David Ax­el­rod A Po­lit­i­cal King­maker Fights for Ci­vil­ity in an Un­civil Time

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Bon­nie Miller Ru­bin

The Univer­sity of Chicago’s In­sti­tute of Pol­i­tics is a hive of ac­tiv­ity. Stu­dents are test­ing out a the­ory in the lobby; an­other group is pep­per­ing a vis­it­ing fel­low with ques­tions, and up­stairs, staffers are re­search­ing an up­com­ing guest.

Pre­sid­ing over it all is the in­sti­tute’s founder and di­rec­tor, David Ax­el­rod, se­nior ad­viser to Barack Obama and long­time Demo­cratic strate­gist, who has logged more than 100 lo­cal, state and na­tional cam­paigns. But at IOP, which will mark its fifth an­niver­sary this fall, Ax­el­rod is on a dif­fer­ent kind of mis­sion.

“One of the rea­sons we started the IOP is to take some of the acid­ity and ran­cor out of pol­i­tics,” he ex­plained, “to model that we can dis­agree but still have a re­spect­ful de­bate.”

Some might find Ax­el­rod to be an un­likely face for bi­par­ti­san­ship. A fierce com­peti­tor, he had no trou­ble trad­ing blows with po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents for the past four decades. But the 63-yearold is now laser-fo­cused on en­cour­ag­ing young peo­ple to en­gage in public life and on clos­ing the bit­ter di­vide that has gripped — and ex­hausted — the na­tion.

Ax­el­rod and his staff of 12 are hop­ing to ac­com­plish those lofty goals by cre­at­ing an open en­vi­ron­ment where stu­dents are ex­posed to a wide range of view­points — a rar­ity in these times, Repub­li­can se­na­tor Tom Cot­ton of Arkansas ac­knowl­edged.

“Too of­ten to­day on our cam­puses, you can’t have this kind of de­bate,” Cot­ton told stu­dents at a re­cent IOP event. “Ob­vi­ously, the ma­jor­ity opin­ion in this room doesn’t seem to be on my side, but you and I — even though we come from dif­fer­ent sides of the aisle — can have a civil con­ver­sa­tion in front of a civil au­di­ence and air some sig­nif­i­cant is­sues for our coun­try with­out hav­ing peo­ple mauled or beaten or ha­rassed.”

Bal­anc­ing free speech on dif­fi­cult top­ics that some might find of­fen­sive can be tricky to nav­i­gate, but it is es­sen­tial to a democ­racy, said Ax­el­rod, who still calls him­self “an ide­al­ist.” The phi­los­o­phy per­me­ates the IOP and is re­flected not just by in­vited speak­ers like Cot­ton, but also by the IOP’s board of ad­vis­ers (which in­cludes such stal­wart con­ser­va­tives as com­men­ta­tor Wil­liam Kris­tol and for­mer Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee chair Ed Gille­spie). Most of all, this in­clu­sive­ness ex­tends to“The Axe Files,” the pop­u­lar pod­cast pro­duced in Chicago and co-spon­sored by CNN.

Guests have spanned a wide po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, from Bernie San­ders and Chuck Schumer to Newt Gin­grich and Karl Rove. But that doesn’t mean Ax­el­rod reins in his own opin­ions. Top­ics out­side of pol­i­tics are also fair game — in­clud­ing

his Jewish iden­tity.

With Adam Schiff, for ex­am­ple, the host talked, as ex­pected, about the Rus­sia probe that has put the Los An­ge­les Demo­crat in the na­tional spot­light. But he also dis­cussed the im­mi­grant story he and Schiff share, which, in just a few gen­er­a­tions, moved from the shtetl to the high­est ech­e­lons of power.

With Jon Ste­wart, Ax­el­rod ven­tured into Don­ald Trump’s pointed use of the co­me­dian’s sur­name (Lei­bowitz), while with the for­mer U.S. am­bas­sador to Is­rael Dan Shapiro he ex­pressed his un­flinch­ing sup­port for a two-state so­lu­tion.

It’s no se­cret that Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu and the Obama camp had a strained re­la­tion­ship. (The Is­raeli prime min­is­ter even called Ax­el­rod and for­mer chief of staff Rahm Emanuel “self-hat­ing Jews”). The ten­sions cer­tainly con­trib­uted to a rift with the Or­tho­dox com­mu­nity, which over­whelm­ingly backed Trump in Novem­ber.

“Those op­pos­ing voices do not speak for the vast ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­can Jews,” Ax­el­rod said, quickly point­ing out that the for­mer pres­i­dent re­ceived 78% of the Jewish vote in 2008 and 70% in 2012, de­spite the Or­tho­dox vot­ing bloc. “Obama has been my friend for 25 years... I know what’s in his head and his heart. The truth is that the two-state so­lu­tion the pro-Is­rael po­si­tion.”

Since Fe­bru­ary 2016, “The Axe Files” has been down­loaded 16.3 mil­lion times, ac­cord­ing to CNN. Over the past 200 episodes, Ax­el­rod’s most pop­u­lar guest has been Obama, who chose this fo­rum to break his si­lence on the new ad­min­is­tra­tion. (The net­work would not dis­close the least pop­u­lar guest.)

In May, CNN launched a TV ver­sion of the pod­cast, which Ed O’Keefe, a se­nior vice pres­i­dent, called “an ex­pan­sion of our re­la­tion­ship with David.”

Whether it’s the Satur­day night grave­yard slot or some­thing else, the for­mat “has not worked as well in front of the TV cam­eras,” O’Keefe ac­knowl­edged. In the tran­si­tion from pod­cast to broad­cast, “some of that in­ti­macy has been lost and it can feel more like an event….” One of the rea­sons the pod­cast has been so suc­cess­ful is that “David is gen­uine, au­then­tic, lis­ten­ing and con­nect­ing.”

In­deed, the hour-long in­ter­views are usu­ally re­veal­ing, no mat­ter how over­ex­posed the sub­ject — a re­sult, the host said, of “hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion, not an in­qui­si­tion.”

To hear Chicago Cubs man­ager Joe Mad­don ex­plain why he launched an af­ter-school pro­gram in Rust Belt Penn­syl­va­nia is to learn some­thing about the man that goes be­yond his trade. Like when we lis­ten to Fox News’ Chris Wal­lace re­flect on be­ing over­shad­owed by his fa­ther. (“I was never go­ing to be Mike Wal­lace, but that still left plenty of room to have a nice ca­reer.”)

Dur­ing one episode, Rove, who is a Repub­li­can strate­gist, and Ax­el­rod shared the sto­ries of their re­spec­tive par­ents’ sui­cide.

Ax­el­rod was just 19 at the time of his fa­ther’s death, but his quiet rec­ol­lec­tion feels cur­rent: “At my dad’s fu­neral, so many of his pa­tients told me, ‘He saved my life.’ But he couldn’t save his own.”

Ax­el­rod’s pro­gres­sive, tol­er­ant view of the world is rooted in his po­lit­i­cally lib­eral, con­ser­va­tive Jewish up­bring­ing in Stuyvesant Town

— a melt­ing pot on New York City’s Lower East Side. His fa­ther, Joseph Ax­el­rod, fled re­li­gious per­se­cu­tion in Ukraine, im­mi­grated to Amer­ica as a child and grew up to be­come a psy­chol­o­gist. Ax­el­rod’s mother, Myril Ax­el­rod Ben­nett, was an ad­ver­tis­ing ex­ec­u­tive. He says those in­flu­ences shaped him into a life-long cham­pion of the un­der­dog and a fer­vent be­liever in gov­ern­ment as an engine of up­ward mo­bil­ity.

As a 5-year-old, he clam­bered atop a mail­box for a bet­ter view of John F. Kennedy in the fi­nal days of the 1960 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. Eight years later, Ax­el­rod de­voted far more en­ergy to dis­tribut­ing leaflets for New York se­na­tor Robert Kennedy than to pre­par­ing for his bar mitz­vah at the Broth­er­hood Syn­a­gogue, on West 13th Street in Man­hat­tan’s Green­wich Vil­lage. (The syn­a­gogue shared a sanc­tu­ary with a Pres­by­te­rian Church, an ar­range­ment his ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther found so dis­taste­ful that he al­most didn’t at­tend.)

Fol­low­ing his bar mitz­vah, his Jewish ex­po­sure was mostly lim­ited to bas­ket­ball at the Emanuel YMHA, and later a trip to Is­rael, where he fell hard for a Sabra. He says he felt “a real at­tach­ment” to the coun­try – but not to re­li­gious ob­ser­vance. “Like many of my peers, I pushed back from re­li­gion be­cause it was so com­pul­sory; some­thing you had to do rather than some­thing that could en­rich your life.”

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Stuyvesant High School, Ax­el­rod headed to the Univer­sity of Chicago, where, once again, real-word pol­i­tics took pri­or­ity over aca­demics. He snared a part-time gig writ­ing for the neigh­bor­hood Hyde Park Her­ald, of­ten scoop­ing the big-city dailies. Even though his 1976 grad­u­a­tion was in doubt in the dwin­dling hours of the se­mes­ter — he had ne­glected to take his swim­ming fi­nal — the Chicago Tri­bune of­fered him a full-time job. Even­tu­ally he be­came the youngest po­lit­i­cal ed­i­tor in the news­pa­per’s his­tory, at age 28.In Chicago he fell in love with the city’s rough-and-tum­ble pol­i­tics — as well as with a fel­low stu­dent, Su­san Lan­dau, whom he mar­ried in 1979. They had three chil­dren, in­clud­ing a daugh­ter, Lau­ren, who was di­ag­nosed with epilepsy as a tod­dler. The med­i­ca­tions for her seizures, as many as 10 a day, ran $1,000 a month, a dev­as­tat­ing ex­pense on a news­pa­per­man’s salary.

With the fam­ily tee­ter­ing on bank­ruptcy, Ax­el­rod left the Tri­bune to open his own po­lit­i­cal con­sult­ing firm. This is also why, years later, he fought so hard for health care re­form. On the night that the Af­ford­able Care Act fi­nally passed, he went into his of­fice, closed the door and sobbed, as he re­counted in his 2015 mem­oir, “Be­liever: My Forty Years in Pol­i­tics.”

While the con­sult­ing busi­ness pro­vided the fam­ily with a more com­fort­able liv­ing, it also re­quired long stretches on the road, leav­ing his wife to cope with crises. And with Lau­ren’s ill­ness there were plenty. When he as­sumed the White House se­nior ad­viser role in 2008, his sched­ule al­lowed him to re­turn home only one week­end a month.

“My heroic wife bore too much of the brunt of par­ent­ing, which is some­thing I look back on with real re­gret and shame,” he said re­cently. “I have three ter­rific kids [he’s in­clud­ing his sons, Michael and Ethan] be­cause she rose to the

As a 5-year-old, he clam­bered

atop a mail­box for a bet­ter view of John F. Kennedy.

oc­ca­sion in a way I did not.”

Af­ter di­rect­ing the 2012 re-elec­tion, he re­turned to the Univer­sity of Chicago. His mod­est cam­pus of­fice is less pres­ti­gious than the one he oc­cu­pied in the West Wing (a space now used by Jared Kush­ner), but it is adorned with ca­reer mem­o­ra­bilia — in­clud­ing a photo of the Obama loy­al­ists play­ing touch foot­ball with their boss on the White House lawn.

Still, Ax­el­rod says he does not miss the cam­paign trail. At an age when many of his peers are on the golf course, he has re­turned to his jour­nal­ism roots and has par­layed a life­time of con­nec­tions to at­tract some of the big­gest names in gov­ern­ment and me­dia to the univer­sity.

The con­nec­tions that Ax­el­rod has made through­out his life, so valu­able for book­ing Wash­ing­ton in­sid­ers, have also been a boon to stu­dents, pro­vid­ing 225 paid in­tern­ships with gov­ern­ment agen­cies, think tanks and public pol­icy or­ga­ni­za­tions.

“David and his team have been in­cred­i­bly gen­er­ous with shar­ing their con­tacts,” said Mered­ith Daw, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the univer­sity’s ca­reer cen­ter. “Thanks to their sup­port, more stu­dents than ever are get­ting the skills and ex­pe­ri­ence they need to thrive in a com­pet­i­tive job mar­ket.”

That he should play some small role in in­spir­ing the next gen­er­a­tion to get in­volved in what he still sees as “a no­ble pur­suit” pleases him no end. “These kids... they’re thought­ful, they’re bright, they’re cu­ri­ous. They are skep­ti­cal, but not cyn­i­cal, and they’re de­ter­mined to achieve a bet­ter fu­ture. I leave here hope­ful every day.”

Il­lus­tra­tion by Anya Ulinich

BACK TO HIS ROOTS: Ax­el­rod at­tends the se­nior re­cep­tion at the In­sti­tute of Pol­i­tics, which he founded at the Univer­sity of Chicago.


SPEAK SOFTLY AND WEAR A BIG TIE: Then an Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion se­nior ad­viser, Ax­el­rod talks with re­porters af­ter meet­ing with the House Demo­cratic cau­cus at the U.S. Capi­tol on July 31, 2009.


AXE HIM AN­OTHER: Ax­el­rod record­ing "The Axe Files" in the Roo­sevelt Room of the White House in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. on Dec. 7, 2016.

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