This week, former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was elected the 55th mayor of America's third largest city, Chicago. Ironically, he won the five-way race by capturing precisely 55% of the vote. Without question, Mayor-elect Emanuel has his work cut out for him; Chicago, like many American cities, is faced with both a growing budget deficit and a shrinking tax base.
Although he has been on the national political scene for nearly a generation, the now 51-year old Emanuel is not all that well known. What follows is his entry in my new book "The Jews of Capitol Hill," which is now available in hardback, as well as Kindle and Nook. His entry ends at the point where he announced that he was leaving the Obama White House and returning to Chicago . . .
2006 was a heady, historic year for congressional Democrats. Not only did they wrest both the House and Senate from Republican control; it was the first time since 1922 that a party did not lose a single congressional seat. Every Democrat running for reelection in 2006 won; every retiring Democrat was replaced by another. Prior to the election, House Republicans had held a 232-203 edge; once the votes were tabulated, Democrats had a 233-202 majority.
Democrats would continue to build on this number well into 2008, winning special elections in Louisiana and Mississippi. And, in one of the most stunning upsets in modern American political history, Democrat Bill Foster, a physicist with a Harvard PhD won a March 8, 2008 special election to fill the seat of retiring Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert. The Republican’s 1994 “revolution” had been dealt a mortal blow.
When the House convened in early January 2007, it was poised to add yet another chapter to the history books: electing the first woman Speaker of the House. The honor of placing outgoing House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s name in nomination was given to the man most agreed was largely responsible for giving Democrats their majority: Illinois Representative Rahm Emanuel. Traditionally, this singular honor would be given to a far more senior member of the House. That Emanuel was entering only his third term was singularly unique. Then again, few people have ever entered the House of Representatives with more high-octane political experience than the man fellow Democrats often refer to as “Rahmbo,” and describe as a “pit bull, a shark, a barracuda and a host of unprintable names.”
Congressman Rahm Emanuel is well known for welcoming guests to his office with a friendly, “Scumbag! Come in.” He has long referred to Washington as “Fucknutsville,” and once sent a pollster who displeased him a decomposing two-and-a-half-foot fish. And yet, despite the profanity, sharp temper and eccentricity, his colleagues stand in awe of his energy, tenacity and political smarts. Former President Bill Clinton perhaps described Emanuel best when he referred to him as “a breath of fresh air blowing at gale force speed.”
Benjamin Auerbach, the future Congressman’s father, was born in Jerusalem where he served in the pre-state Jewish underground. Benjamin joined the radical Irgun, (whose commanders would include Menachem Begin, a future Israeli Prime Minister) rather than the “more mainstream Haganah,” because, as writer Naftali Bendavid notes, “. . . his relatives had joined it, not because he subscribed to its ideology.” When Benjamin’s elder brother Emanuel was killed in the Arab insurrection of 1936, he changed the family name to honor his memory. One of Benjamin Emanuel’s jobs in the underground was “putting up anti-British posters.” One day, a British soldier caught him, and smashed him on the head with a baton, leaving a dent in his skull that would remain for the rest of his life.
Benjamin eventually migrated to Chicago, where he attended medical school. While completing his medical residency, Dr. Emanuel met Marsha Smulvitz, a nurse working in the same hospital. The couple married in 1955, and moved to Chicago’s North Side, where Dr. Emanuel became a successful pediatrician.
Marsha Emanuel is described as a “proud leftist and impassioned civil rights activist.” Speaking about his parents on the House floor on the occasion of their 50th anniversary, Rahm Emanuel recounted his mother’s “remarkable history of serving the greater good,” and told of her serving “4 years on the Congress of Racial Equality . . . and (participating) in Freedom Marches in the South.” Mrs. Emanuel earned an advanced degree in Social Work from Northwestern Illinois University, and “for more than 20 years maintained her commitment to public service by working as a social worker and counselor to local adults and children.” As a child, Rahm and his brothers, Ezekiel and Ari would accompany their mother to civil rights marches “if she judged there would be no violence.”
Rahm (Hebrew for high, lofty), the second of Benjamin and Marsha Emanuel’s three sons was born in Chicago on November 29, 1959. (In 1972, the Emanuels adopted a daughter named Shoshana.) As the middle son, Rahm often acted as the peacemaker between brothers Ezekiel and Ari. All three boys would grow up to become highly successful. In a June 1997 article entitled “The Brothers Emanuel,” New York Times writer Elisabeth Bushmiller referred to the three as “tank commanders.”
Older brother Ezekiel earned both an M.D. and a Ph.D. in political philosophy from Harvard. He is a highly respected Oncologist and bioethicist at the National Institutes of Health, a leading proponent of assisted-suicide, and author of a book on medical ethics entitled The Ends of Human Life.
Younger brother Ari is a “multimillionaire Hollywood agent,” who left talent powerhouse International Creative Management “under cover of dark” to form a rival agency. His clients include Larry David, Michael Moore, Sacha Baron Cohen and Mark Wahlberg. In November 2007, Entertainment Weekly recognized Ari as “One of the 50 smartest people in Hollywood.” (Ari, founder of the high-powered “Endeavor Agency” was ranked number 4. Those considered “smarter” than he were director James “Titanic” Cameron, Steven Spielberg, and director/writer/producer Judd “The Larry Sanders’ Show” Apatow.) In July 2006 Ari Emanuel gained widespread media attention when he called on Hollywood to blacklist actor Mel Gibson because of the actor’s anti-Semitic remarks following his DUI arrest. In an article Ari wrote for the widely-read online Huffington Post, he noted, “People in the entertainment community, whether Jew or Gentile, need to demonstrate that they understand how much is at stake in this by professionally shunning Mel Gibson and refusing to work with him, even if it means a sacrifice to their bottom line.”
Both Rahm and Ari have served as inspirations for fictional TV characters: Rahm for presidential aide “Josh Lyman” (played by actor Bradley Whitfield) on The West Wing; Ari, for the foul-mouthed agent “Ari Gold” (played by actor Jeremy Piven) on the HBO show Entourage.
As a youngster growing up Chicago, Rahm attended the Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Jewish Day School. Upon moving to Wilmette, Ari began attending public school. Even as a young student, Emanuel was politically active; he spent many hours stuffing mailboxes with campaign literature on behalf of his local congressional representative, Abner Mikva. While a student at New Trier High School, Rahm, a popular B+ student, worked afternoons at a local Arbys. One day a meat slicer cut all the way down to the bone of the middle finger on his right hand. This happened on prom weekend. Not wishing to miss the weekend’s festivities, he wrapped his injured hand in a bandage and attended the prom, winding up with a night swim in Lake Michigan. The ensuing infection made Emanuel critically ill; his temperature climbed to 106˚. Special antibiotics were flown in from Japan in order to save his life. Doctors were forced to amputate the middle finger above the knuckle. As biographer Bendavid noted, “That partial finger became part of his image. He joked on occasion that giving someone half a finger was the sentiment he was aiming for.” More importantly, this brush with death made the young Emanuel more focused, more serious.
Sensing that her middle son had talent, Marsha Emanuel sent Rahm to take ballet lessons. Emanuel flourished, eventually graduating from the Evanston School of Ballet and winning a scholarship to the prestigious Joffrey Ballet. Instead, Rahm opted to head of to the formerly women’s college Sarah Lawrence, which had a strong dance program. Emanuel graduated in 1981, and earned an M.A. in Speech and Communications from Northwestern University in 1985. While still an undergraduate, Emanuel spent weekends back in Chicago, working on behalf of David Robinson, a Democrat attempting to unseat Republican Representative Paul Findley, who was “notorious in the Jewish community for his criticism of Israel.” Upon returning to the Windy City for good, he was hired to raise cash for Paul Simon’s 1984 Senate race; in 1988, he became national campaign director of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC); the next year he became senior advisor and chief fundraiser for William M. Dailey’s successful campaign for Mayor of Chicago. As a fundraiser, Emanuel was “ferocious.” Bendavid relates how Emanuel, “told contributors who usually gave $1,000 that this time they were expected to give $5,000. Those who usually gave $5,000 were expected to provide $25,000.” As a result of Rahm Emanuel’s “ferocity,” the Daly campaign raised an astonishing $13 million in seven weeks, and coasted to victory. Rahm Emanuel’s political prowess, energy and fundraising prowess were already becoming a legend.
Emanuel took a break from politics when, in 1991, he went to Israel during the First Gulf War. There, working as a civilian volunteer, he spent his time rust-proofing tanks at an army base in Northern Israel. Years later, when Rahm Emanuel had already come to national prominence, anti-Israel polemicists, citing both the congressman’s “activities” in Israel during the Gulf War and his father’s former participation in the Irgun, would claim that he was and is, part of an “International Zionist Conspiracy.” Among the more ludicrous claims made on various websites are that Emanuel “is the son of an Israeli terrorist,” an “Israeli citizen who hid his passport in his underwear drawer,” and “went to Israel and reportedly joined the Israeli army to defend Zion from Saddam’s Scuds.” One site went so far as to claim that while a youthful member of the Irgun, Benjamin Emanuel had been “part of the Israeli assassin team that murdered Sweden’s Count (Folke) Bernadotte in 1948.”
Upon returning from Israel Emanuel joined Bill Clinton’s fledgling presidential campaign, eventually becoming its Director of Finance. Emanuel was able to convince the then-Arkansas governor that he should spent the lion’s share of his time fundraising— an activity which Clinton hated like the plague. Emanuel’s fundraising efforts – and style – proved to be one of the keys to Clinton’s victory over George H.W. Bush in November 1992.
The story is told that after Clinton had secured his victory, a number of key aides met at the campaign’s favorite hangout, “Does” (pronounced doze) in Little Rock. There, Emanuel, and key campaign aides George Stephenopolous and Mandy Grunwald gathered for a joyous campaign post mortem. As New York Times writer Bushmiller noted: “Revenge was heavy in the air as the group discussed the enemies - Democrats, Republicans, members of the press - who wronged them during the 1992 campaign. Clifford Jackson, the ex-friend of the President and peddler of the Clinton draft-dodging stories, was high on the list. So was William Donald Schaefer, then the Governor of Maryland and a Democrat who endorsed George Bush. Nathan Landow, the fund-raiser who backed the candidacy of Paul Tsongas, made it, too.” Suddenly Emanuel grabbed his steak knife and, as those who were there remember, shouted out the name of another enemy, lifted the knife, then brought it down with full force into the table. 'Dead!' he screamed. The group immediately joined in the cathartic release: 'Nat Landow! Dead!’ ‘Cliff Jackson!’ Dead! ‘Bill Schaefer! Dead!’''
All Washington was about to learn who Rahm Emanuel was.
Emanuel joined the Clinton White House as the new president’s senior advisor. Early in his tenor, Emanuel “produced, directed and choreographed” the historic Rose Garden signing ceremony – and iconic handshake – between Israeli President Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. It was an event “which touched Emanuel’s political sensibilities and his personal ties to Israel.”
Emanuel’s brusque, blunt demeanor did not sit well with many Clinton insiders. One day Clinton Chief of Staff Thomas “Mack” MacLarty informed Emanuel that the president “wanted him out of the White House.” Emanuel stood his ground, telling MacLarty he would not budge until he heard this directly from the president himself. Clinton, who was loathe to fire the man who, more than many, was responsible for his being president, instead demoted Emanuel; his new title was “Director of Special Programs.” Emanuel’s first assignment in this post was the “thankless task” of shepherding NAFTA through Congress. The day he was handed the assignment, only five Democrats were publicly in favor of its enactment. By the time Emanuel had finished a three-month all-out campaign – aided by Chicago Mayor Daley whom Clinton had asked in to help – 102 Democrats joined 132 Republicans in passing the historic bill.
Rahm Emanuel was also given the lion’s share of credit for passing Clinton’s $30 billion Crime Bill. At first, the House defeated the measure 235-210; the Washington Post called it “the biggest legislative defeat” of Clinton’s young presidency.” Rahm Emanuel then went to work prodding, cajoling and threatening congressional Democrats. Ten days later, a second vote was taken; this time it passed 235-195. By this point, Rahm Emanuel was beginning to draw comparisons to “another tempestuous character in American politics” – Lyndon Johnson: “Both had an instinct for politics that was almost animalistic, an encyclopedic knowledge of the political scene, a gift for hard-hitting and creative methods, and a raw, elemental energy.” Political scientist Larry Sabato went so far as to claim that “He’s got some of the LBJ genes . . . he’s the Jewish LBJ.”
In 1986, Rahm Emanuel met Amy Rule, a Wharton MBA who worked at the Art Institute of Chicago. At first glance the two were bipolar opposites: Amy was a non-Jew who came from an “actively Republican” family.” Nonetheless, the two hit it off, and married in 1990. Amy converted to Judaism during the time her husband was working in the Clinton White House. Rahm attending all of her conversion classes, “though he was exhausted and often fell asleep during a session.” The Emanuel’s have three children: Zachariah, Ilana and Leah.
Upon taking his leave from the Clinton Administration in 1998, the Emanuels returned to Chicago where Rahm had accepted a high-paying job in a field he ostensibly knew nothing about: investment banking. Shortly after being named a managing director of Wasserstein, Parella & Co., Emanuel was appointed to a two-year term on the board of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Board of Directors. Ever the quick learner, Emanuel wound up making an astounding $16.2 million dollars in less than three years. He was now ready to go on to the next stage of his career: a seat in the House of Representatives.
Illinois’ Fifth Congressional District “covers an oddly shaped swatch across Chicago’s North Side, running from the lakefront to the suburbs directly south of O’Hare Airport.” It includes the Windy City’s must glamorous, upscale lakefront apartments, the gentrified Old Town, and Wrigley Field, the home of the Chicago Cubs. It contains the lowest percentage of African American voters (2.2%), and one of the highest (23%) percentages of Hispanic voters of any district in the state. It goes without saying that it is a highly Democratic district. For 36 years (1959-1995) the people of the Fifth D.C. were represented by the legendary long-time chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Democrat Dan Rostenkowski (1928-2010). After getting caught in the House Post Office scandal, “Rostie” was defeated for reelection by Republican Michael Patrick Flanagan, who in turn was defeated after serving only one term by Democrat Rod Blagojevich. Blogojevich (1956- ) gave up his seat in 2002 in order to run for Governor; he defeated Republican Jim Ryan 52%-48%. Blogojevich was easily reelected in 2006, and eventually became embroiled in his own scandals . . .
Facing an 11-candidate primary and the pique of many who felt that he was an outsider, an interloper, Emanuel – not surprisingly – raised nearly $3 million. Before too long, the field winnowed down to Emanuel and former state representative Nancy Kaszak, who had lost the 1996 primary to Blagojevich. Kaszak of course portrayed Emanuel as an “outsider.” Her campaign fell apart when one of her supporters – a local Polish-American leader – charged that Emanuel “served in the Israeli army . . . in 1991, and suggested he had dual loyalties.” The charges were patently false; as noted above, Emanuel served as a civilian volunteer during the first Gulf War. Nonetheless, Kaszak’s campaign never recovered from this episode, and Emanuel coasted to a 50%-39% primary victory. He then defeated his Republican opponent by a better than 2-1 margin in the general election.
Although nominally at the bottom of the congressional totem pole, Rahm Emanuel entered the House with far more national political experience – and a greater network of contacts – than perhaps any freshman representative of the past 50 years. He also carried a reputation for being an “intense, high-energy personality with a legendary disregard for what others think of him.” His initial entry in The Almanac of American Politics (2004 edition) ended with the words “Emanuel has shown that he is a member to watch. By the beginning of his third term, the Congressional Quarterly’s Politics in America began its article with the words “Emanuel’s mix of political and policy smarts has made him one of the most important Democratic players on Capitol Hill.”
Upon entering the House, Rahm Emanuel sought a seat on Ways and Means; he was turned down. Undaunted, Emanuel was assigned to the House Budget Committee and worked hard to make himself an able legislator. He also showed himself highly capable of reaching across the political aisle. Among his bi-partisan accomplishments was a measure (co-sponsored with Minnesota Republican Gil Gutknecht) allowing Americans to import prescription drugs from other countries, and another that greatly expanded the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP) to cover 6 million children “who are estimated to be eligible for public insurance but not enrolled.”
Reelected with 76% of the vote in 2004, Emanuel not only got his seat on Ways and Means; he entered the House leadership track. Then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi named him head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee – the group for which he had once been a paid employee. As DCCC chair, Emanuel was charged with the task of “recruiting candidates for House races, raising money and vetting strategy for dozens of districts.” At the time of his appointment, experts suggested that the Democrats would be lucky to pick up 5 seats in the 2006 off-year elections. Under Emanuel’s relentless prodding, pushing and fundraising, Democrats wound up winning 28 new seats.
Working in tandem with his Senate counterpart, New York Senator Chuck Schumer, Emanuel was absolutely pivotal in restoring the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. Under Emanuel’s leadership, the DCCC raised and spent nearly $65 million on the 2005-06 House races – a nearly 75% increase over what had been raised and spent in the previous two-year period. In addition to this fundraising, Emanuel enticed people to run who were themselves capable of raising vast sums of money. Moreover, he encouraged Iraq War veterans to run as Democrats.
Emanuel’s encyclopedic knowledge of the 50 most competitive House districts gave him an edge. He also hit upon the strategy of “keeping the opposition uncomfortable.” As Bendavid noted in a post-election article, “If a Republican congressman took a vote that he hoped no one in his district would notice, such as supporting a Bush budget cut, Emanuel immediately issued a press release and sent it to the Republican's hometown newspaper. He then sent it to the lawmaker's office to, as he said, "(mess) with their heads."
Emanuel also hit upon naming one House Republican “the rubber stamp of the week,” and another “the crony of the week.” House members who received money from drugmakers or oil companies were ridiculed as “lackeys of special interests.” In seeking Democratic candidates who could successfully challenge entrenched Republicans, Emanuel often went “outside the political box.” Case in point, former Washington Redskin quarterback Heath Schuler, an evangelical Christian who is opposed to abortion. Emanuel understood Schuler’s main concern about being elected to the House: not being able to spend time with his two young children. In order to allay Schuler’s fears, Emanuel took to calling him whenever he was with his children. According to Bendavid, “Schuler would pick up the phone and hear, ‘It's Rahm. I'm at a soccer game with my kids. Just wanted you to know that.’ Or ‘It's Rahm. I'm at a kindergarten play now. Talk to you soon." Shuler received perhaps 10 such calls.” “Of course,” as Bendavid noted, “this also illustrated that whenever Emanuel was with his family, he was working.” Schuler wound up defeating 8-term incumbent Charles Taylor by more than 17,000 votes – 54%-46%, despite being outspent by a better than $2.5 million.
As a reward for all his hard work, Speaker Pelosi asked Emanuel what he leadership post he wanted. He felt pressured to make a quick decision. Many Emanuel allies urged him to run for Majority Whip – the number three position – “. . . a job for which he was well-suited because of its emphasis both on policy and arm-twisting.” But South Carolina Representative James Clyburn, a former chair of the House Black Caucus, had already staked out the position. Emanuel was “reluctant to challenge the respected Clyburn,” and instead decided to take over the post that the South Carolina Democrat was vacating: chair of the Democratic Caucus. In this post, Rahm Emanuel was well positioned to be the party’s “top strategist, spokesman and enforcer.”
As the authors of The Almanac of American Politics (2008 edition) note, “With each of the top three Democratic leaders about 20 years older than him, Emanuel is well-positioned to become Speaker within the next decade if he is willing to be patient.”
Less than 24 hours after his election, President Elect Barack Obama announced his first executive appointment: Rahm Emanuel as White House Chief of Staff. In accepting the appointment, Emanuel thereby became the third Jew to occupy that powerful position. (The first was President Ronald Reagan’s chief, Ken Duberstein; the second, George W. Bush’s Chief, Josh Bolten.) In announcing his selection, Obama said of his good friend: “. . . no one I know is better at getting things done than Rahm Emanuel.” Emanuel immediately issued a statement in which he called himself humbled and honored. Emanuel’s appointment immediately drew mixed reviews with Democrats largely praising and Republicans largely disparaging their colleague for being hyper-partisan. New York Representative Thomas McReynolds, who ran the Republican Party’s House election committee at the time Emanuel chaired the Democratic version, said of his colleague, “He is competitive, hardworking, hard-charging, and street smart. At the end of the day, you send him to get a mission done, he’ll get it done.”
On December 10, 2009, National Journal released a “sneak peak” of a poll it had conducted among “Congressional and political insiders” on their “favorite members of Congress, the member they’d most like to shut up, the brightest thinkers and strategists in their party” and much more. Among the 68 Democratic Congressional insiders making up the Journal’s polling group, Rahm Emmanuel was listed as his party’s “Best political strategist” by a wide margin. Among the “political insiders” Emanuel came in second – after former President Bill Clinton.
In October 2010, Rahm Emanuel resigned his White House post in order to contemplate running for mayor of Chicago, following the retirement of Richard M. Daley. At the press conference announcing his resignation, President Barack Obama, while not endorsing Emanuel, did say he thought his about to become former chief of staff would make an excellent mayor. . . .
©2011 Kurt F. Stone