“I’m confident that if – if I had run again and articulated it, I think I could’ve mobilized a majority of the American people to rally behind it.”
That was the outgoing president in an interview with David Axelrod, who had his own spin on why his friend and former boss would have trounced Trump.
“He believes that his progressive vision and the vision he ran on is still a majority view in this country,” Alexrod told the Washington Post. “He chooses to be hopeful about the future.”
That’s the story Axelrod told at length in his 2015 Believer: My Forty Years in Politics. For all its 500-page bulk, the book resembles a bikini: what it reveals is interesting but what it conceals is crucial.
In the “Roots” section, the author notes that his father Joseph Axelrod came to America from Eastern Europe, fleeing violence targeting Jews. Who was doing the targeting is not exactly clear. In America, Believer explains, Joseph Axelrod listed his political party as Communist, and this became an issue when he was due for promotion in the military.
Axelrod’s mother Myril wrote for PM, the New York daily funded by Marshall Field, which had a “decidedly leftist bent” and where “progressive literati” thrived. Besides his mother, the only PM writer Axelrod mentions is I.F. Stone but the believer does not name Stone’s Hidden History of the Korean War, which charges that South Korea attacked North Korea, the official Soviet version of the conflict.
Axelrod’s mother eventually left journalism and became vice president of Young and Rubicam, one of nation’s largest advertising agencies. “I credit much of my professional success to the drive and skills I drew from her,” Axelrod explains. He would use those skills in Chicago at the Hyde Park Herald where he met David Canter, son of Harry Canter, a Stalinist and Communist Party candidate for governor in Massachusetts.
Axelrod moved on to the Chicago Tribune but like his mother he left journalism and became communications director for Illinois Senator Paul Simon. “I was surprised at how easy it had been,” Axelrod wrote, “to trade in those tools for a new career, and how naturally I’d adjusted to my new role.”
In the fall of 1987, Simon was making a run for the White House. Axelrod lamented that Simon had worked with Reagan on a balanced budget amendment. And besides, Axelrod wrote, “I frankly doubted America was ready for a jug-eared bow-tied liberal as president.”
The former journalist would soon have a candidate more to his liking. He worked with Hillary Clinton, a Saul Alinsky disciple, but Hillary was not the one. At one point, “I got a perfectly timed and unexpected call from an old friend that would change my life.”
“David, it’s Barack,” said the voice on the phone. “I’m thinking about what I want to do next, and was wondering if we could talk.”
Barack, says Axelrod, “was no dreamy reformer.” Rather, he was “idealistic in his aspirations but pragmatic in pursuit of them – ready and willing to do what was necessary to advance his political and legislative goals.”
The perfect timing of the call is likely a reference to Stanley Dunham, the president’s maternal grandfather. He passed away on February 8, 1992, and was no longer around to offer insights on family history, and correct any written accounts that might appear.
“Authenticity is an indispensible requirement for any successful candidate, but particularly for a president,” writes Axelrod. “Biography is foundational” and the former journalist says he “felt more comfortable, and proficient at, telling stories than I did creating the ads that were state-of-the-art in Washington.”
Even so, “I knew Barack was an exceptional writer,” writes Axelrod, without explaining how he knew it. The president, after all, never authored news stories, feature articles, reviews and such, and had no record as a writer.
The 1995 Dreams from My Father, the memoir his friend published at the age of 33, offers the prospect of the Kenyan father as a “useful fiction” and “a prop in someone else’s narrative.” The book is a roman à clef with no index, no photo section, and key characters given first names only. For example, Frank Marshall Davis, a Stalinist who according to Malik Obama bears strong physical resemblance to the president, emerges only as “Frank.”
As Axelrod the believer says, authenticity is indispensible, but in Believer he’s not comfortable about running a fact-check. For Axelrod, Dreams from My Father was “a powerful and poignant work.” In similar style, The Audacity of Hope, was “written with the narrative skill of a gifted novelist.” Here the president’s narrator-protector remembers to pay homage to himself, like Sidney Greenstreet in Casablanca.
In a scene toward the end of Believer, a heckler yells, “Tell the truth, Axelfraud!” Good luck with that because the former White House insider is “still a believer.” His useful fiction was a great success and his “dream client” twice elected president of the United States.
The president’s designated successor Hillary Clinton may have lost the election, but as the narrator now explains, “his progressive vision and the vision he ran on is still a majority view in this country.”
The outing president, meanwhile, will help mobilize and train a younger generation of Democratic leaders, and the Washington Post says he is “working on writing a book.”
After all, as his comfortable, storytelling narrator says, the president is an exceptional writer with the narrative skill of a gifted novelist.