The Player at Bat
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Friday, May 2, 2008
David Axelrod first showed signs of chronic fan syndrome in the early 1960s in his native New York City. The initial symptom involved baseball. His dad had recently allowed the New York Mets (born 1962) to occupy the place in his heart long filled by the New York Giants (moved to San Francisco, 1957), and began taking his precocious son to games -- lots of them. "I was a big Mets fan," Axelrod reports. From the age of 8, when his parents separated, he spent weekends with his father, a ballplayer turned psychologist. "Most weekends we'd spend one or both days out at the ballpark," Axelrod remembers. A fan was born.
For nearly four decades Axelrod has lived in Chicago. The transplant is now deeply rooted, with chronic fan syndrome intact. The Mets are history. Now Axelrod holds season tickets to the Chicago Bulls of the NBA, the Chicago White Sox and the Chicago Cubs. He and his wife, Susan, have a subscription to Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts. When politics don't interfere, he can lead quite a fan's life.
Axelrod, 53, is the preeminent political consultant in Chicago, and has operated successfully all over the country. He has helped Deval Patrick become governor of Massachusetts, Hillary Clinton become a senator from New York, and Anthony Williams become mayor of Washington, among many others. Over the past 16 months he has become a national figure as chief strategist for Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign, a job that regularly puts him on television -- "Meet the Press" two Sundays ago and "Face the Nation" last Sunday, and all over cable news last week. On television he is a cool, articulate spokesman for his candidate, a well-spoken salesman with a product to sell. But his friends realize that behind his mild-mannered exterior lurks the intense Axelrod they all know -- the fan.
Politics and sports are close cousins, and politics can provide an outlet for the fan's instincts. Axelrod roots for politicians with the intensity fans usually save for their teams. "He's really sort of an innocent," says Sam Smith, a retired Chicago Tribune sportswriter and one of Axelrod's closest friends. His pal is regularly infatuated with the candidates he works for as a consultant, Smith says: "He believes the best of the people in politics" -- at least for a time.
"He loves his candidates when he starts," Smith explains, but the love often fades; "he's usually let down when he finishes [a campaign]."
Told of Smith's remark, Axelrod demurs, denying that his candidates regularly disappoint him. "That's not really true," he says during a recent conversation in Obama headquarters here. "I've had my disappointments for sure, but I've been really, really lucky. Part of what has allowed me to practice the politics I like is that I've hooked up with some really outstanding people."
He considers Obama the most outstanding of them all. Axelrod has decided that this first-term senator, just 46 years old, is something extraordinary, someone to compare to his earliest political idol, Robert F. Kennedy. "This time he found a candidate who isn't letting him down," Smith says. "Obama is the one different guy."
Robert Swidler, now a lawyer in Troy, N.Y., is Axelrod's oldest friend. They grew up together in Stuyvesant Town, a vast community of high-rise, red-brick apartment houses just north of the East Village in Lower Manhattan. They went off to kindergarten together at Public School 40 on East 19th Street, went through Junior High 104 across the street and won admission to Stuyvesant High School, an academically selective public school, three blocks away.
Swidler recalls how, as 13-year-olds, they set up a card table, first at the Bronx Zoo, then on busy 57th Street, to sell buttons and bumper stickers for Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. Their politics were established even then, Swidler recalls -- New York liberals with an idealistic bent who thought government should help the weakest members of society.
Axelrod remembers Robert Kennedy's assassination in the early hours of June 5, 1968. He thinks he was awake at the time, nearly 3:30 a.m., watching television or listening to the radio: "I wanted to see if he'd win the [California] primary, I knew how important it was. And I just was devastated, because I found him such an inspiring figure." So did millions of others, of course. Robert Kennedy was the last Democratic politician who could make voters swoon.