Getting Barack Obama elected president would be “something you could really be proud of for the rest of your life,” said David Axelrod in January 2007, a month before the young Illinois senator proclaimed his candidacy. “It would really change politics in a positive way.”
Axelrod, already an established political consultant, had in front of him a potential huge star, a game changer—a political advent. He saw in Obama a boy wonder, at once compelling, winsome, engaging, historic, spiritual, a hope-filled, hope-emanating “agent of change.” The consultant had a candidate who could sail to the stars.
Axelrod scheduled the ascension for a Saturday in February, year of our Lord, 2007. The site was Springfield, Illinois, where another timeless figure, Abraham Lincoln, once held forth. The Anointed One bestrode the frozen ground before a mesmerized crowd of 15,000 liberal faithful. There, Barack Obama proceeded to invoke Lincoln a half dozen times in a speech guided by the hand of Axelrod, whose personal bookshelf is packed with Lincoln biographies. The assembled ached and awed as Obama offered them not mere leadership but transcendence, an overcoming of the “smallness of our politics,” of the “challenges” of the “generation,” and of the “failure of leadership” in America and on the planet.
Once the Obama ’08 campaign was in full force, David Axelrod did not relent, ramping up the appeal, packaging and selling and heralding this Illinois marvel of singular historical magnificence: “I think he’s unique, and he offers something very special and important in these times,” said “the Ax” of Barack. “He can heal this country and move it forward in a way that perhaps no one else can.”
Obama could calm the waters, commanding them to be still. Americans need only rise up, grab his hand, walk, and be healed; they need only assent and accept the gift. Hope and change had come to rescue them. Here was a form of change unlike anything this nation had ever seen, a politics of meaning to make Hillary Clinton blush—and lose.
That was the message. Obama was the message. But there was a messenger behind the message.
All of it, right down to the very words “hope and change,” was David Axelrod’s doing. Axelrod was no mere spinster or political consultant. He was the architect and author of the Obama message. The Los Angeles Times, in one of many media puff-pieces on Axelrod, correctly called him the “keeper” of the sacred message in an image-based campaign in which “message is everything.” The New York Times dubbed him “Obama’s Narrator.”
He is imager of the image and narrator of the narrative. No single person is more responsible for making Barack Obama president. Come November 2008, it was nothing short of a stunning change for America, a genuinely historical feat the man known as Ax hopes to repeat in November 2012.
And it helps that the two—story-maker and story, composer and theme—think alike. “You know, he and I share a basic worldview,” Obama told the New York Times. “I trust his basic take on what the country should be and where we need to move toward—not just on specific policy but how politics should be able to draw on our best and not our worst.”
Axelrod agreed unhesitatingly, saying of Obama: “He’s not just a client. He’s a very good friend of mine. We share a worldview.”
That worldview began taking form and focus in New York a half century ago. There began three decades of varied leftist influences on Axelrod, from progressives to communists, that would redound all the way to the Oval Office—and with the direct effect of each influence not always clear.
David M. Axelrod was born February 22, 1955, to Myril Bennett Axelrod and Joseph Axelrod. Both were liberals, “your classic New York leftist Democrats,” says Axelrod. Politics was a family interest. Though Jewish, they seemed animated more by politics than synagogue. They loved politics. The father, a baseball aficionado and reportedly a decent player, became a psychologist. The mother had worked for an extremely political newspaper-the liberal New York daily, PM.
The story of PM is fascinating and revealing of the nuances and internecine warfare of the 1940s left. The founder of PM was Ralph McAllister Ingersoll. The newspaper ran from 1940 until 1948, funded by Chicago-based millionaire Marshall Field, pioneer of the department store chain. Field was a progressive dupe. The communist left could often count on Field as a sucker to fund their fronts and causes.
PM‘s problem was the penetration by communists seeking to use the newspaper to advance the Stalinist line. Communists on the staff (most of them in the closet) pushed for a U.S. alliance with Uncle Joe; the liberals resisted. These tensions were visible to readers and were corrosive, ripping at PM‘s seams. It was often hard to know which PM writer stood where. The self-proclaimed “liberals/progressives” ranged from Arthur Miller to I. F. Stone. Arthur Miller was surely at one point a small “c” communist who considered joining the Party, whereas I. F. Stone went further.
In fact, it now appears that Stone—hailed by liberals as the “conscience of investigative journalism”—was a paid Soviet agent. In The Venona Secrets, Herb Romerstein reported: “it is clear from the evidence that Stone was indeed a Soviet agent.” Historians John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alex-ander Vassiliev agree: “To put it plainly, from 1936 to 1939 I. F. Stone was a Soviet spy.” KGB general Oleg Kalugin confirmed that Stone “was a KGB agent since 1938. His code name was ‘Blin.’ When I resumed relations with him in 1966, it was on Moscow’s instructions.”
When Stone died in 1989, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, liberals canonized him. An Oliphant cartoon portrayed Stone outside the Pearly Gates, with St. Peter telephoning God to say, “Yes, THAT I. F. Stone, Sir. He says he doesn’t want to come in—he’d rather hang around out here, and keep things honest.”
Stone had duped his progressive pals at PM.
That brings us back to David Axelrod’s mother. Where did Myril Axelrod stand in these battles? The answer, unfortunately, is unclear.
Nearly every profile of David Axelrod notes that his mother was a journalist at PM. A few state that she covered “education.” In scouring reel upon reel of microfiche of old copies of PM for this article, I was unable to find a single article with Myril’s byline. She reportedly began writing for PM as a journalism major at NYU, meaning her name would have appeared presumably after 1944.
This is not to doubt that Myril wrote for PM, but it remains a mystery where she stood on these crucial early battles when the Cold War erupted. At this time, many on the left bolted Harry Truman for the loving arms of Henry Wallace and his pro-Stalin Progressive Party, the rallying point of American Stalinists. Did Myril support Harry or Henry?
What we do know is that Myril was, generally speaking, on the left, and her son ended up there as well.
We also know that, ultimately, the Party line become so prevalent at PM—and its disciples so duplicitous—that liberals raised a major fuss; some resigned, concerned about their “progressive” tabloid being converted into a communist front. The publication folded in 1948, shortly after communists staged their coup in Prague and as Stalin began blockading Berlin.
As for Myril Bennett, she would marry Joseph Axelrod. She seems to have put journalism behind, going into advertising. Her son would pick up the torch and the pen.
David Axelrod’s home life was not great. His mother and father separated, reunited, and then divorced in his teen years. In 1972, he graduated from New York’s Stuyvesant High School and considered acceptance offers from Columbia and the University of Chicago. Chicago’s politics and journalistic opportunities appealed to him. He enrolled at the University of Chicago that fall.
Axelrod majored in political science and wrote for the student newspaper. Around late 1973, early 1974, he secured a nice job as a very young political columnist for the Hyde Park Herald, a fairly influential weekly catering to the Hyde Park area of Chicago. Already, he was writing a weekly political column.
At this point, two crucial things happened in Axelrod’s personal and professional lives. In May of 1974, shortly before Father’s Day, the 19-year-old got an unforgettable knock at his door, the stuff of nightmares: “David, we just got a call from New York. The NYPD. They found your dad in his apartment…. They need you to go home to identify his body.”
Joseph Axelrod had committed suicide alone at his apartment. Myril claimed that David’s dad had been depressed, an assertion that still angers him. Axelrod maintains that his father was a “very, very pleasant person, very warm, a very nice person to spend time with”—”despite what my mother said.”
It was amid this personal low, ironically, that Axelrod’s career was taking off. His work at the Hyde Park Herald caught the attention of two notable sources: Don Rose and David Canter. Rose and Canter began mentoring Axelrod. In so doing, they would change Axelrod’s life and, by extension, arguably Barack Obama’s life and America’s life.
Canter and Rose
In encountering Canter and Rose, Ax had veered within the extreme orbit of the old Chicago CPUSA apparatus—indeed, the American Communist Party was founded in Chicago in September 1919. Of the two, Canter had the deep Party and even Soviet roots. Ties between Rose and the Party have not been established. Consider Canter first:
David Canter’s father was Harry Jacob Canter, one of 11 children born to Jewish immigrants who left Russia in the 1880s. Harry hooked up with every progressive and communist cause under the sun, from the Scottsboro Boys to Sacco-Vanzetti. In May 1929 he was convicted for radical activities and served a year in jail.
Active in the Industrial Workers of the World, Harry became secretary of the Boston Communist Party. In 1930, he ran for governor of Massachusetts on the Communist Party ticket.
Harry’s devotion was such that in 1932 he earned a special invitation to Stalin’s USSR, which he en-thusiastically accepted—bringing along his entire family. In the words of Harry’s grandson, Evan, “The family was invited to go over to the Soviet Union so that my grandfather could teach printing techniques to the Russians. They were translating ideological papers into English at that time. I have several volumes of translated works that he printed, including a series of Lenin’s translated papers that actually have my grandfather’s name in them.”
In 1937, the Canters suddenly left Moscow and moved back to America—and just happened to settle in Chicago, heart of the American Communist Party, second only to New York in Party activity.
Harry’s activities got him noticed in Washington. The narrative by liberals will be that Harry Canter was hounded by rabid Republican witch-hunters and McCarthyites. Quite the contrary, Harry was flagged way back in 1944 by the Democratic-run 78th Congress in its seminal 2,100-page investigative report of front-groups, titled, “Investigation of Un-American Propaganda Activities in the United States.” There, Canter is listed as, among other things, an instructor at the Abraham Lincoln School, an infamous Chicago-based front that instructed pupils in the teachings of Marx and Lenin.
Harry remained in publishing, a family vocation that would eventually lead to David Axelrod. He worked as a proofreader for Chicago-area newspapers. He also remained active among the workers of the world, serving as a member of the International Typographical Union and as an organizer and secre-tary of the Chicago Typographical Union, Local 16. Harry died a devout communist in 1971.
“He was a Communist,” Evan Canter admits. “He was involved in the Party, as was my father.”
Evan’s father and Harry’s son was David Simon Canter—the Canter who mentored David Axelrod.
David Canter was born in Boston in 1923, leaving for the USSR with his family when he was a boy. He was nurtured and educated in the Soviet Union at the height of Stalin’s collectivization, mass redistribution, and five-year plans. He graduated high school in America upon his family’s return.
In a trajectory very similar to David Axelrod’s path, David Canter, born on the East Coast, attended college at the University of Chicago, where he specialized in politics and journalism. He later attended John Marshall Law School. He wrote for the college newspaper and other publications, eventually editing the newsletter of the Chicago-based, communist-controlled Packinghouse Workers Union.
In the early 1960s, David’s politics became especially bold, and, like his father, caught the attention of Congress. Here again, Congress was run by Democrats—back in the days when there were many stalwart anti-communist Democrats.
On July 12, 1962, David Canter was subpoenaed to testify before the Democrat-run House Committee on Un-American Activities, where he refused to answer questions about past or present membership in the Communist Party. He was questioned directly by Counsel John C. Walsh and Rep. Edwin Willis (D-LA). Time after time, Canter repeated verbatim, almost comically: “My answer to that question is the same answer as I have given to your question No. 2 and the legal grounds cited therefore.” Canter pleaded the Fifth Amendment from start to finish.
In one line of questioning, Canter was told that Carl Nelson, a Chicagoan who was a member of the Communist Party, had testified under oath that Canter, too, was a member. Canter responded: “My answer to that question is the same as I have answered your previous question No. 2 and the legal reasons cited therefore.”
The committee was interested in a Canter operation called Translation World Publishers, an unusually pro-Soviet publishing house created by David Canter and his co-owner, LeRoy Wolins, a well-known communist. Among other troubling details, the committee had evidence that “the Soviet Government advanced to Translation World Publishers…the sum of $2,400” for a specific set of books to be produced. This was a stunning item: Was David Canter’s publishing house being subsidized by the Kremlin? Both Canter and Wolins refused to answer, again pleading the Fifth.
Nonetheless, the committee concluded that Translation World Publishers was “an outlet for the distribution of Soviet propaganda” and was “subsidized by Soviet funds and was created by known Communists to serve the propaganda interests of the USSR.” Canter and Wolins, according to the committee, had thereby failed to comply with the provisions of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. That was no casual charge.
Congress was also curious about Canter, an attorney, being listed in the 1960 and 1962 editions of the Lawyers Referral Directory, published by the National Lawyers Guild, an infamous communist front classified by Congress as the “legal bulwark of the Communist Party.”
Like his old man, David was finding himself a subject of Congress’s exhaustive compilations of subversive activities. In Congress’s major investigation, “Guide to Subversive Organizations and Publications,” an exhaustive analysis (the largest since the 1944 report) compiled between 1955 and 1968, published in September 1970—likewise under a Democratic Congress—David Canter was listed 25 times.
Among the added things that rankled Democrats was David’s possible role in the 1968 Democratic National Convention blow-up, held in Chicago that August. In October, the Democrat-run House Committee on Un-American Activities held hearings. The committee heard testimony that David Canter’s publishing house had been a “great help” to one of the communist publications that had agitated and disrupted the convention: “We wouldn’t be anywhere without him,” stated one source.
In its formal report on the effort to subvert the Democratic National Convention, Congress noted not only David Canter but also his partner, Don Rose, a member of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. This group, of course, was the ultimate Who’s Who of Sixties radicals, and thoroughly penetrated by communist ringleaders. Rose did press work for the Mobilization Committee and for Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
David Canter and Don Rose were busy men throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, associated with all sorts of suspected front groups.
In his new book, Barack Obama and the Enemies Within, Trevor Loudon, one of the few people bo-thering to track this trail, refers to David Canter as a “paid Soviet agent.” (Both of David’s surviving sons vigorously deny the “paid” part.) Loudon refers to Don Rose as “equally as radical, but never a proven Party member.”
David Canter passed away in August 2004. Don Rose is alive and well.
Most significant to the Axelrod connection, it was in the 1960s, at the peak of their radicalism, that David Canter and Don Rose joined forces to start a Hyde Park-Kenwood community newspaper called Hyde Park-Kenwood Voices, serving as founders, co-publishers, and editors. The newspaper was on the far left, echoing CPUSA’s calls to “abolish HUAC” and publishing (to cite just one example) pro-Hanoi screeds by SDS members based in Chicago. It was through this enterprise that they eventually met a young David Axelrod.
On that, one especially good source is David Canter’s son Marc. At his blog, “test-marcblog.wordpress.com,” Marc, a Chicago-based IT consultant, posts an e-mail from Don Rose, who remains a close family friend. Rose was eager to set straight the “historical record” on when he and David Canter met Axelrod. According to Rose, Axelrod “was familiar with our paper [Hyde Park-Kenwood Voices] as a student before he got the [Hyde Park] Herald job.” Rose confirmed to Marc: “Your dad and I ‘mentored’ and helped educate him politically in that capacity, which is perhaps why you may recall seeing him hanging around the house. I later wrote a reference letter for him that helped him win an internship at the Tribune, which was the next step in his journalism career.”
Indeed it was. With the help and mentorship of Rose and Canter, Axelrod got a position at the Chicago Tribune, a major breakthrough that launched him. “I felt I had made the big leagues,” said Axelrod, quite correctly.
Did that recommendation seal the deal for Axelrod in getting the job at the Tribune? That is difficult to say, but it no doubt helped. The recommendation was a significant part of Axelrod’s early rise.
Notably, Don Rose’s influence on David Axelrod has been so strong that even the mainstream media sometimes pauses to interview him in profiles of Axelrod, referring to Rose as a “progressive.” Articles in Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Los Angeles Times honestly (or naïvely) pause to acknowledge Rose’s influence on Axelrod (albeit ignoring David Canter like the plague). Some refer to Rose as a “mentor”—the Chicago Tribune does so explicitly—and most note that Rose “recommended” Axelrod for the critical position at the Tribune, directly interviewing and quoting Rose. Predictably, this journalistic honesty is lacking in profiles by the New York Times—which in three major profiles of Axelrod somehow managed to miss Don Rose—and, naturally, in a Washington Post profile by Robert Kaiser, all of which know better than to raise the specter of Rose (or David Canter).
Do such radical mentors mean that David Axelrod is a closet communist? Of course, not. Nonethe-less, they are formative to Axelrod’s life and political rise, and cannot be ignored. Any biographer knows that you do not ignore mentors; no, you start with mentors. A biographical profile that ignores such figures is guilty of journalistic dereliction. Mentors matter.
And these figures reveal that Axelrod—just like Barack Obama—is the product of some far-left influences, from the progressive left to the communist left. Like Obama, who was impacted by Frank Marshall Davis, Bill Ayers, Jeremiah Wright, and others, these figures unquestionably had an impact and surely help explain why Axelrod is on the left—and not the moderate left. Moreover, it is telling, but not surprising, that the mainstream media has dared not touch these influences, surely fearful of the danger of exposing them and their possible impact on today’s Oval Office.
The Canters, Don Rose, and the Obamas
When it comes to influence, a common bond among these fellow travelers, from the mentors to the mentored, is political work for African-American Democrats. David Canter and Don Rose seem to have had an influence not only on Axelrod’s politics but on his work in politics.
David Canter, in a remarkable foreshadowing of David Axelrod’s interests, became a political adviser with a special interest in advancing “progressive” black candidates, including Illinois pols Harold Washington, Carol Moseley Braun, and Bobby Rush. Canter was especially close to Harold Washington. In an interview with Chicago Jewish History, Canter’s son Evan recalls his father sitting at the dining-room table with candidates like Washington, going through their petitions and other items ensuring everything was in order.
Marc Canter backs that up: “One day I stumbled downstairs into our kitchen to meet Harold Wash-ington talking to my father. Harold was the Congressman from our district and my father was explaining to him how he could split the white vote and become the first black mayor of the city of Chicago. My father had been mentoring, encouraging and working for Harold for 15 years by then and it worked. They won the election and Harold became history.”
Harold Washington rewarded David Canter with a job as Deputy Streets and Sanitation Commissioner. Chicago’s “progressives” were thrilled. The old pro-Soviet journalist turned his publishing skills from defending Nikita Khrushchev to stumping for Harold Washington. Canter edited Washington’s “Second Term” newsletter—apparently an alternative Chicago endeavor from his pro-Moscow Translation World Publishers.
Prior to the advent of Obama, Harold Washington excited David Canter and Don Rose and also David Axelrod. All three worked together for Washington’s reelection campaign in 1987, with Axelrod formally serving as an adviser—one of his first campaign gigs.
As for Barack Obama, he was emerging as a community organizer in Chicago, fresh from the halls of Columbia University. Like Axelrod, he had come to Chicago by way of New York City.
Obama soon met Axelrod and Rose, and almost surely encountered David Canter as well.
Marc Canter is “pretty sure my father knew Barack.” They could have easily met if not through Axelrod then through mutual friends who served on Harold Washington’s campaigns or administration, including Valerie Jarrett. They all ran in the same circles. Among other efforts, all of them—Axelrod, Canter, Rose, and Obama—could have also met during Carol Moseley Braun’s Senate campaigns.
Other family connections continue to this day.
David Canter had long ago met his wife, Miriam, in Boston. (He told Miriam he did not want to be married by a rabbi. “It’s not that I’m non-religious,” he told her. “I’m anti-religious.”) She joined her husband in all sorts of “progressive” or suspected front-group activities, from the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights to opposing the Vietnam War and the McCarran Subversive Activities Act.
Miriam became active in the Hyde Park community as president of the PTA. Public-school officials responded by renaming Wirth Middle School in her honor. Today it is the Miriam G. Canter Middle School.
Interestingly, Chicago’s public schools have an annual “Principal for a Day” program. The Canters’ son, Evan, has been honored as co-principal several times. On one occasion, in 2004, he served as co-principal with a woman named Michelle Obama.
Axelrod in the 1980s
How did David Axelrod get from the Hyde Park Herald and Chicago Tribune to Obama ’08 and the White House?
With the eager help of political/journalistic mentors like David Canter and Don Rose, Axelrod, by the mid-1980s, was on his way. After several busy years at the Tribune, he left his spot as one of the paper’s youngest political writers for the lure of political campaigns. His big break came not with his work on Harold Washington’s 1987 reelection campaign but with Illinois Senator Paul Simon. He first worked for Simon in 1984, before being hired to run Simon’s 1988 presidential bid.
From the start of his consulting work, Axelrod, a highly partisan Democrat, exhibited a total embrace of his liberal clients, along with a corresponding contempt for his clients’ opponents. As a June 2007 Chicago Tribune profile noted, Axelrod lives in a world of heroes and villains. As for the liberal heroes, reported the Tribune, he “falls in love with his candidates.” Here, Ax is the hopeless idealist, the “political romantic,” the quixotic dreamer.
In Paul Simon, the bow-tied, bespectacled, nerdy liberal, Axelrod saw an angel. “What Paul Simon has is an absolute commitment to principle,” raved Axelrod. He idolized Simon. He saw Simon’s 1984 opponent, incumbent Republican Senator Charles Percy, as a demon. “Percy became this evil character to David,” said a friend at the Tribune.
With Axelrod’s assistance, Simon squeaked out a victory. By 1985, the aspiring consultant was up and running with own firm, Axelrod & Associates.
Early on, Axelrod likewise gained a reputation for going negative. A Chicago Magazine profile from December 1987, titled, “Hatchet Man: The Rise of David Axelrod,” stated: “Axelrod’s holier-than-a-hack image is also soiled by a penchant for airing negative television commercials.” Here, too, Axelrod was described as “creative” but “mercurial,” “tense,” filled with “anxiety” and impatience, “by nature nervous” and ever-ready to “blast the dickens” out of an opponent.
The pattern continued. A Tribune profile two decades later described him as “ferocious,” “respond[ing] with venom,” “brass knuckles,” a penchant for “bludgeoning” opponents.
Democrat office-seekers apparently admired the tactics, or the results. The clients came running, with the Ax honing a sharp affinity for African-American candidates, particularly mayoral prospects: Harold Washington in Chicago, Michael White in Cleveland, John Street in Philadelphia, Anthony Williams in Washington, Lee Brown in Houston. Like David Canter, he encouraged and helped black candidates appeal to white voters.
But not only black candidates. Soon, Axelrod advised Richard M. Daley, son of the Daley political machine that once beat up in the streets the pals of Don Rose and David Canter. The younger Daley made his mayoral bid after Harold Washington’s sudden death. Axelrod represented several old Demo-cratic machine types. One such pol was Cook County Sheriff Richard Elrod. Don Rose disapproved. He saw Axelrod’s representation of Elrod as a sell-out. “I don’t know how he rationalized that,” complained Rose. “[David] is a principled, generally progressive guy.”
Well, these party hacks may not have been “progressives,” but they were Democrats—and Axelrod is happy to represent Democrats who oppose the true enemy: Republicans.
With the Daley campaign a success, Axelrod expanded his horizons far beyond city halls. There were gubernatorial prospects: New York’s Eliot Spitzer and Massachusetts’ Deval Patrick. There were Senate seekers: Chris Dodd and Hillary Clinton. There were more presidential campaigns: John Edwards.
He became especially close to Rahm Emanuel—so close that Emanuel asked Axelrod to sign the ketubah (Jewish marriage covenant) at his wedding. Axelrod somehow got the unappealing Emanuel elected to a House seat where detractors had framed him as a carpetbagger. He was Emanuel’s chief political adviser when Emanuel helped staged the Democratic takeover of the House in 2006.
From 2001 to 2007, Axelrod’s 11-person consulting firm was touting an 80-percent win rate, with its candidates victorious in 33 of 42 campaigns.
Thus, like his mentors, David Canter and Don Rose, Axelrod went into political consulting.
His move from the Chicago Tribune to Axelrod & Associates meant a jump in salary from re-portedly $42,000 per year to “around six figures,” due primarily to commissions that ranged from $15,000 to $60,000 per campaign, plus a 15 percent commission on TV ads. Axelrod had considered going into business with Bob Shrum (then Ted Kennedy’s press secretary), consultant David Doak, and Pat Caddell, who had been a pollster for Jimmy Carter. Caddell, however, repulsed Axelrod. “Pat was narcissistic and consumed with himself,” he snarled.
Axelrod went in his own direction. He became known as a “five-tool consultant,” capable of writing speeches, press releases, and statements; crafting a campaign message; plotting strategy; producing TV and radio spots; and acting as a spokesman—all traits he would ultimately evidence in working for Obama.
Over time, Axelrod represented a variety of campaigns, primarily through two principal organizations: AKP&D Message and Media, and ASK Public Strategies. Among them, Axelrod & Associates morphed into AKP&D.
AKP&D is Axelrod’s Chicago-based political consulting firm that serves Democrat clients nationwide. The “A” is for Axelrod. The “K” is for John Kupper, a former Capitol Hill press secretary. The “P” is for David Plouffe, who would become campaign manager to Senator Barack Obama. The “D” is for John Del Cecato, described at the firm’s website as a “seasoned press secretary and veteran of battles in New York City and throughout the country,” who caught Axelrod’s eye through his talent for writing and producing ads. The firm’s client lists boasts four presidential campaigns and numerous senatorial, congressional, gubernatorial, and mayoral campaigns, with names ranging from Barack Obama to John Edwards, from Rod Blagojevich to Eliot Spitzer, from Patrick Kennedy to Rahm Emanuel.
Operating from the same address and same office as AKP&D is Axelrod’s ASK Strategies. Here, the “A” is for Axelrod, the “S” for Eric Sedler, and the “K” (again) is for John Kupper. Sedler came to ASK through AT&T and Edelman. The focus of ASK is not political candidates but organizations and corporate clients. Most interesting, ASK has mastered the use of front-groups—something intimately familiar to Axelrod’s radical mentors.
A well-known, somewhat notorious example of this front-group tactic is the company ComEd, which sought a palatable way to seek higher electricity prices in Illinois. ComEd sought ASK’s advice. ASK advised ComEd to form a group called Consumers Organized for Reliable Electricity (CORE), which in turn described itself as a “coalition of individuals, businesses, and organizations.” The group then ran ads—written by ASK—direly warning of blackouts if electricity rates were not hiked. As noted by Bloomberg, ComEd later acknowledged that it had bankrolled the entire $15 million effort.
It was precisely the kind of thing that Chicago’s communists did in the 1940s, organizing groups with names like the American Peace Mobilization, which argued that America should stay out of World War II for purposes of peace when, in fact, the group’s goal was to assuage Hitler because Hitler had signed a pact with Stalin. This is a crass example, yes, but it is indicative of the way that communists in Chicago and New York operated unceasingly for decades through the finely honed tactic of the front-group. The likes of the Canters, Frank Marshall Davis, and others were involved in innumerable front-groups in Chicago and elsewhere.
But there was more to the ComEd example. As Bloomberg noted, “Illinois employees of the utility and its parent, Exelon, have contributed $181,711 to Obama’s presidential bid—more than workers at any other company in the state.” Bear in mind that David Axelrod not only runs ASK, which advised the ComEd campaign, but also advised Barack Obama’s campaigns. As the Bloomberg article pointed out, “Axelrod’s public and private efforts bump into each other at ComEd.”
ComEd is just one example of work done by ASK. Bloomberg also reported the remarkable case of New York’s Cablevision, which owns Madison Square Garden. Cablevision hired ASK to stop the New York Jets from building a new stadium in nearby Manhattan. Again, a front-group was formed, calling itself the New York Association for Better Choices, which, in turn, ran ads and materials opposing construction. According to records, Cablevision paid ASK $1.2 million in 2004-05.
Other clients followed. In 2006, none other than Michelle Obama, an executive at the University of Chicago Medical Center—whose husband was advised by David Axelrod—recommended that the hospital hire Axelrod’s firm for a program intended to steer inner-city patients to neighborhood clinics. That effort eventually led to a program the hospital now calls its Urban Health Initiative. As the Washington Post reported, “The medical center’s initiative provides a window into the close relationship between the Obamas, their associates at the University of Chicago and Axelrod, the strategist most central to Barack Obama’s rise.”
In December 2006, the medical center hired Axelrod’s ASK Public Strategies to sell the Urban Health Initiative.
This came shortly after Obama joined the U.S. Senate in 2005. The medical center gave Michelle the plum position of vice president of community and external relations, with an annual salary of $317,000. The medical center’s chairwoman was Valerie Jarrett, an intimate of both Obamas then and (of course) still today.
As the Post noted, the “vast majority” of political contributions from University of Chicago employees have gone to Democrats, with $373,000 donated to Obama’s campaigns prior to 2008.
When Ax Met Barack
Along this winding road, Axelrod had many run-ins with the Boy Wonder.
Though it seems very likely they would have met in Chicago in the 1980s, liberal lore maintains that Axelrod and Obama were introduced in 1992 by Bettylu Saltzman, who the New York Times calls “a Democratic doyenne from Chicago’s lakefront liberal crowd.” Saltzman met Obama at a 1992 black voter registration drive. She was blown away, telling friends she had met a man who would become the first black president. She immediately began introducing Obama to wealthy liberal donors-and to David Axelrod.
At this point, then, the community organizer was a mere gleam in Axelrod’s eye. They began interacting and working together.
A pivotal moment came in October 2002 at Federal Plaza in Chicago. The target was George Bush and his Iraq policy. A few weeks earlier, in September, Bettylu Saltzman convened a group of “progres-sives” in her living room. One of them was Marilyn Katz, an old SDSer and Vietnam War protester who once threw nails in the Chicago streets to slow the police. Marilyn is pals with Don Rose and Carl Davidson, old SDS cronies. Davidson, one of SDS’s national leaders, and a dear friend of Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, would become webmaster for the 2008 group, Progressives for Obama. The troops organized a group called Chicagoans Against the War in Iraq. They planned a rally at Federal Plaza.
Atop Saltzman’s list of desired speakers was Barack Obama. Obama considered the invitation. He saw an Iraq speech as a sure way to raise his national profile and frame himself as a serious candidate for the U.S. Senate. But before he gave Saltzman an answer, he called Axelrod. Axelrod advised him to do the speech, to appeal to the liberal Chicago base, but to be careful not to alienate a broader base of voters.
That was precisely the speech Obama attempted to give. It became his best-known early stand against the war. Though he did not want to appear weak on defense, Obama warned of “an occupation of undetermined length with undetermined costs and undetermined consequences”—a line that the New York Times today isolates for its unyielding political sagacity and unrivalled prophetic brilliance.
In recalling the Solomon-like moment, the Times quoted no less a war authority than Carl Davidson, who sensed that the speech was aimed at a much wider audience beyond Chicago. “I thought, ‘This guy’s got bigger fish to fry,'” said Davidson.
He sure did. For Obama, this was a major step onto the national stage, with Axelrod playing a part.
Axelrod proceeded to advise Obama in his Senate bid. He had an unusual feeling about Obama: “This is a really special guy, and, if you could get him elected to the Senate, if you could be a part of that, that would be something to be proud of for the rest of your life.”
The White House
For Axelrod, Obama’s potential seemed limitless. David Canter might have helped shape Chicago’s first black mayor; David Axelrod might help shape America’s first black president.
Ax and Barack jointly focused their gaze upon 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. By 2007-08, Axelrod was Obama’s point-man; the chief strategist for the presidential campaign.
In January 2007, Axelrod zeroed in on the Obama image and message. He hired a camera crew to tail the candidate everywhere, the kind of video work at which Axelrod’s firms excel. He then went into seclusion with hours upon hours of video footage to craft five-minute messages. From all this tape, the New York Times noted, Axelrod “hoped to wring transcendence.” He did not want a “conventional candidacy.” He wanted Obama to be set apart not only from the Republican nominee but from Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Primary challenger, and a good friend of Axelrod.
When Hillary was dispatched, John McCain was next. When the McCain campaign trotted out Bill Ayers, Ax’s team was ready, firing off a 13-minute web video on McCain’s relationship two decades earlier with Charles Keating, infamous namesake of the “Keating Five.” For Obama liberals, the 1980s greedy capitalist was every bit as bad or worse than the 1960s communist terrorist.
Axelrod saw in Obama a triumph of personality and image—not policy. Ax would be the shaper and keeper of the message—of hope and change. Says Donna Brazile, Democrat strategist, every Obama “let us” phrase in 2008 was Axelrod’s doing. “Yes, we can!” was as much Axelrod as Obama.
And yes they did. Amazingly, Barack Obama won not just Democrats and liberals but the vaunted “moderates” and “independents” that were supposedly the strength of a McCain candidacy. They, too, signed on to “hope” and “change.”
Karl Rove quickly responded to the victory with an admiring op-ed for the Wall Street Journal on how Axelrod and old partner Plouffe had somehow helped Obama win previously red states like Virginia, Indiana, Colorado, and Nevada. “What Mr. Obama and his team achieved was impressive,” said Rove, in an understatement.
Also dutifully impressed was one Myril Axelrod. Still alive and still somewhere on the left, the aged ex-writer for PM danced in pleasure at her nursing home in Newton, Massachusetts. She also attended the inaugural ball. “Never in my lifetime have I seen something like this,” she thrilled. “It’s an extraordinary experience.”
Myril and her movement had come so far, from the days at PM and New York and Chicago in the 1940s to the days of “change” in Washington 70 years later, manufactured by her son. “God, this guy knows so much,” she marveled at David.
Axelrod took his unique knowledge into the White House, becoming senior adviser to the president. His role did not diminish. Quite the contrary, said Politico, “There are no limits on his roles inside the Obama administration…. Axelrod is now a pillar for Barack Obama.”
While the universe of Obama advisers and associates has expanded unlike ever before, it was Axelrod, noted the New York Times, “who sits closest to the Oval Office.” In one headline, the Times called him the “President’s Protector, Ever Close at Hand.”
At the White House, Axelrod arrived daily around 7:00 AM. His first appointment, fittingly, was a routine one-on-one with Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. As the man with his finger on the president’s political approval, Axelrod attended morning economic briefings. He left the room during intelligence briefings, not having sufficient clearance. Notably, however, Axelrod occasionally attended NSC briefings, again with an eye and ear to developments that could affect the president’s poll numbers.
Axelrod commandeered an invitation-only, tight-lipped Wednesday Night Meeting, where the latest Obama ups and downs were carefully considered.
Above all, Axelrod has paid close attention to the policy effect on Obama’s message and image, from stimulus to taxes to health care reform. He contemplated the impact of the Tea Party—reportedly warning the Obama team not to dismiss the Tea Party—and plotted a counter-response to early attacks by Rush Limbaugh.
Politico argued that while previous presidential political advisers have walked a fine line between politics and policy, Axelrod did just the opposite. For instance, he made the case for Obamacare to certain media outlets, including Meet the Press.
While Axelrod indeed has had a policy role, Politico somewhat overstated his policy impact. What Axelrod seems to have done as Obama’s political adviser is gauge and even push certain hot buttons to see how the public will respond, sending up trail balloons in his typical not-so-subtle way.
This was evident in an outrageous September 23, 2010, op-ed he wrote for the Washington Post, which was filled with every left-wing cliché. It was a crucial piece, extremely revealing of Axelrod’s ideology. It is the kind of piece lacking by, say, Valerie Jarrett-who the press has been able to frame as a sensible moderate largely because of her prudent silence.
In the piece, Axelrod, master of the front-group, assailed “industry-fueled front groups”; Republicans and their “millions of dollars” spent on “negative ads”; “Wall Street, the insurance lobby, oil companies and other special interests”; Karl Rove and conniving GOP donors who “secretly bankroll” “special interests”; the nefarious “billionaire oil men, David and Charles Koch”; the “right-wing agenda and corporate interests”; “robber barons” and “secret funders” who want to “turn back the clock”; the Tea Party (of course); and on and on. The article made an appeal to college students abused by “bank middlemen” who refuse to make college “affordable for millions of students” and who scheme with “Wall Street” to deny people mortgages and hurt them with “hidden fees and penalties.”
The piece was ridiculous, a bloody chunk of red meat tossed to the hard-left base. It read like an early Occupy Wall Street Manifesto, a caricature of every fire-breathing demon in the Democrats’ class-warfare propaganda playbook. David Canter and Don Rose would have loved it.
Canter, a lifetime observer of front-groups, also would have appreciated the fuller picture concealed by Axelrod. While Axelrod decried these alleged diabolical GOP special interests and their obscene money-grubbing, his firms had raked in more than their “fair share” of obscene profits.
Bloomberg reported that Axelrod’s AKP&D and a Washington-based firm called GMMB profited handsomely from Obama’s health care reform. “Two firms that received $343.3 million to handle advertising for Barack Obama’s White House run last year have profited from his top priority as president by taking on his push for healthcare overhaul,” reported Bloomberg in August 2009. “One is AKPD Message and Media, the Chicago-based firm headed by David Axelrod until he left last Dec. 31 to serve as senior adviser to the president. Axelrod was Obama’s top campaign strategist and is now helping sell the healthcare plan.”
Bloomberg reported that in 2009 AKP&D and GMMB received $12 million in advertising business (producing and placing ads) from Health Economy Now, a coalition that included the Washington-based Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America, better known as PhRMa, which was pushing an overhaul of America’s health care system. The two firms were reportedly splitting the $12 million.
Bloomberg stated that Axelrod, president and sole shareholder of AKP&D from 1985 until he sold his interest after Obama’s presidential victory, was still owed $2 million from the firm, which was due to be paid to Axelrod in installments beginning December 31, 2009. Confirming that figure, Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff added that the installments would start with a $350,000 check due to Axelrod by the end of the year. Axelrod’s son, Michael, works at the firm.
Back to Chicago
Those profits were not mentioned in Axelrod’s Washington Post piece. Not only did the Post piece agitate, but Axelrod himself seemed agitated, even as he was hardly suffering from a vow of poverty.
Just four days after the Post op-ed, the New Republic ran a piece perceptively titled, “What’s Eating David Axelrod?” It was a timely question.
In fact, something was eating David Axelrod. It was not long after that word circulated in Washington that Ax was heading back to Chicago. He and the White House announced he was returning home in January 2011, to be replaced by old Chicago friend and partner, David Plouffe.
Was he let go? No way. The move was motivated by both the personal and political.
As to the personal, Axelrod is a family man and a Chicago man. His dedication to his family is the most human thing about him. He met his wife, Susan Landau, while she was earning a master’s degree at University of Chicago School of Business. They married in 1979. They have three kids. One of them, a daughter, has severe epilepsy, requiring constant care. The two boys are grown and out of the house. Susan and the daughter did not move with Axelrod to Washington. He missed his beloved family and beloved Chicago profusely.
Waiting for him there was Chicago’s new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who also left the White House to return to yet more political antics in the Windy City.
Alas, this did not mean an end to the Obama-Axelrod relationship, even as Maureen Dowd poked fun at the “parting of sweet sorrow…for The Brand and the Keeper of the Brand.”
No, Axelrod went back to Chicago not only to be with family but to get back to what he has done best: elect Obama. In ’08, he did it from Chicago. In ’12, he would be ready to do so again.
“I’m going to do exactly what I did last time,” he says.
Lining Up the Targets
With ax now back in the saddle, the campaign salvos are already flying, with special attention to class warfare.
Axelrod’s firm has taken aim at bloodthirsty corporate villains like Wal-Mart, while Axelrod himself zeroes in on Republican malefactors seeking to harm Obama’s reelection bid.
In December, when Newt Gingrich suddenly soared in the polls, Ax was there to kick him down, especially with some old-fashioned class envy. Gee, quipped Axelrod, the media had left Gingrich “for dead at the checkout counter at Tiffany’s.” Well, shrugged the strategist, “just remember the higher a monkey climbs on a pole, the more you can kick his butt. So, you know, the Speaker is very high on the pole right now and we’ll see how people like the view.”
The headline in the Huffington Post screeched, “David Axelrod Compares Newt Gingrich to a Monkey.”
Newt, however, was a fleeting distraction for Axelrod. With his penchant for class warfare-the craft he and Obama have inherited from the old Chicago comrade mentors—his juiciest target has been Mitt Romney, who he hopes to portray as a poster-boy for Wall Street. He hopes to slice up Mitt as a hunk of red meat for the Occupy movement.
“Obama officials intend to frame Romney as the very picture of greed in the greet recession—a sort of political Gordon Gekko,” reported Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin in an August 2011 Politico piece, aptly titled, “Obama plan: Destroy Romney.”
The piece quoted the Ax himself, saying of Romney: “He was very, very good at making a profit for himself and his partners but not nearly as good [at] saving jobs for communities. He is very much the profile of what we’ve seen in the last decade on Wall Street.”
Politico quoted a “prominent Democratic ?strategist” close to the White House: “Unless things change and Obama can run on accomplishments, he will have to kill Romney.”
Axelrod has maintained that caricature of Romney, speaking on television, giving interviews to print media. “He [Romney] says he represents business,” Axelrod told MSNBC in October, “but he really represents the Wall Street side of business.”
In January, he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that Romney is “rooting” for economic decline. Axelrod described Romney as an outsourcer of “tens of thousands of jobs,” as someone who “closed down more than 1,000 plants, stores, and offices” and “took 12 companies to bankruptcy.” As he joyously destroyed businesses and companies and shop-owners and the poor and the crippled and the elderly and the lame and the meek, the rapacious Romney “and his partners made hundreds of millions of dollars.”
“He is not a job creator,” growled Axelrod. “He is a corporate raider.”
David Canter and his father and friends are smiling from their graves.
DAVID AXELROD IS BACK in Chicago, but he is hardly distant from the White House. He is thinking and plotting big picture. He is imaging once again, this time for ’12 instead of ’08. This time the images include not only that of his candidate but his candidate’s opposition. As to the former, he is back to refining and tuning the Obama message. “He’s got what musicians would call perfect pitch,” says Don Rose, old mentor.
The pitch worked once. Can it again?
“I have one campaign left,” Axelrod told a reporter a week before he got back to Chicago to gear up for Obama ’12, “and it is going to be to try to elect a guy who I think is a great president.”
Early in ’08, Barack Obama trailed Hillary Clinton by 33 points in the Democratic primary, with apparently no possibility of being the Party nominee let alone the nation’s next president. And then Ax cut and shaped and honed the message. The rest is history.
And the full story of that history has some deep roots in the Old Left, from New York to Chicago. Ax and Obama are the marriage not only of two modern liberal Democratic success stories but also of the Left’s old guard, progressives and communists, with the current generation. Obama and Axelrod and their world are a reflection of Democrats’ decades-long marriage with some unsavory elements, making for a perverse political culture that too frequently goes unexamined and acknowledged, especially by protectors and enablers in the mainstream media.
From the milieu of that political culture, an operative like David Axelrod has carved himself a nice political career. And he is far from finished, as the messenger and image-maker is poised to crown his wondrous “change agent” with yet another November coronation.