Thursday, February 15, 2007

"Barack Obama's On-Point Message Man"

On Saturday in the Lincolnesque setting of Springfield, Ill., when Barack Obama delivered his full-throated appeal to the ideals of a new generation, a lot of sharp players of the political game thought they detected something Axelrodesque.

All those "Let us" sentences in the middle, as in, "Let us be the generation . . . " -- "That's Axelrod," thought political strategist Donna Brazile.
The clever rhetorical judo of Obama's oft-quoted line, "I know that I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I've been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change!" -- "That seemed very classic Axelrod," said David Wilhelm, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Nineteen months to the presidential election, and already the campaign has an A-Rod!

He is David Axelrod, a former newspaper reporter who has worked on past campaigns for no fewer than five of the Democrats racing to the White House, a form of political ubiquity that only enhances his reputation. This time, he's with Obama.

A measure of his status in the top tier of Democratic spinners, scripters and fixers is that when his peers detect something subtle and good, they presume Axelrod must have had a hand in it.

Of course Axelrod won't take credit for specific lines. Consultants are supposed to stay in the background. "One thing I came to realize early in the process of working with Barack was, he was always going to be the best writer in the room," Axelrod says. "If you appreciate words and the power of them, he's a wonderful person to work with. . . . I'd say 80 percent of what he did on that platform on Saturday was in that initial draft," which Obama had e-mailed to Axelrod at about 4 a.m. Thursday.

"It's more a matter of riffing back and forth than it is of my delivering any particular piece of this," Axelrod says.

Spoken like a true consultant: Indispensable, invisible.

A candidate's media consultant is the resident storyteller, the finicky language guy, the message masseur. His job is to convey the candidate to the world. Television advertising is still king, but nowadays there are so many channels of presentation, from choreographed speeches and less formal jousting with reporters -- "You've been reporting on how I look in a swimsuit," scolded Obama -- to Internet pitches designed to make each voter at home in his pajamas feel special.

Campaigns are narratives annotated with policy discursions. Every candidate tells a story about who he is and why he runs. The consultant's job is to take that story and make it so engrossing that the voters won't be able to put it down.

"I wanted to win or lose based on who I am and not some concoction that somebody told me the public wanted," says Deval Patrick, whom Axelrod served in his successful race to become the first African American governor of Massachusetts last year, Patrick's first campaign. "I talked to a lot of different media consultants and so forth who were brought to me by someone who knew there was such a thing as a media consultant. Of all of them, David seemed to me to be the one most determined to respect my commitment to be myself."

"What he brings to the table," says Brazile, who watched Axelrod in action on Eleanor Holmes Norton's 1990 campaign for the District's delegate to Congress, "is the ability to help a candidate not only find their voice but also their roots. Their soul. David understands how to push through all the paper to get to the person."

Axelrod, 51, says he found a story he believed and thought voters would, too, when he and Obama, 45, became friends years ago, when the recent Harvard Law School graduate was in Chicago for a voter registration drive. He worked on Obama's 2004 Senate race.

Meanwhile, over the years Axelrod also made issue ads during Hillary Clinton's 2000 New York Senate race; served Tom Vilsack's 1998 and 2002 races for governor of Iowa; worked on Sen. Christopher Dodd's (D-Conn.) 2004 reelection; and worked on John Edwards's 2004 presidential race.

"I like each one of them," Axelrod says. The Edwards experience was a little awkward when Axelrod lost responsibility for making ads but continued as a campaign spokesman. Axelrod says there were tensions not with Edwards but with others inside the campaign whom he declined to identify. A spokesman for Edwards said he had nothing further to add to Axelrod's account.

After the heady blur of Obama's three-day "announcement tour" in Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire, with those made-for-TV images of the candidate in all his fired-up handsomeness addressing adoring crowds -- Can any campaign ever match the horizonless possibilities of Announcement Day? -- a more difficult phase has begun.

The media are already getting cranky, clamoring for programmatic specifics, seizing on the gaffe about "wasted" lives of soldiers killed in Iraq.

Axelrod skipped the New Hampshire leg of the tour and returned to his Chicago office to edit videos from the tour for uploading to the candidate's Web site.

The former Chicago Tribune newsman says he still appreciates the role of the media. But he is also helping to guide a campaign that is finding ways to sidestep the media in ways that Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton could only fantasize about. Like his rivals, Obama is using the Internet ever more elaborately, inviting supporters to blog, interact and create their own ""

"There's an awareness that we have this channel, and we can talk in a direct and unfiltered way to our supporters," Axelrod says. "We're just in many ways introducing Barack to the American people." And then, purposely or unconsciously, he reveals that the storytelling is a battle: "We will be deploying all the possible avenues for doing that."

* * *

Media consultants, like their candidates, have their personal narratives. Axelrod's goes something like this:

He grew up middle class in New York City, where he remembers being 5 years old and hoisted onto a mailbox to watch John F. Kennedy at a campaign rally for president. At 9 he handed out leaflets for Bobby Kennedy's New York Senate run. He remembers the thump of the newspaper landing outside his apartment door.

He attended the University of Chicago because he could think of no better political town.

While he was in college, his father, Joseph, a psychologist who at the age of 9 had helped other children escape the pogroms of Eastern Europe, committed suicide.

Two days after graduation, he started at the Chicago Tribune. He became a political writer, columnist and city hall bureau chief, feasting on the brash shenanigans of his adopted home town. In one column he observed, "Insults have always been a staple of Chicago politics. The town has a rich history of name-calling. Charges of thievery, homosexuality and dementia all have been part of the high-level political debate in recent years."

But he felt the "sense of mission" draining out of journalism in the 1980s, and a business mentality beginning to take hold. Also, "I thought I might tire of chasing people down the hall to get them to tell me what I already knew." He watched the bow-tied idealist Paul Simon emerging as a Senate candidate in 1984, and thought, "This is the kind of guy who inspired me."

After that first campaign, which he co-managed with Wilhelm, he worked on Harold Washington's reelection campaign for Chicago mayor. One of his steady clients is current mayor Richard M. Daley, expected to win easy reelection to a sixth term later this month despite a City Hall corruption scandal in which Daley has not been implicated.

In the Obama race, Axelrod watchers detect a man on a mission. That is classic Axelrod as well.

"He has fairly strong feelings about why he's in politics and an idealistic streak that we consultants like to think we can keep," says Anita Dunn, a Democratic political strategist. "I think he has kept it."

Not that Axelrod is a softy. "He goes negative when negative is required," says Wilhelm.

In his 1996 memoir "Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms," Ed Rollins, the Republican strategist, put Axelrod at the head of a list of "Guys I Never Want to See Lobbing Grenades at Me Again."

In the tough 1999 race for mayor of Philadelphia, when Axelrod represented John Street against Sam Katz, an attack ad Axelrod oversaw was criticized in a Philadelphia Inquirer analysis for being "filled with unsubstantiated assumptions" that were "probably misleading." Axelrod says he remains "really comfortable with the attack we made." Street won the election.

Axelrod is conflicted about the profession he left journalism to enter. "I believe there is nobility in politics," he says. "I believe there is great good that can be done."

But in the next breath he adds: "I know my business and the technology of politics and polling and focus groups, all of what we do, in some ways contributes to an atmosphere of cynicism. I try to fight that. I can't say I'm totally blameless. I think everyone in this business has a hand on that bloody dagger."

Over the years he developed a sub-specialty in urban politics, particularly representing African American mayoral candidates, including Street, Anthony Williams in Washington, Dennis Archer in Detroit, Michael White of Cleveland and Lee Brown of Houston.

Through all the national political work, Axelrod says he was never tempted to leave Chicago, where he and his wife, Susan, raised their three children, now adults. He likes to quote Wilhelm saying upon leaving Washington, "I'm going back to Chicago where at least they stab you in the front."

Now he is charged, along with one of his partners, David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, with helping to convey another African American candidate to a wider public. Brazile says Axelrod has a gift for that sometimes delicate task.

"He understands the African American community must see themselves in the candidate, not just their successes, but also their struggle," Brazile says. "And David gets that. I think he spends a lot of time on the basketball court with brothers, because he understands the language and how to connect."

Indeed, Axelrod is a devoted pickup hoops player, with an excellent outside shot, but "don't pass to him if you ever expect to see the ball again," Wilhelm says.

The night Obama won his 2004 Senate primary, Axelrod checked the returns. Obama won the very same precinct where in 1983, a hostile mob of whites protested a visit to a Catholic church by Washington and presidential candidate Walter Mondale.

"I said to [Obama] that Harold Washington is smiling down on us for the progress we've made," Axelrod recalled. "I'm not naive, I'm not Pollyanna-ish, I understand we still have racial tensions and divisions in our country. . . . One of the qualities that he brings is the ability to transcend some of these divisions, and I think America is ready for that."

Listen for that line as the story continues.


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