​Book excerpt: David Axelrod's "Believer"

In this excerpt from his new memoir, the former advisor to President Obama writes of his early fascination with politics and the aura of a visiting president candidate.

From "Believer: My Forty Years in Politics" by David Axelrod. Reprinted by arrangement of Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Random House, Inc. Copyright (c) 2015 by David Axelrod.


Introduction

Not everyone can point to a moment, the exact time and place, when a lifelong passion began. I can.

It was 1960, twelve days before the presidential election. John F. Kennedy, locked in a dead-even race with Richard Nixon, was barnstorming the neighborhoods of New York City. And on the afternoon of October 27, he came to mine.

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Penguin

Stuyvesant Town, a forest of redbrick high-rises on Manhattan's Lower East Side, was built after World War II to house the flood of returning GIs and their families. Now, in the final, frantic days of his campaign, Kennedy had come there to summon a new generation of leadership.

I was, no doubt, a little newer than he had in mind. I was five.

An inspiring woman named Jessie Berry, who all but raised me while my mother was at work, took me to see JFK that day. Jessie, an African American, had come to New York from South Carolina as a young woman during the Great Migration. She had spent her days taking care of other people's kids, scraping together what she could to help support her own two daughters. Yet she was determined that the future be better, if not for her, then for her children and her grandchildren.

Maybe that's why she took me to see this promising young leader, a Catholic, whose election would break down a historic barrier. Maybe she saw in him hope for the future. (Looking back, I see that she might also have viewed the outing as a way to occupy her maddeningly hyperactive little charge.)

So when Jessie heard that Kennedy was coming to Stuyvesant Town, and would be just two blocks from my family's apartment at 622 East Twentieth Street, she took me by the hand and we headed to the rally. There, she sat me on top of a mailbox to give me a better view. From that perch, I watched in awe as Twentieth Street (at that section, a wide boulevard) filled up with people instead of the usual, ceaseless parade of cars. Near the front of the crowd, close enough to shake hands with the candidate, I spotted my sister, Joan, and her friends heading home from the junior high across First Avenue.

I wasn't the only young kid in the crowd. Stuyvesant Town and the adjoining Peter Cooper Village were built and designed for young families, with a network of playgrounds on greened, tree-lined campuses. So when JFK came, many mothers turned out, babies in tow, eager to catch a glimpse of the dashing young senator. It was, as the advance people who plan such rallies say, a built-in audience.

They listened in rapt attention as he delivered his call to action.

It was just fifteen years after the end of World War II. Every adult there had endured that ordeal and, before it, the Great Depression. Now a Cold War hovered over their everyday lives, carrying with it the threat of nuclear annihilation. They had played a role in saving the nation, and were accustomed to sacrifice, not the pain-free succor that would become the coin of the realm of future political campaigns.

So Kennedy, himself a war hero, didn't come bearing lavish promises. In a harbinger of the inaugural address he would deliver three months later, he came with a challenge.