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Communications and Marketing

On Commencement: Axelrod interviewed by Tribune

The Chicago Tribune’s Lake Forester newspaper interviewed David Axelrod, this year’s Commencement speaker, on what he will say when he steps up to the podium and addresses the College’s 2016 graduating class on May 7.

Lake Forest College commencement speaker David Axelrod tells young people to take it easy on making grand plans

By Mark Lawton

David Axelrod was chief strategist for both of President Barack Obama’s successful runs for president. He’s worked on more than 150 local, state and national campaigns, according to the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, which he directs. He’s a graduate of the University of Chicago and was a reporter and city hall bureau chief at the Chicago Tribune before he began consulting on political campaigns. He is currently a political commentator on CNN and in 2015 published a memoir called “Believer: My Forty Years in Politics” was published by Penguin Press.

Axelrod is scheduled to give the commencement speech to the 2016 graduating class of Lake Forest College on May 7. The Lake Forester caught up with Axelrod by phone last week while he was riding to the airport to catch a plane to Washington, D.C.

Q. I’m guessing you get multiple offers to speak at graduations. Why did you accept an invitation to be commencement speaker at Lake Forest College?

A. I love commencements. It’s like being invited to someone’s wedding. I’m partial to Illinois. Lake Forest College has a proud tradition over a couple centuries. It’s one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the country and certainly the Midwest.

Q. What would you like graduates at Lake Forest College to take away from your commencement address?

A. Daniel Burnham, the visionary behind modern Chicago, said ‘Make no little plans.’ My message is sort of the opposite; don’t make too many plans. I think young people feel some pressure to have a kind of fully formulated plan for how their life is going to go. My own life, which has taken a lot of different turns, has taught me it’s better to follow your passions than write a 38-page plan. That isn’t always a popular message with parents.

Q. What, if anything, do you say to young people about being politically engaged?

A. The bare minimum is you should be an engaged citizen. When I tell them is Congress is going to meet with or without them, state legislatures will meet with or without them, the city council will meet with or without them. They should at least take an interest or people they don’t know and don’t follow [on social media] will make decisions on their behalf. Democracy is not a passive process. One of my political heroes is Robert Kennedy. He said ‘The future is not a gift, it’s an achievement.’ Politics is the way we grab the wheel of history and steer.

Q. You had a successful career as a political reporter and city hall bureau chief at the Chicago Tribune. Why did you transition to the other side of politics?

A. The Chicago Tribune changed in the 1980s. When I got there it was all about the story and nothing else. Then the mood shifted as the green eye shade guys moved in. There was more corporate governance. I just didn’t want to do journalism that way. When Paul Simon came along and was running for the U.S. Senate, I thought if I ever make this leap, he would be a great guy to do it with. He was an old newsman.

Q. Is it just me or is the current race for president different than past presidential races?

A. It’s not just you. There is a great deal of anxiety and fear and concern. Some of it has to do with the economy. We’re in a much different place than when I was in the White House. The economy is growing again but not in a way where the prosperity is broadly shared. The median income is what it was in 1999 and most Americans effectively haven’t had a pay raise in a couple decades.

Q. So that economic anxiety has contributed to some non-traditional candidates?

A. When you look at Donald Trump support, a lot of it comes from non-college-educated people who see millions of jobs disappear with nothing to take their places. Whether Trump says its immigrants or trade, it’s powerful to these voters. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders has raised the issue of inequality powerfully. Yeah, it’s a different year.

Q. Sanders’ message certainly appears to have resonated with young people.

A. There’s no doubt he has sparked a lot of energy and enthusiasm, which is good. We want young people engaged. The nature of politics is that it requires compromise. We want there to be ideals to drive toward but a recognition that this is a big messy system. When [Sanders] says I want a single-payer health care system, it resonates with a lot of people. He knows the reality of achieving that, it’s not going to happen. What you need to do is continually improve the Affordable Care Act. The message you don’t want to impart to young people is it’s all or nothing. The lesson young people can impart to us is you have to shoot higher, you have to do more with that.

Q. Compromise appears to be lacking at the state and national levels.

A. The system was designed this way. It couldn’t anticipate everything. The amount of money being spent, the media environment, the level of gerrymandering; [this country’s founders] couldn’t have anticipated those things. They did anticipate that that the country would be divided and when it is divided it would be harder to get things done. You have to be ready to compromise, knowing what things are compromise-able.