What David Axelrod Told Bill Clinton in 1996

The future Obama strategist advised Clinton’s senior staff on at least two big speeches during and after the 1996 campaign.

WASHINGTON - MAY 21: White House Senior Adviser David Axelrod arrives prior to a speech by U.S. President Barack Obama at the National Archives May 21, 2009 in Washington, DC. Obama made his case on the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility after the Senate and House have both voted not to grant his request.
National Journal
Alex Seitz-Wald
March 28, 2014, 12:20 p.m.

Dav­id Axel­rod, the Demo­crat­ic uber-strategist who en­gin­eered Barack Obama’s up­set de­feat of Hil­lary Clin­ton in 2008, ad­vised Bill Clin­ton 12 years earli­er on at least two ma­jor speeches, ac­cord­ing to doc­u­ments re­leased Fri­day by the Clin­ton Lib­rary.

In Au­gust 1996, Axel­rod sent a memo to Clin­ton aides with his thoughts on the pres­id­ent’s up­com­ing ac­cept­ance speech at the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Con­ven­tion. Rahm Emanuel, then a seni­or ad­viser to the Clin­ton White House, for­war­ded Axel­rod’s memo to oth­er seni­or aides, in­clud­ing Le­on Pan­etta, George Stephan­o­poulos, Har­old Ickes, and speech­writer Mi­chael Wald­man, telling his col­leagues it was “worth your time.”

“Even though I’m sure you have more cooks hov­er­ing around the broth than you need, I wanted to briefly share a few thoughts and sug­ges­tions,” Axel­rod wrote the night after Bob Dole ac­cep­ted his nom­in­a­tion at the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Con­ven­tion, of­fer­ing up chunks of text to be used in the speech.

Axel­rod’s firm did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for more de­tails about the nature of his work for Clin­ton, or wheth­er he was paid.

First, he ad­vised Clin­ton to take the high road in the speech, ur­ging the pres­id­ent to praise Dole’s years of ser­vice to the coun­try. Second, he sug­ges­ted the pres­id­ent re­but Dole’s de­sire to con­nect with the Amer­ic­an past by stat­ing that he wants to “build a bridge to the fu­ture.”

The speech Clin­ton de­livered a few days later hit both of these notes. “I be­lieve that Bob Dole and Jack Kemp and Ross Perot love our coun­try,” Clin­ton said when ac­cept­ing the nom­in­a­tion. “I will not at­tack them per­son­ally, or per­mit oth­ers to do it in this party if I can pre­vent it.”

That led right in­to Clin­ton’s head­line-mak­ing mes­sage of the night: “With all re­spect, we do not need to build a bridge to the past. We need to build a bridge to the fu­ture. And that is what I com­mit to you to do. So to­night, let us re­solve to build that bridge to the 21st cen­tury.”

Axel­rod also ad­vised Clin­ton to use Dole’s per­son­al story as a way to re­spond to the GOP nom­in­ee’s at­tacks on Hil­lary Clin­ton’s book It Takes a Vil­lage. That doesn’t seem to have made it in­to the speech.

In a second set of memos, sent to Wald­man in Janu­ary 1997, days be­fore Clin­ton would de­liv­er his second in­aug­ur­al, Axel­rod offered some thoughts on drafts of the speech he had ap­par­ently been sent. It doesn’t ap­pear that any of the lan­guage he offered made it in­to the speech dir­ectly.

“I hope it is, at least, a little use­ful,” the strategist wrote.

The doc­u­ments were among thou­sands of pages made pub­lic Fri­day, part of a series of pre­vi­ously re­dac­ted files.

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