Columbia Journalism Review

When the Pundits Paused

Pick a day. Any day. There’s a good chance that David Axelrod has been quoted in a major American publication. Take August 29, 2019, a nice-sounding day. Joe Biden has been telling a story that doesn’t add up, about pinning a star on a naval officer. Critics accuse him not of lying, but of mental decline. The Washington Post publishes the scoop. Axelrod shares it on Twitter. “@JoeBiden is a gaffe and embellishment machine,” he observes. “But if you read to the end of this story, it also reflects something that is a real strength, and that is his empathy.” Axelrod’s take is cited in follow-ups by and The Guardian. The Associated Press runs a piece, by Bill Barrow and Thomas Beaumont, quoting him. “Where it becomes problematical is if it’s seen as evidence of some sort of decay,” Axelrod tells them. “That is obviously a danger.” The New York Times also publishes an article about this, by Katie Glueck; Axelrod is quoted in that one, too. “In this story you have the risk and strength of Biden, the risk being that he is a gaffe-prone guy,” he says. “But on the other hand, he projects extraordinary empathy, and that empathy is a huge strength.”

After a Labor Day hiatus, Axelrod is back. On September 6, Maggie Haberman quotes him in a piece for the Times about the GOP canceling some primaries. On September 8 he appears in a New York Post column about Biden’s blunders. On September 11, Axelrod writes an op-ed for the Times about how to defeat Donald Trump. On September 12, Axelrod is a lead source for a Politico article called “‘Why Are You Pissing in Our Faces?’: Inside Warren’s War with the Obama Team.” Later that night, he is quoted in yet another Times piece, this one coauthored by Glueck and Matt Flegenheimer, about a Democratic debate. “There’s just a real anxiety about not making a mistake,” Axelrod says, among other things.

Axelrod—nom de guerre: Axe—is the Waldo of pundits. He shows up everywhere. From the first Democratic debate, last June, until the coronavirus-hastened end of the primary, journalists at major publications reached him for comment an average of once every other day. (I ran the numbers.) That doesn’t include the vast secondary market of articles citing things he has said on Twitter; on CNN, where he is a senior political commentator; or on either of his two podcasts. Part of what makes Axe, who is sixty-five, such a trusty pundit is that reporters don’t consider him a pundit. He was the strategist behind Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns, meaning that he is on the political A-list and his insights haven’t yet fossilized. Early on, he was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, making him a member of the tribe. He’s liberal, but not boringly partisan. He’s establishment, but tends to avoid Beltway platitudes. Who wouldn’t want to talk to David Axelrod, a hard-nosed politico in the person of an approachable frump? His trademark walrus mustache, now shaved off, is hard to unsee.

What really makes him the pundit king, though, is something more pedestrian. Axelrod calls reporters back and gives them good quotes. “He speaks in very complete sentences,” a

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