On Sept. 11, 2001, Highland Park native Jim Axelrod was on a bus from his Montclair home to New York, stuck at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. Messages were coming in from the CBS news desk that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers.
“I started to get so anxious,” he recalled during a Sept. 11 appearance at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick. “Here was the story of a lifetime unfolding and I can’t get there.”
Axelrod, a national correspondent for CBS News, helped mark the 10th anniversary of the attacks in a speech describing both his personal and professional challenges in the intervening days and years.
By the time he made it to his office that evening, he said, all the stories had been assigned.
Upset over the lost opportunity, Axelrod said, he found himself in a men’s room next to then CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather, who offered some sage advice: “Keep your head down and keep working. These things have a way of working themselves out.”
“My life changed at a urinal,” Axelrod told the crowd of more than 200.
The next day he was offered a plum assignment in Afghanistan, which helped him put the previous day in perspective.
“I was worried about my career,” he said, “while thousands of people were losing their lives.” Axelrod, who celebrated his bar mitzva at Anshe Emeth, still remains close with its senior religious leader, Rabbi Bennett Miller.
The journalist would go on to mark a number of career milestones, serving as CBS’ White House correspondent and as the first television reporter to broadcast from Saddam International Airport — now Baghdad International Airport — in 2003.
Still a resident of Montclair, he and his family — wife Christina and their three children — are members of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield.
‘A wonderful man’
He said he inherited his competitive spirit from his father, Bob Axelrod, who died of prostate cancer at age 63. Their relationship is at the heart of Axelrod’s new memoir, In the Long Run: A Father, A Son and Unintentional Lessons of Happiness.
“My dad was a wonderful man, loving and hard driving,” recalled an emotional Axelrod. “My dad didn’t think about his own happiness until it was too late.”
The title alludes to a 2008 incident when Axelrod was in Houston covering another primary win by then Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. He received a message from a childhood friend who had found Bob’s three finish times for the New York City Marathon, including a remarkable 3:29:58 posting for a race he ran at age 46.
Then 45, the younger Axelrod’s first thought was, “Can I beat him?”
Over the next months, he said, he desperately trained for the 2009 marathon. Suffering injuries and disappointment, he realized he’d never beat his father’s time, but learned lessons about the value of family and living a life of meaning.
“You always have to know why you are where you are,” he explained, “whether it is on the baseball field, in your school, or in Afghanistan.”
Axelrod also recalled telling Christina about the new assignment in Afghanistan he received the day after 9/11. Christina, a Jew by choice, reminded him in a “strong and disapproving” voice that it was just days before Rosh Hashana.
He also rattled off about 10 cities in the United States in which he has been a member of a synagogue.
“I keep trying to find another Anshe Emeth, but I don’t think I ever will,” he quipped.