Believer: My 40 Years in Politics by David Axelrod - book review: The man who made Obama finally tells his own story

Themes of race, and backing the outsider, permeate the book

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The Independent Culture

David Axelrod is the political consultant who has helped numerous candidates tell their stories with 30-second adverts and speeches. In Believer: My 40 years in politics, he finally tells his own.

This is a story encompassing a troubled childhood, the chaotic urban politics of Chicago and, ultimately, the White House. Obsession with politics drives Axelrod throughout, from seeing John F Kennedy speak in his hometown, when aged five. He becomes a newspaper reporter on the Chicago Tribune, before moving to the campaign trail, and masterminding Barack Obama’s ascent.

Themes of race, and backing the outsider, permeate the book. During Axelrod’s early days in a divided Chicago he took on his own local party machine, and won the mayoralty for a progressive black candidate.

Most prescient is the insurgent campaign that he helped run that saw Deval Patrick become Governor of Massachusetts. The health of his daughter, who suffers from severe epilepsy, and his wife, who was treated for breast cancer, prevented Axelrod from playing a major part in presidential campaigns before 2008. He watched from the outside as Howard Dean’s team employed new technology that he would later replicate. When the time came, Axelrod’s presence at Obama’s side seemed like a natural fit. The stars had aligned.

Inevitably, it is the detail about President Obama that makes this book essential reading, and it feels as though Believer is part of securing the legacy of the president and his team. Axelrod is effusive in his praise for his charge, but also more than happy to show his influence, revealing that he penned key lines in speeches, and even pitched the design for the famous “O” sunrise logo.

Particularly interesting is how Obama started thinking about a presidential run as early as 2005, shortly after his breakthrough convention speech, and despite having been a senator for only a year.

British politics hasn’t yet bought into the cult of political consultants in the way American politics has, and Axelrod’s memoirs demonstrate what big business politics is across the Atlantic. In perhaps a sign of things to come, he is currently advising Labour and Ed Miliband in the run-up to May’s general election.

Believer is a gripping account of political careers, but more than that it tells of what happens when a group of idealists comes together and says, “Yes, we can”.

Penguin press (US) £25

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