Book Review: 'Believer: My Forty Years in Politics' by David Axelrod
Review by Susan Grigsby
Before I can write about David Axelrod's memoir, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics, it is important that you know that I am a big Aaron Sorkin fan. I own one of those really neat sets of the entire West Wing series on DVD and even watch it every few years. It is important that you know that a deep-seated streak of idealism runs through my soul, no matter how much the realities of politics slaps it around or how hard I work at cynicism.
It is important to know what I believe because that influences which stories I choose to tell, just as what he believes influences what stories David Axelrod tells. But, what does he believe? A master craftsman with words, his life's work has been in crafting stories to get people elected to office. Where does the sales job end and the man begin?
In Believer, he writes:
For all the division, rancor, and tawdriness in our politics, the enduring ritual of Americans coming together to choose their leader and chart their course still moved me—as noble and inspiring to a weathered political warrior as it had been to a five-year-old child in New York City.
After a lifetime of the rough-and-tumble, I still believed: in politics as a calling; in campaigns as an opportunity to forge the future we imagine; in government as an instrument for that progress.
Unsurprisingly skeptical of the unsupported word of a professional storyteller, I looked elsewhere for characterizations of this man who has had so much to do with the political landscape of the 21st century. What I read was a remarkably consistent opinion of David Axelrod from those who have known and worked with him over the years. Their comments, and much more, can be found below the fold.
President Barack Obama walks on the Colonnade with advisor David Axelrod and personal aide Reggie Love on his first day in office, Jan. 21, 2009.
"Although he is as tough as they come, he’s actually not a mercenary," said Mr. Obama, of Illinois, in an interview. "He actually believes in what we're doing, which actually makes him a bad consultant when he doesn't believe in the candidate. And he’s a great consultant when he believes."
In a Guardian profile back in July of 2008, George DeLama, a friend since their days as interns at the Chicago Tribune, said of him:
David's central strength is that he is a genuine idealist. His critics sometimes say that he falls in love with his clients, that he's a dreamer—something I think he would recognise.
The same profile quotes Robert Shrum:
Obama seems to have that kind of quality - an equanimity, a serenity, vision - in almost all circumstances,' says Shrum. 'And David has it. They are melded in a lot of ways. And the fact that David can come over as low key should not disguise the fact that, intellectually, he is very, very high-wattage.
But now that he’s serving in government, it’s clear that the problem isn't so much flawed people—though, like anyone, Obama has his flaws—as a ferociously stubborn, possibly irredeemable system. For an idealist like David Axelrod, that may be the most terrifying thought of all.
As one would expect from a man who has spent his life choosing the perfect words to sell ideas, Believer is an engaging read from the first page of the Introduction that describes his 5-year-old self seeing John F. Kennedy campaign in Stuyvesant Town on Manhattan's Lower East Side. That was the beginning of his lifelong love of politics and its possibilities.
Son of a very laid-back psychologist father and a hard-driving journalist mother, he attended the University of Chicago about 10 years after the break-up of his parent's marriage. It was while at the Hyde Park campus that he learned of his father's suicide in 1974.
Upon graduation, which he very nearly missed, Axelrod took up a much sought-after internship with the Chicago Tribune. That led to a career in journalism in Chicago, specializing in its unique brand of politics. As a native who drank in Chicago politics like it was mother's milk, I relished his description of the city, with its unique wards determined not just by location, but by their ethnic diversity. It is a city of small towns ruled by city council aldermen who specialized in patronage.
As the editorial policy of the Tribune changed, the lure of politics called Axelrod to what would become his life's work—political campaigns. In 1984, he left journalism and joined the Senate campaign of liberal Democrat Paul Simon to unseat the once moderate, but now conservative, Republican incumbent, Charles Percy.
The Simon campaign attracted a lot of young talent. In addition to the 29-year-old Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel, at 24, was an aggressive young fundraiser and field operative. The future chair of the Democratic National Committee and campaign manager for Bill Clinton, David Wilhelm, was only 27. Forrest Claypool, who became Axelrod's business partner and later a Chicago public official, was 26.
Late in the campaign, when the media consultants urged Simon to "go all negative all the time," Axelrod held out for positive messages, winning a 50/50 split. His ad, that had Paul Simon face the camera and say the following, is the one that Aaron Sorkin could have written:
"There are a lot of pressures to sell out in politics, so you have to know what you believe and be ready to fight for it," Simon began. "I still believe in what America has always been about—hope; that we have an obligation to leave the next generation something better than what we found. Government must do its part— not just for the rich and powerful, but for all Americans. My opponent says that makes me old-fashioned. But I'd rather lose with principle than win by standing for nothing.
"I want to be a senator you can count on."
After the Simon win, Axelrod set up shop with Claypool and began working on other campaigns, including the successful re-election of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington and after him, the winning mayoral candidacy of Richard M. Daley, son of the original boss, Richard J. Daley. Axelrod became known as an urban specialist, appreciating the diversity of big cities as well as the local nature of city government, which is the government most Americans deal with on a day-to-day basis. Each success led to more campaigns in cities and states throughout the country.
Invited to join Bill Clinton's general election team as communication director, Axelrod reflected on what he owed his wife, Susan, and their three children, one of whom, Lauren, suffered from severe epileptic seizures that had only grown worse over the past 10 years. It offered him his first chance to work on a national campaign, the goal of any political operative.
Yet it took me just a day to say no. I recognized that this great opportunity would likely destroy my family. It was a watershed moment in my life. As driven as I was, I discovered that there was something more important to me than the job of my dreams. As imperfect a husband and father as I had been, I loved my wife and children. Leaving them at such a critical time would have been a shameful thing to do. I had been scarred by one driven parent who always put her career first, and by another who left me on my own when I was far too young. I wanted to do better for my kids. For someone bred to aspire, that recognition provided an oddly liberating moment.
Eight years later he turned down the Gore campaign's offer in order to support Susan's successful battle against breast cancer.
By 2002, he was involved in Rahm Emanuel's congressional campaign as well as Tom Villsack's re-election as Iowa's governor. In January of 2003, his friend, Barack Obama, announced his run for Senate. While consulting for Barack Obama, Axelrod also worked on John Edward's 2004 presidential primary campaign. That did not work out well for Axelrod, who could never quite deal with Elizabeth Edwards' mercurial temperament and Pygmalion-like attitude towards the candidate.
The bulk of the book, almost three-quarters, deals with Axelrod's relationship with the future president as they campaigned in three different races and as they worked together during the first two years of the Obama administration.
In a chapter titled "The Dogs Who Caught the Car," Axelrod discusses the transition, the new president's cabinet picks and the unimaginable financial crisis that was facing the nation. According to Christina Romer, they were looking at the deepest recession since the 1930s. Larry Summer suggested that there was a one-in-three chance of a second Great Depression, and Geithner informed them that the financial system could collapse. Peter Orszag followed with the news that the cost of the needed economic stimulus would increase the short-term deficits. Concerned with the impact of this avalanche of bad news, Axelrod watched for any signs of panic from the president-elect:
Just as we had seen during the most stressful moments of the campaign, Obama appeared calm, confident, and focused. “Well, it’s too late to ask for a recount, so we had better figure out what we’re going to do about this,” he said with a thin smile, the best he could muster under the circumstances.
To anyone who closely followed the 2008 and 2012 campaigns and Barack Obama's presidency, much of this section of the book is familiar territory. But what is interesting is the backstage view of the events that Axelrod shares.
Tim Russert's reaction to Obama's change of heart about running for the presidency was expressed in a phone call on the day after Obama's appearance on Meet the Press:
"You know, I've been doing this show for fifteen years, and no one has ever done that before," he said admiringly. "No one has ever simply fessed up and said, 'Yeah, I said that about not running, but now things have changed, and I’m thinking about running. I’ve changed my mind.'"
Axelrod's opinion of Mark Penn came up when he wrote about sitting out the 2008 race. Four of his clients would be in the race—Clinton, Edwards, Vilsack, and Chris Dodd. He had worked with Hillary Clinton on her 2000 Senate race and had deep respect for her, "but the idea of working with Mark Penn (her chief strategist) again was unthinkable." Because in 2000 Axelrod experienced ...
... the dark, brooding presence of Mark Penn, who replaced Morris as the Clintons’ resident pollster and strategist. True to the Morris creed, Penn saw his mission as quashing any liberal impulses of the candidate or the campaign, and he justified himself with fuzzy polling numbers and a smug self-assurance that made every discussion grating.
The discussion of marriage equality, which has preoccupied so many pundits since the book's release, was really pretty innocuous. Regardless of how he personally felt about marriage equality ("I just don’t feel my marriage is somehow threatened by the gay couple next door"), a leader simply cannot get that far ahead of those he wishes to lead. Was Obama unhappy about the compromises he had to make? Sure, he was. And Axelrod was well aware of that:
Here was the recurring tension between Obama the idealist and Obama the politician; between the man who understood that in order to serve and make a difference, you had to be elected, and the one who sometimes resented the compromises that the process required and the advisers who enforced them.
President Barack Obama and David Axelrod on the White House colonnade, June 25, 2009
There is a sense of idealism that permeates this book—the youthful idealism of the 5-year-old child who watched a future president lead a rally, and that propelled the 9-year-old to volunteer to work for Robert Kennedy, and then John Lindsay a year later, has been tempered by an adult's perception of imperfection, but it still exists. Writing of Barack Obama as a client:
He was an incomparable client—not perfect by a long shot; but brilliant and honorable and motivated by the best intentions; a good friend and a fellow idealist. I had been spoiled.
The Believer is a book that any progressive political junkie with a streak of idealism will enjoy. Well-written, it is easy to forget that it is 528 pages long. Perhaps that is because each page is filled with this man's fascinating journey through American politics that seems to have touched on every progressive race in the last 40 years.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.