Wednesday, December 28, 2016
Believer by David Axelrod (Book Review #80 of 2016)
Believer: My 40 Years in Politics
I began this book just before the November, 2016 election and finished it in those incredibly sobering days afterward. (The 2008 election was somewhat similar to 2016 in that voters went with the candidate that least resembled their perception of Washington.) I listened to this in Axelrod's own voice, which is the best way to do it. This might be a good look at what it's like to be a professional campaigner, writer, marketer. Axelrod is famous for being Pres. Obama's political adviser, but this book covers 40 years of campaigns mostly involved in Chicago politics. I followed it with Jonathan Alter's The Center Holds, which is a detailed account of Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, and found that Axelrod left out much of interest in that campaign and was perhaps not as self-deprecatory in this book as he could have been. Alter's more detailed account casts some doubt on Axelrod's spin here, and how Axelrod apparently left out some internal squabbles from his memoir.
In this book, and from what I've noticed following him on Twitter for a year or so, Axelrod seems to be a fairly stand-up guy. He's deeply committed to his family and keenly aware of his Jewish heritage. He's also for hire in a dirty business, but prefers to hitch his star to candidates he finds personally likable.
Axelrod is the son of Jews who fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe and migrated to New York. He tells the sad tale of his parents, who divorced and were ultimately unable to reconcile. His mother was an "elitist" career woman, and his father was not of that ilk. Axelrod's first campaign first political exposure was as a boy at a JFK rally, and he compares this to watching Obama in Iowa in 2012. He finds both men ideal candidates. He volunteered for Robert Kennedy and became a paid volunteer for a "hack" of the New York General Assembly. He quickly felt the stench of working for an empty-suit candidate whose seat was bought by the candidate's wealthy father. Axelrod went to the University of Chicago (where he teaches today) and got into journalism, originally writing for the Village Voice when he was back in New York. His willingness to do whatever it took to get a job landed him at the Chicago Tribune as a 23 year old working the late night crime beats and getting a view of the Chicago political machine. A big break came when he was assigned to follow an unlikely mayoral candidate's race and that candidate ended up winning--Axelrod was the only journalist who knew much about him.
While covering the mayor's office, Axelrod saw the outright Chicago corruption up close. There is much to dislike about Chicago in this book, and perhaps Axelrod does not realize how the label of "Chicago politics" follows him warily nationwide today. Somewhere while covering the mayor's office, the idea of writing for a candidate entered Axelrod's mind since he understood better how the media operated and had connections. He joined the 1984 Senate campaign of Democrat Paul Simon and was instrumental in shaping the message of the campaign. Axelrod's strategy was to run positive ads rather than attack, and Simon beat the Republican Percy despite Reagan's sweep nationally. This campaign also introduced Axelrod to Rahm Emanuel. From there, Axelrod starts his private campaign marketing firm and looks to build his career further. He specializes in creating ads that "tell a story." In each campaign, he seems to personally identify with the simple message he gives each candidate. The "jobs candidate" or the "big business" candidate, etc.
There's a shallowness to his thinking on policy that has tainted every race since--that trade is bad, or free enterprise isn't as noble as being a career politician, etc. For example, Axelrod defends the populist anti-trade, anti-outsourcing arguments that has made America more xenophobic, ignore the benefits of trade (that even Obama has espoused), ruined American politics, and precisely helped Trump create a platform on the issue in 2016. Axelrod writes as though he believes those things, even though some of his supported candidates have shown they have not actually. As a result, you have candidates today (Hillary Clinton most recently) who have to take one position publicly and another privately when they meet with donors (as her email leaks made clear of her "dream" of a hemispheric customs union while flip-flopping on her support for TPP).
Axelrod looks back on those days away from his wife and children with regret. His daughter was diagnosed early on with epilepsy and the family has since tried every treatment imaginable in the hopes of a cure or greater relief. This pushes him in the policy area of research and funding for special needs children. That does not come up a lot in the book, but his concern for his family does.
In 1987, Axelrod joined the re-election campaign of Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor, who died shortly after winning. It is here that the ugly racist side of Chicago politics comes out (this is the era that police are now being indicted for grave abuses now). In 1989, Chicago had the nickname of "Beirut on the Lake," for its ongoing gang violence, and Axelrod works on the campaigns of other black candidates. Around this time, he is introduced to Bill Clinton before Clinton officially declared his candidacy. Axelrod turned down an opportunity to be Communications Director of the Clinton campaign because of his lament of his long absences from his family and his epileptic daughter (the job went to George Stephanopolous). He then stays out of major campaigns until his daughter is more grown up. (Rahm Emanuel, meanwhile, joins the Clinton White House.) In 2000, he turned down a Gore campaign invitation because of his wife's cancer diagnosis. (His family-first philosophy makes him similar to Barack Obama, who also had strong family considerations and moved his mother-in-law into the White House with him.) He worked some on Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign.
Axelrod opines on the "evolution of Rahm Emanuel," who successfully ran for Congress in 2002 and became a good soldier of the Democratic party, recruiting successful Democratic candidates in Red States (the "Blue-Dog Democrats"). Axelrod worked for Emanuel in 2006 in helping elect that group. They maintained a good working relationship throughout the book and Axelrod tells stories about how Emanuel operates. Both have Jewish roots and are well-versed in Chicago politics, but perhaps no politician is more profane than Emanuel.
Axelrod worked on Barack Obama's successful Senate campaign and writes admiringly of the candidate who was raised by white grandparents from Kansas, which made him comfortable in white homes in conservative portions of the state. Barack was able to pick up white votes that black candidates had previously found difficult. Obama got newspaper endorsements and beat Hull for Senate. Obama was glad to to be against the 2003 Iraq war, he saw it as an easy call. As he made clear on the campaign trail (and later in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance), he is not against all wars, just "stupid ones." (Axelrod does not mention Obama's like of Reinhold Neibuhr's philosophy.) Obama was a big proponent of charter schools but opposed to vouchers.
Axelrod also joined the John Edwards presidential campaign in 2004, which he now considers a mistake. He writes of a campaign in disarray, in which Elizabeth and he clashed and she had a way of micromanaging. When things started to go badly, Axelrod was blamed and demoted. But he got to work with Obama around the same time, which he liked. Axelrod writes of Obama's preparation for the now-famous 2004 DNC keynote speech and the circumstances in which it was delivered. He writes of these moments similar to how a boxing trainer might send someone out in the ring and then assess his performance between rounds.
What is interesting is that Obama's campaign debt is what pushed him to do the book tours that made him a "celebrity." Obama recruited staffer Pete Rouse by promising that he would not run for President. But Obama disliked all of the "talk" of the Senate, he was frustrated easily by the rules and process. He hated traveling away from family on weekends, fundraising for the party, and making political stands like voting against John Roberts. According to Axelrod, Obama saw Roberts as a suitable candidate, but ended up voting against him because perhaps there was something he did not know about Roberts that would lead Roberts to vote on issues that would further disenfranchise minorities. Axelrod writes that Bush's "Hurricane Katrina moment" created an opportunity for Obama to speak about race and class divisions like few could, and that helped nudge him toward a presidential campaign.
Obama wrote his second book (which is much worse than the first) very quickly, working with staff on late-night productions to get chapters finished. His Presidential campaign didn't take shape until after he had traveled abroad and published that second book. Axelrod writes of the meeting with Barack and Michelle in which Axelrod is sure to put the cost of campaigning to them bluntly in terms of lost family time. Obama proceeds with three rules: Grass roots, no leaks or internal divisions, and let's have fun. Axelrod adds another rule-- that Obama quit smoking.
Axelrod writes that the campaign was similar to the Oceans 11 movie, recruiting the right people and doing whatever they could to raise support and unseat the larger candidates. He had originally considered sitting out the 2008 race because all the candidates had been clients of his firm at one time. Hillary, in particular, had been a donor to the cause of finding a cure for his daughter's epilepsy. He retells the story of the early dates, the gaffes, the debates, and the Iowa Caucus win that put the Clinton campaign on the defensive. Hillary built her campaign attacking the GOP and Obama wanted a different tone, more positive. The appeal of Obama, writes the author, was that he seemed to unite Americans across various lines and was different than a typical Washington candidate. Voters judged Obama by his character. Hillary was the consummate political class candidate (implications for 2016, anyone?). At one point, Hillary angrily confronted Obama privately and Obama was surprised by the "fear in her eyes" of losing the election; the Presidency was obviously something she would do anything to get. It is no secret that it was a rough campaign and that Bill Clinton would remain rather estranged from the White House until years later.
Plouffe ran the campaign, Axelrod managed the message, and Obama did his best. I noted that even Steve Jobs complained about their communications strategy. When they went to Berlin they saw what a unique opportunity they had in the world. Shortly thereafter, they settled on a VP candidate, and the author recounts the short list-- Tim Kaine, Joe Biden, and Evan Bayh. Bayh was too "flat," and Kaine was "too alike" with Obama. I did not learn much about the 2008 general election, the candidate stayed on message and things turned out like they'd thought.
Bits I learned about the first term:
There was a Somali-based threat against the inauguration that the Secret Service took seriously, and staff kept secret-- knowingly putting their own friends and family at risk in attending. According to Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel did promise Larry Summers that he would replace Bernanke as Fed Chairman, and that's what got Summers to take the ill-suited job of National Economic Council chairman. Summers was, of course, twice passed up for that position. That may have had to do with Summer's behind-the-scenes role of making sure the AIG executives got their bonuses paid, something Obama was "livid" about when he found out later. The meetings and talk of how to capitalize the banks and handle the middle of the financial crisis were interesting, but I got more from reading Timothy Geithner's memoir on this subject (and will soon read Bernanke's). Rahm Emanuel made it clear that an economic stimulus package could not have the "t-word" (ie: trillion) in it.
There is much of interest about the health care reform battle, and how that was handled. Everyone was wary about how the Clinton White House had health care reform destroyed by running it from the Executive Branch, hence the decision that the bill had to be written and handled by Congress. Nonetheless, Obama spent long hours talking to Olympia Snow and others who might vote for it. The insurance company had their own "secret seat at the table" of healthcare reform in order to get them to sign on, another reason it was left in the hands of Congress. The reader gets to relive the Scott Brown win of Teddy Kennedy's seat, the tradeoffs, and the White House's relief at the bill that eventually passed.
Perhaps the only Republican that Obama got along with was Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Gates reportedly said "I love working for this President" when he re-upped for another year (Gates' memoir is more even-handed on Obama). Stan McChrystal's days may have been numbered long before the fateful Rolling Stones article; Obama was angry after McChrystal's Afghan troop recommendation were leaked to the media. Axelrod writes that "soldiers are nonpartisan but the Pentagon is highly political." Everyone, including Obama, is surprised when he wins the Nobel Peace Prize, particularly ironic as it was during talks about how big the Afghan troop surge would be and the likelihood of more war. Elie Wisel apparently influenced and "sobered" Obama in college, they worked on a book together in the White House. A foreign policy victory came when Russian President Medvedev says that America was right about Iran's nuclear ambitions and supportive of curbing them. One great frustration was the BP gulf oil spill and they were perhaps too mindful of staying ahead of it in the PR department at the expense of other needs.
Despite successes, they experienced a midterm election "setback," as the Tea Party was swept to power and this created a great crisis of insecurity in the White House. Suddenly, everyone was a critic with unsolicited advice for Axelrod on communications strategy. During the first term, an unflattering piece had been written on a seemingly over-worked Axelrod and Obama expressed his personal concern. Axelrod returns to Chicago in early 2011, writing that it was all part of a pre-planned departure to get ready for the upcoming re-election campaign. Daley would take on a role as Chief of Staff in a general White House shake-up (Alter writes that Obama personally moved up the timeline to get Axelrod off the job sooner.) Axelrod whines that Reagan had Tip O'Neill who would compromise, Obama had Boehner who was keen not to, especially when feeling the heat from a now much-more-conservative GOP. But Axelrod admits that Obama did not enjoy the phone calls and glad-handing that it takes to get things done in Washington.
It did not take long for Axelrod to have some "separation anxiety" and he sounds kind of pathetic in how he misses the President. A book published with dirt from insiders during the re-election campaign angered Obama greatly. Axelrod writes that they never seriously considered swapping Clinton on the ticket for Biden, as some had suggested. He admits, however, that some polling was done and they found it did not move the needle on voters' opinions-- Biden was a lock to stay.
Alter's book makes me think Axelrod had a more high-level advisory roll in the 2012 campaign since so much of the detail of the ground game and targeted marketing is left out of this memoir. 2012 was the most high-tech campaign on record and much of that intentional strategy was left out. One pointed detail is before Obama "loses" the first debate with Romney and the criticism pours on. Obama was "grossly under-prepared" and at one point during a debate prep gives his team a sharp "you _____ are never satisfied" comment. He gets out of his slump and goes on to win the election. Axelrod seems to have personal enmity for Romney, writing a campaign story that pits the middle class against Bain Capital Management and the elites who have written off the bottom 48%.
The campaign is a bittersweet ending for Axelrod, because he enjoyed the war and the family of friends. He starts the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago. He reminisces on politicians of the past, like Dan Rostenkowski, that he admired for "good" policies but were morally, internally corrupt (Rostenkowski went the prison). Obama is admirable because he maintained solid character, sometimes to a fault, and had policies that Axelrod supported. Obama comes across as centrist to a fault in this memoir. Axelrod wonders about the state of politics today, where even sharing a meal with another candidate is considered "treason" or something worse. Obama campaigned in 2008 on a pledge to "fix broken politics," but did he? (Of course not. This is Axelrod again falling for his own marketing material.) Axelrod is concerned that hopelessly combative, divided politics is our fate.
Seeing the 2016 transition take place as I write this makes this book feel incomplete. It would be nice to have Axelrod's insights into the White House as Hillary Clinton's ship sunk could never quite pull away from Donald Trump. He was rather critical of her at times on Twitter, it would be good to have that retrospective in the book as well. I suppose an updated edition is unlikely. I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5.