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Mother of Obama's political adviser lives in Newton

Posted by Your Town  February 17, 2009 08:03 AM

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Lasell Village resident Myril Bennett is happy to discuss how her son, David Axelrod, grew up to become President Obama's senior adviser. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)

By Husna Haq, Globe Correspondent

Myril Bennett always knew her son loved politics.

When he was 7, he devoured books about Lincoln and Nixon while the other children read the Hardy Boys. When he was 8, he investigated every detail of John F. Kennedy's assassination. When he was 9, he absorbed Lyndon Johnson's inauguration from the cherry picker of a news van.

Now 53, he is still as infatuated as ever.

Bennett, 88, is the mother of David Axelrod, President Obama's senior adviser.

And although the Newton resident is still uncomfortable with that introduction, Bennett is proud of her son.

"How grateful you are when your child's dreams come to pass," Bennett said after a presentation at Lasell Village, a senior housing community on the Lasell College campus, where she lives. "What an extraordinary experience."

Bennett, a former journalist and still-active liberal, shared her experiences, from raising David to attending Obama's inauguration, with about 80 other Lasell Village residents at a slideshow presentation on a recent Friday afternoon. Dressed in a suede skirt, black turtleneck, and heels, Bennett shared stories about her son, her voice barely carrying to the back.

"David's first job was with the Hyde Park Herald," a neighborhood paper in Chicago, said Bennett. "That's where he met Obama, then a community organizer."

As Axelrod's friendship with the young Obama grew, so too did his career. An internship with the Chicago Tribune led to a job there, and Axelrod became the paper's youngest political writer.

But he became restless covering politics, and turned to taking an active role.

His first foray into campaigning was as media strategist and eventual co-manager of Paul Simon's successful run for the US Senate in 1984, followed by key roles in a succession of campaigns around the country, including mayoral bids by a number of black candidates, and Obama's state Senate race. And when Obama ran for president, he tapped Axelrod to serve as his chief strategist and media adviser.

"David used to call me and complain, 'I wish I could just sell a candidate for what he is and not engage in negative campaigning,' " his mother said. "He didn't get there easily and he struggled with it, but he eventually got that."

Later, in a phone call, Bennett reflected on her son's achievements. When she sees David on television, Bennett said, "I'm usually thinking, 'Oh, his shirt is rumpled, his hair is askew, he keeps saying 'you know.' Now I find myself not listening as if he's my son, but thinking, 'God, this guy knows so much.' It really pleases me that the campaign was seen as a flawless campaign. That they refer to him as honest and ethical in politics, that's extremely unusual."

The protracted campaign was difficult on Bennett, who anxiously followed each decision her son made. But she found friendship and strength in Peggy Ives, a fellow political activist and Lasell Village resident.

"She's my support system," said Bennett. "She was always there to lift me up."

Ives, a retired social worker and psychotherapist whose optimism and energy belies her 83 years, often watched the primaries with Bennett.

Her friend "is very emotionally connected to politics and to her son's advance," Ives said. "I came to teach her to have thick skin."

Ives, who also attended Obama's inauguration, said she met Axelrod in previous trips.

"He looks like a great big bear of a man," she said. "And he kids his mother - that's a healthy sign."

Axelrod's reputation as a savvy campaigner pleases Bennett, but Axelrod's political activism is no accident.

After leaving her hometown of Jersey City ("I couldn't wait to get out of there," she confides), Bennett kick-started her career much like Axelrod did, completing a bachelor's degree in journalism at New York University while covering news and politics for PM, a left-leaning, ad-free newspaper of the late 1940s. Throughout her career, first as a freelance writer and later as the vice president of research at an advertising firm, Bennett was active in the political scene.

She attended President Johnson's inauguration and gala, where she danced to Jerry Herman's "Hello Dolly."

"It was so festive, we jitterbugged all night," Bennett said.

She also attended President Clinton's inaugural ball, where her son promised his mother a seat at his reserved table on one condition.

"He said I could sit at his table if I didn't act like a mother," she said, laughing.

Obama's was her third inauguration, but it was also a first, she said.

"Never in my lifetime have I seen something like this," Bennett said. "It's an extraordinary experience to be surrounded by a sea of people feeling the same happiness you're feeling."

As a VIP, Bennett attended a bipartisan dinner Obama hosted the night before his inauguration. Dressed in a custom-made black chiffon gown designed by Boston stylist David Josef, Bennett arrived just as Obama was leaving for another gathering. When he saw Bennett and her daughter, Joan Axelrod Lehrich, a learning-disabilities consultant from Arlington, the president-elect motioned to them to have their picture taken with him, she remembered. Bennett approached but Lehrich hesitated.

"He beckoned again," Bennett recalled, "and said, 'I'm commander in chief and I command you to come here." She paused. "He's so real, so genuine, so genuinely caring and dedicated. There's nothing insincere about him."

Bennett also attended the Illinois inaugural gala in the Washington Convention Center. But with nearly 5,000 people jamming the venue, and "loud, screaming performers" slicing through the swarm, the ball was too large and too loud for Bennett to stay very long.

She did, however, meet Governor Deval Patrick (another one of her son's clients) and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, both of whom were "ecstatic" to meet David Axelrod's mother, she said.

Weeks later, as everyone faces the troubles ahead, Bennett can't help but look back.

That's why, on a soggy January evening at Lasell Village, like a girl remembering her first prom, she reveals a trove of mementos - photographs, a signed sketch of her designer dress, clippings of her son's press coverage - and shares one last story.

In 1976, Bennett said, her son had it made. After graduating from the University of Chicago, he was dating his future wife, and had landed his dream job at the Chicago Tribune. And over the next eight years, he excelled in his job, becoming the paper's City Hall bureau chief and a political columnist, often traveling with politicians on their campaign buses. Most people would have been happy to stay on that path, she said.

"But I remember one day he told me, 'I don't really like riding in the back of the bus. I want to be in the front where the decisions are made.' "

She smiled, and added, "I don't think a parent can ask for more."

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1 comments so far...
  1. Nice story, a mother's love comes through with her sentiments. I would love to meet her and have a cup of tea with her, she sounds like a very classy lady and she has every right to be proud of her son. This is a special time for her. God Bless you Myril, you are so cute in that picture.

    Posted by jdt February 17, 09 12:01 PM