How David Axelrod's eventful life and A-list Rolodex shape a great podcast

David Axelrod, a serious baseball fan, just crossed the Mendoza Line, which if he were actually a baseball player would be ignominious. But he's a podcast host, so it's reason to toast.

The Mendoza Line is named after a light-hitting former Major League infielder named Mario Mendoza. It means hitting .200. In Axelrod's case, he just passed the 200th episode of his podcast, "The Axe Files," which offers a case study in how a onetime ink-stained-wretch-turned-A-list-political consultant can further reinvent himself by melding a new medium with an old gambit: long-form, engaging discussion.

The former Chicago Tribune political reporter, who was a key strategist in Barack Obama's both winning a Senate seat and the presidency, founded the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago. His Rolodex (or iPhone contacts list) runneth over, so can lure high-quality guests, not only getting them to educate undergraduates but also to occasionally sit for a long podcast chat.They tend to be well-known Washington-New York establishment political and media personalities, but there are also occasionally more off-the-beaten track individuals who have led fascinating lives not known to a larger audience.

The group so far includes Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Sen.John McCain, Jon Stewart, Madeleine Albright, Tony Blair, Eric Holder (mostly on self-exiled leaker Edward Snowden), Mitt Romney, Karl Rove, Kathleen Sebelius (on Bill Clinton and sexual harassment), Bernie Sanders, Patty Murray, Sean Spicer, Corey Lewandowski, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Tom Brokaw, George Stephanopoulos, Gayle King, John Dickerson, Katie Couric, baseball executive Theo Epstein, NBA player Joakim Noah, NBA coach Steve Kerr, baseball manager Joe Maddon, U.S. Rep. and civil rights hero John Lewis, California Gov. Jerry Brown, Tom Hanks, longtime Chicago political activist Don Rose and Chicago activist-journalist Jamie Kalven.

My personal favorites include Rove, who was surprising on how politics was not a topic of discussion in his childhood home, and Rose, who was fascinating on internal politics of the civil rights movement (and on jazz). And then there's Kerr, whom Axelrod has spoken with twice, most recently in a Philadelphia hotel room for a TV version of the podcast now aired by CNN. 

The Golden State Warriors coach and former terrific NBA player is an utterly appealing and well-grounded mix of candor, intellectual breadth, a fascinating youth, nuanced takes on issues of the day (be it Trump, whom he deeply dislikes, to blacklisted quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whom he sympathizes with but believes has made some tactical miscues) and courage in the face of unceasing physical pain (complications from back surgery).

The famously rumpled Axelrod grew up in New York City, was turned on to politics by John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign and cemented his interest in journalism and politics after moving to Chicago to attend the University of Chicago. He worked for a community newspaper and then the Chicago Tribune before — frustrated with some newspaper politics at age 29 — he joined the late Paul Simon's successful campaign for the U.S. Senate. 

He's done good and very well (he dresses better these days) and has always been forthright about the challenges of family and a competitive, exhausting professional life. He spent lots of time on the road and has spoken previously with me of his regret in not spending a bit more time with his children, now all adults. 

They include a daughter whose epilepsy (she lives at an esteemed residential facility in Chicago) inspired a foundation run by his wife, Susan. "Finding a cure remains a passion," he says.

And there is, too, a personal pain he kept private until Father's Day 2006, when he wrote a compelling op-ed article in the Chicago Tribune that broke a life-long public silence on the suicide of his father, who escaped Eastern European pogroms and came to this country in 1923.
 
These days his own life is distinctly public and primarily melds his interests in politics, media and policy via labor at the institute he founded at Chicago, one of the world's preeminent universities. But there's also the TV punditry he clearly likes and, now, being more a master of his media fate as host of his own "The Axe Files." It inspired this back and forth:

I've listened to a bunch of your podcasts over the year and, now, randomly to others for this back and forth. What was the first one, what are among your favorites and what have you learned about this medium?

The first podcast was a conversation with Bernie Sanders just as his presidential race was taking off in 2015. We recorded it en route from O’Hare to the Institute of Politics in an RV-type van we rented, which turned out to be a Mercedes. You can imagine how uncomfortable he seemed hopping into that thing! Lots of grumbling. But it was a great chat, in which he was very forthcoming, even about the fact that he would have had a different position on gun control if he had represented his native Brooklyn in the senate instead of Vermont, a state filled with hunters. It was an auspicious beginning.

What I’ve realized is that I have been a storyteller all my life.  As a journalist and as a strategist helping candidates convey their stories, I am fascinated by the journeys folks have taken that helped shaped who they are. I also think that if we know more about each other, it is harder to hate. You may still disagree, but knowing each other's stories changes the conversation. It takes some of the acidity out.

So I was really interested in chatting with Mitt Romney about the lessons he drew from the implosion of his father’s political career. His dad, George, was an outspoken politician and presidential contender in the ‘60s but lost traction after very sharp — and apt — criticism of how the war in Vietnam was being prosecuted. (He said he had been “brainwashed” by the generals.) Mitt, who obviously revered his dad, allowed that he learned to be more cautious about what he said as a public figure. 

Karl Rove and I talked about an awful experience we shared as young men, which was the loss of a parent to suicide. I don’t think many knew that history.

Jennifer Granholm spoke in a really personal and moving way about her encounters when she was governor with people in Michigan whose lives had been destroyed by globalization and the financial crash.  

And I finally got to ask Barack Obama what I had been meaning to for 20 years: How could a guy whose father abandoned the family and who was separated for long periods not emerge damaged, needy and insecure, as is the case with so many politicians? (Despite the separations, his mother was extraordinarily loving, he said. “I always felt special,” he said.)

I loved my conversations with Steve Kerr, one as a pure podcast, the other on my CNN show. Most people know him as a basketball coach but he has a remarkable story. His parents were missionaries. His father was a scholar on the Middle East and, ultimately, was assassinated in Beirut, where he was president of the American University there. Hearing Steve relate that searing experience and his own years as a young teenager, living in Egypt, was remarkable.

And hearing Ta-Nehesi Coates describe his struggles as a kid to survive the violence of inner city Baltimore was incredibly moving.

The podcasts that fall short are the ones where I can’t break through; where the folks I’m talking to simply won’t open up, either because of their own reticence or failures on my end. Partly because it was recorded in front of an audience, I suspect, Jon Stewart would not let me explore what I understood to be a pretty challenging childhood or even his mom’s work in special-ed, which is a passion of mine. He was brilliant and generous to do it, but unrevealing.

You obviously do lots of preparation. But are there any folks who came off differently than the image you had in your head? People who were even more interesting than you figured? (Point of personal privilege: I thought Steve Kerr was fabulous). McCain, Tom Hanks, or maybe others without their sort of high profile?

Kerr was remarkable. McCain’s very emotional paean to Ted Kennedy and wistful reminiscences to the days when one could cooperate across party lines were moving. Hanks was a total delight — one of those public people who turn out to be everything you hope and more. He was thoughtful, genuine and palpably decent.

You are understated, even decorous stylistically as podcast host. It's all very low key. Do you try to pattern yourself after anybody? You're not Ted Koppel aggressive or argumentative. But you're not Larry King genteel.

Honestly, no. I just want to have good, revealing conversations. I will press people at times, as I did recently with Ed Gillespie, when we were talking about some of the choices he made during the Virginia governor’s race. But my goal is not to prosecute people. It’s to learn as much about them as I can. It’s an exploration, not a prosecution.

What are two or three things — serious, not so serious — that you have learned about certain individuals that struck you as notable?

I can honestly say that almost every time I learn something that I find interesting, even notable. I knew, for example, that Christiane Amanpour was a close friend from college years of John F. Kennedy Jr.  But to see Christiane, who is such a rock, overcome in talking about him and his loss, was a surprise and very moving.

In her first days as Obama’s White House homeland security adviser, Lisa Monaco had to ride point on the Boston Marathon (bombing), while several of her family members, who had been there, were missing. 

Some revelations are not personal stories. In January of 2016, a full 10 months before the election, Mary Kay Henry, the president of the SEIU — a very progressive union — told me she thought a fair number of her members could vote for Donald Trump. That was very meaningful and prescient.

How has your journalism background assisted you?

100 percent. Good reporting starts with the ability to talk to people without making judgments or leaping to conclusions to try to understand their stories. That is ingrained in me.

How has your political experience assisted you?

Immensely, because I can speak to people in politics and government as a peer; as someone who has shared their experiences and passion. It makes these interactions flow as conversations, not interviews.

What have you learned, if anything, about the country? For sure, it's generally a very elite group of folks with whom you speak. But has it provided some window into the nation for you?

First, that almost everyone I talk to, prominent or not, has a good story if you dig deeply.

I’ve also learned is that people in the public arena writ large, including journalists and policy makers, generally do share a passion, and it’s not just for the game or politics but for the project of democracy. But we have to somehow penetrate the silos in which we too often find ourselves today, learn more about each other and maybe find common ground.
 
This is less a question than a statement: Podcasts such as yours are a relief given the ability to engage on serious — even not so serious — topics for a lengthy period. Your political punditry, especially on TV, is, of necessity, manifested in very short bursts. Do you find this format at all an oasis in a Twitter and cable news where provocative staccato bursts are the norm?

Yes. I think the surprising interest in my podcast and others is that the pacing and depth of them is so different than the assault on our senses that is the modern media environment. I have a kind of laconic style that is well suited to this. If fits my interests and metabolism!

Are there subjects that you found more complex than you imagined? Karl Rove discussing the growth of his interest in politics? Steve Kerr on leadership and Trump. The Chicago consultant Don Rose on the internal politics of the civil rights movement, or his take on jazz music?

Some.  Alastair Campbell, who played my role with Tony Blair in Britain, described in riveting detail the experience of having a nervous breakdown. In moments like that, it is best to just listen.

But the moments you describe — Kerr on leadership, Rose on the ‘50s Chicago jazz scene — are more interesting, complex. It’s a joy to be along for the ride.

Before Trump was inaugurated, you had Sean Spicer as a guest. You guys got along well and he'd just spoken to students at your institute. Are you at all disappointed at his subsequent and brief performance at the White House, or do you see him more a victim doing the bidding of his boss?

I thought from the start that Sean, who I do like, had made a Faustian bargain. He got to be White House press secretary, his dream job, but under a nightmare scenario. He was the spokesman for a guy who doesn’t always tell the truth and often changes his mind. It is untenable. So the price of the job is your reputation.

What are the rough economics of your podcast? I know you read ads on occasion. But is this more a labor of love or are you able to do good and do well, too?

Not as well as I should! I am working on that and will have more to say soon. But I truly love having these conversations, which is a reward onto itself. It’s good visibility for the IOP and, I hope, adds some light rather than heat to the public discourse.

Two final questions about journalism. The first one involves Spicer, who was very adamant that increasing numbers of reporters don't try to do what he called factual stories. You could hear the Trump view of the media in what he told you. Do you agree?

No. I think the media has played its essential role, under very difficult circumstances. Do the competitive pressures of the digital and cable age and human frailties lead to occasional mistakes? Of course, but remarkably few. Do some reporters cross the line with acid tweets that are more opinion that fact? Yes, but not many. 

This White House confuses, or hopes to, inconvenient or unwelcome stories with erroneous ones. They have an absolute strategy of impeaching stories they don’t like as fiction when they are fact. It’s a dangerous approach in a democracy, which relies on a free and independent news media.

The second involves the quality of the press, in particular local press.

You started at a community paper in Chicago, and then moved to the giant (at the time) Chicago Tribune. When you look at the likes of The Washington Post and The New York Times, along with the advent of serious digital news operations, does it disappoint you to see the papers in your hometown? We both have friends at The Tribune and Sun-Times and want to see them succeed. But when you look at the very subject your institute is about — government and politics — and then inspect the diminished coverage in the institute's very back yard, does it worry you? Or not?

It does worry me. As Dean Baquet, the editor of the Times said recently, the hollowing out of local news everywhere is a concern. The economics are bad, newsrooms have been shrunken and many experienced editors and reporters have been lost. It’s a problem everywhere but it’s particularly painful for me to watch in Chicago. I started at the Tribune as a 21-year-old kid during a golden age of journalism there that is no longer possible.  

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.

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