University of Chicago taps top strategist David Axelrod

Apr 14, 2013 by

At Institute of Politics, he’ll aim to create leaders

Chicago – It looked like the green room at “Meet the Press.”

There were consultants, politicians and pundits from the right and left, such as Republicans Mike Murphy and William Kristol, and Democrats Stephanie Cutter and Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio.

And standing in the middle was David Axelrod, the ex-journalist turned strategist who helped launch President Barack Obama to the White House and who sat down recently to talk about politics, partisanship and the futures of prominent Wisconsin politicians like Gov. Scott Walker and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan.

This was Axelrod’s moment, presiding over the grand opening of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, his alma mater. Axelrod is the institute’s first director.

“When I was here 40 years ago, there wasn’t receptivity about contemporary politics or anything after 1800,” Axelrod said, getting knowing nods and chuckles from around 50 people well-versed in the university’s stringent academic reputation as the place “where fun comes to die.”

With Axelrod on board, the institute is poised to become a place where future political leaders and players come to learn the craft. After a life in politics, Axelrod appears excited to be passing the torch to a new generation of students and potential leaders.

“I want them to first of all understand that politics and public service is not a game but a calling and that there’s honor and nobility in it,” Axelrod said.

For young political junkies, this is the place to be.

Brock Huebner, 19, a freshman from Mauston, has already witnessed forums with former Republican presidential contenders Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman, had lunch with GOP power broker Haley Barbour, heard journalist Tom Brokaw and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel discuss guns and was in on a seminar with Castro, a rising Democratic star.

“To see one of these would be amazing,” Huebner said. “To have the opportunity to see all of them is incredible.”

Erin Simpson, 20, a sophomore from Menomonie, is a member of the institute’s student advisory board and said Axelrod is providing a good example to students by bringing together politicians from both parties.

“He makes you feel very much at home,” she said. “He’s very kind and he’s very brilliant.”

Grace Park, 21, a junior from Neenah, said hearing Republicans and Democrats debate with honesty and respect shows her that politics “don’t have to be corrupt.”

“I see the beauty in it,” she said.

Political acumen

Sitting in his office, Axelrod is very much at ease after decades on the political road and a stint as a senior White House adviser under Obama. As a 5-year-old kid, he was propped on a mailbox to see John F. Kennedy campaigning in New York and grew into one of the more influential strategists of his era. On the wall are photos of several of the key Democratic politicians Axelrod has worked with, including Paul Simon, elected to the U.S. Senate from Illinois; Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor; and Obama.

Axelrod no longer has a mustache. He got it shaved off in December on national television to raise $1.2 million for CURE, an epilepsy charity co-founded by his wife, Susan. The couple’s daughter, Lauren, is developmentally disabled because of epileptic seizures.

After the mustache was gone, Axelrod said, his wife told him she always “hated that thing anyway.”

“I said, ‘geez, we’re married 33 years and you’re telling me now,’ ” Axelrod said. “She said, ‘I just figured you wouldn’t do anything about it, so I didn’t bring anything up.’ ”

Besides running the institute, Axelrod serves as a commentator with NBC and MSNBC and is writing a memoir.

He may be out of the political game, but he clearly has his views on politics.

Axelrod admitted that he thought the recall campaign against Walker “was a bad idea” and worried that “fatigue” would set in among Democratic troops trying to swing Wisconsin to Obama.

“I think most fair-minded people think of recalls as something you should use when someone is guilty of a crime or a near crime, some gross malfeasance,” he said.

Axelrod said Walker “would have to be taken seriously” as a potential contender in the 2016 Republican Party presidential race. He said Walker “is still a heroic figure” among tea party social conservatives.

“I think he’s a clever politician and knows how to marshal those forces,” he said. “I’m not prepared to say he’s going to be the Republican nominee but I’m certainly not prepared to say that he couldn’t.”

Axelrod said Ryan, the 2012 GOP vice presidential candidate, is “an interesting guy. He is a bright, voluble guy who I think generally believes in his philosophy.”

Ask him about his years working in Washington and Axelrod jokes: “I was a pretty rambunctious kid and I remember my mother said, ‘I love you but I just hate the things you do.’ I feel the same way about Washington.”

He said he reveres the institutions of government and the nation’s history, especially as someone whose father immigrated to America to escape the pogroms in Bessarabia in Eastern Europe.

“There’s a pathology to Washington that is hard to take,” he said. “First of all, it’s a town of very, very smart insecure people who spend half their time trying to disqualify others in order to certify their own importance. That’s not a healthy thing. The political environment now is so polarized. Money is so important and therefore the influence of special interests is that much more important. That has made it very, very difficult to get things done.”

Yet Axelrod is not a cynic. His energy, contacts and belief in the power of politics have drawn a roster of Republicans and Democrats who serve on his board.

Kristol, founder and editor of the Weekly Standard and a Fox News contributor, said Axelrod called him during the height of the 2012 campaign to ask him to join the board.

“I said, ‘Don’t you have more important things to do?’ He said, ‘I can take a break for 10 minutes and chat.’ ” Kristol said. “It shows how much he cares about this. He was thinking about it in those increasingly busy times.”

Beth Meyers, who led Mitt Romney’s vice presidential search team in 2012, met Axelrod for the first time in December, just a month after the tough loss in the presidential campaign. He asked her to join the board and she signed up immediately.

“David has a reputation as a very collegial guy, and everyone knows his commitment to causes,” she said.

Axelrod said he is focused on creating a nonpartisan atmosphere at the center, with visiting fellows sharing their experience in politics and policymaking with students. Internships for students are also key to give them a firsthand look at the political process.

He said he has no regrets about stepping away from a career in politics.

“There’s nothing I could do in politics that would rival what I’ve already accomplished,” he said. “In a sense to continue would be to invite a degradation of that.”

He said he made up his mind at the beginning of the 2012 campaign that it would be his last one.

But in some ways, he’s on to another campaign, helping students connect with politics.

“My goal and my measure of success is if we look back, five, 10, 15 years from now and we see out in the public arena as strategists, as candidates, as commentators and journalists, kids who passed through this program,” he said. “I think through the combination of things we’re doing we’re going to see that happen. And that will be incredibly gratifying. I can’t wait to see what these kids are going to do.”

via University of Chicago taps top strategist David Axelrod.

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