DO WE KNOW RAHM YET?
Though out of the spotlight, Emanuel still both archvillain and ‘Yo! Mr. Mayor!’
MANCHESTER, N.H. — Rahm Emanuel, Chicagoan, shark, bully, pit bull, leviathan, sledgehammer, former mayor, former Democratic operative and fundraiser, former congressman, former White House chief of staff, former Hillary Clinton headache, “Rahm the Impaler” (Esquire), “the bastard’s bastard” (also Esquire), “a political John McEnroe” (The New Yorker), “leading purveyor of fourletter words” (The Washington Post), “renegade mayor of a renegade city” (Newt Gingrich), “Rahmbo,” “Mayor 1 Percent,” investment banker, father, husband, ballet dancer, Sunday morning TV talking head and now author, moved efficiently, tightly, as if programmed to the step.
He walked out of swirling curtains of snow here and onto the wide, spotless carpet that ABC had unrolled alongside its cameras, lighting towers and makeshift news set.
He arrived to his new day job. Or rather, aside from joining the boutique investment firm Centerview Partners, his other new day job, which is sitting on a stool beside the former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and discussing politics for ABC News. This, so far, has been the post-mayoral career of Emanuel.
When he stands with Christie, they make an oddly perfect match, one slender and rigid, the other round and animated, two outsized personalities so instantly recognizable I could ID them by the silhouettes they cast. Otherwise, Emanuel seemed uncharacteristically low key.
He arrived without the usual security detail, flanked instead by his daughter, Ilana, a student at Brown University in nearby Providence, and her college friend. He wore a dark quilted down coat, and before he had a chance to settle in and look around, a reporter from Time approached with a pen and pad and thin river of sweat slaloming down the side of his face.
Then came another reporter, and another.
In the past 72 hours alone, an impeachment trial collapsed, an Iowa caucus imploded and a president delivered a contentious State of the Union. They wanted Emanuel’s hot, insider takes, and for the most part
Emanuel obliged every one. “Cavalry‘s not coming,” he said. And, “Midterms are when you test a theory.”
Also, “Let’s be clear. There’s a long way to go.”
He tried to walk on, but a reporter stopped in front of the fabled politician and held a big, knowing smile that might suggest a long history. Emanuel’s tight reptilian smirk, however, suggested a relationship with more professional distance.
“Who’s your favorite for the debate tonight?” the guy asked. “Everyone has a favorite. You’ve been to a few rodeos.”
Emanuel stared into the carpet, then said the candidates at that night’s Democratic debate just came out of Iowa as if fired from a starting pistol; now they’re flying along. He didn’t offer much (or a favorite), but what he offered sounded with conviction.
He spoke to reporter after reporter with both an off-the-record candor and a regular candor that grew difficult to differentiate. A young reporter approached: “Rahm! Who is to blame for Iowa, Rahm?”
The former Chicago mayor’s eyeballs seemed to sigh. But he answered, then looked around: “Heather!” he shouted, calling after an ABC News executive and making a hasty escape.
He looked unlike the Rahm that left City Hall last spring. He looked less haunted and tired, nearly casual now.
Last spring, Emanuel’s name briefly appeared on the masthead of the Atlantic as a contributing editor for the publication, but he was bounced from the largely ceremonial post because of an internal campaign by the staff of the Atlantic, which was critical of Emanuel’s handling of the murder of Laquan McDonald. And say his name in Chicago today, and you have a very good chance of getting a mostly negative response with a generous side dish of cynicism and anger. But the man himself, said Paul Begala, a former advisor to President Bill Clinton who worked with Emanuel in the White House and remains close, “has definitely changed.”
“He’s still the driven Rahm, but as much as he loved being mayor of Chicago, as much as I worried what
“As much as he loved being mayor of Chicago, as much as I worried what would happen to him after (his term ended), this is the happiest he’s been since I’ve known him. And I doubt he expected it.”
— Paul Begala, who worked with Emanuel at the White House
would happen to him after (his term ended), this is the happiest he’s been since I’ve known him,” Begala said. “And I doubt he expected it.”
Mayor of Chicago, Emanuel said often, was his dream job. But what do you do when you get that job and results were — by many standards, including the high probability he would have struggled to win a third term as mayor — mixed?
If you’re Rahm Emanuel, never known for half-measures, you write a new book titled “The Nation City: Why Mayors are Now Running the World.” Which is about …
“How bad he was at mayor?” asked Ald. Jeanette Taylor, 20th, when I told her earlier this month about the book.
No, actually, it’s about … “Oh, the hell with him,” Taylor said. “I hope his next job is mayor of picking up poop.”
Emanuel, of course, has been on the receiving end of strong opinions for several decades now, at least since emerging into the public eye as an unapologetically contentious, almost joyfully combative fundraiser for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. And yet, “The Nation City,” regardless of your feelings toward Emanuel, is a compelling argument for why mayors can no longer rely on the federal government for fresh ideas, financial support or even a vision of the future, forcing them to become the only innovative, workable branch of executive governance remaining, in the United States and internationally.
It’s also, for better or worse, a bold argument for Emanuel himself and how he has left Chicago in his own image — richer, friendly to business, colder and certainly gentrified. Still, should he be the one writing this?
When I told Chicago-based political historian Rick Perlstein that “The Nation City” begins with Emanuel’s strong and notexactly-misguided case that income inequality has become the most pressing problem facing big cities today, he burst out laughing.
Though Chicago clearly had had enough of Mayor Rahm, the people of Chicago, at least the ones we ran into, seemed to really like the guy.
A week after New Hampshire, Emanuel — this time with a security detail and a communications person — met me at Peaches, a small cafe in East Garfield Park housed inside of a former currency exchange. He walked in and was warmly greeted by the only two tables occupied by customers on an early Friday morning. He worked their handshakes as if he were still the mayor, and when he finally sat down I asked if he had stocked the room. He laughed.
“What? No! “he said. “That guy said hello! My mother taught me to be polite.”
Indeed, for the next three hours I learned, though Chicago clearly had had enough of Mayor Rahm, the people of Chicago, at least the ones we ran into, seemed to really like the guy. Not a single passerby curses or flips him off or shouts him down. They hug and kiss him.
And yet it wasn’t so long ago that, according to Politico, the Hillary Clinton campaign avoided Emanuel at a 2016 campaign stop, fearful of ugly political residue left after the McDonald shooting; at the time, a Tribune poll found that 74% of Chicagoans didn’t believe Emanuel told the truth. Just last year, as the former mayor left office, Chicago Teachers Union boss Jesse Sharkey said that Rahm had played an “effective archvillain.”
Eric Garcetti, mayor of Los Angeles, told me about attending a conference of mayors several years ago, and at dinner “it ended up being just the two of us because maybe (other mayors) thought Rahm was toxic. But this is a lonely job and it’s helpful to have a peer in tough times, when your star is not shining its brightest. Even when you’re making decisions not popular in the short term, those can be the most important decisions in the end.”
“The Nation City” isn’t quite the naked attempt at reputation repair that you might assume — it’s much too policy-minded, debatable and baldly self-aggrandizing. Laquan McDonald barely appears in its pages, race in general often feels sidelined and massive instances of selective memory abound — for example, Emanuel figures it’s a good thing that New York City lost Amazon’s HQ2 because he’s not entirely for massively subsidized corporate projects constructed on the backs of constituents, somehow managing to forget how feverishly Chicago wooed Amazon.
But it does get across an aspect of Emanuel that was often lost during his tumultuous time in City Hall: how thoughtful and nuanced the Rahminator can be, how he is more than a smug, one-dimensional abstraction. It won’t win over detractors, but it may complicate their hate.
Bruce Katz, who served in the
Obama administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development and wrote “The New Localism” with the late Jeremy Nowak, said: “In my view, I think Rahm is one of the few mayors in the U.S. who understood the role of mayor. A lot of mayors are waiting for the national government to kick back into gear, but Rahm seems to have understood early this was never going to happen, and even if feds did anything halfway intelligent, he would have to develop a broad network of sources to get things done. I don’t think he gets credit for that. You have to go back to 1980s and Reagan scaling back the government to see the roots of it. The result now is that being mayor may be the hardest job in American government.
“The challenges are complex because you seem to be the last layer of government that functions. Expectations are huge and you’re so close to the ground (that) you have to act. I don’t think it’s cyclical; I think ground has shifted. Rahm was one of the first to see that.”
Emanuel said he wrote the book because, yes, he feels “we are in the early stages” of a more mayoral-centric nation, one in which cities are less reliant on the federal government.
“But I want to be clear: I would prefer an affirmative federal government,” he said. “I would rather have a partner than an antagonist. That said, you can’t wait. You can’t wait for the minimum wage to be raised or highschool graduation rates to improve. You have to, say, build a train station so people can get to jobs and schools.
“In the book I mention how, in the ’60s, (President Lyndon B.) Johnson sees trouble in the cities and gives mayors Head Start. (Barack) Obama, trying to get federal support for universal pre-K, has to call 200 mayors and ask them to get it done. He can’t do it, which is how things have changed.”
It’s an intriguing argument, particularly from someone who, before serving as Chicago mayor, rose to prominence mainly through national politics, often within steps of two Oval Offices.
A quick refresher: In the early 1990s, Emanuel becomes infamous for his brash, hardball tactics as director of finance for Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. Once in the White House, he reportedly clashes with Hillary and is shown the door, but, with true Emanuel panache, he refuses to quit unless President Clinton fires him. He’s later made senior advisor of policy and strategy to Clinton and becomes instrumental on NAFTA and the still-controversial crime bill.
In 1998, Emanuel leaves the White House to join an investment banking firm, makes millions, then wins three terms in the House, representing most of Cook and DuPage counties. Then as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he crafts the Democrats’ 2006 takeover of the House. He then serves almost two years as chief of staff in the Obama White House, where his reputation as a calculating, foul-mouthed political creature is cemented.
By his Obama tenure, Emanuel had become such an inflammatory fixture and go-to caricature in ruthless Washington politics that it’s widely assumed he provided inspiration for the arrogant
Josh Lyman on “The West Wing.”
“No doubt a caricature grew up over the years that probably was true early on, but I served under him (at the Obama White House), and for all this stuff about temperament his door was mostly open,” said David Axelrod, senior strategist for Obama and now director of the Institute of Politics at University of Chicago.
“You might walk out with your head in your hands, but watching him keep a lot of balls in the air at a difficult time for the country — two wars, financial crisis, a very different political environment — was remarkable. I actually thought that (Chicago mayor) was tailor-made for him and he might go for it.”
Emanuel returned to Chicago and ran for mayor just as Washington’s relationship with large cities seemed to have reached its thinnest point in decades. Melissa Green, who ran Chicago’s D.C. office for Emanuel and worked with him in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, said: “When he asked me to work for him as mayor? I’d been in two White Houses. But here’s what I’ve learned: The White House is the ivory tower of politics, and you don’t do much in there where you can see the impact on a single life. Rahm, as a mayor, was constantly drilling into us that everything we did would impact specific Chicago people.”
Which, to those Chicagoans who grew to actively dislike Emanuel, might read like revisionist history.
“But anyone who has had his success, they don’t have one club in the bag; they handle a lot. They’re complicated,” said Christie. “Yes, he’s biting, but (he is) also thoughtful, charming and with a big heart. Anyone who cares to look beyond stock characterizations sees it.
“Thing is, sometimes it’s easier to go with stock characterizations. I think I can safely say I know what I’m talking about.”
“OK, let’s go,” Emanuel said, jumping up from his seat without warning. Within moments, he’s bounding across four lanes of traffic, headed for the Garfield Green Line station, a $43 million project that was completed last year and which Emanuel regards as a “gateway” for tourists who arrive in Washington Park, headed for the future Obama presidential library.
The station is all polished tile and fresh mosaics and Nick Cavecreated splashes of color. Emanuel began, “I was in Berlin and I saw that while every train station has art; some stations are pieces of art.” But within a moment CTA workers and passengers are surrounding him.
“So I return to Chicago and —
How’s it going! How’s the family?
— I gave this project to — You good? Great! — I gave it to the head of — What’s happening! How do you like this?” he said.
He turned to me, finishing his thought: “As I wrote in the book, mayors learn from each other.”
Actually, I reminded him, in the book he wrote that they
“steal” from each other.
He punched my right shoulder: “Stealing and learning.”
After a couple of minutes at
Garfield we climbed into the SUV driving him around town. Contrived as this sounds, the drivingaround-town thing was my idea: I asked him to select a few places that illustrated his book, his successes and failures. And then for weeks, he suggested ideas and rejected places.
I was hoping the exercise might open an intimacy, but the guy is private, famously controlling, doesn’t want me to see him in the makeup room before the New Hampshire debate, doesn’t want me with him if he’s with his kids, nixes every attempt to visit his Ravenswood home.
Pollster Stanley Greenberg told me Emanuel is much more family-centered than people might think, and that during the six years Emanuel lived in his D.C. basement when he served in the House, “Rahm would be out of here like a shot and headed back to his family in Chicago the second Congress went on break.” Privacy is not unreasonable, but privacy alone doesn’t chip apart the image of a steely political creature.
In the SUV, he never stopped campaigning.
Headed west on Garfield, he said: “Let’s see how complicated I can get. There’s new housing over there with retail. There’s KLEO (Community Family Life Center). This here” — he points to a large building covered in plastic sheeting — “was a bakery and it’s going to be a data center. You think I don’t listen? You think I thought of all this? No.”
Data for what, I asked? “Computers …” he said. “Do I need to help you? Do I need to be gentle? Let me start again: This, da-ta center — got it? OK, and I’m not disrespecting Dunkin’ Donuts but here, there’s a coffee shop with real food. A food desert is not just about grocery stores.”
He steamrolled as he spoke, or to be gentler, he’s a cheerleader as he speaks — which, of course, is part of the profession, said James Brainard, mayor of Carmel, Indiana, one of several Republican mayors Emanuel cites in his book as an innovative, non-partisanminded thinker.
“Being chief cheerleader, getting people excited about where they live, that’s a mayor’s job to an extent,” Emanuel said.
We arrived at the 50,000square-foot XS Tennis Village at 54th and State, in Washington Park, one of his large tangible successes, as much about education as tennis, with 2,300 studentathletes a year, and founded by the tennis coach Kamau Murray, who is long and rail thin. Greeting the compact Emanuel, Murray is the definition of reedy. As they hugged, Emanuel said: “Look what the wind literally blew in. Know what you need? You are short one Jewish mother. I’m going to send you some corned beef from Manny’s.”
We walked around, and Emanuel said: “Kamau is the greatest salesman. Says, ‘I don’t need money, I want you to hear my idea.’ And $9 million later … Did I bring this to you?”
“No, I brought it to you,” Murray said, “and Rahm says (calling for an assistant) ‘Where’s Meghan! She’s in the bathroom? Tell her to get out of the bathroom! I want her to take this from conversation to completion!’ I don’t have a huge network of folks to tap into and a lot of the donor community (to build the tennis facility) came from his relationships.”
“He’s being modest,” Emanuel said.
We piled in the SUV and headed south, stopping at the new Englewood STEM High School. Emanuel noted, as if remembering past headlines, the school is the result of three consolidated schools, open on weekends, “and more than a high school, but like a community anchor.”
Clearly he was trying to show how, during his tenure, he listened, how the constant refrain of “Rahm only heard corporations and ignored underserved neighborhoods” wasn’t the reality. When I noted a familiar criticism, which the Englewood High School visit had already somewhat addressed — that closing 49 schools mostly on the South and West sides destabilized many families — he said: “And if I did nothing, would my life, professionally, personally, have been better? Yes, but it was my responsibility to do something.”
As his book argues, mayors take hits for doing the right thing, not the easy thing. Of course, that’s not wrong: Even Leah Levinger, director of the Chicago Housing Initiative, said, when it comes to public housing, the feds abandoned cities.
“But if it leaves a localized control many feel does not care about vulnerable communities? And maybe doesn’t want them in the city?” she said. “It sounds conspiratorial, but the populations I’ve devoted my life to felt abandoned by Rahm. He was terrible.”
When I relay a few judgments, he looked away and watched the city rush past. He’d heard it before.
“Mayor 1 Percent”? He understands it, he said, but it’s “a cheap shot,” the sort that ignores the kind of neighborhood investments we’re visiting.
Perhaps some people just don’t like him? Look, he said, being universally loved is not a measure of success.
“If that’s your goal as mayor of the city of Chicago, you’re in the wrong profession,” Emanuel said. “My goal was to make a difference on the trajectory of Chicago. I walk in, unemployment is 11%, the city budget is out of whack, pensions are undervalued, infrastructure is crumbling, we have the shortest school day in the nation. That’s not a recipe for finding love in a person.”
We stopped at the Whole Foods in Englewood.
“So,” he said, stepping from the SUV, “did I solve everything? No. Did I leverage my office on behalf of, say, building this Whole Foods? I did. None of this” — he casts an arm around, at a strip mall stocked with familiar national chains —”was here before. I know what was here.”
He described himself as a “heat-seeking missile” who badgered corporate CEOs to invest in Englewood. He rattled off the first names of the CEOs he pestered. We walked into the market and barely reached the apples when a shout came: “Mr. Mayor! You’re still my mayor!”
We never did visit the failures. Emanuel, as Axelrod once said about his close friend, is “allergic to failure.” But to be fair, it’s hard to visit something that doesn’t exist — the proposed Lucas Museum or Elon Musk’s 12-minute tunnel from the Loop to O’Hare or the Red Line extension to 130th Street.
Anyway, it’s beyond Emanuel now.
In New Hampshire, you never hear about Chicago, good or bad. Instead, old friends, journalists, expect the Rahm of Washington lore: the Chicago (then Wilmette) kid who got his start with the Illinois Public Action Council, learning politics at the block level; who spent summers in Israel, then served as a civilian volunteer for the Israeli army in 1991, rust-proofing brakes; who grew up in a competitive, combative family.
His father was a pediatrician whose “nurses called him ‘Speedy Gonzalez,’ ” said Ezekiel Emanuel, Rahm’s older brother. “Dad would take one look at a kid and go ‘OK, no strep throat — next! OK, I’m just going to remove these stitches and — all right, next!’ And our mother, was an activist, and she was equally intense.
“Together, they drilled in to me, Rahm and Ari (the youngest) that you would be held accountable in this world for what you do.”
Emanuel was initially known as a fundraiser, but by his late 20s he had become a rising Democratic star with an almost-cartoonish aura of ruthlessness. Some of the stories were true (mailing a dead fish to a pollster,
stabbing a table while reciting the names of vanquished enemies), some apocryphal (lobbying congressmen in the House locker room while fully nude).
Regardless, the point was always the same: Emanuel had a fearless talent for climbing beneath the skin of old-school D.C., albeit a talent that would eventually obscure a much-less-writtenabout thoughtfulness. A foulmouthed rolling stone, he gathered no shortage of detractors.
After decades of service, his tough-guy legend mostly hides that.
“Rahm picks fights he knows he can win,” said Rick Perlstein, a steady critic. “His bravado looks paper-thin to me. At the first sign of trouble (in City Hall), he decides not to run for a third term?”
(Mayor Lori Lightfoot, asked to weigh in on Emanuel’s tenure, did not respond to requests.)
These days as an ABC News talking head, Emanuel, 60, is more pragmatic and mild, often plainly old-fashioned, never the ideological liberal the Trump White House likes to suggest.
As candidates in New Hampshire debated in an adjacent auditorium, he did what he does at these things: He left the green room and Christie and his fellow commentators, strolled to the floor of the news set and watched the debate by himself. He stood alone for nearly the two-plus hours of the debate, pacing before a floor monitor, folding his arms and texting with Axelrod, Begala and his daughter, who was watching from inside the auditorium.
“I don’t want to be distracted by everyone talking (in the green room),” he told me later. “I also don’t want to hear what others are saying because then you’re just driving in their lane. I’d rather listen and see how I can offer my own opinion, outside of the pack.”
Christie told me later that
Emanuel has too much fire left inside him to spend the rest of his career as a TV commentator; he assumes Emanuel will run for office again. Others nixed this idea. They said Emanuel was done with elected office but might accept an appointed role in a left-leaning White House.
When I asked Emanuel himself, he said that he wasn’t finished with public service. But that could mean chief of staff or grade-school crossing guard.
At home in Chicago he has more quiet time now. He pulled out his iPad and scrolled through the stream of books he had already read — “The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War,” “In Hoffa’s Shadow,” histories of anthropology, biographies of Grant and Nixon, “Sabbath’s Theater” and “There There.” He hosts a Shakespeare-themed book club at his home about every five weeks.
He swims, does elliptical. The morning after Lightfoot was sworn in as mayor, Emanuel and Richard Mintz, an old friend and former Clinton administration official, set out on bikes from Montrose and rode the circumference of Lake Michigan in exactly 14 days, averaging 68 miles a day.
“As soon as we got to the bike path, it started to pour,” Mintz said. “And with the wind, it was maybe the coldest May in years. We rode down to the South Side and met a couple of aldermen for coffee and it was nice, then we got on the path and did 90 miles that first day.
“Rahm was very Rahm, riding very aggressively. I kept saying slow down, but each day we got further from Chicago, he calmed. By day three or four he finally relaxed. But it got frustrating. We would get into these rhythms and he would want to stop and take pictures of barns. I would kind of joke, ‘Rahm, there’s a beautiful barn!’ ”
Emanuel would get recognized. At a restaurant in the Upper Peninsula, a guy wearing an
NRA hat approached: “You who I think you are?” Emanuel invited him to have a beer. They talked gun legislation.
Headed south into Wisconsin in early morning, they knocked on a door and asked where they could find a cup of coffee and were invited in for a pot. Mintz said that Emanuel began the trip worried if his legacy and changes in Chicago would be understood, but by the time he returned, “I think he shed that burden somewhat.”
I asked Emanuel what he learned.
He told me about the relatively young trees at the Wisconsin shoreline, the result of earlier generations of trees being farmed to aid Chicago after the 1871 fire. He told me the worse the cellphone service, the nicer the people. He cast a familiar deadpan, the smile of a man-eater, and he said: “I don’t know if you are aware, but there are a lot of barns out in the world.”
CTA worker Alicia Smith and former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel look at artwork by Nick Cave in the Garfield Green Line station on the South Side.
Rahm Emanuel tours spots in Chicago significant to his term as mayor, about a year after leaving office.
Tennis coach Kamau Murray welcomes Rahm Emanuel to the XS Tennis Village in Washington Park.
Former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel walks through the Englewood Whole Foods store on Feb. 14.