In light of the news about David Axelrod’s associates running a smear campaign against Sarah Palin without disclosing it, a New York Times profile of Axelrod from last year becomes more interesting.
Who is Axelrod?He’s Obama’s speechwriter and image crafter. The way the Times describes it, he sounds like the Mighty Oz:
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.”
“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.”
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…”
He’s the man who refuses to let the carefully-crafted image of Barack Obama be sullied by negative associations:
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.”
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.
“If we run a conventional campaign and look like a conventional candidacy, we lose,”
He’s adept at video editing and he sounds almost obsessive about making sure that videos prepared by the campaign send the right message:
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.
He wants to make sure that the modern Democratic campaign isn’t about issues or ideology, it’s about the person and the personality:
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?”)
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.
He thinks the most admirable thing about Lincoln was the way he played hardball:
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.
And of course, he’s a dirty trickster:
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.
From a separate piece by Lynn Sweet, note that he’s not above staging events for campaign ads and passing them off as the original
It will probably prove impossible to determine whether David Axelrod was behind the viral smear campaign against Sarah Palin. But one thing seems certain: it must have been done by someone a lot like the person that the Times profiled.