Maureen Dowd / No axe to grind
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WASHINGTON -- There are other historic bromances in the news. King George VI and Lionel Logue. Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
But rarely has there been a partnership that rocked the world the way the Chicago odd couple did. The lean, neat One and the hefty, messy one accomplished what seemed impossible: Getting a black man the nation's worst job, as The Onion memorably put it.
So it was a parting of sweet sorrow this past weekend for The Brand and The Keeper of The Brand.
The unsentimental Barack Obama and the sentimental David Axelrod said goodbye Friday night over an intimate dinner in the White House residence. (Along with their wives.)
The adviser will return to Chicago -- to his family; his beloved deli, Manny's; the re-election ramp-up; and to his pal, Rahm. Obama and Axelrod agreed the West Wing team had gotten too insular. "As one of my colleagues said, the White House is a bit like working in a submarine: It's better to come up for air," Mr. Axelrod recalled Friday in his small office in a White House consumed with Cairo fires and pelted with Washington snow.
The 55-year-old former newspaperman and political consultant became an early muse to the young poet who bewitched a nation. It was a coup de foudre for the idealistic strategist. "I've not made any bones about my feelings about him," he says, when asked if he's too adoring. Robert Gibbs jokingly dubbed Axe "the guy who walks in front of the president with rose petals."
But once Mr. Obama got deluged with a torrent of presidential crises, the poetry stopped, and the adviser in charge of the message got some blame.
"Yeah, we were too prosaic," he said. "We all got sort of dragged down, you know; we were a triage unit. I think all of us have been guilty of neglecting that really important part of the presidency, where you're operating in the world of ideals and values and vision."
He continued: "There were a lot of hands on the words, a lot of concern about every nuance. And it is true that this is a place where an errant clause can send markets tumbling and armies marching, and you're always aware of that."
The vaunted change gave way to the usual logrolling. "It was, so, you need this guy's vote and therefore, perhaps we shouldn't emphasize that issue because they will be less apt to support us on the recovery plan and the country could slip into a depression," Mr. Axelrod said.
The president recaptured some inspirational force in Tucson, Ariz., his heart clearly touched by 9-year-old Christina Green. Her parents told Mr. Obama that their daughter had gotten interested in politics partly because she was drawn to him.
The president is "happier" taking a more optimistic, big-picture approach, Mr. Axelrod said, noting, "He's in the zone in which he's most comfortable."
Packing boxes leaned against the office wall. David Plouffe, a more orderly, reserved type -- a man who shows his affection for Mr. Obama by studying the turnout models for congressional swing districts -- is moving in today.
Though Axe can wax endlessly about Washington's wayward ways, he admitted to friends that it's harder leaving than he thought, and he plunged into bon voyage parties and dinners. Asked about the cascade of "exclusive" exit interviews he was giving, he warned drolly: "Don't turn on the Shopping Network!"
"The White House is like fantasy camp for him," said his charming assistant, Eric Lesser. "He could go to an Afghan war council in the Situation Room, meet Sandy Koufax and have a baseball signed, and have lunch with Caroline Kennedy."
Mr. Axelrod's final Friday began with Mr. Lesser bringing the usual oatmeal. (Now that the boss has lost 25 pounds, Mr. Lesser permits him a sprinkling of brown sugar again.) Pointing to some "victimized" ties hanging on the door, the strategist noted: "The one thing I learned on this job is, don't eat your oatmeal standing up."
The avid punster offered a parting pun at the 8:30 a.m. meeting -- urging everyone to "plow forward" on a plan for genetically produced alfalfa.
Mr. Axelrod is not tech-savvy. There was that time he was in such a rush for an early campaign bus that he mistook a bar of hotel soap for his BlackBerry, later pulling the soap out of a pocket to check his e-mails. And the time he killed a BlackBerry with glaze from a doughnut.
So it was a surprise Friday when he said he was going to open a Twitter account so he could "leap into the debate from time to time."
I asked Mr. Axelrod what he'd like to steal on the way out. Nodding toward the Oval Office, he replied conspiratorially, "He has the Emancipation Proclamation in there. That would be a nice going-away present."
First Published January 31, 2011 12:00 am