Lisle, Illinois ~ David Axelrod admits that there was a time when he became disgruntled with the Democratic Party and switched sides to work for the New York mayoral campaign of the late liberal Republican John Lindsay.
"For those of you who can't remember what a liberal Republican looks like, I think they have an exhibit at the Field Museum right now," he said.
Axelrod, a Democratic strategist and political advisor who found his calling very early in life – he was only 10 when Lindsay ran for mayor in 1965 – spoke to an overflow crowd of more than 600 people gathered in the Krasa Center at Benedictine University on April 23 as part of the "Presidential Election Series 2012" sponsored by the Center for Civic Leadership (CCL).
Axelrod was invited to speak at Benedictine by Jim Ryan, a Republican who defeated an Axelrod client during his run for the Illinois Attorney General's office in 1994.
"As good as he is, even he occasionally slips up," Ryan joked while introducing Axelrod.
Axelrod prefaced his remarks by expressing his admiration and praising Ryan for working to engage young people in public service.
"Jim is someone who has demonstrated courage and character on a scale very few people in public life have," Axelrod said. "He's always impressed me as a person who is committed to public service. He has proven that commitment by trying to encourage young people to get involved in public service, something I hope to do.
"I believe deeply in public service," he added. "I don't think there's a higher calling, and we so desperately need our young people to be committed to public service because they need to help shape the future in which they're going to live. Jim is doing important work here, and I just wanted to come to be a part of that."
Axelrod talked about his Chicago connection, about his undergraduate years at the University of Chicago and his flirtation with a career in journalism as a City Hall reporter for the Chicago Tribune.
"I started writing for newspapers to sate my passion for politics," he said. "When I graduated, I went to work for the Chicago Tribune, and like every cub reporter I started out on the night beat covering murder and mayhem, which it turns out was great preparation for covering Chicago politics."
Axelrod shared a number of anecdotes about his career as a campaign advisor, his fascination with John F. Kennedy as a youngster, meeting a young Barack Obama in 1992 when he was heading up a local voter registration drive, and his experiences on the road with the president during the 2008 campaign.
He also talked about his time as White House chief of staff, particularly the early weeks and months of 2009 when they were dealing with a collapsing auto industry, the escalating conflict in Afghanistan and the ongoing war in Iraq.
"I wondered aloud to the president what the job would be like in good times," Axelrod said. "He patted me on the shoulder and said, 'Don't kid yourself. If there were good times, we never would have gotten the job.'"
Axelrod said he is confident that Obama will win re-election, but also expressed hope that the two battling political parties can set aside their differences and work together in a positive and meaningful way after the campaign rhetoric subsides.
"I'm not as partisan as you think," he told the crowd. "Nobody who's served 20 feet from the Oval Office could come away from that experience with anything but a deep respect for anyone who has ever served there regardless of their party affiliation."
He also expressed his belief in a system of government in which many citizens have lost faith.
"I know better than anybody about the dysfunctionality and frustration associated with our politics," he said. "I've seen that firsthand. But I've been passionate about politics and government throughout my life and this great messy, noble, profane process of self-governance."
Established in 2005 under the direction of Ryan, a 1969 Benedictine graduate and Distinguished Fellow at his alma mater, CCL seeks to shape a new generation of public leaders and responsible citizens. Each year, the CCL invites prominent public figures to speak about the importance of active citizenship and public service.
In recent years, CCL has hosted then-state Sen. Obama, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R.-Ill.), Washington Post columnists Bob Woodward and David Broder, CNN's Peter Bergen, Children's Defense Fund Director Marian Wright Edelman, University of Chicago legal scholar Cass Sunstein, human rights advocate Paul Rusesabagina and former Illinois Gov. James Edgar.
Benedictine plans to invite a representative of the Republican Party to speak at the University in the fall.
Benedictine University is an independent Roman Catholic institution located in Lisle, Illinois just 25 miles west of Chicago. Founded in 1887, Benedictine provides 56 undergraduate majors, 16 graduate and four doctorate programs. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ranked Benedictine University as the seventh fastest-growing campus among private nonprofit master’s universities, and Forbes magazine named Benedictine among the top 20 percent of America’s colleges for 2011. Benedictine University’s Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) program is listed by Crain’s Chicago Business as the fourth largest in the Chicago area in 2011.