Labor Day Ghosts


David Axelrod, eating his second Egg McMuffin and seemingly alone, sat among the empty desks early on a Sunday morning in September. The sound turned down on the four-screen TV monitor. The Labor Day Weekend making a ghost town of the Obama 2012 Campaign Headquarters in Chicago’s Prudential Building. Axelrod had been staring blankly at the same page in one of the 6 newspapers he had spread out in front of him.

Axelrod looked up, thinking he had heard something, gazed out the window on Millennium Park and Lake Michigan, felt a strange kind of breeze drift by and suddenly his head started hurting. As if someone had bopped him right in the forehead with some kind of large ball. So he stood up. Walked slowly towards the window . . . .

While the spirit of Mike Royko, gone so many years but never really having left Chicago, picked up the 16 inch softball, that had rolled back invisibly after he had tossed it straight at Axelrod’s head.

Royko started pacing. Making “C’mon lets go, go go,” circles with his hand. Royko still in a hurry. Even now. Still wanting to get to the part where he polished his 800 words till the column dazzled like a diamond. Royko wanting to help this guy. But also wanting to whip the softball straight at his head again.

“Let’s GO!” Royko shouted to the eternal winds that blew far beyond anything Axelrod could hear. “You want the answer? Here’s the answer. Shaft. That’s right. Shaft. Richard Fucking Roundtree. This whole “don’t ever make the Black man scary” thing just ain’t working. So from now on? No more hail to the chief. From now on, I want to hear the theme from Shaft every time the guy walks into a room! One does not find truth by splitting the difference between good and bad. And your ship is sinking. So,give me Shaft!”

Axelrod, looking out at summer fading into a cool breeze off the Lake. That strange feeling of a song in his head that he just can’t quite make out, goes back to the desk and grabs his coffee. Takes a sip. Wishes for just a second that he smoked. Which he hasn’t done since he was a kid. He quit years ago. Why is he thinking about cigarettes?

And as he asks himself that question, a spirit voice he can’t hear, the great American writer Nelson Algren, leaning up against the wall, wrapped in cigarette smoke. A sad, bemused smile on his face. Algren says to the indifferent sky, “David you lost the story. You lost it. You know what I heard somebody say the other day David? And this was a good man. A good man who just didn’t know. This man said that you were no different than Lee Atwater. That you were like the same guy. Lee Atwater. Who invented the slash and burn political tactics of our time. Lee Atwater who spawned Karl Rove and Ed Rollins and all the rest of them.

And your candidate David? You let people believe he wasn’t even born in this country!

David, Algren was now talking softly, but the words poured out of his lyrical troubled soul like molten lava on scratchy concrete under a neon light. It is not about the fucking talking points David. It’s about the story. The story! You gotta get the real story out there. Of just how much pain is slowly strangling and choking the life force out of the American soul while the bad guys have put this stake in the ground and started screaming so loud that all people hear are those screams. Their screams of, WORDS DO NOT MATTER ANY MORE! WORDS MEAN ONLY WHAT WE WANT THEM TO MEAN!

Listen to them scream David. Listen to them scream and then become the owners of the words. And when they own the words, the own the world!

You know what you need to do now David? Start the WPA Writers Project up again. Make it so small that they don’t even see it coming till it’s too late. And when they come to attack. Put the writers on the front lines. They’ll know what to do.

You know the WPA Project David. Updated to fit these times of course. An army of writers detailing the American experience right now and then doing something with what they write. And every time one of the bad guys hurls “This is a make work project. This is welfare!” . . .Every time that happens, turn to a writer and say “Answer that.” Put the writers on the front lines David. They’ll know what to do.

Axelrod started walking in circles around the empty office. Perhaps it was the Egg McMuffins that were getting to him. It was as if even in the seemingly empty office he could feel the country he loved so deeply turning sour, turning away. And then he heard this click.

He didn’t hear it again. He had no clue what it was. Kind of like someone trying to turn on a machine and they weren’t sure how. So they just started punching buttons.

And then somehow he started to turn calm. And he had ho idea why. The image of white hair. A red checked shirt. A smile. Someone who could listen in a way that no one else could listen. Axelrod wished he had Studs Terkel there with him. Studs would help. He’d know what to do.

His tape recorder running, Studs’ great spirit settled in on the chair across the desk, which Axelrod of course saw as empty. And as Studs started to listen Axelrod began to feel calm. He began to think.

Axelrod began to mentally page through Studs’ book “Working.” Axelrod thinking. “What is it that’s missing in all this talk about jobs?”

Studs, unknown to Axelrod, nodded.

Axelrod thought on. All the tired solutions. All the big picture crap. The tax incentives. The getting government out of the way big lie that the bad guys had morphed into truth in the minds of so many Americans.

What’s missing?

Then as if he could almost hear Studs gravel voice say it out loud, the words came to him, he asked himself. “What’s missing?”

And Axelrod said out loud to the seemingly empty room. “What’s missing is the connection. Between the individual person and the job. It’s not programs, or government or no government or the business confidence fairy, it’s connecting a person with a job. The system we have to do that is broken. In most places it doesn’t even exist. Workforce development programs —our old tired way of making that connection are being closed. We need principles here! We need the CONNECTION between the person and the job. No one’s even talked about that. And we need to build that connection on principles. Not steps. This is not a one size fits all situation. We need principles.

What principles David? asked Studs.

And without hearing the question Axelrod answered.

These principles There are 5 of them.

#1: Telling a Story. That’s the first principle. (This got Algren’s attention.) People have got to get beyond resumes and applications. They’ve got to be able to tell their story.

Royko got interested again and said, “So what? So we gotta lotta bad story tellers then?”

But Axelrod, knowing Studs was listening, was on a roll. Axelrod continued.

#2: Adding Music. That line between the personal and the work? It’s gotten to be the size of the Grand Canyon. People can’t make the jump anymore, to really tell a story—you can’t stop with just the story. You gotta add music. Because everybody’s story needs to be different. Needs to be their own! And that’s what the music does—it makes the person’s story unique. Music can be whatever you want it to be. Just so the song makes the individual person stand out.

Are you almost done? Royko asked, I do have a deadline.

And then Axelrod started to sprint in his mind towards the finish line, He filled in the final 3 principles that a person, any person, needed to find work when there are no jobs.

#3: Communitize. Become part of a community. Don’t network. Computers network. People communitize.

#4: Solve a Mystery. Doesn’t matter what it is. If you can solve somebody else’s mystery—you are filling a need. And that means work. Doesn’t matter WHAT the mystery is. All that matters is that someone else thinks its a mystery and you can solve it.

#5: Practice Stewardship. Take Care of something larger than you.

That’s it! Axelrod said to the room. That’s the piece I was missing. The CONNECTION. The connection between the jobs and the people. 5 principles to build that connection. Because maybe if I can figure out the missing piece in finding work when there are no jobs, maybe if I can do that. . . . I can guide Barack to fix everything else that’s gone wrong.

Axelrod nodded to himself, started towards the elevator.

Royko snarled. About fucking time. And 300 words too long. And I still haven’t heard the Shaft theme.

Algren wondered off to the northwest. He was gonna meet a guy later.

And the last to leave, Studs Terkel, turned off his tape recorder.

And smiled.

3 Responses to “Labor Day Ghosts”

  1. Paulhaider74 Says:

    Roger, this is wonderful! It is interesting that both Axelrod and Terkel were born in New York but would influence Chicago’s politics and image; Studs and Obama’s maternal grandmother both died just days before his election, and they wisely checked out before they had to witness the disparity between Obama the campaigner and Obama the president.

    I had also thought of Axelrod recently, and I am convinced that he spends his time feeling miserable at Misericordia, and it is not his daughter’s seizure disorder that is the source of his misery; it is his president’s spineless disorder. If the Shaft theme song it what it takes for Obama to become bold, then it is time for Richard Roundtree to pop a cap in the ass of John Boehner.
    Paul Haider, Chicago

  2. Paulhaider74 Says:

    In spite of Obama’s recent jobs speech and its importance, it was delivered two years too late. Although universal healthcare was Ted Kennedy’s life cause in politics, Obama should have put it on the backburner and delivered Thursday night’s speech in the weeks after Kennedy’s death in 2009; Teddy wouldn’t have been in Congress to complain about it had it been a problem. Axelrod was supposed to have been Obama’ “senior advisor,” but his advice was similar to that of a frightened and naive freshman…in high school.

    It’s not my intention to disparage Axelrod’s judgment, but he was the campaign strategist for Harold Washington in the mayoral election of 1987, and it was Don Haider who proved to be the strongest candidate physically (he didn’t die in 1987 like Harold), ethically (he is not in prison like “Fast Eddie”), and intellectually (he didn’t fade into obscurity like Tom Hynes). Regarding the 2008 Democratic primary, hindsight has informed us that Hillary Clinton was the strongest candidate with her experience, courage, and political savvy. Hey, I was the idiot who thought that John Kerry was a better candidate than Dr. Howard Dean in 2004; we all make mistakes in judgment. However, I correct all along in claiming that Bush is an ignorant moron and Dickhead Cheney is an evil tool.
    Paul Haider, Chicago

  3. Paulhaider74 Says:

    I feel the need to leave one final comment. Why is that now in September of 2011, David Axelrod and David Plouffe are beginning to resemble Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell in September of 1979? Currently, Jordan and Powell are both dead, but Axelrod and Plouffe are looking at careers that will be dead by late January of 2013. If Obama truly wants to be re-elected, he will have to make some changes in strategy; his current approval rating is 39%. Jimmy Carter’s approval rating was at 39% two days after he gave his “Crisis of Confidence” speech of July 15, 1979, which was two days before he asked for the resignations of his entire Cabinet; this was also two weeks after his lowest approval rating of 29% during the first week of July, when I celebrated my fifth birthday. Obama will have to stop listening to Axelrod and Plouffe, and he must open his big ears to the advice of James Carville…and Paul Haider.
    Paul Haider, Chicago

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