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If any political candidate has made Axelrod’s new career, it’s Paul Simon. “I had a sense of him from reading the Tribune,” recalls the senator. “We had probably met somewhere along the line. I knew he was a good man, knowledgeable about politics, with sharp instincts.” In August of 1983 Simon, then a congressman anticipating a bid against Percy, asked Axelrod to become his press secretary over dinner in Greektown. “I thought about it,” remembers Axelrod, who was dissatisfied at the Tribune. “But it seemed a tremendous risk, and, besides, my wife was uncomfortable with the changes that politics would mean for our family. So I turned Paul down.” But after besting three rivals in the Democratic primary, Simon came courting again, and this time Axelrod said OK. A short, indirect association followed, through the PR firm of Jasculca-Terman, and then Axelrod jumped directly on board the Simon bandwagon as its flack.
No sooner did he arrive, however, than campaign manager Thomas Pazzi was fired for running up a big deficit, and Simon named Axelrod his successor. “Frankly, we put him in only temporarily,” says Simon, “but I was hoping he’d work out. David knew the people in the office, and politicians seemed to know and trust him.” There was some tough going at the outset, requiring Axelrod to fire 25 staffers and cut salaries by 25 percent, but he quickly took control of the campaign, arranging endorsements and fashioning overall strategies. He liked his subordinates (“There were no colliding egos"), and he hated Chuck Percy. “Percy became this evil character to David,” recalls a friend at the Tribune. “While Paul Simon embodied all the qualities of great goodness, Percy turned into an actual danger to society.”
“What Paul Simon has is an absolute commitment to principle,” says Axelrod today, ever the Simon zealot, “whereas the guy he was up against represented the opposite, someone who went from being a moderate to a right-wing Republican when it suited him.” Indeed, the Simon organization portrayed Percy as the ultimate waffler, shifting his opinion three times, to cite a favorite Simon example, on the B-1 bomber. To Percy, on the other hand, Simon became “the ultimate tax man,” laying out programs that the senator determined would lead to a $200-biIlion tax hike. But Percy faced other obstacles, among them a California real estate developer named Michael Goland, who doled out more than a million dollars of his own money to topple the senator.
“Our problems were never Simon,” says Carter Hendren, Percy’s campaign manager, who points instead to anti-Percy vendettas mounted by both Goland and right-wing groups. If the Simon campaign had a strength, he says, it than the firm of political adman Robert Squier. “Axelrod’s topnotch,” says Hendren, “but he was on board to enhance Simon’s credibility and implement whatever Squier said. David was the contractor for Squier, who was the architect.”
Carter Eskew; Squier’s emissary for the campaign, politely disagrees, arguing that Axelrod figured as one of three major string pullers for Simon, along with Eskew and pollster Paul Maslin, “but David was the guy who made the goddamn thing work.”
Simon edged out Percy by two percent of the vote, and Axelrod was launched. Along with Forrest Claypool, a research-oriented attorney who had also worked for Simon, Axelrod rented space in a downtown law office, and the two of them undertook some public-relations assignments. But their goal was to become political media consultants, and they considered going into business with political consultant David Doak; Bob Shrum, who had been Edward Kennedy’s press secretary; and Pat Caddell, best known as Jimmy Carter’s pollster. Caddell undid the deal for Axelrod. “Pat was so narcissistic and consumed with himself; and there were financial disagreements,” Axelrod explains. “It was like having gangrene. You see little bits of you cut away each day, until you have nothing left but-stumps.”
As it happened, Attorney General Neil Hartigan was then weighing a bid for governor, and when he decided to go for it, in early summer of 1985, Axelrod was brought aboard as media adviser. The gig didn’t last long. Axelrod considered his role part-time, whereas Hartigan thought that for his monthly fee of $5,000 Axelrod owed him a total commitment. Moreover, the attorney general and his adviser were incompatible. “David is very outspoken and emotional,” confides a Hartigan ally, “while Neil is diplomatic and obsessed with thoroughness; he’s the type of guy who starts thinking about getting the Christmas-tree lights up in September. They never hit it off.” Axelrod will only point to unspecified misgivings about Hartigan. The relationship reached a climax at a luncheon meeting of Hartigan campaign advisers at the McCormick Inn. Before the meal was over, Axelrod got up to leave, explaining that he had another appointment. “Is this all I get for my time?” Hartigan asked angrily, and though he quickly apologized for the outburst, Axelrod was gone from the campaign within days.
But there were further recriminations, because Axelrod soon signed on as media adviser to Adlai Stevenson, who had suddenly “felt the sap rising” and decided to take on Hartigan. In the aftermath Axelrod’s ethics came into question, according to Joe Novak, a strategist for many Regular Democrats and then an unpaid counselor to Hartigan: “Dave is out one day, selling Neil Hartigan like he’s the Second Coming, and when there are problems David goes looking for a second candidate. What a candidate believed in was less important to Axelrod than that he had a horse.” The close-mouthed Hartigan says that he had a “natural concern” about the perceived two-timing. Moreover, Axelrod received and cashed a $5,000 check from the Hartigan campaign after he had exited and as he was helping launch Stevenson.
Axelrod considers it a mistake to have banked the money but says that he subsequently returned it. He claims that he worked for Hartigan when the attorney general appeared to be the only contender. As for Stevenson, Axelrod says that he simply felt he was “the best man” for governor and did encourage him to enter the fray. Says Stevenson, “More than anyone else he persuaded me to run.” Hartigan dropped out in November, sinking the ambitions of attorney-general aspirant Marty Oberman, the 43rd Ward alderman and another Axelrod client.
Stevenson didn’t feel that he needed advertising in advance of the March 1986 Democratic primary, and so Axelrod busied himself with other clients. Cook County Board commissioner Jeanne Quinn came close to besting incumbent Cook County clerk Stanley Kusper for renomination, and Chuck Bernardini, a former chair of the Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organization, won a Democratic berth for the County Board thanks partly to Axelrod’s substanceless radio ads that played humorously off the candidate’s name to kazoo music.
Like everyone else, Axelrod was asleep at the switch when two supporters of Lyndon LaRouche swept past George Sangmeister and Aurelia Pucinski, Stevenson’s candidates for lieutenant governor and secretary of state. The day after the LaRouche victory, Stevenson huddled with his advisers in his La Salle Street law office, and Axelrod counseled his client to quit the race altogether. “I thought he should resign,” says Axelrod. “He couldn’t run with those maniacs, and I didn’t think a third-party race was doable.” But Stevenson hung tough, and when he found that the La Rouchies could not be removed from the ticket he did mount a third-party bid against Thompson. “In the following months Stevenson was battered by the press and deserted by politicians,” Axelrod says. “It reached the point of the absurd. It was the political equivalent of AIDS.”
To combat such an affliction required extreme measures, among them lots of anti-Thompson commercials. One was notably clever; it showed a tap dancer executing some shifty steps before a door-marked OFFICE OF THE GOVERNOR while an announcer charged that Thompson had flip-flopped on raising taxes, failed to hold down utility rates, and lost the state jobs. Other commercials were blunt without the wit. Stevenson says that he went along reluctantly: “All the polling data we had showed that Thompson was vulnerable. My own attitude is that negative advertising isn’t right, but Dave felt we had to emphasize our strong points, and those were that Thompson had not been truthful on matters like taxes.” Yet Thompson, outspending Stevenson heavily in TV and radio advertising ($1.7 million to $650,OOO) and with the LaRouche situation to his advantage, pulverized his opponent in November.
Among Axelrod’s other November clients was County Board president George Dunne, so sure of himself—or so cheap—that his TV ads relied on still photographs. There was Mary Lou Kearns, the Kane County coroner, in a doomed try to defeat state representative J. Dennis Hastert for a seat in Congress. Not to mention Richard Elrod, the Cook County sheriff, making for an alliance that some of Axelrod’s liberal friends consider a gaffe. Political adviser Don Rose, for example, can see no justification for Axelrod’s liaison with Elrod, “a corrupt element in the Machine from the time he was brought into it as a baby.”
Axelrod had misgivings about working for Elrod, “but ultimately we agreed to do it because he was a Democrat,” he says, “and we didn’t want a Republican to get the position. Also, I did feel that [former police superintendent] Jim O’Grady was a bit of a phony. Here he was, once Elrod’s right-hand man, and now he was out after Elrod.” There was some attempt to humanize the dour-looking Elrod in his ads, but the thrust was to go fairly negative in an attempt, says Axelrod, “to knock O’Grady off his pedestal.” The hardest-hitting TV spot linked O’Grady to a Police Department practice of strip-searching women suspected of crimes, a practice that O’Grady said he did everything to exorcise once he discovered its existence. Nevertheless, Axelrod still blames O’Grady. “Our campaign was in trouble, and that ad was a throw of the dice,” he says. “You know, negative media is like radiation therapy. It’s hard to judge when you’re curing or killing, and with the strip-search ads maybe we were a few rads over the red line.” O’Grady squeaked to victory.
Considering Axelrod’s results, with Stevenson and Elrod, Joe Novak calls 1986 “a total disaster for Axelrod.”
A turnaround was quick in coming, though. Along with Doak and Shrum, Axelrod had applied to be the media adviser for Harold Washington’s re-election campaign, yet had lost out to Don Rose. “In November I was wrongly accused of leaking some material to the press, and other sins,” says Rose. “Ken Glover fired me.” Glover, an investment banker who ran the Mayor’s campaign, counters that Rose’s role was only altered to that of “message manager.”
In any event, Axelrod was brought into the breach around Thanksgiving to navigate Washington past Jane Byrne, Thomas Hynes, and Ed Vrdolyak to a second term.
The early polls indicated that Washington enjoyed a wide enough passage, given his ability to lure a predominance of black voters, half of the Hispanics, and ten percent of the whites. “In a situation like that,” says Rose, “your job is to maximize what’s there, to hold the coalition and, if possible, develop it.” Axelrod’s road of attack with Byrne was to remind the electorate of what a skunk she had been, and he crafted some succinct commercials tying her to tax hikes, a deficit when she exited office, and an inability to retain aides. Notable among Byrne’s rejoinders was a lightning-bolt spot alleging that Washington backer Judge R. Eugene Pincham had divided the city with racist remarks. It got her nowhere. “David did a good job,” says Joe Pecor, Byrne’s campaign manager, “though there’s no doubt he’s a slasher.”
With Hynes and Vrdolyak, Axelrod could save his switchblade, for the alderman savaged the assessor himself over Hynes’s claim that Vrdolyak had huddled with reputed mobster Joseph Ferriola. “Hynes was the pest,” cracks Axelrod, “and Vrdolyak was the Orkin man.”
Through the campaign Axelrod came to like Washington if not love him. “Harold is an extraordinarily engaging guy in public,” says Axelrod, “with a good sense of humor. But in private he’s reclusive, a sphinx. When it comes to his life, he doesn’t talk, and he never inquires about yours. He never asks about your wife or kids. But he’s very bright and funny, with that infectious way about him. I think he’s a good guy.”
The second swearing-in of Harold Washington occurred at noon on May fourth at the Petrillo Band Shell in Grant Park. Axelrod, looking uncharacteristically swell in a dark suit, red tie, and tan topcoat, was seated near Mr. T. As Baptist minister J. M. Stone delivered the benediction, Axelrod eyed one side of the band shell. The Mayor’s friends and adversaries—Byrne, Michael Bilandic, Dunne, Alan Dixon, Jesse Jackson, and Hartigan—had joined hands at the minister’s request. Jackson held hands with Byrne, showier than ever in a black-and-white dress and broad-brimmed hat. Byrne, in turn, linked up with Bilandic. All the pols knit paws for a minute, then two, far beyond the comfort stage. Bilandic, for one, looked positively bilious.
Cracking a smile, Axelrod longed ever so briefly to be a reporter again, but the desire passed like a shot. He had worked for half the hand holders and against the other half—and then some. Who knew whom he’d work for tomorrow?
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