Commie Watch

The Quest for David Axelrod’s Leftist Roots

He made Barack Obama president.

By From the April 2014 issue

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More than any other figure, David Axelrod made Barack Obama president. He was the brain behind the winning message, right down to the words “hope and change.” The New York Times dubbed him “Obama’s Narrator.” He was the architect and author. The Obama persona was in large part Ax’s carving. 

As such, David Axelrod is a significant figure worth knowing and understanding. Two years ago, in a feature for the Spectator on Axelrod (“David Axelrod, Lefty Lumberjack,” TAS, March 2012), I endeavored to uncover his roots. Among my findings, Axelrod’s Chicago mentors—the Canter family—were not only old hardline pro-Soviet communists, but, in an amazing twist, they knew and worked with Frank Marshall Davis, who would meet and mentor Obama in Hawaii in the 1970s. The senior Canter was brought to Moscow during the height of the Stalin period to work as an official translator of Lenin’s writings.

But as I dug deeper into Axelrod’s roots, one area proved exasperatingly elusive. I tried to discern his mother’s politics, given that she seemed more politically involved than his father. Eventually I was able to report in this publication what a few others already knew, namely that the mother had worked for an extremely political newspaper, the left-leaning New York daily PM.

The newspaper was a battleground between non-communist liberals and progressives and closet communists who masqueraded as liberals and progressives, with the latter using the former as dupes to advance the Soviet line. Communists on staff, who concealed their associations, pushed for a post-war U.S. alliance with “Uncle Joe”; the liberals resisted. These tensions ripped at PM’s seams. It was often hard to know which writer stood where. The self-proclaimed liberals/progressives ranged from I.F. Stone to the famed Arthur Miller, a small-c communist who considered joining the party.

As for Stone, later hailed by liberals as the “conscience of investigative journalism,” he appears to have been a paid Soviet agent. The careful historians John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev concluded: “To put it plainly, from 1936 to 1939 I. F. Stone was a Soviet spy.” KGB general Oleg Kalugin stated that Stone “was a KGB agent since 1938. His code name was ‘Blin.’” Kalugin said that when he “resumed relations” with Stone in 1966, “it was on Moscow’s instructions.” In The Venona Secrets, the late Herb Romerstein reported: “it is clear from the evidence that Stone was indeed a Soviet agent.”

To his credit, Stone reportedly later rejected communism and became a non-communist leftist of some sort. That said, PM was founded in 1940. Thus, if the above dates on Stone are accurate, then Stone was working for the Kremlin immediately prior to PM, and possibly (we would suspect) retained certain sympathies.

Which brings us back to David Axelrod’s mother. Where did Myril Axelrod stand in these battles? The answer, unfortunately, has been unclear. As I noted two years ago, nearly every profile of David Axelrod relates that his mother was a journalist at PM. A few state that she covered “education.” I sent a researcher to a library with every old copy of PM, but he could not find a single article with Myril’s byline. The question remained: Was Myril one of the closet communists supporting Henry Wallace and his pro-Stalin Progressive Party, or was she on Harry Truman’s side in opposing Stalin? Such answers would tell us something worth knowing about the home in which David Axelrod, who shaped the current leader of the free world, was himself shaped. I’ve written that Barack Obama is arguably our first Red Diaper Baby president, given his political upbringing. Had Axelrod been a Red Diaper Baby, too? All that I could vaguely say is that Myril was somewhere on the left.

After the publication of the article, I continued to periodically revisit the puzzling absence of information. Even nailing down Myril Axelrod’s maiden name and date of birth was an inexplicable and seemingly unnecessary mess. The information published by major newspapers was contradictory. I couldn’t find out where and when she was born. I couldn’t pinpoint the names of her parents. I looked through old Senate and House Committee reports for any “Myril Bennett Axelrod” or similarly related “Bennett” in the New York area who was involved in left-wing activities in the 1940s and 1950s. Yet I came up empty-handed again and again.

In the course of a conversation on David Axelrod about six months ago, I raised the riddle with another researcher (who prefers to remain anonymous). She had experience searching ancestries, but like me she was surprised to find absolutely nothing—nada, zilch, zero. I said to my fellow researcher: “Apparently, it will take Myril’s death for us to learn these details. We won’t find them until she dies.”

Well, a few weeks ago, Myril Axelrod died at age ninety-three. On that, I sincerely express my condolences to her son, despite our political differences. Besides, if Myril was an anti-communist liberal, the type I’ve always admired, I’d have great respect for her.

A few outlets published small obituaries, which again told us virtually nothing. But at long last, on the funeral home’s website, some new information miraculously materialized.

Myril was born on April 4, 1920 in Weehawken, New Jersey. To my great surprise—and this in itself solves one major riddle—she was not born Myril Bennett, but instead Myril Jessica Davidson. I had searched everywhere for Bennetts, not Davidsons. Where did the name Bennett come from?

According to the obituary, after Myril’s first husband (David’s father) tragically committed suicide, she remarried a marketing executive named Abner Bennett (who died in 1986). This I had not known. And then another long-awaited tidbit: her parents’ names, Louis and Gertrude Davidson. I cannot begin to convey how incredibly elusive that simple fact had been. The father had reportedly fled Russian pogroms as a teen and became a dentist in Hoboken, New Jersey. The mother, also a child of immigrants, became a teacher. Myril had two siblings, one of them named Bill, a writer who reportedly entered the NYU journalism program.

With this information finally in hand, I checked the three best sources on communist/leftist activity from the relevant era. One of them is the prodigious 2,100-page “Investigation of Un-American Propaganda Activities in the United States,” known among insiders as “Appendix IX.” It was produced in 1944 by the Democratic Congress under FDR’s attorney general. I also checked part five of the July 1953 congressional report “Investigation of Communist Activities in the New York City Area.” Lastly, I looked at the index of the huge 1970 compilation done by the House Committee on Internal Security, likewise run by Democrats. I did not find Myril listed anywhere, nor Gertrude. I did find references to Louis Davidson and also a “William” or “W” Davidson, but I can’t say for certain if these men were Myril’s father and brother, respectively. There is not adequate additional information.

And what about her work at PM? Here, the funeral-home obituary provided a stunner:

After [World War II], Mrs. Axelrod reentered journalism on the staff of PM, the liberal-leaning, advertising-free daily financed by Marshall Field III. Starting as an assistant, she worked as a “leg man” for Albert Deutsch, the journalist and social historian, on PM’s science and welfare coverage. Mrs. Axelrod also helped I.F. Stone prepare his work “Underground to Palestine,” a landmark account of the efforts of Jewish “displaced persons” in Europe to reach what was then British Mandatory Palestine after World War II. Mr. Stone’s book began as a series in PM.

A book on post-war Displaced Persons (DPs) might not be suspected as a pro-Soviet work—unless you know the history. In fact, Stalin and Molotov tried to turn the DP issue into a major propaganda ploy, as did their comrades throughout the Daily Worker, Communist Party USA, and the international communist movement. What the communists did with the DP issue was utterly egregious. It was shameful, disgusting, evil, and typical. I have not read Stone’s book, but it’s worth tracking down to ascertain precisely where it stood vis-à-vis Moscow.

Note, too, the obituary informs us that Myril worked for Albert Deutsch, who cursory research suggests was a labor leftist working for the longshoremen’s union. That union, incidentally, was one of the most manipulated by communists. It helped bring Obama’s mentor, Frank Marshall Davis, from Chicago to Hawaii in 1949. Deutsch apparently won the Heywood Broun award, named for the celebrated socialist reporter.

In addition, the obituary states that at PM, Myril “rose to City Desk reporter, writing about labor, law enforcement, and breaking news, with a stint covering education. After PM folded in 1948, she stayed on with its successor, the New York Star, before spending most of the 1950s freelancing pieces for national magazines.” This suggests a greater role at PM than many of us suspected. Again, what did she write while there? And under what byline (I imagine now that I should have looked under “Myril Davidson”)? For that matter, what did she write for the left-wing New York Star?

For the sake of history, it would certainly be useful to answer these questions. Americans today are shockingly ignorant of the dangers of communism and what the far left has wrought, as the political success of well-known, one-time communist Bill De Blasio, now New York’s mayor, proves.

But maybe others can take up the task. I’m in no rush. This stuff torments me. Besides, what’s done is done. David Axelrod elected his president.

Even now, I still can’t definitely say much about where Myril Axelrod Bennett stood politically, other than that she was somewhere on the left. But the mystery is at least less of a mystery. Just don’t expect a single liberal journalist to exhaust even a minute searching for any of this. It will be entirely up to conservatives like myself and publications like The American Spectator. We will be told yet again that we are nothing more than mere modern incarnations of Joe McCarthy.

So be it. The truth is worth knowing. 

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About the Author

Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative.