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Book review: “Believer: My Forty Years in Politics” by David Axelrod

I’ve known David Axelrod for more than 30 years. We were colleagues as reporters at the Chicago Tribune. Then, after he moved across the street to become a political operative instead of a political reporter, I would bump into him now and again as I covered various stories.

Then, in 2008, he was the chief strategist for Barack Obama’s first presidential run, and I was assigned to do a profile of him. My 4,600-word article in the Chicago Tribune Magazine was titled “The Agony and the Agony,” an allusion to Axelrod’s constant fear of failure, even in the midst of great triumph, the inner engine that drove his frenetic pace…and pacing.

Now, here’s his book Believer: My Forty Years in Politics.




As a reporter, I hated to interview Axelrod because of his ability as a spin doctor. So I found it interesting that, in Believer, he mentions the word “spin” only six times.

For instance, after a debate between Obama and Hillary Clinton, he writes about going to “the ‘spin room,’ the location of a surreal ritual whereby operatives for each campaign, mobbed by the news media, attempt to put their preferred slant on an event the reporters just witnessed for themselves.”

Concerning Obama’s loss of three primaries to Clinton on the same day, Axelrod notes:

Still, as energetically as I tried to spin our delegate numbers, there was no hiding the fact that we had gone in for the kill and Hillary had escaped. “She’s like Freddy Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street,” I told Plouffe. “She just won’t die!”

Following a poor showing by Obama in a debate with Mitt Romney, Axelrod tells of going into the “spin room” to “try to redirect reporters’ attention to Romney’s blatant distortions of his own record.”

Spin, as those quotes indicate, involves “hiding” negative facts and slanting the perception of an event in a more positive direction. I saw this in action when I was researching the profile of Axelrod.

After Obama announced his first presidential run on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield on a frigid 12-degree day, his strategist-spokesman was asked by reporters why scandal-plagued Gov. Rod Blagojevich wasn’t on the platform with him. “It’s too cold out here,” Axelrod said. It wouldn’t do to inflict a lot of speakers on the crowd of 15,000 standing in the knife-edge cold.

But, then, he was asked why the candidate wasn’t wearing a hot or gloves in such a deep freeze. He answered that it was like the pro football linemen who play sleeveless in such cold, and added, “It’s pretty hard to be cold when you have thousands of people standing there cheering you on.”

So it was too cold. And not cold at all.


I’m a believer

What really bugs me about spin and about Axelrod’s world-class ability is that it is aimed at obscuring the facts.

I’m a believer, too. As a reporter and writer, I see my job as trying to find truth — certainly, an impossible task. If I work hard, think hard and am lucky, I get pieces of truth, glimpses of it, and, as best I can, I communicate these.

Axelrod used to do that work. Then, as a political operative, his efforts as a spin-meister subverted that work. He wasn’t trying to reveal truth, but to obfuscate it. And it drove me crazy.

When I was researching the Tribune Magazine profile, I asked him about this, and he insisted that what he and others did wasn’t to distort or misrepresent the facts but to advocate for a position, to advocate for a candidate.

Axelrod’s spin was of Hall of Fame quality, always several cuts above the competition, because he knew exactly what a reporter needed — a pithy, punchy phrase or sentence — and because he was witty and quick. His comparison of Hillary Clinton to Freddy Krueger, quoted above, is the sort of thing that he would say to a reporter (although probably not for attribution).

Paul Simon, the man who gave Axelrod his start in politics and who embodied the decency and commitment to principle that Axelrod believed in, was on the receiving end of one of his barbs.

It happened in 1991 when Axelrod was working for Al Holfeld in the U.S. Senate race in Illinois against incumbent Alan Dixon. Simon endorsed his longtime friend Dixon, and Axelrod responded with venom, telling a reporter that Simon was “an aspiring hack trapped in a reformer’s body.”

In Believer, Axelrod writes that “it was a terrible thing to say about a guy to whom I owed so much. I regret it more than anything I have ever said to a reporter.”



Yet, given Axelrod’s skill at spin, what’s striking about Believer is that it contains almost no spin.

What’s startling is that, as an author, Axelrod is returning to his role as a reporter.

No question, he wants to be seen in a good light, and he wants Barack Obama to be perceived positively (especially since he still has two more years in the White House).

Yet, in his book, Axelrod’s willing to talk about failures, about stupid decisions, about frayed emotions. When he functioned so well as a spin doctor, he would never have revealed such behind-the-scenes bumps and bruises.

Believer, like most book-length efforts by reporters and former reporters, is long on facts and short on nuances. It mentions too many names of campaign staff people (to graciously extend credit but also to keep political doors open), and Axelrod’s descriptions of these people are generally limited to an adjective or two or a single image.

For instance, he writes that direct-mail consultant Pete Giangreco was “built like a bulldog…[and] had a personality to match.” Direct, to the point, and that’s about all the reader learns about him.

The problem is that, in their daily work, reporters usually don’t have room in their stories to provide much physical or personality descriptions, and they tend to carry that lack over into their books.

In this context, Axelrod really misses an opportunity to depict his greatest candidate Barack Obama as a living, breathing person. How does he walk? What does he do with his hands when he’s chatting? Does he hum? What are his weaknesses on the basketball court? What does he talk about when he’s not talking politics or policy?


“Chasing ghosts”

Still, such complaints aside, Believer is an invaluable record of what it was like to cover elections and run elections over a four-decade period in the nation’s history.

In addition, it is invaluable in what it tells the reader about the strategies, anxieties, soul-searching and decision-making involved in Obama’s rise and his initial two years in the White House. And about Obama himself.

In the context of Obama’s career, for example, Axelrod discusses the self-destructive political actions of another prominent Illinois African-American Carol Moseley Braun:

Carol was the daughter of an abusive father. It’s hard to know how much this factored into the drive that led her to a political career, or the erratic, self-destructive behavior that claimed it. In my experience, such struggles are not uncommon among men and women who are drawn to the great emotional risks and rewards of the public stage. So many are chasing ghosts — trying to live up to the legacies and demands of a parent, or compensating for one’s absence.

He notes that this applied to two candidates he worked for, both of whom were “tragic figures”: Patrick Kennedy, the son of Ted Kennedy, who “lived in constant fear of disappointing” his father, and powerful U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D, Ill.), who went to prison for nickel-and-dime corruption.

Of his own ghosts, Axelrod writes that his mother “didn’t have the time or emotional bandwidth for me,” and adds:

On the one hand, I credit much of my professional success to the drive and skills I drew from her. On the other, I have spent my life fighting off the same debilitating self-doubt, too often fretting over the very same questions that obsessed her: “What did they say? What did they think?”


Ali or Patterson?

At one point, as Obama was seriously considering a run for the presidency, the question arose over whether the candidate had the inner fire — because of his own ghosts or for other reasons — needed to win a race for the White House.

In a blunt campaign memo, Axelrod wrote to Obama:

I don’t know whether you are Muhammad Ali or Floyd Patterson when it comes to taking a punch. You care far too much what is written and said about you. You don’t relish the combat when it becomes personal and nasty. When the largely irrelevant Alan Keyes attacked you [in the U.S. Senate race], you flinched.

Then, “as a friend,” Axelrod feels the need to raise one final issue in a conversation with the candidate:

“My main concern is that you’re not obsessive enough to run for president,” I told him. “I’ve worked for Hillary. I’ve worked for Edwards. They will drag their asses out of bed at four in the morning day after day after day — even if they’re deathly ill — because they have to be president. They’re driven to be president. I don’t sense that in you….You may be too normal to run for president.”

Obama agreed that he didn’t feel he had to be president, but said, “I am pretty damned competitive, and if I get in, I’m not getting in to lose. I’m going to do what’s necessary.”

Not a great response, perhaps, but it had to do. A year later, Axelrod got an even better answer.

After winning Iowa, Obama and his campaign team had gone to New Hampshire expecting it to be a slam dunk, but they were the ones slammed as Hillary Clinton came from behind to win. In his aggressive, passionate response, the candidate showed, Axelrod writes, that he could take a punch and get back into the fight.

Knocked down, he didn’t wallow in disappointment or point fingers of blame. He not only got himself up, but he lifted everyone around him. I would see that quality many times in the coming months and years…

No spin doctor would ever talk so freely about such things.

In Believer, David Axelrod shows himself to be a believer — a believer in the high ideas of American politics and principle as well as, again, a believer in trying to get at the Truth, without distortion.

Patrick T. Reardon

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