Chicago Week in Review; in time he landed his own interview program on WXRT radio. He drove around in a filthy Chevy Nova with yellowing newspapers on the seats, and his desk at the Tribune was piled with junk. Despite appearances, however, Axelrod wasn’t concealing his outsize ambition.

Jeff Lyon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tribune features writer, met Axelrod on his first day as an intern, when Lyon was instructed by his editor to take “this political junkie with a brand-new stiff suit” along to cover the touchdown of a tornado in Lemont. Over the years Lyon has come to marvel at Axelrod’s “bipolar nature": “David’s about the brashest guy I’ve ever met, to the point where often he’s reckless. At the same time he’s astonishingly sensitive. He’s always coming back at you to ask if he did the right thing about one thing or another. I’ve always wondered, does the one side of his personality just not know about the other side?”

“I developed a love-hate relationship with what I did,” says Axelrod. “It was energizing, but it also was nerve-racking to be wrapped up in journalism to the exclusion of my wife and kids. Besides, newspapering is not a business to grow old in. You have to bring a youthful enthusiasm to it, but at 28 and 29 I felt myself doing things reflexively. Plus, I didn’t want to be a spectator my whole life. It occurred to me to find out what life was like on the other side of the fence.”

What finally pushed him to jump the fence was internal machinations at the Tribune. In 1983 Steve Neal was imported from the Trib’s Washington bureau to cover politics as well. “I was pissed,” admits Axelrod, who was also annoyed that the paper’s management refused to anoint him political editor. Tribune editor James Squires maintains that he determined no one should receive the title political editor, since the term implied that its recipient performed some editorial function—which was not the case. “We did away with such incongruous titles across the board,” says Squires, who cites the abandonment of editorships in urban affairs and religion during the same period. “David likes the game of politics more than covering it,” says Squires. “He was just looking for an excuse to leave.”

So off Axelrod went, to join Paul Simon and enter a profession at which he has developed certain noticeable skills. His television commercials owe their technical quality to a sharp Chicago filmmaker named Ron Lichterman, best known for his TV ads for WXRT. “But David’s rea1 value is his vision,” offers Ken Glover, who, as Washington’s re-election campaign manager, huddled with Axelrod and other aides every morning. “He can translate what he sees into a media program.” Says Stevenson, “David is a creative, somewhat mercurial guy, and he has a genius for encapsulating your positions. He goes instantly to the heart of what you want to say.”

Axelrod showed particular prowess in preparing Stevenson to debate Jim Thompson. In pre-debate coaching, Axelrod and Northwestern University professor Irving Rein peppered Stevenson with questions and video-taped his responses. “They told me I had to get things down to a 30-second news bite,” says Stevenson, who in his first go-round with Thompson was especially salty and rough. “Wrong again, Governor,” went Stevenson’s well-remembered refrain. In subsequent debates, Stevenson notes ruefully, Thompson had wised up and ”he went on the offensive.”

Axelrod is known to have his disputes—and sometimes to lose them. When Jeanne Quinn appeared before Democratic slate-makers in late 1985, Axelrod wanted her to blast the dickens out of Stanley Kusper. “But I didn’t want to come out with both guns blazing,” says Quinn, “because I felt it was totally out of character. I told David no, which disappointed him.”

     Anxiety often overtakes Axelrod, as in the Stevenson and Quinn campaigns. “When all our money dried up and with all the hammering in the press,” says Stevenson, “he was feeling the pressure. He is by nature nervous, and he was very nervous that fall.” Quinn recalls that Axelrod became so tense before some of her press conferences that he would skip the actual events.

If there is an antidote for Axelrod’s tightly wound self, it is the telephone—he is constantly on it, cracking jokes, shooting the breeze, counseling current candidates, and prodding possible ones. Within one recent hour, checking in with Axelrod by wire at his office were a pol1ster, a job seeker, a gossip columnist, Pat Quinn, and David Schulz, former Milwaukee County parks boss and a predecessor of Quinn as Chicago revenue director. And recently Axelrod installed a phone in his car (the Nova is gone, replaced by a Dodge Caravan). “It’s the kind of phone that plugs into your lighter,” he notes in utter seriousness, “so I can take it with me.”

Overall, life has improved for the Axelrods. Susan says that she and their three children—aged seven months and four and six years—see more of David than they used to. And Axelrod’s income has certainly improved. His firm charges fees of $15,000 to $60,000 per race, plus a commission of 15 percent on the commercials it places. He made $42,000 in his last year at the Tribune, but he now earns around six figures.

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