Sometimes a Big-Time Communications Guy Will Actually Communicate

Sat, 04-09-2011

David Axelrod concedes that he has a touch of Potomac fever, a malady in which the victim struggles with the notion that there’s life beyond the nation’s capital.

“It’s a narcotic,” he told a Chicago audience last week as he engagingly recounted two years as a top aide to President Obama, his desk just a few paces from the Oval Office. “It’s exhilarating.”

I wasn’t surprised by his candid self-diagnosis regarding his return home from Washington. The capital, he said, is a city whose “pathology I hate” — “the biggest echo chamber in the world”— but whose cachet can’t be discounted.

After all, Mr. Axelrod has been a central participant in a period that some historians liken to the New Deal for its eventful essence, replete with an awful recession, the economic stimulus program, three wars, the bailout of auto companies, huge health care overhaul and other less-noticed but big changes, like the end of unjustified multibillion-dollar subsidies to banks involved in student loans.

It’s not quite the same now, even as Mr. Axelrod remains in the Obama inner circle, a central strategist for the 2012 re-election campaign and a 24/7 consigliere to the West Wing, be it by phone, e-mail or actual visits. A conversation with me before a City Club luncheon audience on Thursday brought the rueful admission that no, he’s not in the same information loop.

For those who have known him, it was a reminder of vulnerabilities — characteristic admissions all the more refreshing amid huge success and a celebrity’s profile. They come in a world in which at least a facade of supreme self-confidence, even among fools, can be a prerequisite for success in the public and corporate arenas.

Mr. Axelrod has long spoken about his persistent struggle with balancing family and an intense professional life, of being on the road so often and missing his three children, now all adults, including a daughter with epilepsy who lives at the esteemed Misericordia.

On Father’s Day 2006 he wrote a wrenching op-ed article in The Chicago Tribune that broke his 30-year public silence on his father’s suicide.

And the newly svelte Mr. Axelrod, who has lost 25 pounds, was quick to tick off the subjects that were part of a steep learning curve after he arrived at the White House. “I know more about economics, pandemics and deep-sea oil drilling than I ever knew,” he said. “Every day I was confronting things that were new.”

We hopscotched among topics. He explained that he had worked for Rod R. Blagojevich when he ran for Congress but not for governor because Mr. Blagojevich “couldn’t really articulate for me why” he wanted to run. He contrasted him with Mayor Richard M. Daley, whom he worked for and admires, and Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel, who he believes has “a genius for government.”

And Mr. Axelrod detailed why new census data gives Mr. Obama’s bid for re-election hope even in states recently captured by Republicans.

He talked about all of this with Bettylu Salzman, a longtime friend and Chicago political activist, sitting nearby. Her presence reminded me of Mr. Axelrod’s own savvy because, as he often notes, she pointed him to a then virtually unknown Mr. Obama in 1992 and said she thought he’d be the first black president.

But many others said similar things about Mr. Obama. It was Mr. Axelrod, the often-rumpled Bulls fan and former Tribune political writer and columnist, who first discerned how it might happen. He melded theory with execution, which was a simple, profound achievement.

In 1984, at age 29, Mr. Axelrod, frustrated with Tribune life, rolled the dice and joined Paul Simon’s successful campaign for the United States Senate. He’s perceptive about the news media and politics, and is a disciplined spokesman for Mr. Obama, even in defending decisions like acting in Libya.

He chides the news media for its penchant for announcing “defining moments” in the Obama presidency, like the BP oil spill. As for his own defining moment in the administration, that indisputably involves his father, who fled Eastern European pogroms and arrived in this country in 1923.

In July 2009, Mr. Axelrod accompanied his boss to Russia and, hand over heart and tears in eyes, listened to a Russian military band playing our national anthem in Red Square. The next day would have been his father’s 99th birthday, he said last week at the luncheon, co-sponsored by the Chicago News Cooperative.

“What an affirmation of his faith and his faith in this country that his son would return at the side of the president of the United States!” Mr. Axelrod said.