As President Obama's political consultant, David Axelrod was guarded and disciplined when he appeared on the weekend talk shows. He stayed on message, with little hint of humor or personality. But the Axelrod we meet in his autobiography, "Believer," is a different creature altogether.
This Axelrod, liberated from the constraints of messaging, is warm and wry, loyal to Obama without being uncritical, and occasionally acid in his appraisals of others — now-Secretary of State John Kerry, political consultant Mark Penn and former Sen. John Edwards will not be among this book's biggest fans.
FOR THE RECORD
David Axelrod: A review in the Feb. 16 Calendar section of the book “Believer: My Forty Years in Politics” by David Axelrod said that then-Gov. George Ryan’s candidacy for the 2004 Illinois Senate race collapsed after the release of divorce files. It was Jack Ryan, not the governor, whose candidacy collapsed.
It helps that Axelrod can write. A journalist before he was a political consultant, his book is revealing, sometimes in ways I suspect he did not intend (more on that in a moment), but best of all, it is well told — the work of a capable, professional storyteller.
He begins his story in childhood, prodded by a demanding mother, attached to his more loving father, to whom he gravitated when his parents divorced. But his father, burdened by debts, committed suicide when Axelrod was just 19, and the young man slogged through college before finding new father figures in the bosom of the newsroom of the Chicago Tribune.
Axelrod was an impressive political reporter, drawn to colorful characters and hints of corruption. He thrived in Chicago's target-rich environment, but as the Tribune newsroom changed, he felt alienated from its new leadership and moved from covering campaigns to orchestrating them. At that point a young father with a daughter suffering from debilitating epilepsy, Axelrod agonized over the decision (he does his share of agonizing in this book), but his wife, Susan, overcame her initial reservations and blessed the move.
It was then that Axelrod launched the career that would make him worthy of a biography, although the early chapters of it take a little patience as he plows through one campaign after another. He has kind words for most of those he encounters in those years but not all. A pair of notable exceptions are John and, especially, Elizabeth Edwards — the preening, shallow North Carolina senator and the shrewish, nasty wife (at least in Axelrod's telling). Elizabeth Edwards is described as "edgy and quite often unhappy" and explosive with "fury and disdain."
It's a little uncomfortable to read those passages, recognizing that she has since died and can't defend herself (moreover, we've since learned that John Edwards carried on a long affair and had a child with his mistress, so his wife might have had reason to be cranky), but they at least prove that Axelrod is not all kindness and appreciation. Kerry, meanwhile, comes off as self-interested and cautious, while Penn is presented as a cynical counterpoint to Axelrod's idealism.
The crux of the story is Obama, whom Axelrod first encountered as a principled, ambitious and tough-minded young lawyer looking to break into politics. Axelrod's recounting of their history is immensely fond, though he cocks an eyebrow at his patron now and again — needling him for questioning his consultant's advice on such things as the campaign logo and tweaking him for following pundits while denying it.
Obama began his career without Axelrod's help when he muscled his way into the Illinois Senate and then unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Bobby Rush.
Four years later, he ran for the U.S. Senate, this time with Axelrod as his consultant. Obama was helped by luck — former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun thought about running for the seat but opted to run for president instead (oops), and then Gov. George Ryan's candidacy collapsed with the release of his divorce files, which among other things revealed that he'd forced his wife to go to strip clubs with him (ick). Obama won handily.
The most riveting section of Axelrod's memoir begins there, as Obama moves to Washington and gradually is drawn to running for president. It was, as Axelrod recounts, a fortuitous opportunity: The campaign gathered momentum as the war in Iraq soured, leaving Obama to benefit from his consistent opposition.
But Obama — and Axelrod — had greater ambitions than running against the war. They campaigned to change the nature of American politics, and here is where Axelrod's story is unintentionally illuminating. Describing the annual Jefferson-Jackson event in Iowa in 2007, Axelrod critiques Hillary Rodham Clinton's speech (he has the annoying habit of referring to the former first lady, senator and, later, secretary of State as merely "Hillary") and concludes that its heavy reliance on partisanship represented "more of the same." Obama, by contrast, offered a "reasoned and resonant argument for deeper and more fundamental change."
True enough, but Axelrod himself later concedes that Obama has not delivered that fundamental change; Washington today is at least as divided, intransigent and unproductive as on the day Obama was elected.
There is no denying that Obama has confronted a maddening welter of stupidity, obstinacy and, yes, racism. And his record is one of profound achievement: He's ended two wars, fixed the American economy, brought health insurance to millions of Americans, saved the American auto industry and killed Osama bin Laden.
And yet, his mission to repair our politics has fallen short, and Axelrod's analysis begs an important question: Would Clinton, with her old-school combativeness — her audience call and response that night in Iowa, Axelrod notes, had "all the spontaneity of a Politburo meeting" — have had more success navigating the divides of Washington than Obama?
We may find out soon.
Newton is editor of a new magazine, Blueprint, to debut this spring. He collaborated with Leon Panetta, Obama's CIA director and secretary of Defense, on Panetta's autobiography, "Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace."
My Forty Years in Politics
Penguin Press, 509 pp., $35