More an Architect Than a Bridge Builder

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Our recent item raising questions about whether Sen. Barack Obama's political guru David Axelrod minted Bill Clinton's memorable "Bridge to the 21st Century" phrase–as a recent New York Times Magazine profile suggests–got Axelrod's hackles up. He phoned us to say he never claimed to have coined the term but that he was key to introducing it "into the political vernacular," as the Times story said. An aide to President Clinton told us that two former Clinton advisers have no recollection of Axelrod's role in popularizing the phrase in a 1996 memo, contrary to the Times report.

Hooey, says Axelrod. As proof of his role, he directed us to POTUS Speaks, a 2000 memoir by former Clinton speechwriter Michael Waldman. The book cites a 1996 Axelrod memo circulated inside the White House arguing that Americans wanted a president "who confidently meets the challenges of changing times." The memo included suggestions for presidential messaging including, "We must build bridges to the future, not the past. Much as we might like to, we can't go back." On the same page of POTUS Speaks–131–Waldman writes that the Clinton White House soon adopted an unyieldingly forward-looking message strategy that included the slogan "On the Right Track to the 21st Century."

Not a bridge, to be sure, but Axelrod's argument is more that he was helping to shape a message for Clinton's '96 re-election and that Clinton aides who would suggest otherwise are rewriting history.