January 2018 – David Axelrod is quite a storyteller.
During a riveting hour at Drew University, the former campaign strategist and senior adviser to Barack Obama shared both personal and political stories with a mixture of telling details and wry humor.
Axelrod, who’s now a podcaster, senior political commentator on CNN and director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, covered his childhood, past life as a journalist and key moments in political campaigns and at The White House. About 400 people packed The Concert Hall to welcome the guest of the Drew Forum, which is sponsored by the Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation. Here are the top six stories from the talk.
1. Finding a Passion. At the age of 5, Axelrod saw John F. Kennedy speak in New York City, 12 days before he was elected president. The excited boy sat atop a sidewalk mailbox to see the candidate, who was campaigning at Stuyvesant Town, the apartment complex where Axelrod grew up. Looking back, Axelrod describes the date—Oct. 27, 1960—as the exact day “when a lifelong passion began.”
2. Writing for the Trib. Before he became a political consultant, Axelrod was a rising star at the Chicago Tribune, where he covered the rough and tumble world of city politics, as a reporter and columnist. Earlier, though, he cut his teeth covering murder and mayhem on the night shift. It “turned out to be great preparation for Chicago politics,” he quipped.
3. Meeting a Future President. Axelrod first met Obama in 1992, eight years after Axelrod shifted to consulting and five years before Obama first assumed public office. At the time, Obama was leading a voter registration drive in Chicago. Mutual friend Bettylu Saltzman had introduced them, telling Axelrod, “I just met the most extraordinary young man and I think you ought to meet him too. Because I think he’s going to be the first African American president.”
4. The Birth of “Yes, we can.” During Obama’s campaign for the U.S. Senate, he filmed a TV ad that ended with the Axelrod-penned line, “Now they say we can’t change Washington? I’m Barack Obama … and I approve this message to say, ‘Yes, we can.’” To Axelrod’s dismay, Obama questioned whether the exhortation was “too corny.” Fortunately, his wife didn’t think so. “Not corny,” Michelle Obama said—and with that, Obama was on board.
5. Passing the Affordable Care Act. During the bruising fight to pass the Affordable Care Act in 2010, Axelrod at times questioned the political wisdom of continuing to pursue the legislation. Obama, however, pushed ahead and by a slim margin, the act passed. That night, the magnitude of the moment hit Axelrod, who understood the critical importance of medical coverage given his daughter’s struggles with seizures. “I went into my office and I closed the door and I broke down and I sobbed,” Axelrod said. “I was crying because I knew that because of what he had done and what we had done to help him—and frankly what all of you who helped support him in winning election had helped achieve—because of that, there would be many, many families who wouldn’t have to go through what my family had gone through. And all of a sudden, it became very, very real to me.”
6. “Why We Do the Work.” After breaking down, Axelrod left his office and found the president. “I said, ‘I just want to thank you on behalf of all those families like mine.’ And he is a good friend and he has been a good friend for a long time. So, he knew exactly what my family had been through. And he put his hand on my shoulder and he said, ‘That’s why we do the work.’ Single most meaningful thing that anyone has ever said to me in 40 years of politics.”
To Axelrod, those six words from the president meant, “It’s not about whether the blue team wins or the red team wins, or whether you can stick it to the other guys or put points on the board. Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, it’s whether you use that opportunity to do things that will make this a better and stronger and fairer country.
“I say that because we live in times of great cynicism in which the value of politics, the role of government seems to be questioned every day,” he added. “And to me, cynicism is the greatest opponent of democracy. We can’t submit to that.”