President of the United States Barack Obama is on record that his administration is the most transparent in American history. It hasn’t exactly worked out that way, as his former senior advisor David Axelrod confirms in Believer: My Forty Years in Politics, published with great fanfare in February. But “Axe,” as the president calls him, does include some important lessons, especially for the political operative’s former colleagues in journalism.
Axelrod started out as a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Tribune, and this presents a paradox. News workers and pundits like to reveal unpleasant realities that politicians seek to conceal, but Axelrod found he was more comfortable concealing realities that journalists seek to reveal.
As he explains in Believer, when he became communications director for Illinois Senator Paul Simon, Axelrod was surprised by how effortlessly he adjusted to his new role. Even so, he confesses, “I frankly doubted America was ready for a jug-eared bow-tied liberal as president.”
Axelrod held no doubt, however, that the nation was ready for Barack Obama, who is neither jug-eared nor a liberal. As the late Barry Rubin asked in his brilliant swan song Silent Revolution: How the Left Rose to Political Power and Cultural Dominance, if Obama is a liberal, “why did he repeatedly denounce the greatest accomplishments of liberals and call for a completely different approach?” Obama had in mind a transformation along more radical lines.
That also emerged when Ben Wallace-Wells of Rolling Stone covered Obama’s minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. “This is as openly radical a background,” wrote Wallace-Wells, “as any significant American political figure has ever emerged from.” So “radical” politics was the kind Axelrod and Obama both believed in.
Axelrod outlines the decidedly left-wing milieu of his own parents, who mingled with pro-Soviet apologists like I. F. Stone, but that kind of disclosure is missing from his profile of Barack Obama. Believer includes not a single reference to Frank Marshall Davis, an old-line Stalinist and a mentor to Obama until the end of the 1970s, as political scientist Paul Kengor outlined in Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor.
In Obama’s 1995 autobiography, Dreams from My Father, Davis appears simply as “Frank,” but Frank disappears entirely in the audio version from 2005. Also missing from Axelrod’s massive 509-page tome is Chicago community organizer Saul Alinsky, author of Rules for Radicals.
Axelrod succeeded in beating back the “calumny” that Obama had been educated in an Indonesian madrasa. But Believer provides no background, and readers will wonder if there was something to the story.
As a true believer, Axelrod naturally freights his account with hagiography. Obama is “brilliant and honorable and motivated by the best intentions.” Obama “could transcend race and class divides with a remarkable ability to appeal to our common values, hopes and dreams.” Obama’s pre-presidential manifesto, The Audacity of Hope, was “written with the narrative skill of a gifted novelist.”
In Axelrod’s view it’s all good. Obama has set the nation on the road to the promised land, and unbelievers are given no quarter. Criticism is “rooted in race,” and “some folks simply refuse to accept the legitimacy of the first black president and are seriously discomforted by the growing diversity of our country.”
As a true believer, David Axelrod is not a man to speak the truth to power. Instead he conceals the truth on behalf of the powerful. If journalists want to take that dark path, they should follow Axelrod’s example, leave their jobs in the old-line establishment media, and work directly for politicians. With 2016 fast approaching, many will be in the market for true believers.
Lloyd Billingsley is a Policy Fellow and Communications Counsel at the Independent Institute. He is the author of Hollywood Party: Stalinist Adventures in the American Movie Industry, and the forthcoming Bill of Writes, a collection of journalism.