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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

David Axelrod Dishes on Obama, Jarrett, and Blago in New Book

The former Obama aide shares his tales about almost every Chicago pol in the last 30 years.

David Axelrod in 2011.  Photo: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune

Memoirs by the spin-meisters behind the candidates often make dull reading because, while their authors may be shrewd at shepherding clients through the sturm and drang of a campaign, they’re behind-the-scenes, not center stage actors. David Axelrod, whose book Believer is published today, is an exception. A New Yorker who came here to attend the University of Chicago and never left—he founded and now directs the University’s Institute of Politics—Axelrod is a complex man who is given to depression and self doubt, burdened by a grim family history—his telling of which, oddly, is one of the more interesting aspects of his memoir.

As the title indicates, Axelrod portrays himself as an idealist who is motivated by helping the good guys get elected; the men and women for whom public service is a calling, not a stop on the way to riches as a lobbyist or public speaker. What the title doesn’t indicate is that Axelrod, a man about to turn 60 and of considerable wealth gleaned from 32 years of practicing his craft, is also a bare-knuckled operative in the service of clients ranging from Rich Daley to Rod Blagojevich to Barack Obama.

First some background on the author: His father was a gentle, kind, psychology PhD who never made much money and who under-charged his needy patients because, he said, they had enough problems in their lives without having to worry about his fees. His mother was an ambitious journalist and later a vice president at Young & Rubicam, in an era when few women occupied newsrooms, much less executive suites at ad agencies. Husband and wife had little in common. When David was 8 they split and later divorced. “My mother was as subtle as a sledgehammer, [and] had little time or emotional space for me.” When he did well in the conventional sense of high grades, job offers, winning campaigns, she was “thrilled;” when he didn’t, “she would keep it to herself like a dark family secret.”

In the spring of 1974, a policeman knocked at the door of Axelrod’s Hyde Park apartment to tell him that his father had committed suicide and that he must go to New York to identify the body. Axelrod writes that his father, to whom he was extremely close, “left me $17,000, an old Plymouth fury, and a broken heart.” For many years, the anniversary of his death brought crushing despair. “What did it say about my fate that the man I so admired could end up broke and alone, overcome by feelings of failure.”

On graduating from the U of C, Axelrod landed a job at the Chicago Tribune. He was soon stuck with night duty, covering “fires, plane crashes, and homicides.” His luck improved when he was assigned to cover the late Jane Byrne, who was running for mayor and seemed to his editor to have the slimmest chance of winning. A snowstorm changed all that, and Byrne won. As the Tribune’s resident expert on Chicago’s first female mayor, Axelrod’s status grew.

Byrne beat the machine-installed, “charismatically challenged” Michael Bilandic. Axelrod describes Bilandic as a “tone-deaf” and a “hapless understudy” whose response to the 1979 blizzard was “a portrait of indifference, futility, and denial.” The rookie mayor ordered the CTA to run “express service from downtown to the suburbs, bypassing stops on the city’s mostly black South and West Side neighborhoods.” Axelrod describes Richard M. Daley stopping by City Hall to warn Bilandic that he was making a big mistake. While riding home to Bridgeport together, “Daley dusted off an icy window and pointed to a group of freezing commuters. `You see those people, Mike? They’re waiting for a bus that isn’t coming. And they hate you.’” Bilandic, an avid runner, replied, “They should walk, Richard. It’s good for them.”

Covering Bryne was a rollercoaster ride. She transformed from Richard J. Daley acolyte and machine loyalist to reformer and then back to “running City Hall like a parody of the old machine.” Her “punchiest lines” were fed to her by her second husband, Jay McMullen, formerly a City Hall reporter for the Chicago Daily News whom Axelrod describes as “loutish.”

In 1983, while still working for the Tribune—he would cross over from reporter to handler the next year—Axelrod asked Congressman Harold Washington if he was going to challenge Byrne in the upcoming mayoral race. Why would he, he replied. Congress was easy. “They treat you like a king. You can come and go as you please…Now Mayor? That a real job, 24/7….Why would I do that to myself?” Three months later he announced he was running, going on to beat Byrne and Daley.

The city’s first African American mayor won a second term in 1987. On the night of Washington’s victory speech, Axelrod, then working for Washington, noticed both the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who planned to run for President again in 1988, and “boxing impresario” Don King in the room. Axelrod knew that the men, whom he calls “inveterate camera hogs,” would force their way into the “hero shot.” To block them, Axelrod writes, “We decided to flood the stage with a multiracial crowd of supporters.” Axelrod watches as they worked their “way to the lectern from opposite sides, like knives through butter,” one on either side of Washington. As Washington finished his speech, Jackson “grabbed the mayor’s left arm to hoist it in the familiar victory salute.” But Washington plastered his arm to the lectern, waving to the crowd with his free hand. As he exited the stage, Washington whispered to Axelrod, “I’ll be damned if I was going to let that SOB lift my arm up.”

In 1996 he helped Rod Blagojevich get elected to congress. Axelrod wrote a 12-page memo to the Tribune’s editor objecting to a pending investigation piece aimed at proving that Blago had been a “ghost payroller” in the office of his father-in-law, Alderman Dick Mell. Axelrod dismissed the investigation as a “search-and-destroy mission.” Sounding nothing like the reporter he once was, he complained that the paper was dropping Freedom of Information requests “all over town.” So Axelrod “began tracking [the reporters’] inquiries,” collecting affidavits from people who said Rod had helped them as they sought assistance at Mells’ office. While pieces of the story would eventually run, the blockbuster expose was eviscerated.

About Blago’s time in Congress, Axelrod writes, “…he became known more for his elaborate pranks than his body of work.” I was taken aback when in the next sentence Axelrod expresses gratitude to Blago for taking on “my son Michael as an unpaid intern for three summers and help[ing] lift the spirits of a boy who was burdened by many challenges.” By 2002, Blago decided to run for governor. He asked Axelrod for help. “Why do you want to be governor?” Axelrod asked him. “You can help me figure that out,” Blago replied. Axelrod declines: “If you can’t tell me why you’re running, I can’t help you explain it to others.”

And then there’s Axelrod’s most famous client, Barack Obama. When Obama, the big loser in a congressional race in 2000 to Bobby Rush, came to Axelrod in 2002 to tell him that he wanted to run for the U.S. Senate, Axelrod tried to talk him out of it. Wait and run for mayor after “Daley was done,” Axelrod advised. Or run in a primary against Congressman Danny Davis whom Axelrod describes as “a thoroughly decent but hardly impactful” congressman. Obama’s mind was made up, and Axelrod, who writes that he was suffering from a “growing sense of alienation from politics” and that “Obama offered a path back to the ideals that had drawn me to politics in the first place,” agreed to help.

Two years later, Obama had set his sights on the White House. The path, Axelrod writes, was not smooth. A Rolling Stone reporter researching a profile of Obama sat in the pews of Obama’s church, Trinity United Church of Christ, as Dr. Jeremiah Wright preached, “Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run!” Wright was scheduled to give the invocation in Springfield in January, 2007 as Obama announced his run for the presidency. At the last minute, Axelrod canceled the public prayer—Wright was allowed to pray privately with the family—which earned Axelrod “a withering look” from Rev. Wright. 

As Obama inched closer to grabbing the nomination from Hillary Clinton, Axelrod planned a photo op featuring Obama going bowling in Altoona, Pennsylvania, ahead of the Pennsylvania primary. “The image of Obama in a bowling alley could cut against the elitist caricature his opponents wanted to hang on him,” Axelrod writes. Unfortunately, playing seven frames, Obama scored a 37. “Instead of connecting with working class voters, Barack became a butt of their jokes.” Adding to Axelrod’s alarm were remarks recorded and published after a supposedly off-the-record, big-bucks fundraiser in San Francisco. Talking about working-class (read white) Pennsylvania voters, Obama explained that there were no jobs and that these people knew the jobs weren’t returning. “So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion….as a way to explain their frustrations.”

“He sounds like Margaret fucking Mead," Axelrod recalls screaming in frustration, “interpreting the natives to a freaking anthropology conference.”

When President-elect Obama tells Axelrod that he’s thinking about Rahm for chief of staff, he tasks Axelrod with feeling Rahm out. “Fuck no,” Rahm screams into the phone. “Absolutely not. I’m not fucking doing this David. Tell him not to call.”

“I think he’ll do it,” Axelrod tells Obama. “You should give him a call.”

Rahm had many reasons for his reluctance to accept the COS job, but near the top of his list, he told Axelrod, was “I don’t want to manage the president’s best friend.” That would be Valerie Jarrett who still serves as senior adviser in the White House. Rahm wanted to exile her to Obama’s seat in the U. S. Senate. Working through an unnamed intermediary, Rahm tried to persuade Blago to appoint her. Obama made it clear that he and Michelle wanted her in the White House, and he tried to dampen Jarrett’s obvious interest in the appointment by warning her, “It sounds attractive now, but when you’re spending the next few years stomping around county fairs downstate, trying to get yourself elected, you might have a different view.”

Blago was still exploring what he might get in return for a Valerie Jarrett appointment—a cabinet post, an ambassadorship—but Rahm told his “go-between” that Blago would get Obama’s thanks and appreciation. That sparked the famous lines from the FBI’s Blago tapes: “I’ve got this thing and it’s fucking golden….I’m just not giving it up for fucking nothing.”

Axelrod is similarly unimpressed by Jarrett. He resents her intrusions into the campaign, writing that she had “virtually no campaign experience, at any level, making some of her criticisms hard to take.” Later in that brutal primary campaign, the Obamas and Jarrett decide that Axelrod and a couple of his compatriots “exercised too much power over the campaign,” and that more “`discipline’ in our message operation” was needed.

“By my accounting,” Axelrod writes in one of the few places in this long (488 pages) book in which he turns petulant: “We had moved from quixotic challenger to the doorstep of the Democratic nomination on the strength of the strategic messaging I had developed from the start.” He adds, “I certainly hadn’t suggested the `clinging to guns and religion’ line or unleashed Reverend Wright—and I wouldn’t have sent Barack to a bowling alley if I had known he was going to roll a 37!”

It will be worth watching what role Axelrod has, if any, in Obama’s post presidency and in the planning and construction of the Obama presidential library. The New York native turned “Chicago guy” told CBS This Morning today that “there’s no question…the library should go in Chicago,” and he signaled that he thinks it should go to his alma mater over its main competitor, New York’s Columbia University. Obama “had such an interest in reviving the South Side of Chicago….He can do so much with this one gesture that it’s hard for me to believe that he’ll pass on that opportunity.”

[Perhaps Obama should resume consulting more with Axelrod and less with Valerie Jarrett, who is rumored to be advising the Obamas to select Columbia’s proposed site in West Harlem. 

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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