Curses and Compromise

Curses and Compromise

Rahm Emanuel ’81 adopts a new tone as Obama’s right-hand man

Rahm Emanuel ’81 once sent a pollster a dead fish—a pungent message that told the recipient exactly what the politician thought of him.

Like the now-legendary Dead Fish Episode, Emanuel’s penchant for barking four-letter expletives long ago became a personal trademark. Some of his Washington colleagues believe he’ll eventually wind up in the Guinness Book of Records for “most frequent use of the F-word in a single day.” And several years ago, when Barack Obama described how the teenage Emanuel lost half of his right middle finger to a meat-slicer, the president-to-be concluded that the amputation of Rahm’s middle digit had “rendered him practically mute.”

Rahm Emanuel is famous for his in-your-face style of politicking (“Good friends are a wonderful thing,” he joked at a banquet recently. “I wish I had some!”) A fierce competitor who once dreamed of becoming an international ballet star (“I came to my senses at Sarah Lawrence”), the 49-year-old former three-term congressman has always thrived on accepting impossible assignments and then blasting his way through all opposition.

Yet he’s quick to point out that his latest task—running Barack Obama’s White House as the president’s chief of staff— requires a job skill, known as “tactful diplomacy,” that is not his forte.

But he’s determined to pull it off, because “the stakes are so high for America right now,” with the nation’s economy in a shambles and a new president struggling to lead the country out of the fiscal quagmire triggered by last fall’s Wall Street meltdown.

Rahm Emanuel is often described as the second-most-powerful politician in America today. He masterminded the Democratic Party’s recapture of Congress in the 2006 election and raised millions of dollars for Bill Clinton’s first presidential run in 1992, all with bulldog-like tenacity. (His friends—and even his mother—call him “Rahm-bo” for a reason.)

But running the Obama White House requires much more than mere assertiveness. Since assuming his role as Obama’s gatekeeper back in late January, Emanuel has surprised observers with a new willingness to employ mild-mannered diplomacy to achieve the president’s legislative goals. He insists that he now relies more on the art of gentle persuasion than on the shouting and scowling that once defined his enfant terrible style of politics.

Nowhere has this “new Emanuel” version of political deal-making been more evident, say inside-the-Beltway observers, than in his orchestration of the president’s stimulus bill (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) in February. Hoping to win some key Republican votes needed to nail down passage of the $787 billion measure, he displayed an unexpected willingness to schmooze and cajole balky legislators.

“The stimulus bill wouldn’t have passed without his intervention,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) said after the vote. “It was a masterful effort on his part, and it came with an element that a lot of people wouldn’t expect: humility. He did it in a low-key fashion.”

Longtime Emanuel pal and veteran pollster Stanley Greenberg says he couldn’t agree more with Durbin’s assessment. According to Greenberg, in fact, the “old” Emanuel was never really the ogre that many politicians have made him out to be: He adopted his sometimes-churlish persona as a survival tactic during his upbringing in Chicago’s rock-’em-sock-’em political arena. “The caricature has actually been quite helpful,” says Greenberg, “and it’s part of why he’s been so effective over the years.”

As chief of staff, Emanuel runs the president’s daily schedule and controls access to the Oval Office. To protect the chief executive’s precious time and energy, the chief of staff scrutinizes every appointment to ensure that each is vitally important to solving the nation’s problems: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the ongoing collapse of the US auto industry, soaring health care costs, the runaway federal deficit, and the restructuring of the financial services industry. In the process, he has to manage the sometimes outsized egos of the White House staff, coordinating input from heavyweights like budget director Peter Orszag and senior adviser David Axelrod.

Emanuel usually starts his day at 5:30 a.m. by swimming a mile and working out in the White House gym. By 7:30 he’s already under a full head of steam as he conducts the daily White House staff meeting, then pitches into a typical 12-hour day, during which he will usher an endless parade of visitors in and out of the Oval Office.

He appears to relish his rigorous schedule. As the second of three highly competitive sons born to a famously combative Israeli émigré who became a Chicago pediatrician, he long ago became accustomed to pushing himself to the max to achieve his goals.

A gifted ballet dancer in high school (his mother’s idea, he says), Emanuel won a coveted scholarship to study with the Joffrey Ballet, but turned it down to attend Sarah Lawrence. As a high school senior, he contracted a serious blood infection after the meat-slicing accident, and almost died. “I learned about seriousness of purpose in that hospital bed, and it changed my life,” he says. Luckily, he survived, arrived on campus in 1977, and “got lucky right away” when he found himself studying Supreme Court decisions with his don, the late Jack Nields.

During his commencement address at SLC this spring, Emanuel fought back tears as he recalled how Nields pushed him intellectually. But he also found plenty of time for revelry during his college years: “I remember how small the campus seemed—until it came time to make that late-night walk from the Pub to Lynd. I never knew at 2 a.m. just how long a walk that could be.”

Intrigued by the “intellectual rigor required for our classroom debates,” Emanuel decided that he wanted a life in politics. After graduation, he promptly launched his meteoric career by hiring on as a campaign aide to the late Senator Paul M. Simon of Illinois and then to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. Success there led to a staff-level job in the Clinton White House, where he would spend five years raising funds and advising the president.

But the brazenness that helped him get that job also threatened it. At one point, President Clinton demoted him for his sometimes arrogant and high-handed treatment of other staffers, and that’s when he “began to learn the meaning of the word humility.”

Emanuel bounced back, however, and worked furiously to solidify his position as one of Bill Clinton’s most trusted aides. By 2002 he was running (and winning) his own campaign to become the congressman from northside Chicago’s Fifth District. Once ensconced on the Hill, he established himself as a major player who dreamed of becoming the first-ever Jewish Speaker of the House, according to friends and colleagues.

That plan changed when Obama asked him to be his right-hand man. At first he was reluctant to uproot his wife and three school-age children from their Chicago home, but, he says, “Sometimes you have to give up something you cherish, to be a part of achieving something even bigger.” The tireless gatekeeper says his most important task is to serve his fellow Chicagoan in making sure the nation’s business gets done: “I came here to get this president what he wants, and I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that happens.”

As he helps steer the president’s sweeping social agenda (including such huge initiatives as health care reform and energy independence) through the labyrinth of Congress, he readily concedes that future success will now depend on the kind of humility he learned when he was nearly fired by Bill Clinton for his youthful hubris.

“As chief of staff, I’m humbled,” he says. “And that’s a quality which doesn’t come naturally to me!”

Getting Serious

Rahm Emanuel’s sense of humor was on display in May when he returned to campus to give a rousing commencement address. Upon receiving an honorary doctorate from the College, he quipped that his mother would be happy—he had finally become a doctor. But the speech had its serious moments, too. Here’s an excerpt:

When I was in high school, I was a pretty reckless guy. Let’s just say I wasn’t the staid and somber figure that stands before you.

I was working as a meat cutter trying to earn money to go to college, and I sliced my finger deeply. And being 17 years old, despite what was a pretty bad cut, I decided to go swimming in Lake Michigan.

This turned out to be a mistake. But in my defense, it was prom night.

I ended up in the hospital with five blood infections, two bone infections, gangrene, and a 105-degree fever. For the first 96 hours, I battled between life and death. My mother stood by my bed with ice packs, keeping her middle son from that door. I had five roommates who died in those eight weeks in the hospital.

It was a terrible time for me, and worse for my parents, but to be honest, I’m glad I went through it. Because a funny thing happened on the way to that precipice: nearly losing my life made me want to save my life, made me want to live my life.

And so the first lesson I’d impart is this: don’t be reckless with what you have, and don’t be reckless with what’s been given to you. Take what you do, and how you live your life, seriously. It is that seriousness of purpose that I learned in that hospital bed—and I’m forever grateful for that lesson every day of my life.

+ Read the entire speech and watch the video, or see what the other speakers had to say