Long before David Axelrod became a national figure as Barack Obama’s political guru and spinmeister — the bard of the future president’s pitch to voters on the campaign trail, and his “message maven” once in the White House — he was a working journalist in Chicago.
He loved slinging back Schlitzes and downing “cheezeborgers” with fellow scribes like Mike Royko at the Billy Goat Tavern, a fabled local reporter haunt beneath The Chicago Tribune’s once-buzzing headquarters along Michigan Avenue, or meeting sources for matzo ball soup and corned beef sandwiches at Manny’s Delicatessen, just a few minutes away via Lower Wacker Drive.
Axelrod started out as a cub reporter on the night shift at The Trib, where he eventually became a political writer before deciding to join the fray himself.
He lived for the thrill of minor journalistic triumphs, like the time he sweet-talked his way into the wedding of a local power couple by pleading with the receptionist that his editor might fire him if he didn’t get eyes on the bride and groom. Escorted out by the Chicago police, he returned to his colleagues outside the perimeter as a conquering hero, arms raised in the air like a Roman emperor fresh from conquering Gaul.
In the years after leaving Obama’s side, Axelrod founded and built up the University of Chicago Institute of Politics.
And he’s become a varnish-less truth-teller to his fellow Democrats, irking them at times by contradicting the party line — most recently, for instance, by noting that President Biden will be 81 years old on Election Day in 2024, and that voters might be looking for someone new by then.
As a senior aide in the Obama White House, Axelrod served up close with Biden for many years. He admires what he says are the former vice president’s sharp political instincts and lauded his accomplishments.
“I mean, the guy purged the country of Trump and under really, really difficult circumstances, managed to achieve legislative things that Obama didn’t achieve,” Axelrod said. But, he added: “The issue isn’t so much political as actuarial. And that is something that he’s going to need to confront.”
This week, Axelrod is celebrating the 500th episode of his podcast, “The Axe Files,” with a conversation with the R&B singer John Legend. Rare in an age of televised shoutfests and supplement-powered podcasts, his show is a laid-back, menschy listen that seeks to get guests “off their lines and into their lives,” as he puts it.
“I didn’t even know what a podcast was when I started,” he said.
Over its seven years in existence, Axelrod has booked luminaries like Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, and even the Olympians Megan Rapinoe and Michael Phelps.
He lives by the journalistic maxim, as he explained it, that “if you probe people’s stories, it’s harder to hate.” To that end, he’s also broken proverbial bread with a stream of former adversaries, including John Bolton, Liz Cheney, Kellyanne Conway, Lindsey Graham and Karl Rove.
Often, he finds ways to connect across the political divide, as when he discovered that he and Rove, a rarely humanized G.O.P. operative protected by what Axelrod described as “hard bark,” shared a common tragedy — a parent who died by suicide while they were young men.
“Sometimes you talk to people who you think you don’t admire, right?” he said. “And then, there are elements of them that you learn that you do.”
Axelrod has even considered how he would tackle an interview with the most vexing subject of all: Donald Trump.
“There are so many interesting questions to ask that have nothing to do with Jan. 6,” he mused.
For instance, Axelrod said he would ask Trump to react to something the former president’s father, the hard-nosed real estate developer Fred Trump, once said: There are two kinds of people in this world. There are killers, and there are losers.
“I would try and find out how he processed all of that,” Axelrod said, before returning to the difficulty of how, exactly, to frame such a conversation given Trump’s attempt to overthrow a duly elected president. “But then people would say, ‘Well, geez, how could you sit down with him and not ask those questions?’ So it’s complicated.”
Amid a two-hour conversation at Manny’s, Axelrod veered from raconteur to philosopher to armchair psychologist to pundit.
He also offered up his analysis of the midterm elections, which he said might be trending Democrats’ way after a rough couple of months.
“You know, you could not have, in many ways, a more hospitable environment than the Republicans have this year,” he said, noting voters’ worries about inflation and the president’s low approval ratings.
Axelrod said that a “confluence” of factors — the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade; the mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Highland Park, Ill.; and the Jan. 6 hearings in Congress — had come together to leave many voters believing that Republicans are too extreme.
“The only thing that might save Democrats,” he said, “is Republicans, and they’re trying their damnedest to do it.”
Here are some highlights, edited for length and clarity, of Axelrod’s insights on his interview subjects:
Sanders was Axelrod’s first podcast interview. It was 2015, when the Vermont senator was rising to national prominence and was “very much the man of the moment” on college campuses, Axelrod said.
Axelrod recounted how Sanders initially refused to get into the Mercedes Sprinter van that the institute had rented to pick him up and bring him to a live event at the University of Chicago, from which the senator graduated in 1964.
“So Bernie takes one look at this and says: ‘I’m not going to ride in that. I’m not going to get in that thing,’” Axelrod said. “And so we had a negotiation on the curbside at O’Hare. And we basically cut a deal that we would drop them off two blocks from the event so that nobody would see him get out of this Mercedes.”
“He and I have this thing in common: We both lost parents to suicide. When people have struggles like that, I try to talk about them about it, in part because if people are listening who are having those struggles, or have lost someone, they understand that they’re not alone. Karl has a very hard bark and a reputation for that. But I see him differently. Because of that, we actually have gone on and done things together on suicide prevention.”
“The father abandoned the family when she was 3. Turns out he had another family, and he moved in with that other family and had a child just about the same age. So he leaves her and her mother and moves in with another woman and another kid who is a contemporary of hers and lives two towns down. She doesn’t see him again until she’s 12.
“She was resistant to delving too deeply into it. But finally, she said, ‘You know, I do remember coming home from school one day crying hysterically, because I was one of only two kids in school who didn’t have a father.’ The other person’s father was lost in Vietnam.”
“He went through a lot, as he said — a deep, deep, deep depression. And I was interested in talking to him about how he worked his way through it. But it was sensitive, you know, because I didn’t want to lend any credence to those who would say you’re turning him into a victim — all that stuff — but he’s a human being.
“He did part of his set at the Institute of Politics. He was great. He took questions, and someone asked him, ‘Who is the funniest senator, apart from you?’
“And he said, ‘Lindsey Graham,’ and everybody groaned.
“And Franken goes on: ‘No, no, Lindsey is very, very funny. So I’ll give you an example. I went up to him one day before he made his big shift. And I said, “Lindsey, if I was in South Carolina, I’d vote for you.” And before I could finish the sentence, Lindsey said, “And that’s my problem.”’”
The one who got away
Axelrod has sought, more than once and through multiple pathways, to entice Biden to sit with him for an interview. No luck so far.
“I’ve tried for years to get him on the podcast,” he said. “I didn’t want to talk to him about politics. With Biden, I wanted to talk to him about the whole challenge of growing up with a stutter and how that shaped him.”
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