[轉載] Obama’s Narrator
When Barack Obama decided in January that he would run for president in 2008 and quietly began calling up his staff members and close supporters to tell them so, the choice had many effects, but one of the most immediate and parochial was that it sent Obama’s chief political and media adviser, a Chicago consultant named David Axelrod, into his editing studio. For four years Axelrod has had camera crews tracking virtually everything Obama has done in public — chatting up World War II vets in southern Illinois, visiting his father’s ancestral village in western Kenya — and there were days when the camera crews have outnumbered the civilians.
In the second week of January, Axelrod went down to his editing studio, a raw, whitewashed loft space, and began to sort through all of this tape to put together a five-minute Internet video for the initial announcement of Obama’s campaign, which would come the following Tuesday, Jan. 16. Political observers tend to dismiss bio pieces as fluff. But for Axelrod they supply a coordinating presence, a basic story to wrap the campaign around. There is precision in the fluff. Axelrod says he believes that Obama is something different: a “trailblazing” figure who “represents the future.” And indeed, so far Obama’s campaign has been steeped in his biography. This is, after all, a 45-year-old man who has written not one but two memoirs. Most of the raw videotape Axelrod has is the banal, worn imagery of politics — Obama speaking from a podium, with the familiar, angled hand gestures, or seated and listening intently, elbows on knees — and somehow from this he had hoped to wring transcendence. There was a clip he found from the early stages of the 2004 Senate campaign of Obama, microphone in hand, introducing himself to a small group of voters at a coffeehouse on Chicago’s North Side; when the candidate told them about his work in the early 1990s as a community organizer, there was a spontaneous, sustained applause. “I remember that!” Axelrod told me a few days later as we watched the finished product in his office the morning it was released to the public. “You know, we hadn’t thought that was an important part of his bio, but people really responded to the fact that Barack gave up corporate job offers to work in the community.”
Axelrod has the political operative’s BlackBerried, wearied demeanor, at once somewhat more and somewhat less than fully awake. His conversations are staccato, 90-second affairs, affirmations and advice. The day the video was released, he had six TV news crews lined up to interview him for segments they were putting together on Obama’s announcement. The Fox cameraman started hooking up his wires. He told Axelrod he had just walked past the subway station, and a worker, seeing the TV cameras, asked whom the crew was going to interview: “And I say David Axelrod, and she just screams, ‘Obama’s running!’ That’s all I had to say!”
“Yeah?” Axelrod replied, BlackBerrying, happy. He turned the video back on. Axelrod says he loves man-on-the-street interviews, and while digging through the tape the week before, he found one he did with a young Hispanic guy. “He gives you a — a sense of hope,” the young man says, squinting past the camera, swaying slightly. “Uh, at a time when, you know, things in this country are not going so well.” It’s a good message for Obama, and a good messenger, but what Axelrod likes are the stutters, the verbal hiccups: “That kind of authenticity is how you cut through.”
Axelrod says viewers are more likely to be arrested by shots that look rough, like “a hybrid, part political commercial, part news.” He found a grainy, C-Span-style shot of Obama talking about homelessness on the floor of the State Senate, which Axelrod now uses to establish Obama’s prior political experience. The consultant picked out a lingering, distant shot of Obama walking down a sunny southern Illinois road with his long arm around an older, short white farmer. He says this was intended to convey his candidate’s ease with conversation, his cross-cultural capability. The completed announcement video would begin and end with Obama’s keynote address to the Democratic National Convention, and it would include two full minutes on his early life — his father’s background, his mother’s, his grandfather’s, the times he moved when he was a little boy. When you finish watching the video, you don’t have a particularly good sense of Obama as a politician (you might be able to say that he’s for change), but there is an intimacy — you have been drowned in his life, and you feel as if you know him.
There are a variety of problems of political communication that the industry’s operatives spend their time obsessing over. One, which obsessed James Carville, is persuasion: How do you persuade people who believe one thing to believe another? A second, the big one for Joe Trippi, is commitment: What motivates your party’s loyalists to go to the polls in larger numbers? But Axelrod has become animated by a more basic challenge of political communication, the problem of breaking through, of sounding different and new. Axelrod says that the way to cut through all the noise is to see campaigns as an author might, to understand that you need not just ideas but also a credible and authentic character, a distinct politics rooted in personality. (“David breaks them down,” Peter Giangreco, a Chicago direct-mail consultant who often works with Axelrod, told me. “Who is your mother? Who is your father? Why are you doing this?”) This, Axelrod says, is what Karl Rove understood about George W. Bush. “One of the reasons Bush has succeeded in two elections,” Axelrod says, “is that in his own rough-hewn way he has conveyed a sense of this is who I am, warts and all.” For Obama, because of Senator Hillary Clinton’s far-greater experience and establishment backing, this is a particularly essential project. “If we run a conventional campaign and look like a conventional candidacy, we lose,” Axelrod says.
When the first major profile of Axelrod appeared in Chicago magazine in 1987, three years after he left a high-profile job as the lead political reporter for The Chicago Tribune to work as a political operative, the article (“Hatchet Man: The Rise of David Axelrod”) began by comparing him to an “exotic rodent.” Two decades later, there remains the matter of the comb-over and the damp mustache, but his looks seem less important now. In the last four years, Axelrod has helped steer campaigns for fully four of the Democrats now running for president — Obama, Clinton, John Edwards and Chris Dodd — and one who dropped out (Tom Vilsack); framed the messages for the new young governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick; and served as the chief political adviser for Representative Rahm Emanuel when the congressman helped orchestrate the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives last fall.
Axelrod, who is 52, is lumbering, sardonic and self-deprecating, and he still has the old Chicago street-fighter belief that you can see what matters about politics most clearly when you’re slumming in the wards. His bookshelves are filled with Abe Lincoln biographies, but what he says he admires about Lincoln isn’t just his philosophy but his political effectiveness, the Great Emancipator’s secret shiv. Professional opinions of Axelrod in this pitted, rivalrous field vary, but Axelrod, working from Chicago, has become perhaps the consultant with the tightest grip on his party’s future. “So many consultants are fighting the last war, but David is fighting the next one, and that makes him very, very dangerous,” the Republican consultant Mike Murphy told me.
After the consecutive presidential losses of Al Gore and John Kerry, patrician candidates who ran ill-fitting “people versus the powerful” campaigns designed for them by the consultant Bob Shrum, many Democrats began to suspect that part of what was wrong with the party was its formulaic consultants. The party has suffered, Axelrod says, from a “Wizard of Oz syndrome among Washington political consultants who tend to come to candidates and say: I have the stone tablets! You do what I say, and you will get elected. And they fit their candidates into their rubric.”
Axelrod’s is a less grand, postideological approach, and his campaigns are rooted less in issues than in the particulars of his candidate’s life. For him, running campaigns hitched to personality rather than ideology is a way of reclaiming fleeting authenticity. It is also, more and more, the way of the Democratic Party. Its 2006 Congressional campaign strategy — run by Axelrod’s close friend Emanuel, with the Chicago consultant acting as principal sounding board — did not depend on any great idea of where the party ought to go, like the last political cataclysm, Newt Gingrich’s 1994 House “revolution.” As they have reclaimed power, the Democrats have done so not by moving appreciably to the left or the right; rather, they have done so by allowing their candidates to move in both directions at once. “What David is basically doing — and this is somewhat new for Democrats — isn’t trying to figure out how to sell policies,” says the Democratic media consultant Saul Shorr. “It’s a matter of personality. How do we sell leadership?”
It seems bizarre to consider now, but there was a time, just about three years ago, when Barack Obama was a pretty obscure black candidate for statewide office, and his political fortunes seemed to obey the regular, racialized rules of urban politics. The campaign needed to find a way for him to add white progressives from the Chicago suburbs and lakefront to his expected base among black voters. “When you’re breaking barriers and asking voters to do something they haven’t done before — vote for an African-American for governor or senator — it’s very helpful to have third-party authentication, newspaper endorsements or institutional support, to encourage them to go there,” Axelrod told me. His first choice to vouch for Obama was his old client Paul Simon, the bow-tied, progressive, retired U.S. senator and a beloved figure in their target demographics. But just as Axelrod was trying to fix dates, Simon was taken to the hospital for heart surgery; he died the next day. Paul Harstad, the campaign’s pollster, told me that Axelrod was adamant that Simon had been the perfect proxy. So he sought out the closest substitute he could find and cut a commercial featuring the senator’s daughter, Sheila, a member of the Carbondale, Ill., City Council. Sheila Simon made an ad for Axelrod linking Obama’s legacy and her father’s, saying they were “cut from the same cloth.” When the cash-strapped campaign put the ads on the air and then followed up with another ad linking Obama to Harold Washington, the late, beloved, liberal mayor of Chicago, “that was it,” according to Mark Blumenthal, who was running tracking polls for the opposing Senate campaign of Blair Hull. “The ads did something rare in politics, which was make Obama seem like a historic candidate,” Blumenthal told me. “They helped move his numbers from 30, 35 percent up to 53 percent, and it became a landslide. You could just about see this whole Obama wave beginning.”
Axelrod has known Obama longer than any of his other close political advisers and, other campaign officials say, is now Obama’s chief strategist and someone he “trusts implicitly.” Axelrod has been intimately involved with the staffing of the campaign (David Plouffe, who was a partner in Axelrod’s consulting firm, is now Obama’s campaign manager), with its strategy and pacing and with the scrubbing of its message and language. Because of the vastness of the operation, Axelrod has had to hire other media consultants to help him develop commercials; his own role, he says, will be as “keeper of the message.” One senior campaign adviser told me: “Barack is a no-drama kind of guy. He’s not looking for a person or a group of people that bring their own set of dramas to the operation. What [Obama] gets from David is no nonsense.”
Axelrod met Obama when the senator was 30 years old and coordinating a voter-registration drive in Chicago and Betty Lou Saltzman, a doyenne of progressive politics in Chicago, suggested that the two get to know each other. In the 15 years since, Axelrod has worked through Obama’s life story again and again, scouring it for usable political material, and he believes that some basic themes come through: that he is “not wedded to any ideological frame or dogma,” that he is “an outsider rather than someone who’s spent years in the dens of Georgetown,” that he is an “agent for change” and has the optimism and dynamism of a fresh, young face. Axelrod knows that each of these characteristics has its flip side — optimism can be read as naïveté, independence as ideological unmooredness, unjadedness for a lack of experience and bipartisanship as an instinct to avoid necessary combat.
In his office back in Chicago, Axelrod’s walls aren’t covered with bookcases but with political images, candidates Axelrod has worked for on winning election nights, their hands thrust up, their grins wide, the newspaper headlines behind them. There are the black mayors of Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago. There is a charming, signed shot of Obama underneath a print of Muhammad Ali knocking out Sonny Liston. Signed thanks from Harold Washington. It is a museum of a particular kind of history — not just the evolution of the modern political left but also the ascendance of a particular kind of charismatic, reformer African-American candidate — and you get the sense that this is how the consultant sees himself, as a curator of this history. Electing Obama president would be “something you could really be proud of for the rest of your life,” Axelrod told me in early January. “It would really change politics in a very positive way.” When he talks about his own ideas, Axelrod has a habit of substituting anecdotes not from his own life but from Obama’s, or Deval Patrick’s, as if his is a compounded, and cultivated, existence.
With Obama’s candidacy, Axelrod is placing a gaudy bet: that the symbolic significance of race has now begun to flip. An underlying message of the campaign is that African-American candidates can symbolically represent the future. I asked him if he thought that Obama’s race would be a detriment. “I don’t think of it as a detriment,” Axelrod said. “I know that there are people who wouldn’t vote for a black candidate, but I don’t know if they would vote for a Democratic candidate anyway. But I think that in a sense Barack is the personification of his own message for this country, that we get past the things that divide us and focus on the things that unite us. He is his own vision.”
Every veteran political operative has his batch of lessons learned. From his experience running the antic, aggressive Emanuel’s campaign for Congress, he realized that the way to deal with your client’s perceived flaws is to embrace them and not run from them. When he ran Tom Vilsack’s campaign for governor of Iowa, he learned that the smoothest way to beat back a staunch social conservative message is to attack not the content but “the over-the-top negativism” that often accompanies it. From some advisory work he did for Bill Clinton during the 1996 campaign, when he wrote the memo that introduced the phrase “Bridge to the 21st century” into the political vernacular, Axelrod learned that for a Democrat the future always trumps the past. He says he also learned from Clinton that a pol’s biggest task is “to narrow the distance between the people and government.” From a distance, he watched Karl Rove help George Bush win two terms as president by “understanding that every election is a reaction to the last president” and then in 2004 by “figuring out how to make Bush’s stubbornness into a political virtue.” During the 2004 convention, he stood with Senator Chris Dodd, who told Axelrod that Democrats “were making a mistake by turning the whole thing into a giant V.F.W. convention and not mentioning the failure of the Bush administration on a wide variety of issues.” The lesson he took was that the party shouldn’t get too wrapped up in the issue of the moment. Most of all, from campaign after campaign, and particularly in 2004 from the Dean and Edwards campaigns, Axelrod took the lesson that the problem with failed candidacies isn’t usually that the message wasn’t shrewd but that “unless a message authentically reflects the messenger, it’s likely to fail.”
Axelrod says that his model for the Obama campaign came last year when Deval Patrick ran for governor of Massachusetts. There are many ways in which Patrick’s run and Obama’s are similar: the optimism, the constant presence of the candidate’s biography, the combination of a crusading message of reform with the candidate’s natural pragmatism, the insistence that normal political categories did not apply, even the same, unofficial slogan, shouted from the crowds — “Yes. We. Can!” But most essential is the way in which both of these campaigns came to use the symbolism that accompanies their candidates’ race, not by apologizing for it or ignoring it but by embracing the constant attention paid to the historic nature of the candidacy itself. The Democratic media consultant David Eichenbaum, whose candidate, Chris Gabrieli, lost to Patrick and Axelrod in Massachusetts, told me: “What they were able to do in the Patrick campaign was similar to what they’ve been able to do with Obama. The campaign managed to energize the grass roots, but there was a sense of idealism and hope and being able to break that historic barrier that was very unifying and reached out beyond liberals or the base. It became a movement that took on a life of its own.”
At the beginning of January, on a sunny day in the middle of the Northeast’s strange extended warm spell, Axelrod traveled to Boston for Patrick’s inaugural. Recounting it for me afterward, he said, “I really thought a lot about this Obama thing, and I thought, You know, these are really the moments you work for, and I thought, how amazing would it be to be not at the Massachusetts Statehouse but at the U.S. Capitol for that.”
We were in Chicago in January, and it was absurdly unpleasant outside, the sun hanging high above the wind and the chill like a taunt. Axelrod was on a man-in-the-street shoot, a campaign commercial for Axelrod’s old friend and client Richard M. Daley, and the first scheduled interviewee, a retired Irish firefighter, had been mocking Axelrod’s crew for dressing wrong. “You need the layers in this cold,” he announced. “You need this wickywack stuff.” (“Gee,” Axelrod deadpanned, “I wonder if I’ll be able to draw him out.”) This is Axelrod’s Chicago, the old ward Democrats, and he started bantering with the guy. The firefighter asked Axelrod about Obama: “Everybody’s raving about him, this new black guy, but he doesn’t have any experience. Not everyone’s in love with him, you know.” And the guy grinned, confrontationally, and it just kind of hung there, like race sometimes does in Chicago, somewhere between tolerance and menace.
This has been Axelrod’s career, an eternal return to Chicago and to the politics of race. Axelrod and his sister, Joan, grew up in Manhattan, the children of two Jewish liberals — a mother who worked as a journalist at PM, a left-wing newspaper of the 1940’s, and later ran focus groups for an advertising firm, and a psychologist father. He went to college at the University of Chicago. He found the city familiar-feeling and married a business student named Susan Landau, whom he met while playing co-ed basketball. He has been there ever since.
Axelrod wasn’t the most attentive student; he took so many incompletes in college that he ended up having to finish a quarter of his credits in his last semester. When he was 19, a junior, his father, divorced and living in a Manhattan studio, killed himself, and Axelrod was notified as next of kin. The consultant still has tacked to his wall a fierce self-portrait his father drew in his 20s. Axelrod threw himself into journalism, working after classes at a tiny paper in Hyde Park and covering, among other things, Chicago’s roaring, pitted racial politics; he knew who all the aldermen in the city were by the time he graduated. The Chicago Tribune took him on right out of school, sent him to the night desk for a couple of years of hardening and then turned him loose on City Hall. It was 1979, Axelrod was 23 and the whole politics of the city were caught up in the race thing. Axelrod was inclined toward the reformers, even after his great hope, a white mayor named Jane Byrne, turned out to be a hack and a dud. “I should have known,” he says. In 1984, Axelrod decided to get into politics himself. He signed on with Simon’s senatorial campaign as communications director, became campaign manager and, after Simon won, opened his own shop.
Axelrod can be a fussy bag of liberal tensions and conflicts. He says he hates the idea that he might become the kind of media-hogging consultant who overshadows his client, but he appears on television in Chicago so frequently that construction workers and subway conductors recognize him on the street. He drives, charmingly and humbly, a Pontiac Vibe, but he also has a vast weekend house in Michigan that makes the reporters who talk to him jealous. This basic tension goes beyond personal style; it runs through his career, and it’s the tension of the modern Democratic establishment, caught between its reform origins and the compromises necessary to win power. And it’s the conflict of the Daley circle, a bunch of reformers who brought about a restoration of the machine with its attached pathologies.
“David Axelrod’s mostly been visible in Chicago in the last decade as Daley’s public relations strategist and the guy who goes on television to defend Daley from charges of corruption,” Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman who is now chairman of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told me. Axelrod sees it a little differently. He says that Daley’s election was necessary as a “moment of racial healing” and that he is “proud of the mayor’s progressive record.”
Axelrod is known for operating in this gray area, part idealist, part hired muscle. It is difficult to discuss Axelrod in certain circles in Chicago without the matter of the Blair Hull divorce papers coming up. As the 2004 Senate primary neared, it was clear that it was a contest between two people: the millionaire liberal, Hull, who was leading in the polls, and Obama, who had built an impressive grass-roots campaign. About a month before the vote, The Chicago Tribune revealed, near the bottom of a long profile of Hull, that during a divorce proceeding, Hull’s second wife filed for an order of protection. In the following few days, the matter erupted into a full-fledged scandal that ended up destroying the Hull campaign and handing Obama an easy primary victory. The Tribune reporter who wrote the original piece later acknowledged in print that the Obama camp had “worked aggressively behind the scenes” to push the story. But there are those in Chicago who believe that Axelrod had an even more significant role — that he leaked the initial story. They note that before signing on with Obama, Axelrod interviewed with Hull. They also point out that Obama’s TV ad campaign started at almost the same time. Axelrod swears up and down that “we had nothing to do with it” and that the campaign’s television ad schedule was long planned. “An aura grows up around you, and people assume everything emanates from you,” he told me.
Today, as Axelrod basks in his profession’s highest glory — shaping a historical presidential campaign — he is experiencing one of its nastiest turns: in a tiny and ideologically promiscuous world, you often need to go to war with your friends. (If Obama hadn’t run, Axelrod says, he would have sat out this presidential race, and he says he told all of his other former clients that early on; he hasn’t had much interaction with them since.) There is Dodd, and there is Edwards, but perhaps most poignantly, there is Hillary Clinton. It’s a matter of epilepsy. David and Susan Axelrod have three children in their late teens and early 20s. Their eldest, Lauren, has developmental disabilities associated with chronic epileptic seizures and now lives in a group home in Chicago. But for years her illness required enough of her parents’ time that it kept Susan Axelrod out of the work force and kept David from moving to Little Rock during the 1992 presidential campaign. Susan and two other mothers of children with epilepsy started a foundation, Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy (CURE), which Susan runs, to promote research and raise funds for a cure. Because of David’s political work, they have had political celebrities do fund-raisers: Bill Clinton, Tim Russert, Obama. But few have done as much for the foundation as Hillary Clinton.
It was January 1999, President Clinton’s impeachment trial was just beginning in the Senate and Hillary Clinton was scheduled to speak at the foundation’s fund-raiser in Chicago. Despite all the fuss back in Washington, Clinton kept the appointment. She spent hours that day in the epilepsy ward at Rush Presbyterian hospital, visiting children hooked up to machines by electrodes so that doctors might diagram their seizure activity and decide which portion of the brain to remove. At the hospital, a local reporter pressed her about the trial in Washington, asked her about that woman. At the organization’s reception at the Drake Hotel that evening, Clinton stood backstage looking over her remarks, figuring out where to insert anecdotes about the kids. “She couldn’t stop talking about what she had seen,” Susan Axelrod recalled. Later, at Hillary Clinton’s behest, the National Institutes of Health convened a conference on finding a cure for epilepsy. Susan Axelrod told me it was “one of the most important things anyone has done for epilepsy.” And this is how politics works: David Axelrod is now dedicated to derailing this woman’s career.
“Life can be tragic,” Axelrod told me by phone from Chicago the day before Obama officially announced his candidacy, “but it is important to focus on the moments when it is rapturous.” Political consultancy is often understood, from a distance, as a science of cynicism, but from up close it can look instead like a ruthless form of love.
On the second Saturday in February, David and Susan Axelrod drove down to the old Statehouse in Springfield, Ill., to watch Obama officially announce his candidacy for president, giving a speech he had sent to Axelrod for edits at 4 in the morning, two nights before. There was a crowd of more than 15,000 in the square, it was freezing out and Obama looked even skinnier than usual in his big wool coat. Axelrod’s cameras roamed through the crowds, interviewing Illinois locals with mustaches and rural accents, who talked about how Obama is “different,” “inspiring.”
The historic overtones of the speech were unguarded and blunt. Obama mentioned Lincoln half a dozen times. His central theme was the promise of the future, of himself: “Let’s be the generation,” he said over and over again, that meets the big challenges of the day — poverty, energy independence, the environment. “What’s stopped us from meeting these challenges,” he said, “is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics.”
Axelrod says that Obama wrote nearly all of the speech, but there were distinct echoes of Axelrod’s previous clients: not just Patrick but also John Edwards’s campaign for president in 2004 — Axelrod was his chief media adviser. Edwards and his message never really took hold. One rival Democratic media consultant told me, “What I’d like to know about David Axelrod is, What the hell happened with the Edwards campaign?” Axelrod says the Edwards campaign didn’t falter because of the message, “which was pretty good, it got us pretty far.” Instead, he points to Edwards: “I have a whole lot of respect for John, but at some point the candidate has to close the deal and — I can’t tell you why — that never happened with John.”
But the lingering lesson of the Edwards campaign may be that presidential campaigns are wide open and unpredictable things, dozens of different actors pouring their political convictions into a single vessel, with convictions of his own, and they can slip out of the media consultant’s control. In early March, for instance, a minute-long commercial appeared on YouTube attacking Hillary Clinton as a drone out of “1984,” showing her speaking on a giant screen in front of a group of zombielike followers — mimicking the famous Apple commercial — and purporting to come from the Obama campaign. Close to two million people watched the ad in two weeks, and it moved the Obama message in ways Axelrod hadn’t planned. (It later emerged that the ad’s creator worked for a company that contracted for the Obama campaign, though the campaign itself wasn’t involved.) The spot made Axelrod cranky. “I didn’t think much of it,” he told me.
The ad incident came just a month after the campaign’s first disruption, when the Hollywood mogul and liberal Obama fund-raiser David Geffen gave an interview to Maureen Dowd, the Times columnist, in which he said that the Clintons lie “with such ease, it’s troubling.” The Clinton campaign immediately called on Obama’s team to repudiate the comments, but they refused, and afterward the two camps volleyed barbs back and forth for a day or so. It was one of those early campaign spats that get endlessly analyzed for who won some minor tactical advantage, but to Axelrod it was a mistake, a self-induced undermining of the transcendent character he spent so long helping to cultivate. The Geffen episode was “a good object lesson about how easy it is to slide into the morass,” he told me. “I’m mindful of the responsibility not to lose our way, not to disappoint, not to sink into the conventional and lose our soul in the process. There are enormous pressures to conform. And to fight a small tactical battle.”
His friends put it more bluntly. “What David is going to learn in the course of this presidential campaign,” Emanuel told me, “is the economic efficiency of the four-letter word.”
Ben Wallace-Wells writes about national affairs for Rolling Stone. His last article for the magazine was a profile of Tony Snow, the White House press secretary.