Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Personal Aside: What Will a President Obama be Like? Look at the Governance Style of Other Axelrod Clients.


Deval Laurdine Patrick lived as a child in a two-bedroom apartment in the Robert Taylor Homes housing project. He was tapped, molded and marketed by David Axelrod for the Massachusetts governorship contest in 2006. Axelrod, born fairly upper and radical in New York city, is a shrewd merchandiser of unusual African American candidates who can catch the favor of white liberals and money people. Not that Axelrod isn’t savvy to the ways of the Dem machine world: he is since he’s one of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s plum advisers. He also makes millions as an astro-turf lobbyist for the city: not as a registered brass-rail hanger-on but as an orchestrator of media concoctions that sell Daley’s choice ideas like the Olympics in 2016.

Dem machine regular he is, but still Axelrod has long held a theory that in the selling of a candidate, particularly black ones, issues and dull statistics-wielding don’t count—symbols and pretty word pictures do and they have to sound like they’re reformers. As far as getting by an electorate, the propping up of attractive black candidates worked. Only one hitch: after election nothing worked. . And that’s the way it has been with the shining paragon of Hope, Deval Patrick who is now the failed and continuing-to-fail governor of Massachusetts. With Barack Obama supposed to usher in a new era of idealism and “hope,”—indeed often the very same words that Axelrod candidate Patrick did—it’s instructive to see why Axelrod’s black candidates often fail to live up to promise and often inculcate widespread cynicism and in some cases virulent media rage when they govern. Indeed by Axelrod’s own testimony (in a laudatory New York Times article) Obama’s campaign rationale was field-tested on Deval Patrick.

Patrick the Obama Model.

First the inspiring liberal bio—ripe to attract idealistically liberal media types. Get this: abandoned by his father, Patrick was in middle school here when one of his teachers referred him to a national organization set up to identify blacks for an academic supercharge. He went to prestigious Milton Academy in Massachusetts, then to Harvard following which he worked with the UN in Africa. Then back to Harvard where he was enrolled at the law school. Awarded a JD. Worked for legal aid, became a partner in a law firm that ultimately folded.

Caught the eye of the Clintons and was named assistant attorney general for the civil rights division where he so enforced prisoners’ rights laws one warden called him a “zealot.” Being a zealot for prisoner rights canonized him with the media. Following the Clinton years he took a prestigious partnership at Day, Berry & Howard and after huge media exposure (as a member of the UAL board where he encouraged the airlines to offer domestic partner benefits to all employees), he was named vice president and general counsel for Coca-Cola. Tired of commuting between Massachusetts and Atlanta, he retired after six years and ran for governor of Massachusetts. He served on the board of ACC Capital Holdings, with extensive financial interest in Massachusetts. Media were impressed.

Next the personal stuff—Married to an attractive female lawyer, specializing in labor and employment law: good for media interest. He leads a highly publicized fight “against anti-gay marriage” i.e. the traditional marriage amendment which intrigues the media. More: one of his daughters announced she’s a lesbian—and he and his wife stood by her, getting huge coverage. Media like gay rights stuff.

Now the Axelrod campaign running on high octane idealism—brimming with slogans including “Yes We Can!” Can do what? Who knows? Another: “a time for hope!” Hope for what? Answer: it’s up to you. He didn’t stress issues but his own biography and he will fight entrenched back-room politics. The only entrenched backroom politics in solidly one-party Massachusetts is in his own party but nobody cares—the idea resonates. . Massachusetts liberals thrilled as he becomes only the second elected black governor in U.S. history. Unstated. Never mind. His victory in 2006 hiked the Democratic margin—already a supermajority—in both Houses of the state’s legislature.

The bright new beginning at the inauguration, propelled by civil rights symbolism, so revered by the trendy media. At Axelrod’s suggestion, Patrick broke with the tradition of being inaugurated in the old House Chamber of the Massachusetts state house. Instead, he was sworn in and delivered his inaugural address on the west portico of the state house, facing Boston Common. Why? More people could witness this breathtaking introduction to “more transparent” governance. Also, as Axelrod noted, as he took his oath, he faced a monument to the first black regiment in the Civil War. That made liberals tingle. But wait! There’s more! His hand was placed on the famed Mendi Bible, belonging to John Quincy Adams, former president and later congressman who as a lawyer won the case to free the slaves from the ship La Amistad in 1839, memorialized (in many cases inaccurately) by Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film for Dreamworks. Brilliant glitz.

I can tell you, folks: news media loved it. Especially when the new governor said (in words written by Axelrod): “I come here to change politics as usual.” Then these words: “What’s missing from politics is hope!”But a tip-off of trouble to come: the transition team he named excluded any members of the legislature, which media cheered but alienated lawmakers of both parties. Also the new governor’s chief of staff had no experience in politics, an Axelrod sales-point to the media but didn’t thrill the various interest groups to be dealt with: organized labor, the police unions.

Ah but then came…

....the Governmental Letdown.

After all the pretty photo ops were taken and filmy rhetoric delivered, it became time to govern. The poetic words dissing old-time politicians rankled Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, veteran Democrat.

First, there were little things that smelled old-time hack politics but which irritated the media and ordinary people greatly. Item: like a machine lifer, he decided the draperies for his statehouse suite were too drab so he ordered new ones at cost of $11,000. Media frowned and taxpayers drowned the statehouse with letters and emails. They pressured him to pay for the draperies out of his own pocket. Item: he felt the car the governor rode in should be upgraded, so he upped the customary car lease for a Crown Victoria to a Cadillac. Media growled. More letters, phone calls and emails. Again they forced him to pay for the upgrade personally. Item: he decided his wife should have the services of a chief of staff, so he hired a former campaign worker at a cost of $70,000. Media shouted and the emails turned into a tsunami: “what’s this? Is this is New Politics?” The new hire quit.

The gaffes continued and got bigger. Item: trying to do a favor for a company where he served on its board, ACC Capital Holdings whose mortgage subsidiary. Ameriquest, was in meltdown, Patrick phoned former Clinton treasury chief Robert Rubin of Citigroup just as an old-time hack would, using his connections. This was truly the Old Politics since Citigroup has huge holdings in Massachusetts. Again a firestorm and Patrick dodged, saying he called Rubin as a private citizen. But he’s not. Thus the Messiah of the New Politics was getting his toga tainted by special interest mud.

Then came the bigger more consequential errors where Axelrod’s so-called “refreshing independence” came into play—the all-thumbs style of a dilettante. Normally a Democratic governor should be expected to get along with a Democratic Speaker but it was not the case with Salvatore DiMasi whom Patrick had vilified along the campaign trail as one of the old fashioned baronial types. DiMasi picked Hillary Clinton as his candidate in the Massachusetts primary; Patrick endorsed Obama. In the primary the Dem pols went with Clinton overwhelmingly, repudiating the new governor. Then came Patrick’s bid to allow three gambling casinos into the state which he proclaimed would generate thousands of new jobs and mega-millions in revenue. But Patrick neglected to consult legislative leaders, the first rule in Politics 101.

Not only did DiMasi administer a sharp defeat to his governor when the media went to the governor’s office to get a comment, they found he was—guess where?—in New York city signing a $1.1 million book deal extolling his new way of governing generating excitement which pleased Axelrod. But not the Boston media. His once high popularity sank like a stone to 41% with 56% disapproval. And media which had led the charge to elect the bright young Harvard candidate of change turned on him like a junkyard dog. He now is regarded as a man who couldn’t live up to the hype. His onetime pledge to cut property taxes has been scotched. Now, says The Wall Street Journal, Patrick’s popularity rating at 45% is “still 20 points off its inauguration high.” The reason: Patrick can’t govern. Marooned he’s nervously eying reelection but hoping a President Obama will rescue him from Boston and give him a cabinet post. No comment has come from David Axelrod—who has been too busy duplicating Patrick’s p. r. for Obama.

If the Patrick case history were the only one in Axelrod’s file, it wouldn’t be news worthy. The fact is, there are several. All black candidates echoing the Axelrod lefty tirade of opposing the old order of doing this…then falling back on the cynical old style of machine dealing, cutting back to “independence” and failing in the governmental attempt. Here are some others:

Stormy Mayors with the Same Mantras.

With past mayoral candidates, Axelrod picked old-line machine pol types but merchandised them as anti-machine independents…with terrible results in governance.

Chicago’s Harold Washington: Here was not just a barnacle-encrusted Dem hack but one who had done time in jail before he was mayor (non-payment of state taxes), a first even for Chicago (jokers said Cook county jail even sported a banner for a short time: “Washington Slept Here!”) Aha, but then he turned reformist which turned the media ga-ga. Axelrod handled his 1987reelection, after the change was made with the same refrain Axelrod guided his 1987 reelection continuing the line that has been Axelrod’s unique refrain, designed to get quick and easy media. Washington, a former Dem machine hack but from this city’s Hyde Park, changed his attitude late in his career and blasted decades of machine rule. He intrigued the media, proclaimed he would reform patronage, refused to work with the patronage-prone Democratic party and so battled with his own party for his first term that the city that works got a new name, “Beirut on the Lake.” Axelrod ran the image bubble machine for the reelection that blamed all on (largely) white intransigence in the city council—but as one who knew both sides, I can say the mayor refused to deal—utterly. Washington was hugely governmentally ineffective though a media-centric mayor, one who could never make peace with disparate elements—largely isolated from much of the publics that were non-minority. He toppled dead at his desk four months after reelection at age 65, a liberal icon but a tragically ineffective mayor largely because of his own doing because he preferred to be seen as a racial symbol.

Detroit’s Dennis Archer: Axelrod took charge of the image-making for the Dennis Archer campaign for mayor of Detroit in 1992. Archer was a prominent black former judge and a former machine worthy. The old lion mayor of Detroit, Coleman Young, also black, was in ill health and retiring. Archer rallied liberal-radical elements, announced for office with a typical Axelrod idealistic burst of rhetoric declaring “The days when a handful of politicians can sit in a back room and carve up this city are over. It’s time to open the windows and let fresh air into city hall!” Media was entranced when Archer declared “Detroit for all! All for Detroit!” Nice catchy slogan. Predictably Young was outraged. He backed an opponent to Archer. Archer won with a minority of black votes and indeed won reelection but battling with the city council dismayed many. A recall drive was mounted to ditch the idealistically liberal mayor. There were some economic gains but Archer had had enough and he bowed out.

Philadelphia’s John F. Street: Axelrod ran his campaign ads and repeated his mantra that the old style gang would be replaced by idealistic governance from former Dem hack Street. Result: Street was listed in the April 17, 2005 issue of Time as one of the three worst big-city mayors in the United States. During a reelection campaign, the FBI acknowledged it had placed recording devices in his office as part of a massive investigation of city corruption. Among those fingered by the feds was Street’s brother who allegedly traded on his relationship with the mayor to obtain lucrative city contracts but who failed to pay taxes on more than $2 million in income. Corruption reigned supreme but few news stories rivaled the IPhone controversy. He was spotted standing in line for hours in front of an AT&T store, waiting to get the highly anticipated Apple iPhone. Embarrassed, he left and went to his office but placed two of his security guards to hold his place in line. No longer mayor but regarded as just about the worst in Philly history, Street is teaching at Temple University. Teaching what? Urban politics, of course.

….Looking at the Future with Obama.

Carefully merchandised by Axelrod as a breath of fresh air and a refreshing independent, Barack Obama is, of course, anything but. Using Axelrod style rhetoric, Obama matriculated here in Chicago as a young hustler on the make, playing the old Dem machine game: using the government treasury to get ahead, understanding the need to steer pension funds and investments to help your pals whereupon they will help you back. Hyde Park, once at war with the old Daley outfit, has been assimilated and now happens to be the far-left wing of the machine but heavily in the machine. Obama had a choice to support an anti-machine Democrat for president of the Cook county board or a dying hack: he picked the dying hack. Then he stuck with the hack’s incompetent son, Todd Stroger. Not to do so would have upset Mayor Richard M. Daley, the powerful Stroger family that is tied to the Daleys, Emil Jones his machine mentor and would have been against the interests of now-convicted developer felon Tony Rezko.

But all the while the goofy boob media, here and throughout the nation, buys into Obama who spins rhetoric both he and Axelrod concoct that hangs in the air like haze, wonderful to inhale but entirely nutrient-free. If Obama is elected, it will be interesting to see if he ends up like all the other Axelrod clients: ineffective and at the end, paradoxically, savaged by the fickle media who brought him to power.

A look at the past Axelrod candidates and what happened to their governance should provide a solid tip-off for the educated voter.


  1. Why don't you just join the Klan and be done with it. Race is all you have in mind.

    You should bow your head in shame.

  2. There is another element to Sam Zell and the Tribune that bears closer examination. Besides his ownership of the Trib, Mr. Zell was and is a Chicago real estate developer. To do business he requires the favor of City Hall and the County. Does this not raise questions of imporper influence on the editorial policy and news coverage at the Tribune?