The campaign whisperer's descent

November 12, 2010

 Does anyone recognize David Axelrod anymore?

 
David Axelrod (Getty Images/File)

Before taking residence in the White House, rumpled, wry Axelrod -- campaign whisperer extraordinaire -- could be seen regularly sprinting over from his office on Franklin Street to Brett’s Diner across the way, whomever he was talking to practically panting, desperately trying to keep up with the guy.

Tall, imposing, Axelrod looked like a crazed man sometimes – eyes aimless in the anxious orbit of the sleepless – but, with that even Zen voice of his, there was something of the cool killer about him.

Was there ever a political strategist with more notches on his belt? A sweeter grin? A savvier wit?

Now Axelrod just looks pained. He’s in some kind of perpetual squint, what rare hint there is of a smile is wan.

Sure, it’s been a long time since anyone has believed Axelrod is a real progressive – his client list includes Paul Simon, Harold Washington and a slew of prominent African-American politicians, mostly the crusading kind, but he’s also represented millionaire senator wannabe Al Hofeld, corporate-whore Chris Dodd and other unseemly types. And he’s always been tight with the pragmatic Richie Daley.

But David’s brilliant campaign whispering connected the good men (he hasn’t worked with a whole lot of women) to their constituency with nuance and heart. And Axelrod’s murmurs even injected some humanity into most of the unseemlies.

In Barack Obama he seemed to have found a pitch-perfect partner. They were going to do good, together, beautifully. Obama heard even the dog whistles, understood the high-low, the crescendo, how to let 4 minutes and 33 seconds fill up with the symphony of life.

And then, suddenly, post-election victory, there was David, ironed out, hairs cut, tied up, no longer whispering but part of a chorus; no longer whispering but holding forth with his own microphone in hand; no longer whispering instructions on how to explain or deflect but trying to explain and deflect.

And Barack abruptly stuttering, talking about “trendlines” instead of the mountaintop, out of step, off beat, hurt that no one will give him credit for all the good he’s done, awkwardly apologetic because he hasn’t done “enough” and in the process belittling all that good he wants credit for.

And now the campaign whisperer has become the whispered about, the tsk-ed tsk-ed about.

Because one of the greatest mysteries of the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidential turn has been its utter tone deafness, the fall apart of the music in the narrative.

And it’s not just Barack.

Axelrod, the message guy, has been at the forefront of the mangled memo.

This week, it was saying the president would likely go along with the Republican call to extend all the Bush tax cuts. “We have to take the world as we find it,” he said with a shrug.

This is not Axelrod’s first serious gaffe. Remember when he was asked about the possibility of a national moratorium on foreclosures because of the wanton corruption in the process?

David said: "I'm not sure about a national moratorium because there are in fact valid foreclosures that probably should go forward."

It’s not a matter of whether he was telling the truth. It’s that he said it so blithely, as if he had no idea what that might sound like in the ear of someone who may fear economic ruin.

And Axelrod on "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell"?

"I think it's -- there is uncertainty about the court case and so that is a cautionary note that people should -- should feel," he said.

As if he had no idea that did not ring with confidence in the arc of justice.

After this week’s debacle, Axelrod explained himself on the tax cuts: “I didn’t say anything we haven’t said before,” he said.

He seemed so small, so faint, a whisper of an entirely different kind.