He grabbed a steak knife and began rattling off a list of betrayers, shouting ‘Dead! … Dead! … Dead!’ and plunging the knife into the table after every name….
By CALVIN WOODWARD and CHRISTOPHER WILLS
WASHINGTON – A student of ballet, Rahm Emanuel has shown a flair for theatrics over his years as a Democratic operative. His fancy dancing has been anything but delicate, however.
Upset with a Democratic pollster during a long-ago congressional race, Emanuel mailed him a big dead fish. Outraged over what he regarded as disloyal Democrats during Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, he stunned dinner companions by rattling off names of the offenders, each time stabbing the restaurant table with a dinner knife and shouting, “Dead.”
This is one way of expressing the “fierce urgency of now.”
Emanuel embodied that phrase years before the man he will serve as White House chief of staff, President-elect Obama, popularized it.
“Rahmbo” is said to have mellowed over the years, but that’s relative. That’s from a starting point of pugnaciousness the likes of which even the hardened politicos of Washington don’t see every day.
Altogether he’s a striking contrast to the cool-tempered president he’ll serve and the driven but rather quiet men who have been around Obama. He shares their discipline, at least.
Emanuel comes to the job with a reputation for getting things done — a focused mind in Clinton’s chaotic terms and, after a lucrative detour into banking, an architect of his party’s takeover of Congress in the 2006 elections and its further advances Tuesday.
“He is competitive, hardworking, hard-charging and street smart,” said Rep. Thomas Reynolds of New York, who ran the Republicans’ House election committee in 2006 when Emanuel was in charge of the Democratic counterpart. “At the end of the day, you send him to get a mission done, he’ll get it done.”
John Fritchey, a member of the Illinois House whose district is part of Emanuel’s congressional district, said a chief of staff is supposed to be “a bad guy at times. That’s a role he can not only excel at but may even relish.”
Even so, Emanuel’s dogged partisanship has not stopped him from working with Republicans on issues such as the financial rescue package and transportation. He made his strongest mark under Clinton by pressing the centrist portions of the president’s agenda, including welfare reform, tough-on-crime measures and the North American Free Trade Agreement.
For the last two years, Emanuel and Republican Rep. Ray LaHood, also of Illinois, have put on dinners for small groups of lawmakers from both parties. “These intimate, yet no-holds-barred dinners have underscored something that I believe is very important for a functional Congress: To get things done on Capitol Hill, one must work in a bipartisan manner,” LaHood said. “Rahm Emanuel shares that belief.”
Emanuel, who turns 49 on Nov. 29, grew up in the ritzy Chicago suburb of Wilmette, the son of an Israeli physician who moved to the United States. In a what he recognized later as a boneheaded move, the son of a doctor avoided the hospital for several days after cutting off part of his middle finger of his right hand while working in a restaurant. Infection set in, and he said he almost lost his arm, if not his life, during weeks in the hospital.
His brother Ari is a Hollywood agent and the inspiration for Ari Gold, the Type-A superagent on the HBO series “Entourage.” The congressman himself has been cited as an inspiration for presidential aide Josh Lyman on the drama series “The West Wing.”
His start in politics came after college, when he worked for Paul Simon’s 1984 Senate campaign and Richard Daley’s run for Chicago mayor in 1989.
Then he went to work for a little-known Arkansas governor who wanted to be president.
Emanuel’s fundraising skills helped keep Clinton’s campaign afloat during some rocky times, particularly the scandal over whether he’d slept with Gennifer Flowers.
Clinton made him his political director in the new administration but internal tensions led to his comeuppance a year later at the hands of Hillary Rodham Clinton, when he was demoted to a policy adviser.
Ever the loyalist, he learned better how to get along, while retaining his aggressive ways. A finger-jabber who’s been known to pinch men in the arm and leave a bruise, Emanuel took up residence in a closet-sized office. That didn’t diminish his mega-sized ego and thirst for the fight.
One day shortly after the demotion, he summoned a reporter to his office, shut the door and berated him. Each sentence was laced with profanity. His face was tomato-red. He wagged his finger in the reporter’s face and yelled.
Rahm Emanuel was born in Chicago, Illinois. His first name, Rahm, means “high” or “lofty” in Hebrew, while his last name, Emanuel, means “God is with us.” His father, the Jerusalem-born Benjamin M. Emanuel, is a pediatrician and former member of the Irgun (Irgun Zeva’i Le’ummi), a military Nationalist group treated as a terrorist organization during British rule. Emanuel’s older brother, Ezekiel, is a bioethicist.
His father, still practicing near Chicago, emigrated to the United States from Israel. Emanuel volunteered as a civilian volunteer in the Israel Defense Forces during the 1991 Gulf War.
Career as political staffer
Following the campaign, Emanuel became a senior advisor to Clinton at the White House from 1993 to 1998. In the White House, Emanuel was initially Assistant to the President for Political Affairs and then Senior Advisor to the President for Policy and Strategy. He was a leading strategist in the unsuccessful White House efforts to institute universal healthcare and many other Clinton initiatives.
One of his proudest moments during the Clinton administration “was an event that touched his political sensibilities and his personal ties to Israel: the 1993 Rose Garden signing ceremony after the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Emanuel directed the details of the ceremony, down to the choreography of the famous handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.”
Emanuel is said to have “mailed a rotting fish to a former coworker after the two parted ways.” On the night after the 1996 election, “Emanuel was so angry at the president’s enemies that he stood up at a celebratory dinner with colleagues from the campaign, grabbed a steak knife and began rattling off a list of betrayers, shouting ‘Dead! … Dead! … Dead!’ and plunging the knife into the table after every name.” His “take-no-prisoners attitude” earned him the nickname “Rahm-bo”.
Election in 2002
Following the end of the Clinton presidency, Emanuel went into investment banking, reportedly earning $8 million in his three years as managing director of Wasserstein Perella & Co./Dresdner Kleinwort. Deciding to return to politics, he pursued the U.S. House seat in the 5th District of Illinois previously held by Rod Blagojevich, who chose not to run for re-election, but instead successfully ran for Governor of Illinois.
The most controversial moment of the primary election came when Edward Moskal, president of the Polish American Congress, a political action committee endorsing Kaszak, called Emanuel a “millionaire carpetbagger who knows nothing” about “our heritage”. Moskal also charged that Emanuel had dual citizenship with Israel and had served in the Israeli Army. Rahm was a civilian volunteer in the Israel Defense Forces during the 1991 Gulf War and was born a citizen due to his father’s (dual) Israeli-U.S. citizenship, but relinquished it when he turned 18.
Emanuel still is close to Bill Clinton, and talked strategy with him at least once a month as chairman of the DCCC. He declared in April 2006 that he would support Hillary Rodham Clinton should she pursue the presidency in 2008. However, Emanuel’s loyalties came into conflict when his home-state senator Barack Obama expressed interest in the race; asked in January 2007 about his stance on the Democratic presidential nomination, he said: “I’m hiding under the desk. I’m very far under the desk, and I’m bringing my paper and my phone.”
Open Secrets reports that Rahm Emanuel “was the top House recipient in the 2008 election cycle of contributions from hedge funds, private equity firms and the larger securities/investment industry”.
Emanuel is noted for his strong style and his fundraising prowess. He is co-author with current Democratic Leadership Council President Bruce Reed of the 2006 book The Plan: Big Ideas for America. He is a member of the New Democrat Coalition.
Emanuel, whose father was in Irgun, is a strong supporter of AIPAC, and personally introduced fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama to the organization’s directors during the 2008 presidential campaign. According to Fox News, in accordance with his deep Jewish roots and his volunteering in Israel when it was under attack from Saddam Hussein’s missiles in the first Gulf War, he has indicated consistent support for Israel.
Emanuel held a seat on the quasi-governmental Freddie Mac board, which paid him $231,655 in director’s fees in 2001 and $31,060 in 2000…During the time Emanuel spent on the board, Freddie Mac was plagued with scandal involving campaign contributions and accounting irregularities…”
A 2006 Chicago Tribune article raised speculation regarding a possible connection between Emanuel’s Congressional election success and convicted former Chicago water department boss Don Tomczak.