BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week, a dust-up between putative Democrat front-runners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Obama supporter David Geffen said some nasty things about the Clintons and the Clinton campaign said Obama should give Geffen's money back. Oh, dear.
Now pundits have the chance to jawbone over whether Obama can stick to his promise to run a positive campaign. Insiders, of course, are especially interested in the man behind Obama's campaign, media consultant David Axelrod. He ran Obama's Senate race and Deval Patrick's successful bid to be the first black governor of Massachusetts. Can he craft a winning campaign for the first black President?
Christopher Hayes profiled Axelrod in last week's issue of The Nation. He says Axelrod was coaxed out of journalism and into politics by Harold Washington's campaign to be Chicago's first black mayor. CHRISTOPHER HAYES: What happened in 1983 – this is the first time he ran – he won the Democratic primary, much to white Chicago's chagrin. Chicago is a notoriously Democratic town, and whoever wins the Democratic primary essentially gets to be mayor.
But a somewhat obscure Republican, named Bernie Epton, was catapulted as the kind of great white hope to defeat Harold Washington, and his slogan in that campaign was, quote, "Before it's too late." BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right. But it wasn't until Washington's reelection campaign in 1987 that Axelrod really became a player in politics, and not just writing about it. CHRISTOPHER HAYES: That's right. He'd left his - you know, he had this kind of meteoric rise at The Tribune. He left that job to work on Paul Simon's 1984 Senate campaign. After that, he started a consulting firm and he started working for local candidates, black candidates, particularly, and he worked for Harold Washington in '87.
And Washington actually did better among white voters in 1987 than he had in 1983, but still he won a tiny percentage of the white vote, this despite having campaigned predominantly in white neighborhoods, and made a very, very hard kind of sell to bring white voters over. And Axelrod was there for all of it. He was doing Harold Washington's media during that campaign. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So why was this campaign so pivotal for Axelrod? CHRISTOPHER HAYES: Well, the reason it was pivotal, I think, is because he saw racial politics at its most brutal, particularly the kind of minefield that a black candidate has to walk. There were all these rumors that, you know, Harold Washington was going to essentially give City Hall over to Chicago's black community and whites would suddenly find themselves outside the power structure.
And I think Axelrod saw that and learned a lot of lessons about how to go about or how to attempt to go about packaging black candidates who are running for office such that white voters can sort of feel comfortable in voting for them, even with all the sort of latent racism that might be there. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Talk about how Axelrod first hooked up with Barack Obama. CHRISTOPHER HAYES: You know, Axelrod told me that he had heard about Obama when Obama was in the state Senate. I think they had been friendly and actually had had formed a relationship even before Obama decided definitively to run for the Senate seat in 2003. And there was a very crowded primary field, and everybody wanted Axelrod. I mean he essentially is, by far, the big-name political consultant here in Chicago. He knows Chicago politics better than anyone. And he decided to go with Obama.
There was one candidate who was a self-funded millionaire with a lot more money. There was another candidate who was sort of the son of a machine politician. Obama was not seen as likely to win the race, but Axelrod had a lot of faith in him and in his appeal.
And the two of them got very lucky because they had [LAUGHS] the frontrunner, Blair Hull, the aforementioned self-funded millionaire, sort of self-destruct over his divorce records just at the time that Obama was going up on the air with these very sort of inspiring, hopeful ads that Axelrod had crafted. And they waltzed to a pretty resounding victory in the primary.
And I think Axelrod's two ads he cut for Obama had a lot to do with that. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Describe those ads. What made them so inspirational? CHRISTOPHER HAYES: The first was an ad with the theme, "Yes, we can." And it was a sort of ingenious way of weaving together the very sort of astounding biography of Obama and his record and this kind of hopeful message in which he sort of said, you know, they said there couldn't be a black president of The Harvard Law Review, but I did it. And they said we couldn't give health care to children, and we did it. [VIDEO CLIP] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BARACK OBAMA: Or give tax relief to the working poor, or pass new laws to stop wrongful executions, but I have. Now they say we can't change Washington? I'm Barack Obama. I'm running for the United States Senate, and I approve this message to say, "Yes, we can." [END FILM CLIP] CHRISTOPHER HAYES: The other ad was wildly successful. It was an endorsement from Paul Simon who was a very popular senator in Illinois. Simon had agreed to endorse Obama and then had died, actually, before he could ever record the ad. And what Axelrod came up with was he talked to Simon's daughter. [VIDEO CLIP][MUSIC UP AND UNDER] SHEILA SIMON: I know Barack Obama will be a U.S. senator in the Paul Simon tradition. You see, Paul Simon was my dad. [END OF CLIP] CHRISTOPHER HAYES: Paul Simon was from predominantly a very white area of downstate Illinois, areas outside of, say, South Side Chicago, where Obama had a kind of built-in African-American base. And this was a way of sort of expanding his appeal across racial lines. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. So it seems as if Axelrod is a kind of kinder, gentler message manager. At some point, he's going to have to go negative. CHRISTOPHER HAYES: Yeah. I think that's fair to say. I mean, I should say that he can throw bunches, I think, with the best of them when the occasion calls for it, and I've seen ads that he's done, attack ads that were pretty brutal – not attack ads of the sort of, you know, so-and-so was having an affair, but, I mean, sort of issue-based attack ads.
There's also going to be the added layer of the very strong and sometimes unseemly racial politics that are going to come into play. And there is going to be pressure from all sides. We're already seeing stories about black authenticity. If he steps towards that, there'll be white commentators saying he's, quote, unquote, "too black."
In campaigns, your opponents often get a say in whether you're a polarizing figure or not. And the question is the degree that the Obama campaign with Axelrod's counsel can dictate the terms of their own kind of unifying message. BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you think Axelrod will handle that? CHRISTOPHER HAYES: Having reported the story and gone back and delved through the racial history of Chicago politics that Axelrod came out of, you realize that if there's anyone who's well sort of trained to handle it, it is Axelrod. And I think that the unity message that they've crafted--it has a dimension to it, I believe, that is an acknowledgement of the fact that divisiveness is something that's been thrown at black politicians and black civil rights leaders from all the way back.
So I think that in some sense the entire rhetoric of the campaign, its entire rhetorical approach is a kind of preemptive way of dealing with a lot of the kind of tacit implied issues about Obama's race. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But it would seem, Chris, that everything you're talking about speaks to Axelrod's experience in assuaging the fears of white voters. What's he going to do if the bigger challenge for Obama is to convince black voters to vote for him?
CHRISTOPHER HAYES: Well, that's a really [LAUGHS] good question, and that, I think, is the interesting turn that we've seen in the media narrative, at least in the last week, particularly with the early importance of South Carolina and Obama's visit down there.
Obama's one defeat as a candidate, and this was before his association with Axelrod, was his 2000 race to unseat Bobby Rush in an almost entirely black district on the South Side of Chicago, in which the charge that was leveled at him exactly was that he was this sort of interloper and outsider, in which he was sort of unable to convince a largely African-American community to vote for him.
It's going to be a real issue. And in terms of what [LAUGHS] Axelrod has planned for Obama in terms of avoiding that part of the minefield, I couldn't say. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Chris, thank you so much. CHRISTOPHER HAYES: Brooke, thanks so much for having me. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Christopher Hayes is a Puffin Foundation writing fellow at The Nation Institute. So how does Axelrod plan to deal with the possibility that black voters may not embrace his candidate? We asked him. DAVID AXELROD: You know, when we started the race for Illinois, he was in the polls getting about a third of the African-American vote, maybe slightly less than that. He ended up getting 92 to 95 percent of it.
I think that there is a process, and it's the right process. People need to get to know him. He's not asking for people to vote for him on the basis of the fact that he's African-American. He has to go out and earn those votes. And so I think these issues will go away. BROOKE GLADSTONE: In Obama's Senate race, he used the slogan, "Yes, we can." So did Deval Patrick in the Massachusetts race for governor. Are you concerned that some of the hallmarks of an Axelrod campaign, some of those tropes, may become a little too familiar? DAVID AXELROD: Well, you know, I think that may be for a few insiders. But let me just be really, really clear about this. I do not bring these things to these campaigns so much as I look for candidates who reflect the kinds of values in politics that I care about, and that tagline reflects that. And I'm sure you'll hear it some more. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You probably have already seen the beginning of a negative campaign against Obama. What do you anticipate will happen that "Yes, we can" isn't going to answer? DAVID AXELROD: Let me say that there's no doubt that politics is a tough pursuit. Harold Washington used to tell us that politics ain't beanbag. That doesn't mean that the whole thing has to devolve into a kind of reality show contest of insults, and that's not what we're going to do. BROOKE GLADSTONE: David, thank you very much. DAVID AXELROD: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Media consultant David Axelrod.