It’s a tough time in the current U.S. political climate to stand up and say the President has done a lot right, and that you’re glad you got him elected. But true to his new memoir’s title, David Axelrod is a Believer with a capital “B”—and he tells the story of how his 40 years in politics have been motivated by knowing elections can effect real change. 

Axelrod begins his recollections with the tale of his first encounter with politics, as a boy whose nanny took him out to see young candidate John F. Kennedy stumping in New York City's Stuyvesant Town in 1960. She boosted him up on a mailbox to get a good look, and the rest is…well, history. 

“I’m not here on the platform that says, ‘If you elect me, everything will be good.' Being an American citizen in the 1960s is a hazardous occupation filled with challenge but also hope, and we will decide on November 8th which direction we’ll take,” said the presidential candidate. From his mouth to David Axelrod’s 5 year-old ears—President Kennedy would never know that his inspiring words and enthusiasm for government would settle as an ember and later ignite in Axelrod, who went on to make another young, idealistic senator the President of the United States in 2008. 

Axelrod repeats often his unfailing belief that, as JFK implied, what happens at election time has great influence over the condition of the country. He takes a bird’s eye view of the Obama presidency to point out the progress made on big issues like climate change, immigration and LGBT civil rights. 

Serendipity with key women comes up twice in Axelrod’s recollections. The first, when Michelle Obama backed him up on the campaign slogan, “Yes, We Can” after her husband suggested it was too corny. “Not corny,” she asserted, prompting Axelrod to thank God for small miracles. The second came after the 2008 campaign. It was an unusual call from his older sister, Joan. She was moved after getting to know a green, young candidate, Deval Patrick, while working on local politics in her hometown of Arlington, MA.  Coming off a campaign high and with renewed idealism after years of despairing the condition of government, Axelrod met Patrick and said he recognized in him the similar belief that the best way to win an election is with authenticity and a well-told story of your dreams for a better society. 

Axelrod knew what the newcomer Patrick was up against. “At that time on Beacon Hill, I was familiar with this pattern, y’know the Beacon Hill Wise Guys who were ridiculing Deval for the silliness of wanting to go from town to town and group to group, and actually interface with people instead of raising money to spend on television.” 

In turn, during an exchange in Cambridge where Axelrod was visiting to discuss the topic of his new book with political analyst and former presidential advisor David Gergen, Patrick stood in the audience and offered his own praise.

“David didn’t tell me what to think or what to say, because I wasn’t interested in that. He helped me understand where the hazards where and how to say what I wanted to say. This whole idea of bringing your whole self to the campaign—and your real self—is something that David Axelrod got,” Patrick said.

Perhaps the timing for his memoir isn’t so bad. As Election Day 2016 approaches, voters may need a reminder of the lofty expectations Axelrod cultivated in us as he groomed a first-time, African American senator from Chicago with a foreign-sounding name to aim for the White House. Don’t fault him or his client for not delivering the “Kumbaya” moments many hoped would happen with the end of dynastic domination in the Oval Office. It was unrealistic to look for brotherly love in Washington D.C., but Axelrod’s belief in hope and change through politics may still help to ground voters as they marvel at the possibility of yet another Bush—or perhaps another Clinton—in the White House. 


The conversation between David Axelrod and David Gergen was hosted by the Cambridge Forum, recorded by WGBH's Forum Network and made possible by the Lowell Institute. You can see the entire recording on the Forum Network's website.