David Axelrod has done 500 episodes of 'The Axe Files' and talked with every stripe of politician -- here's what he thinks of the mess we're in now

Christopher Borrelli, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

CHICAGO — You’ve likely heard this before, or felt it in your bones, but it’s horrifying, debilitating and worth repeating, especially right now, as we head into a political season: At least half of this country hates the other half. According to the Pew Research Center, 75% of Democrats think of Republicans as close-minded. And 64% of Republicans feel the same way about Democrats. Nearly 50% of Republicans think Democrats are lazy. And nearly 40% of Democrats think Republicans are idiots. Majorities in both parties believe the other does not share its goals. Worse, a study by the advocacy group More in Common found one’s education did not hugely affect those assumptions.

Is this any way to run a democracy?

The good news — according to another Pew study released last month — is nearly 60% of all Americans agree ... our democracy is not working as it was supposed to.

Nobody is reaching across the aisle, as they say.

But for nine years, from his office on the second floor of a house overlooking South Woodlawn Avenue, David Axelrod has tried. First, as the founder and director of the Institute of Politics (IOP) at University of Chicago, which promotes public service and an engaged democracy; then, beginning seven years ago, as host of “The Axe Files,” his popular, intimate and wide-ranging podcast created with CNN. That partnership, of course, would be a non-starter for many Americans. Then again, as yet another survey reported in May (conducted by bipartisan pollsters for IOP), a quarter of Americans are so angry at government they fear it will “soon be necessary to take up arms” against it.

A podcast won’t change that.


Still, in a small, thoughtful way, “The Axe Files,” which airs its 500th episode this month, has been building a sometimes nuanced, occasionally touching ongoing oral history of these political times, as viewed from both right and left — including politicians, activists, campaign strategists, White House cabinet, press secretaries, disgraced press secretaries, governors, disgraced governors, congressmen and congresswomen (sitting and disgraced), journalists, historians, theologians, prime ministers, presidents, soldiers, entrepreneurs and Tom Hanks. Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy on what it means to not to have an emotional connection with the legislation before you. Karl Rove on the suicide of a parent. Activist Heather McTeer Toney on connecting climate change with social justice. Gov. J.B. Pritzker on campaign spending. Kellyanne Conway on competitive blueberry packing. But also, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wy., Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Judd Apatow, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

The tone is patient, and unusually persistent, allowing room for ideas, personal histories but also real answers, showing us politics as it exists out in the world, not how it should.

Which was an annoyance of Axelrod’s as a student at University of Chicago in the 1970s: He had worked in politics at 10, campaigning for New York City mayor John Lindsay, but while attending the famously cerebral school, politics became theoretical, abstract. Since then, Axelrod’s trajectory has been hands on, as a City Hall reporter for the Tribune, political strategist, architect of Barack Obama’s presidential runs then White House adviser. After a decade at IOP, he will leave in January, but “Axe Files” (and “Hacks on Tap,” his other podcast, with Republican consultant Mike Murphy and former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, nearing 200 episodes) will continue.

On the occasion of the “Axe File’s” milestone episode, he sat to talk about himself. The following was edited and condensed for length and clarity from a longer conversation.


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