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Obama's Media Maven | The Nation

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Obama's Media Maven

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Given his rhetorical skills, Harvard Law pedigree, up-by-the-bootstraps bio and, well, his race, it is hard not to compare recently elected Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to his friend Barack Obama. Both men entered crowded primaries in which they were definitively not favored. They both inspired a kind of personal pride among supporters that is rare in politics. On the evening of Obama's convincing primary victory, the crowd and the candidate joined in chanting, "Yes We Can!" and if you listen closely to video of Patrick rallies, you'll hear the crowd chanting the very same thing. When Patrick looked into the camera in one ad and said the state's problem wasn't a "deficit of dollars but a deficit of leadership," it was hard not to hear echoes of Obama's oft-used line that the country's biggest problem isn't a budget deficit but an "empathy deficit." And in Patrick's most effective ad, he stands on a stage delivering an impassioned speech to a crescendo of applause as Obama sits on a stool just behind him, nodding approvingly, his head perfectly framed in the shot.

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Christopher Hayes
Christopher Hayes
Chris Hayes, Editor-at-Large of The Nation, hosts “All In with Chris Hayes” at 8 p.m. ET Monday...

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Which brings us to something else the two men share: David Axelrod, the 51-year-old reporter turned media consultant who was the key media strategist for both men's campaigns. He's the one who wrote those ads, framed that shot and came up with the "Yes We Can" tag line. "I don't bring these messages to candidates," Axelrod says when I point out the similarities. "I look for candidates who exemplify and reflect those messages." In the cases of Obama and Patrick, he says, the work is a collaboration. "They take and improve on what you bring them; they deliver it well because they believe in it. It's like riffing with great musicians."

Even though he lives 1,000 miles from the notoriously clubby world of political consulting, Axelrod has become one of its most successful and respected practitioners. Mark McKinnon, who produced George W. Bush's ads in the last cycle and now works for John McCain, calls Axelrod "the best media guy out there who doesn't have a ring." With his quick wit and knack for soundbites ("The Icon gets hoisted," Axelrod said of the media's treatment of star candidates, "and then it becomes a piñata"), the onetime Chicago Tribune political writer is a favorite of reporters seeking quotes. Charming as he can be with journalists, those who have worked with him say, he can be "aggressive" and "extremely difficult" in the trenches of a campaign. Colleagues point out that he's uncommonly idealistic for someone in his line of work, though a veteran Chicago reporter noted that this has its limits: "He's a principled guy, but he's not a philanthropist. The candidates he's worked for have been well funded, and he's made very good money doing what he does."

Axelrod is known for becoming close to his candidates, and indeed, he has become Obama's closest political adviser, talking strategy daily and producing the two videos recently posted to Obama's website. Reclining in a chair in his Chicago office the week before Obama announced the formation of his presidential exploratory committee, Axelrod was subdued, seemingly exhausted, but intense and hyperarticulate. Like Obama he speaks with what can seem a refreshing frankness, though just a few hours later, going over my notes, it was clear that he had remained scrupulously on message.

Axelrod's firm, AKP Media, which he runs with his partners John Kupper and David Plouffe, has handled a series of high-profile national and state campaigns, from John Edwards's 2004 presidential run to Tom Vilsack's and Eliot Spitzer's gubernatorial races; but for much of its two decades the firm's bread and butter has been mayoral races, with a particularly strong track record in electing black candidates. Indeed, ever since working on the re-election campaign of Chicago's Harold Washington in 1987, Axelrod has developed something of a novel niche for a political consultant: helping black politicians convince white voters to support them. With Obama's bid for the presidency, Axelrod's skill in this area will face the ultimate test.

Born on New York's Lower East Side, Axelrod grew up in a middle-class Jewish household and showed a passion for politics early: At age 10 he was shuffling around his housing complex with a cardboard box filled with John Lindsay-for-mayor literature. He enrolled at the University of Chicago in 1972, lured by Chicago's storied politics, and resolved to become a "newspaperman." Upon graduating he was hired by the Tribune, and having just lost his father to suicide, he turned to the paper as a surrogate family. "I was a young kid," he says, "just making my way in the world, and the Tribune adopted me."

Axelrod was something of a journalistic prodigy, rising to become city hall bureau chief and political columnist at the ripe old age of 27. Then in 1984, he left it behind to join the campaign of Paul Simon, the bow-tied intellectual mounting an improbable run for US Senate. Though he joined the campaign as communications director, within weeks Axelrod was promoted to co-campaign manager. "We were too dumb to quit," says David Wilhelm, who co-piloted the campaign and would go on to become DNC head in Clinton's first year in office. "It helped that we were so idealistic. One of the things about David Axelrod--I have certainly talked to clients about this--one of the reasons he's so successful is that he is a believer. At the end of the day, he's an idealist. He actually cares about his candidates and their positions on issues. While he can be caustic, he is not a cynic."

When the campaign was done, Axelrod and Forest Claypool, one of his deputies from the campaign, opened their own consulting shop, handling mostly long-shot candidates until 1987, when Chicago Mayor Harold Washington hired the firm to help with his re-election. Four years earlier, Washington had won a historic victory, defeating the machine-backed incumbent, Jane Byrne, to become the city's first black mayor. As the Tribune's city hall bureau chief, Axelrod had ringside seats. "Nineteen eighty-three, that was a phenomenal election. Harold Washington--extraordinary guy. I mean, he was the most kinetic campaigner and politician that I've ever met. It was inspiring the way the African-American community came alive around the prospect of electing Harold. There were those who mistook that for a negative [campaign], but it was one of the most positive campaigns I've ever seen, because people felt empowered."

But if the campaign was positive, the reaction from white Chicago was not. In 1966, when Martin Luther King Jr. came to Chicago to campaign for housing desegregation, he was met with jeers of "Martin Luther Coon" and bricks thrown at his head. It prompted King to observe that people from Mississippi should move to Chicago to "learn how to hate." Seventeen years later, during the Washington campaign, that same ugly side of the city was on full display. Washington was heckled and threatened. Opponents passed out buttons with pictures of watermelons, and Bernard Epton, Washington's white Republican opponent, adopted the slogan "Before It's Too Late." After Washington won, it arguably got worse. The white machine alderman who opposed the Mayor formed a bloc in the City Council that did everything it could to undercut and humiliate him. The "council wars," as the ongoing battle became known, came to embody city politics at its worst: racial civil war fought by parliamentary means. "The city was paralyzed," Axelrod says. "The media called it 'Beirut on the lake.'"

But Mayor Washington was extremely popular among the city's African-American population, and the pettiness of the council wars cemented his support among white liberals, paving the way for his re-election in 1987. "I remember sitting with Harold on the morning after he won the primary," Axelrod recalls with a wistful smile. "He turned to us and asked, 'What percentage of the white vote did I get?' We told him it was 20 percent, and we were happy, because four years earlier he'd gotten only 8 percent." But Washington pointed out that he'd spent 70 to 80 percent of his time during the campaign in white neighborhoods. "He kind of smiled wanly," says Axelrod, "and said, 'Ain't it a bitch to be a black man in the land of the free and the home of the brave,' and then he went out to give one of the most joyous and rollicking and brilliant press conferences I'd ever seen."

While Axelrod would work on Paul Simon's presidential campaign a year later and branch out from Chicago to state and federal races across the country, he developed a specialty in black mayoral races, working for candidates like Dennis Archer in Detroit, Michael White in Cleveland, Anthony Williams in DC, Lee Brown in Houston and John Street in Philadelphia. Now, as Axelrod prepares to try to persuade nonblack Americans to elect a black man President, it's clear the experience of Harold Washington was a defining moment in the formation of his political consciousness. When he talks about the brutally negative race run by Deval Patrick's opponent, he says offhandedly, "We haven't seen anything like it since Bernie Epton."

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