By now everyone has an image of Rahm Emanuel. He’s the profanity-spewing political street-fighter. He’s the guy who once sent a dead fish to a political opponent. This past week, “Saturday Night Live” spoofed him as an abrasive pit bull. “On Friday, the White House released Rahm Emanuel back into the wild,” Seth Meyers joked during “Weekend Update.”
This image doesn’t square with the guy I’ve covered for the past decade. I began interviewing Emanuel when he was in the House, while he was building the Democratic majority. Then when he moved to the Obama White House, I was one of the many people on his long, long call list. He’d call a few times a week. The calls lasted from 45 seconds to two minutes, enough time for him to tout some speech or policy initiative, answer a question and then be off.
Every conversation, short or long, was a headlong rush. Rahm is always passionately promoting some policy idea. In Congress during the Bush era, he was pushing programs to boost America’s saving rate (which actually would have been a good thing in that debt-fueled decade). Over the past couple years he’s been boosting community colleges, education reform, innovation and job-creation schemes.
He’s like an urban cowboy poking his herd of cattle with a stick. Every head in the herd gets a poke every day. He’s willing to be a relentless noodge to keep the herd moving in the right direction.
In my experience, Rahm’s reputation for profanity and rage is vastly overstated. On several occasions I thought I was finally going to see him on the rampage. In March 2009, I wrote a column arguing that Obama was not the fiscal moderate he pretended to be. Rahm asked me to stop by his office that afternoon. I came wearing my asbestos underwear, but Rahm calmly made his case with graphs and charts.[...]
Over all, Rahm is a warmhearted Machiavellian. On the one hand, he is a professional strategist. He surveys the landscape and figures out how he can push or maneuver people into getting what he wants. He ran a disciplined White House.
On the other hand, he is not one of these cold-eyed tacticians who is always hedging his bets. He’s not one of these butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-his-mouth guys.
Any smart pat of butter would spot him at 100 yards and flee. That’s because Rahm is completely in touch with his affections and aversions. He knows who and what he loves — Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, the city of Chicago — and there is nothing hedged about his devotion to those things. He may be a professional tactician, but he speaks the language of loyalty and commitment, not the language of calculations and self-interest.
I’m writing this appreciation of Rahm because success has a way of depersonalizing its beneficiaries. From the moment kids are asked to subdue their passions in order to get straight As to the time they arrive at a company and are asked to work 70 hours a week climbing the ladder, people have an incentive to suppress their passions and prune their souls.
That’s especially true in Washington, a town with more than its fair share of former hall monitors, a place where politicians engage in these pantomime gestures of faux friendship and become promotable, hollowed-out caricatures of themselves.
But Rahm has somehow managed to remain true to his whole and florid self. He’s managed to preserve the patois of Chicago, the earthy freneticism of his Augie March upbringing.
He made some big mistakes: Trying to use the financial crisis as an opportunity to do everything at once. He can sometimes be harsh. But he has generally lived up to his ample heart. He gave up the chance to be speaker of the House because of his affection for Obama. He gave up the chief of staff job and returned to Chicago because that city is in his bones.
Tuesday, October 05, 2010
Rahm has a soft side...
David Brooks has a nice op-ed on Rahm Emanuel.