President Obama despises Maureen Dowd—absolutely loathes the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist. He’s annoyed by Mitt Romney. And the president’s messaging guru and top gun, David Axelrod, has little regard for Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton’s erstwhile chief strategist.
Those are a few of the gossipy take-aways from Believer: My Forty Years in Politics, Axelrod’s hotly-anticipated (by political junkies) memoir that goes on sale today.
Yet those anecdotes represent just the sort of slicing and dicing of a serious work of political and personal history that Axelrod—“Axe” to his friends—sees as yet another example of the media’s relentless marketing of sensationalism and triviality.
“More than anything, this is what’s terrible about modern media and how these books roll out,” Axelrod says. “I was determined to write a book that wasn’t going to be characterized by some titillating nugget that had about a three-day half-life, but rather an entire story of my life and the conclusions that life has led me to. I wanted to write a book that people might want to read years from now and not just today’s publication because they wanted to find out who had been knifing who.”
A lovely sentiment. But Axelrod, who likes to think of himself as a real-world idealist, surely knew not to get his hopes up.
A couple of weeks from 60, he’s a former shoe-leather newspaper reporter (in the political sump pit of Chicago, no less) who, during his four decades as a Democratic media consultant, has practiced the dark arts of campaigning with the best and the worst of them.
Believer—which is not as slavishly cult-like as the title indicates, since it acknowledges that, yes, Barack Obama has rough edges and human imperfections—tracks Axelrod’s career from his early childhood in New York City, when, at age 5, he attended a rally featuring candidate John Fitzgerald Kennedy and caught the political bug.
It recounts his precocious beginnings as a journalist, writing a political column at age 18 for the Hyde Park Herald; his parents’ divorce and his father’s subsequent suicide; and his guilty conscience over his own role as an often-absent parent, working on out-of-town campaigns while his wife, Susan, kept the family together as they confronted the challenge of raising a daughter seriously disabled by epileptic seizures.
“It was painful to write some of that,” Axelrod says, noting that he as he put together the family chapters, he sent them to his eldest son, Michael, as a cautionary note: “Don’t do to your kids what I did to you.”
The book treats Hillary Clinton, a client before she was an opponent—and today Axelrod’s preferred 2016 presidential candidate—with admiration and respect, even when her operatives are dissed, and even when Axelrod reports that she considered a post-2008 primary conversation with him, aboard the Obama campaign plane, about as welcome as a root canal.
“I think she’s going to be the [Democratic] nominee, and I will strongly support her,” says Axelrod, who claims that 2012 was his final campaign and that he has retired once and for all from political consulting; these days he presides over the Institute of Politics, which he founded in 2013 at his alma mater, the University of Chicago. “She’s in a very strong position—not to say that she’s guaranteed anything,” Axelrod says of Clinton. “The question—and only she can answer it when she becomes a candidate—is what kind of candidate she’ll be.”
Axelrod continues: “I thought she was not a very good candidate in 2007, when she was encased in this armor of inevitability. And she became a very compelling candidate in 2008 when she threw off that armor and threw caution to the winds, and really connected with people in a very visceral way about the struggles of their lives. And the fact that she herself looked vulnerable made her more accessible.”
On the Republican side, Axelrod says Jeb Bush, with his relatively enlightened views on immigration and education reform, would be a strong general election contender “if he can get through the primaries without being forced to make a Faustian bargain with the more extreme elements of his party.”
Axelrod is skeptical of the presidential buzz surrounding Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. “So he goes to Iowa and gives a good speech to a few hundred activists…and he’s the flavor of the month,” he says. “Presidential politics is like pole vaulting. Everyone can clear the early bar. But then the bar gets raised. And the reality is, how do you handle it when it gets really, really rough, when you’re under constant scrutiny, when everything you say becomes an issue?”
Axelrod has had some recent personal experience along these lines with the release of his book. Even though his publisher, Random House subsidiary Penguin Press, tried to enforce a strict embargo on reporting about its content—going so far as to require recipients of hardcovers to sign non-disclosure agreements—it was entirely predictable that an outlet like the New York Daily
News would get its hands on an unauthorized early copy and highlight the nasty bits.
The most garish headlines generated by last week’s leak involve a close Mitt Romney aide’s fiery rebuttal to an anecdote from Election Night 2012. In Believer, Axelrod recounts the president’s “slightly irritated” and “unsmiling” reaction to Romney’s concession phone call.
Upon hanging up, Axelrod writes, Obama told a group of aides witnessing his end of the conversation that the Republican candidate had just complimented Obama’s “great job of getting out the vote in places like Cleveland and Milwaukee.” The president allegedly added: “In other words, black people. That’s what he thinks this was all about.”
In response, Romney’s personal campaign aide—who had arranged the phone call—promptly called Axelrod a big fat fibber in suggesting that the former Massachusetts governor had made a veiled racial reference. “I was so appalled that he just made that up,” Garrett Jackson insisted. “I hope it’s David Axelrod that concocted this crazy line and not the president.”
In his interview with The Daily Beast, Axelrod sticks to his story, and points out that other Obama operatives present during the phone call recalled the president’s reaction in exactly the same way—especially Campaign Manager Jim Messina, who tweeted: “Every word of @davidaxelrod mitt e-night call is true. I was standing with axe & POTUS. That’s what happened.”
“I admire his loyalty—I have no beef with him,” Axelrod says about Garrett Jackson’s outburst. “There was no implication that Romney was trying to be ungracious. He was complimenting the campaign. This was at the end of a long battle and they each saw this through their own lens, and the president reacted…He thought it was kind of a cramped way of analyzing what had just happened in the election. So I think this is just one of the kerfuffles in the run-up to a book release.”
Perhaps Axelrod’s juiciest yarn—at least for some the self-absorbed, self-dramatizing pundits who traffic in the journalism biz—concerns a visit Maureen Dowd paid to the candidate on the 2008 Obama campaign plane.
“When we brought her to the front of the plane,” Axelrod writes, “Obama proceeded to blister her for a previous column she had written. No one got under Barack’s skin more than Maureen… He was patronizing and disrespectful…After that awkward encounter, she seemed to take particular delight in psychoanalyzing Barack and belittling him in print, which only deepened his contempt… ‘Why are you friends with her?’ he would demand after Maureen sent one of her acid darts his way.”
“Axe” also makes short work of Clinton strategist and pollster Penn, currently Microsoft’s chief strategy officer, whom he describes as “bloodless and calculating” during their brief stint toiling together, and tangling with each other, on Hillary’s successful 2000 Senate race.
Penn “saw his mission as quashing any liberal impulses of the candidate or the campaign, and he justified himself with fuzzy polling numbers and smug self-assurance that made every conversation grating,” he writes. “I felt he spent as much time manipulating his clients as providing constructive counsel.”
Axelrod claims: “I don’t wish Mark ill…The underlying premise of the book is I believe politics has meaning…I believe politics is the way in which we organize ourselves to try and move the wheel of history and try to shape the future in a positive way. There’s nobility in that calling.”
Axelrod adds, however, that Penn “represents a not-rare view that politics is really a business. It’s about winning elections, that’s the ultimate goal, and political consulting is about making as much money as you can make. In certain ways, Mark became a surrogate of a style of thinking about politics that I strongly object to.”