By Sabina Mollot
David Axelrod, the former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, who’d also helped strategize campaigns for him and a slew of other elected officials, and who worked as an adviser to President Bill Clinton, has recently written a book about his professional experiences. The Stuyvesant Town native, whose introduction to the world of politics began with a historic visit from then-Senator John F. Kennedy to the street where he lived, has called the memoir, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics ($35, Penguin). While in the midst of a multi-state media tour, Axelrod, now the director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, discussed his book, his background and his career with Town & Village.
What was growing up in Stuyvesant Town like for you?
I grew up reading your newspaper. It was a great experience. It was a different kind of community than it is now. It was pretty modest. A lot of World War II veterans and families, and it was really an oasis in the city. We all got together in the playground. I’m still friends with a lot of people I grew up with. Some of them came to my book event in New York and some of them are coming to my event in Boston. Back then there was a real sense of community in Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper. The people you grew up with you stuck with from nursery to high school and ultimately through life. I have a great association with Stuyvesant Town and growing up there.
I was just there a week ago to film a piece for CBS about my book. We walked on 20th. My first address was 622 East 20th Street. We talked about the day in 1960 when JFK came and campaigned in Stuyvesant Town. I was noticing the change in the community, all the high end kind of stores and air conditioners in every window, because we didn’t have that back then. It looked like a very upgraded version of what I remember. When we lived at 622, my parents were mostly still married, but they did split up when I was eight. Then my mom and I moved to 15 Stuyvesant Oval. My mother was a writer and worked in advertising and my father was a psychologist. I had an older sister, Joan. At 622, it was a two-bedroom, so Joan and I shared a bedroom with a wooden divider.
As you know, Stuyvesant Town apartments are small, small kitchens, small bathrooms. By today’s standards, the apartments were very modest, but it seemed comfortable to me. My parents got divorced when I was 13 and my mom and I went to live at 15 Stuyvesant Oval. My sister was gone by then. My mom moved in 1948 and moved out in 2006 to an assisted living facility in Massachusetts. She died last year. (Axelrod’s father committed suicide in 1977.)
There was a lot of activity and my group was the Playground 10 group. There were parts of Stuyvesant Town that were predominantly Jewish and parts of Stuyvesant Town that were predominantly Catholic and parts that were predominantly Protestant, and the playgrounds roughly followed those ethnic divisions. Like Playground 9 was where the Catholic kids hung out. There were very few minorities back then.
I went to PS 40 and Junior High School 104 and Stuyvesant High School when it was still on 16th Street. In my day they were excellent public schools. I still have a teacher in my head who played a formative role in my life. It was at PS 40 and her name was Lee Roth. She brought poets to our classroom, well-known poets of the day, like Ogden Nash. In the classroom, she would engage us in discussions on current events. It really enriched my life and I feel a debt of gratitude to all the people like her.
What made you relocate to Chicago, college or another reason?
I went to Chicago to go to University of Chicago, intending to come back, and then I got a job. In college I got an internship that led to a job at the Chicago Tribune and I ended up with a woman in Chicago. Between falling in love with my wife and falling in love with the city, I never made it back.
How did you come up with the tagline “Yes We Can” for the 2008 presidential campaign?
It was really the tag line for the Senate race in 2004 and I came up with something that was positive and spoke to possibility and what could be accomplished and (included) all of us. I was writing for our first television ad and he (Obama) was worried that it was too corny. I told him why I didn’t think it was corny and he still wasn’t satisfied. Michelle was there and he turned to her and said, ‘What do you think?’ and she said, ‘It’s not corny.’ So I was his consultant but he had to hear it from his wife before he okayed anything.
The divide between Democrats and Republicans seems wider than it’s ever been. I’m sure you and the president have had many conversations about it.
We’ve had lots of conversations about it. A lot of it was a strategic decision on the part of the Republican Party to make the president go it alone and the Democrats alone in a lot of the issues that he inherited. It was an irresponsible but an effective (way to make the president act in a partisan way to) act on problems.
Do you see any way out of this gridlock?
No. I think the only way that’s going to change is if the voters demand that it changes. There are rewards for continued gridlock. There’s not a lot of impetus for people to work across party lines. It’s not an easily solvable problem.
I’m sure you’ve heard all about the investigation into Sheldon Silver. What advice would you give to all the politicians in Albany right now?
They need to operate with transparency and in an ethical way. Clearly a signal has been sent that the old ways of doing things — private arrangements — is not going to be tolerated. I think that they need to operate with greater transparency and greater ethical stricture and I expect that they will.
You mentioned (in an excerpt of your book) that certain politicians you worked with made you ashamed. Did you mean (disgraced former presidential candidate) John Edwards or Rod Blagojevich (the former Illinois senator convicted on corruption charges)?
Certainly Blagojevich, how he ended up was a huge disappointment. He was no longer my client, but it isn’t always about a scandal. It can be about folks that are inconsistent with my expectations. You deal with a lot of disappointments in politics, but you’ve also got to dwell a little bit on the benefits like people who have healthcare because of the actions of the president or the fact that there are auto workers working today. It (politics) can be very frustrating but at the end of the day if you want to have change you have to do something big to help people. And they often do. I don’t want to leave a dark picture of politics.
What made you want to get it all on paper, or were you approached by a publisher?
It was my idea. I wanted to deliver a message that there was meaning in politics and value beyond the grandiose of politicians. Secondly, I wanted to get my life back essentially. When you work for someone as celebrated at the president, you’re associated because of that, your identification is with him. But I wasn’t born in 2007, I was born in 1955, and I’ve learned a lot of lessons and I want to claim that part of my life. I also wanted to show people that that there is meaning. The book is called Believer because I believe politics is the way we organize ourselves and… a better future. I want to convey that.
You covered a lot of politics for the Chicago Tribune. Do you feel that helped prepare you for the world of politics as an insider?
I believe journalism was a great predicate for work in politics. To work in politics you have to understand what people’s attitudes are and you have to understand who you’re working for and that includes asking questions, probing and trying to get to the core of people. It’s what journalists do and it’s such a great skill to have. Journalists tell stories and that’s what campaigns are. Candidates have to tell a story. I have covered a lot of politics so I saw a lot of strategy develop.
What advice would you give to anyone running for office or working for someone who is working for office?
Do not run for public office or for someone running with the idea that it’s a business proposition or something to do. Run for public office or work for someone who is running for public office because you want to do something meaningful to enrich your country or the world. Make sure you believe in what you’re doing and that it’s authentically you.
You’ve mentioned that once when preparing Obama for a debate (with Mitt Romney), he didn’t appreciate your criticism and used some choice language with you. Was that very difficult for you and did he get that way often when he’s nervous?
No. He doesn’t get nervous very often. There wasn’t anything like that before or since then. I felt he had to correct some things and I think he was unhappy with that because he knew we weren’t where we should have been.
You’ve advised Hillary Clinton. Do you think she will be our next president?
She very well could be. She has a very good chance. If she ran the right kind of campaign, she has an excellent chance.
What’s different this time?
Times are different. She’s got additional experience. Back in 2008, we were at war. (She supported the war) and Obama stated his opposition to it. People were looking for someone who would really challenge the system in Washington and Obama symbolized that. Now people are looking for someone who can manage the system in Washington.