David Axelrod, then senior advisor to President Obama, in a 2009 meeting with the president and other members of the administration, including then chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

David Axelrod swears he’s not trying to spin anyone—even as the veteran political operative makes the familiar argument that Chicago needs a tough-guy mayor, that his old pal Rahm Emanuel is that guy, and that the city could face grave consequences if voters don’t understand that.

“Who is best equipped with the energy and ideas and experience to deal with some really big problems?” Axelrod asks.

The question is meant to be ominous, because Emanuel is facing a runoff and his supporters aren’t above scaring residents into sticking with him to avoid the dangerous unknown. Yet Axelrod comes across as charming, smart, and even hopeful. This is why he’s good.

The 60-year-old is on the phone to discuss his new memoir, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics. It’s the story of how he was drawn to politics as a kid in New York City in the 60s, ended up covering City Hall in Chicago in the 70s and early 80s, transitioned into political consulting in the mid-80s, and helped Barack Obama reach the White House in the 2000s.

As a media strategist, Axelrod has been crafting political narratives for decades, and in places the book turns into a campaign ad for the Obama presidency. Overall, though, it’s an engaging read, propelled by colorful characters, revealing snapshots, and Axelrod’s wry sense of humor.

In one scene, Axelrod recounts the time former mayor Harold Washington explained the difference between aldermen who were raised as racists and those who just acted that way for political advantage. In another, Richard M. Daley neglects to mention to his wife, Maggie, that he’s decided to run for mayor in 1989 until a couple days before the announcement.

Then there’s the time Obama fires up his campaign staff with an eloquent oration inspired by Risky Business: “Sometimes you just have to say, ‘What the fuck.’ ”

Emanuel is also a recurring character in the book, starting with the time Axelrod met him in 1984 through Rahm’s 2010 decision to leave his job as White House chief of staff and run for mayor.

“This is the right time,” Axelrod advised him. Emanuel agreed and went on to coast into City Hall in 2011.

But that’s not how it went down this time around: Emanuel received just 45 percent of the vote in his reelection bid on February 24, forcing him into an April 7 runoff with Cook County commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.

Axelrod is officially out of the campaign business—he’s the founder and director of the Institute on Politics at the University of Chicago, his alma mater—but he maintains that it’s still the right time for Emanuel.

Obama stumps during his Senate campaign in 2004. Axelrod was Obama's chief advisor during the election.
Obama stumps during his Senate campaign in 2004. Axelrod was Obama’s chief advisor during the election.Credit: David Katz

Mick Dumke: I enjoyed the cast of characters and the political play-by-play in your book. But what do you want people to take from it?

David Axelrod: You know, I really wanted the subtitle to be “How my idealism survived 40 years in politics.” It was too long for the cover, but that’s really what it’s about. As nasty and difficult as politics can be today, it’s still the way we can move the wheel of history a little bit in the right direction. That’s one reason I wrote it.

The other reason is that, for some people, it’s as if I was born in 2007, when we started Obama’s presidential campaign. I wanted to tell the rest of the story.

Let’s go back to the spring of 1984, when you quit your job as a political reporter at the Tribune to work directly in politics. The day you showed up for your new gig with Paul Simon’s Senate campaign, you witnessed a young staffer yelling at a donor over the phone for not sending a big enough check. This, of course, was Rahm Emanuel, whose intensity—some would say his bullying—remains an issue.

That was 30 years ago. He was a kid—he was 24 years old. He’s still driven—there’s no doubt about it—and he’s still got a lot of spunk. But he’s much more measured now than he was back then. And he’s had the responsibility of governing at the highest levels, both in the city and the country, and that’s a sobering experience.

When we worked together in the White House, we clashed from time to time on tactics [and on issues like the health care law, with Emanuel insisting that the administration had to present proposals that would sell in Congress while Axelrod and others wanted to stick closer to progressive ideals and campaign promises]. But the White House wouldn’t have gotten half of what we got done without him. That same drive has been employed to relentlessly pursue other public policy advances.

In 1991 the Reader ran a 10,000-word interview with you—one of the first in-depth pieces about you and your approach to politics. One of the observations you made then was this: “There’s no question that in politics it’s better to be setting the pace than reacting to other people. Campaigns are about defining the issues upon which the election is going to be decided, and making sure those issues are your issues and not your opponent’s issues.” Has Rahm been able to define the issues of his reelection, or is he on the defensive?

I think the nature of who he is—he is a big personality, and frankly a bigger personality than the other candidate in the race. But the race from the beginning felt like a referendum on Rahm. It’s difficult to set the agenda when it’s structured that way. He was the big dog, and for a variety of reasons the media focus has been solidly on him. I think he has tried to set the pace, and succeeded somewhat, but he’s faced a lot of headwinds.

Axelrod greets Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai at the presidential palace in Kabul in 2010.
Axelrod greets Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai at the presidential palace in Kabul in 2010.

In your memoir you recall the racially charged mayoral campaigns of the 1980s. In 1983, for instance, Republican Bernie Epton used the slogan “Before It’s Too Late,” which was a not-so-subtle message to white voters that he was an alternative to the black candidate, Harold Washington. The city and its politics have made progress, but recently Senator Mark Kirk warned that Chicago could go the way of Detroit if Mayor Emanuel isn’t reelected. How is that different from what Epton said?

I can’t crawl into Mark Kirk’s head and I can’t interpret what his intent or motive was. I certainly wouldn’t embrace that sentiment or tactic, nor that analysis. By the same token, it’s fair to say this election is not a referendum but a choice. One of these guys is going to be mayor of Chicago, and they both should be measured by the same yardstick. I hope in the next [couple] weeks people scrutinize both candidates equally.

Obviously Rahm’s been a friend and a colleague of mine. I’ve known Chuy for a long time too—I remember when he first ran for the City Council [in 1986]—and I like him a lot. But it’s not a congeniality contest. It’s a decision about who can handle what’s coming down the pike, and how to keep both the neighborhoods and downtown strong. Cities are dynamic and they’re fragile, and mayors do make a difference.

I think Rahm should treat this as a straight-up race that anybody can win, and I think the media should treat it as a straight-up race that anyone can win.

You’ve also worked with a guy named Barack Obama. One of the criticisms of the president is that he’s too much of a professor and not enough of a politician—that he’s aloof and doesn’t like to mix with people, especially on Capitol Hill.

He enjoys politics, but he doesn’t always enjoy the politics of Washington. Those are different things. I’ve never worked with anyone who more enjoyed being out with regular folks—being out on the campaign trail, going to town diners, meeting people, making speeches.

But the political world is divided into two kinds of people: those who run because they want to be something, and those who run because they want to do something. He’s clearly in the second group. Still, you can never fully give up the campaign to make sure your goals are achieved. Sometimes the president didn’t make that connection, in his relation to other politicians and to the public. His approach was, “We’ve got eight years, the clock is ticking, and we’ve got some problems to tackle.”

You describe Rod Blagojevich as one of the politicians who wanted to be something rather than doing it. You write that he tried recruiting you to join his 2002 campaign for governor, and when you asked why he was running, he said, “You can help me figure that out.”

I liked Rod, and he was very good to my family. My son was an unpaid intern for him when he was going through some tough times in his life, and Rod couldn’t have been more supportive. When he was a state legislator I liked his energy. But when he came to me about the governor’s race I was deeply skeptical. If you can’t articulate why you want to run, don’t run. That was the end of our relationship. I think the aftermath spoke to my concerns.