David Axelrod’s next act

(Photo by Lauren Gerson, LBJ Foundation)

Don’t let David Axelrod’s mellow voice fool you: The man is something of a machine. Since 2013, the famed strategist behind President Barack Obama’s White House bids has directed The University of Chicago Institute of Politics, hosting political professionals and journalists as visiting fellows and speakers. Axelrod penned a political memoir, Believer, last year. He can also be found on CNN, where he’s a senior political commentator, or Twitter, where he spits out analysis to more than 400,000 followers.

Axelrod is wearing yet another hat these days. In September, he launched The Axe Files, an interview podcast that partnered with CNN last month. The show features a steady stream of politicians (Bernie Sanders and Mitt Romney) and journalists (Mark Leibovich and Jorge Ramos), not to mention a mix of Obama administration officials and political operatives. He’s even hosted director Spike Lee and Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah. 

The strength of The Axe Files lies not only in this access—perhaps unparalleled in the political podcasting world—but also in its dissociation from the news cycle. Axelrod devotes large chunks of his show to questions about guests’ upbringing, shedding light on how their political worldviews or career aspirations developed. He also gives them time and space to explain in plain language their thought processes on more contemporary issues. It’s a refreshing format among political media, where speech by all parties can be highly manicured and bloodless. The show is a worthwhile addition to Axelrod’s new act, which in some ways echoes his start as a political writer for The Chicago Tribune more than three decades ago. 

I caught up with Axelrod by phone Monday as he soaked up 80-degree heat and a barrage of pre-primary TV advertisements in Arizona, where he also hoped to squeeze in a few spring training games. The interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

CJR: You’re on CNN, you’re tweeting all the time, you’ve recently written a book, and also have this other gig at the University of Chicago. Why choose a podcast as your next platform? 

Axelrod: I have conversations all the time that I enjoy, so I thought other people might enjoy them, too. It was kind of a gamble in that regard. The other element is that when you look how we cover campaigns and politics and public life, the governing notion is that people can’t tolerate conversations that may be a little bit deeper, that may not be about the news of the day but give you some sense of who people are. The podcast really is the antidote to that. It is a refreshing aberration from what has become the norm, which is the quick sound bite, the half-story.

600x600bb.jpg

CJR: But you’re also good with the quick, neatly put together sound bite when you’re on CNN. So how do you toggle between these things? What do you try to do with each of them?  

Axelrod: I’ve enjoyed my engagement with CNN, particularly on those big nights when you can sit on a set for six or seven or eight hours and actually engage in back-and-forth discussions with a bunch of other people. Twitter is also a great way to insert thoughts into the conversation. It’s fun to shoot something out there and stir the pot. It’s fun to inject a good pun into the debate. And I enjoy doing that, but it’s not a substitute for a longer conversation.

CJR: You’ve said you like to think about the show as a conversation rather than an interview. But there have been a few times when I’ve heard you push back on specific answers, almost like you’re trying to get a guest to go on the record.

Axelrod: There are a few objectives I have with this. One is that I want to get a deeper sense of who these people are. I think biography is everything. Biography helps inform one’s worldview. And it helps people who listen gauge and judge what they’re hearing. This week we had Ron Klain on. Ron Klain has been in more Supreme Court nominating fights than probably anyone on the planet. So it’d be weird—I should say, supremely weird—to not pursue that with him.

So I’m walking a line. What I don’t want to do is to be like a Sunday show. I’m not denigrating what the Sunday guys do, but my goal isn’t to spend 40 minutes trying to wrestle with guests to make news. I’m trying to have a deeper conversation about them and the world as they see it. If they commit an act of news, then we will share it with people.

CJR: Looking back to your journalistic roots, what big lessons from that experience informed your career?

Axelrod: Journalism, to me, is about telling authentic, genuine stories. And that’s really what a political strategist does: My job was to shape the messages that my campaigns gave to the media, to tell a story about who my candidate was and what the campaign was about, and where we were going. Then, of course, it was useful in advising candidates on the role of the media. Reporters aren’t there to be apparatchiks, they’re there to tell true and authentic stories. Now, do they always do it well? No.

One of the things that’s striking to me is how much political reporting has changed since I was writing for The Tribune. And it was really driven home by this series that David Maraniss and Robert Samuels are doing for The Washington Post. That is what political reporters used to do. They would get in their cars and drive across states, and they’d go into taverns and bowling alleys and town squares, and they would come back with a deeper, richer kind of reporting than we often see today. The budgets just aren’t there to support that kind of reporting. So we take shortcuts. We write about this plethora of public opinion polls—they also are limited, and not terribly on track. The whole race is about polls, it’s about money, and less about people.

CJR: That in mind, how does the media affect politics in 2016 compared to when you were running campaigns in 2012 and 2008?

Axelrod: Twitter was in its infancy in 2008, Facebook was in its infancy, and these have become major, major drivers of coverage. If Roosevelt was the first radio candidate, and Kennedy was the first television candidate, Donald Trump is really the first Twitter candidate. Now, that’s coupled with his ubiquitous presence on cable and network TV. He has made himself available more than any candidate ever has. He’s basically used those devices to stage a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. 

The debates—these are the most-watched primary debates in the history of American politics—have had a huge impact. The immolation of Marco Rubio in New Hampshire was key to his downfall, and some of Gov. [Jeb] Bush’s languid performances were central to his failure. Social media, combined with television, have made it possible for Bernie Sanders to run a sustained effort. He has consistently outraised Hillary Clinton because of the deft way in which he’s been able to use social media.

CJR: With other candidates’ unwillingness to match Trump’s accessibility, does that simply boil down to a fear of the press’ gaffe culture?

Axelrod: The supposition has always been that you pick and choose your TV appearances because you’re walking through minefields. So it’s largely defensive thinking. There’s also a sense of overexposure. But after this year, apparently, there is no such thing as overexposure.

CJR: Why do you think those factors haven’t affected Trump in the same way? He’s gotten some pretty negative coverage through it all.

Axelrod: He often doesn’t answer the questions that he’s asked—just blows past them. But he does it in a way that’s artful enough so that he doesn’t look evasive to his supporters. And what they revel in is that every time he goes on TV, he says something outrageous, something provocative, something that says, this guy is not a typical politician. He’s very deftly arranged to have many of these interviews on the phone, which gives him a much greater advantage to control them than if they were face-to-face or by remote. 

He is a master of the modern media environment, and he’s taking full advantage of it. We don’t know what the limits of that are. Obviously, there are a whole lot of people who watch him and find him offputting as well, but among his supporters, I haven’t yet seen him hurt himself in a televised interview. And when he feels like he might be wounded in any way, he just gets right back on the horse.

CJR: Do you think there are any differences in the way journalists view politics, as opposed to how people who work in politics analyze it?

Axelrod: I think both good journalists and effective politicians start from the premise that what they believe may not be true. And I think you have to be willing to question your own assumptions, because the wonderful thing about people is that they can be counter-instinctual. We probably didn’t listen hard enough to what was going on out there [in America]. If we had, perhaps the Trump thing would have been less shocking. There was a lot of anger and outrage and a sense of betrayal that he’s tapped into.

The great mistake you can make in political reporting and in politics is to assume that what happened last time will happen next time—that somehow there’s a template. That’s not the way it goes. There may be some common elements, but history is dynamic, and so are elections. 

CJR: You riffed in a recent column that you’re a newly minted member of the peanut gallery, part of the chattering classes. So as a newly minted member, has anything about today’s media culture, of how people react to your analysis, surprised you?

Axelrod: I’m in a strange position, because I’ve been so deeply involved with Democratic politics for the last few decades. If I were to criticize Hillary or Sanders, then it becomes more noteworthy. I’m not trying to speak or write from the standpoint of an operative, but it’s unavoidable.  

I’m trying to establish my own unique brand, as it were. I don’t like that word, but I’m trying to move into this new phase where I can bring to bear 40 years of experience by writing about or talking about this campaign and what’s going on in the public square. And I love doing it. For me, it’s like circling back to some version of where I started. It was passion for all of this that got me into journalism in the first place. I was so interested in the process that I wanted to write about it. I haven’t lost that passion. 

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.