Softer Side of the Axe

Beyond burnishing Obama's legacy, Axelrod's memoir speaks to busy parents and disillusioned millennials.

 President Barack Obama's campaign adviser David Axelrod (National Journal)

As David Axelrod struggled to write his memoir, he sent pages to his son Michael, who was expecting his first child. Growing up, Michael bore the brunt of Axelrod family drama: his sister's disability and the long absences of his father, a big-time political consultant who would help lift Barack Obama to the presidency.

"I urged him not to visit on his kids the sacrifices I inflicted on him," Axelrod told me in an email. "And my mom inflicted on me!"

That email helps explain why Believer is a surprisingly compelling read. Beyond burnishing Obama's legacy, of course, and satiating political reporters with a few gossipy crumbs, Axelrod's memoir speaks loudest to two audiences.

First are the mothers and fathers who might recognize themselves in his brutally honest family story. He seems to tell us, "Be a more attentive parent than I was."

Second is the rising generation of Americans who swept Obama into office on a false promise of change. For these millennials, Axelrod's book is a call to action: Finish what Obama couldn't get done, particularly on race relations and the culture of Washington. Yes, we still can!

In the book's first pages, Axelrod describes his mother as a driven and distant advertising executive with "debilitating self-doubt." He was much closer to his father, an unambitious psychotherapist who struggled financially after his divorce from Axelrod's mother. The father committed suicide when Axelrod was 19. "I was completely on my own," Axelrod writes.

These were the makings of a man nicknamed "Axe," who would rise from a newsroom in Chicago, where he covered gritty city politics, to the White House. "I was a young man in a big hurry," he admits.

Axelrod's career cost his wife hers; Susan Axelrod quit work when David left the newspaper business for politics in 1984. Their daughter Lauren suffered a series of epileptic seizures as a child, and Susan became a national advocate for the condition. Of those early years, he writes, "I far too often ditched my responsibilities as a husband and father."

Almost a decade later, Axelrod sought a better work-life balance, rejecting a senior job offer on Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. "I had been scarred by one driven parent who always put her career first, and by another who left me on my own when I was far too young," he writes. "I wanted to do better for my kids."

Guilt is a major character in Axelrod's memoir, which ends with his mother's death and Axelrod thumbing through her belongings. "All her talent was reflected in those pages, but also her painful insecurity and insatiable need for approbation," he writes. "It was impossible to escape the plain fact that, for better and worse, she had passed the good and bad on to me."

As a political consultant, Axelrod was both a dreamy idealist like his father and a compulsive striver like his mother—making for an interesting partnership with an equally layered Barack Obama.

He uses the book's final pages to come to terms with Obama's legacy. "Yes, I deeply regret that we couldn't change the rancid politics of Washington. It's a bitter irony that the election of a president on a mandate for that change touched off a ferocious counterreaction that it wound up only exacerbating the problem. Obama couldn't bridge that divide; now, divided government seems to be our fate for the foreseeable future."

Many liberals refuse to even acknowledge political change as Obama's mandate—must less the point of his greatest failure. But the idealist in Axelrod won't let it go.

The self-doubting side of Axelrod blames "craven politicians and right-wing provocateurs" for Obama's unfulfilled promise. He pokes the media, and more than once suggests that Obama is too good for the process.

Strikingly, he also touches what had been the third rail of Obama World: race. After years of soft-peddling the impact of racism in the politics of the Obama era—even castigating reporters early in the memoir for treating race-inflected coverage as "the shiniest of objects"—Axelrod writes on page 484 that "the truth is undeniable "¦"

"Some folks simply refuse to accept the legitimacy of the first black president and are seriously discomforted by the growing diversity of our country."

Axelrod plans to spend the next chapter of his life helping young Americans change politics, both as founder of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago and as a board member of Harvard's Institute of Politics (Disclosure: I'm also on the Harvard IOP board).

He wants millennials and a "passive citizenry" in general to shake off their understandable disgust with the political process. Rather than dismiss it, join it. Disrupt it. Transform it. "Help shape the world in which you're going to live."

Axelrod leaves his readers with an existential question: "Will Americans tolerate ever-escalating partisan warfare or will they demand something better?" There's a part of this complicated man who worries we can't change. The bigger part of David Axelrod is still a believer.