David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Obama, said he became interested in politics from the moment he heard John F. Kennedy speak. In 1960, Axelrod’s nanny brought him to 20th Street in New York City where the future president was making a campaign speech. David was five years old at the time.
“Everyone was rapt,” Axelrod said. “I didn’t understand everything he was saying … but I knew it seemed very important and very exciting.”
Axelrod’s passion for politics never died. Fifty-five years after Kennedy’s speech in New York, about 170 students, faculty and staff attended Axelrod’s talk, “Why Politics Still Matters,” in Sullivan Hall’s Feinstone Lounge Wednesday afternoon. Axelrod also signed copies of his book Believer: My Forty Years in Politics for audience members.
Before beginning his political career, Axelrod attended the University of Chicago and worked nights, reporting for The Chicago Tribune before he was promoted to political writer.
The first historical campaign Axelrod ran as campaign manager was for Harold Washington in 1983. Washington was elected, becoming the first African-American mayor of Chicago.
“In that election … the raw edges of race really showed,” Axelrod said.
Axelrod also worked for Paul Simon in 1984 as campaign manager and won the election for the US Senate.
In the ‘90s, Axelrod was introduced to then-civil rights attorney, Barack Obama.
“What was very clear was that this young guy was serious about politics as a means of service and not just as a business or a career,” Axelrod said. “The world of politics divides into two categories, the first more numerous than the second: people who run for public office because they want to be something, and then there’s the smaller, more admirable cohort of people who want to do something.”
Axelrod said he experienced cynicism towards politics, and began working for Obama’s campaign for Illinois State Senator in 1995 after his failed congressional race, to “rekindle my excitement and idealism.”
“If I could get this guy elected to the US Senate, it would be something I could be proud of for the rest of my life,” Axelrod said.
Axelrod said he witnessed “historic” moments throughout his time working for President Obama. Obama’s keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 and his speech on race at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia in 2008 were two of those moments. Axelrod said he was convinced that Obama could become President.
After President Obama was sworn into office, Axelrod said the “tests” of his presidency were challenging. The economic crash of 2008, facing racism from the public and passing the Affordable Care Act were most prominent, he said.
Axelrod’s daughter developed epilepsy when she was seven months old, and he and his wife were paying thousands of dollars out of pocket for medical expenses, he said.
“I was like a poster child for health care reform,” Axelrod said.
“I was timid on health reform and I was worried about the political implications of it and I’m glad [President Obama] overruled my concerns,” Axelrod added in an interview. “There were things in which I knew he had to make compromises in order to get 80 percent of what we wanted. I very much believe in what he’s done and I’m really proud of what he’s accomplished.”
After the second Obama campaign in 2012, Axelrod established an Institution of Politics at the University of Chicago and serves as director. He also published Believer in February of this year and became a commentator for CNN last week.
Axelrod said the issues he is most passionate about are civil rights, adapting to the changing economy and increasing globalization and promoting education, innovation and progress.
“Politics is the way in which we in a democracy choose the future,” he said. “It’s easy to succumb to cynicism, but at the end of the day, it’s worth persevering because first, the alternative is unthinkable, and second, there are tangible things you can point to that made a difference … View your successes not just as losses and wins, but how you change the lives of others.”
Lian Parsons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Lian_Parsons.