MotherJones ND93: Tough guy muzzled

The Clinton Administration has been far better at making concessions than extracting them. Rahm Emanuel has a different philosophy.

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Rahm Emanuel doesn’t want this story to be written. If he can’t prevent that, he’d rather you didn’t read it. “Can’t I talk you out of this?” he pleads.

He worries that his White House colleagues don’t appreciate the attention he’s been getting. The Wall Street Journal and SPY magazine have recently published unflattering profiles about him. All articles, especially negative ones, are distractions, and Emanuel just wants to do his job–and keep his job.

So he sits uneasily in his boxy White House office, stretching a rubber band until it breaks, at which point he starts snapping it like a tiny whip. On the table in front of him is a file labeled “GOP Attacks.” On one wall hangs a picture of Rahm bonding with President Clinton.

Emanuel sighs, sounding older than his thirty-three years. “Another story is not what I need.” There are touches of gray in his curly black hair.

Not long ago, Rahm Emanuel seemed untouchable. In 1992, he was Bill Clinton’s campaign-finance director, garnering the lion’s share of the credit for the $71 million the campaign raised. After election day, Emanuel staged Clinton’s inaugural, a week-long party and logistical nightmare. And when Clinton took the oath of office, Emanuel followed him into the White House as political director.

Over the course of his rapid rise, Emanuel earned a reputation. Two reputations, actually. His critics think him arrogant, rash, and power-hungry. They remember how Emanuel once sent a rotting fish to a former coworker with whom he had parted ways. “Nobody says he’s dumb, but everyone says he’s an asshole,” says another former coworker.

His defenders insist that Emanuel is loyal, efficient, and effective. “What happens to Rahm sometimes is the same thing that happens to me sometimes,” says James Carville, Clinton’s outspoken political adviser. “People don’t understand him.”

One thing both sides agree upon: Emanuel is one of the few people in the administration ready to play political hardball.

But these days, Emanuel is tense, and he’s trying to keep his hardball instincts in check, to be more diplomatic. The reason? In June, Chief of Staff Thomas “Mack” McLarty ousted Emanuel from the political director post, placing him in a vaguely defined new job under communications director Mark Gearan. His new title is the less- impressive deputy director of communications.

Emanuel spins the job change as best he can, comparing it to George Stephanopoulos’s recent kick upstairs. “It’s like the George thing,” he claims. “Everyone describes it as a slight, and then you emerge from it stronger than before.” He points out that he retains the title of assistant to the president, so he still sits in on the highest- level meetings. “I have my detractors,” he admits, pounding the table in front of him. “And you know what? I–pound–don’t –pound–give a damn.

If Rahm Emanuel’s story were simply a morality play about the comeuppance of an arrogant young man intoxicated with power, it would be neither important nor singular. But it, and Emanuel, are more complicated, and his story matters not only because of what it says about Emanuel, but because of what it reveals about the Clinton administration’s style of governing.

For Emanuel’s trial is taking place in the infancy of a new presidency, an administration feeling its way around Washington like a child in a dark room. Criticized as amateurish early on, that administration responded with a personnel shuffle. To mollify the press, Stephanopoulos was replaced with kindly Mark Gearan. For image touch-ups, enter David Gergen, who wears ideologies like Mr. Potato Head wears faces. And, less publicized but equally important, Rahm Emanuel was shifted to something called communications “rapid response,” the exact meaning of which, at this writing, not even Rahm is sure. His replacement, Joan Baggett, is a smooth, tactful woman, a former assistant to Ron Brown when he was Democratic National Committee chairman, who admits that she’s “much less controversial” than Emanuel.

These personnel shifts had an underlying logic. They showed that an administration that had campaigned on a theme of change was, at least on the surface, making its peace with the powers-that-be in Washington–Capitol Hill, the press, lobbyists. The outsiders were becoming insiders.

“Rahm’s fall from grace means nothing to the world at large,” says one high-ranking Democratic party official, “but it means a lot to the world of Washington. It means, ‘We’re going to be nice to you. We will sugarcoat things. We will lie to you.'”

It’s the same style of doing business that earned Clinton the “Slick Willie” tag during the campaign. Clinton’s entourage survived then. Will they now?

On a Sunday-afternoon bicycle ride through Washington’s Rock Creek Park, Emanuel reveals some of the qualities that innocent bystanders find so annoying. For one thing, wearing tight biking shorts and a helmet, no shirt, he looks cocky. Another problem is the presence of others on the narrow bike trail. Shouting “Left!” Rahm whizzes by hapless yuppies and their children. His furious pace doesn’t slow for tight corners or low overhangs. Most people find bike rides relaxing, but Emanuel rides as if he’s being chased by the Headless Horseman.

It’s easy to see why Rahm’s Type-AAA personality rubs people the wrong way. When he’s done answering a question, he stops abruptly, says, “Go ahead,” and waits impatiently for the next query. He swears often. When he calls on the phone, he assumes you know who’s calling. He loves talking politics, but resists talking about himself. “I don’t know about you,” he mutters, “but if I want introspection I’m gonna pay a hundred dollars an hour.”

True, Emanuel can be warm and charming, but his humor is not for the sensitive. When his visitor asks for a tour of the White House, Emanuel just laughs. “Fuck, no. I’m going to make sure you know every exit.”

Rahm Emanuel has been preparing for his time in the White House his entire adult life. He was born in Chicago in 1959, the son of an Israeli emigre. His political career began at age twenty, when he worked on the congressional campaign of Chicago Democrat David Robinson. Rahm started as the candidate’s driver and ended as national finance director. “He was very aggressive,” remembers David Wilhelm, then Robinson’s field director and now chairman of the DNC. “If somebody gave one hundred dollars, he would call them back and say, ‘How about two hundred?'”

After his graduation from Sarah Lawrence College in 1982, Emanuel worked for a public-interest group, the Illinois Public Action Council. In 1984 he signed up with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, where he advised on midwestern House races. He later became national campaign director for the DCCC.

In 1989, Emanuel returned to Chicago, fund-raising and strategizing for Democratic Senator Paul Simon and Mayor Richard Daley. He also cofounded a political consulting firm, The Research Group, which specialized in “opposition research”–digging up dirt on the client’s opponent. In November 1991, at the urging of David Wilhelm (then Bill Clinton’s campaign manager), Emanuel joined the Clinton campaign.

It was the winter of Clinton’s discontent. When Emanuel began, Clinton’s fund-raising was way under target. Emanuel frantically organized twenty-six fund-raisers between Thanksgiving and Christmas, raising more than $3 million. Remembers George Stephanopoulos, “I read a quote somewhere that said, ‘Oh, they were going to raise all that money anyway.’ That is absolute and complete horseshit. That [fund- raising] was almost entirely Rahm’s doing.” When the Gennifer Flowers story broke in February 1992, Clinton slumped in the polls, but his cash reserves kept him going.

Emanuel also gave Clinton political advice. Before the Florida primary, for example, he argued that Clinton was being too gentle to rival Paul Tsongas. “We needed to knock him,” Emanuel remembers. Clinton shifted gears and ripped Tsongas’s economic plan as “Democratic trickle-down economics.” He won the primary, and Tsongas was never again a major factor in the campaign.

Emanuel’s advice was reminiscent of another political warrior whom Emanuel sometimes evokes: Lee Atwater. “Atwater had a keen sense of where the political battleground was,” Emanuel says admiringly. “The battleground is in middle-class America. But where he appealed to the middle class on cultural things, I prefer to do it on class and economics.”

Asked about his political beliefs, Emanuel responds more with an instinct for issues that resonate with voters than with any coherent political philosophy–another Atwateresque quality. His first instinct is always political, even though he tries to pretend otherwise. “I am interested in Bill Clinton redefining the Democratic party,” he says, “whether you call it centrism or not–I call it progressivism.”

Not exactly a call to arms. But then Emanuel gets down to specifics, talking about the issue of middle-class “security.” He hits unemployment and immigration and health care. Standard fare these days. Eventually, though, he winds up talking about . . . carjacking, the recent phenomenon of stealing cars while their owners are driving them. “I think carjacking psychologically has shaken America,” he says. It’s the kind of subtle pulse reading he’s so good at.

After the election came the inaugural. Some critics questioned the largely corporate sponsoring of the whole affair, but the president was pleased with Emanuel’s work and rewarded him with the political director’s job.

But in the next few months, things fell apart. The administration ran into controversies over gays in the military, Zoe Baird, Lani Guinier, Clinton’s two-hundred-dollar haircut, and the travel office firings. More damaging, however, was the White House’s failure to pass its $16 billion stimulus package–a humiliating setback that took the administration by surprise.

Once again, Emanuel has a gift for splitting opinion. His critics claim that Emanuel’s mistakes contributed to the administration’s early failures. His supporters say that Rahm did nothing more than slight permanent Washington. As James Carville argues, “The culture of Washington basically rewards those who say a little and do even less.” And Rahm, Carville explains, “is the ultimate can-do sort of guy.”

But Emanuel still doesn’t want to talk about it.

Dee Dee Myers, Clinton’s press secretary, is calling from Air Force One. The president is winging his way to Chicago for a conference on “the workplace of the future.” But Myers is worried: Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has publicly criticized the president. Hence the call to Emanuel, who has worked with Daley. They’re both Chicago guys.

Rahm listens a moment, then cuts in. “Dee Dee, the mayor is fine. I talk to him weekly–he gives me ideas. He wants us to succeed.” Another pause, and then Rahm starts up again, more emphatically. “Everything’s fine,” he repeats. “And the worst thing to do is to bend over backwards to try to prove how close and lovey-dovey we are. Because there’ll be no respect then.” The only thing Daley wants, Rahm says, is a line in the speech citing Chicago’s preeminence as a futuristic workplace.

Daley gets his line. In the next day’s papers, there is no mention of any tension between Clinton and the mayor.

The scene is vintage Rahm: flashing his connections, sharing his instincts, cutting through niceties in a way that borders on rudeness, and never hesitating to say, This is what we should do. Also critical is that question of respect. The way most members of the administration do business, you’d think they get rocked to sleep at night. Emanuel has a different philosophy. “[Making enemies] is inevitable,” he says. “If your goal is to get things done and get them done quickly–yes, you’re going to have those.”

When Emanuel accepted the political director’s job, he at least tried to avoid making more enemies than necessary. He decided his office should be a national aldermanic office, helping party officials in Washington and across the country. If you scratched the president’s elected back, Rahm would scratch yours.

Emanuel eagerly points to successes. “People had problems; we cut through the crap and got it done for them,” he says. One example: Paul Simon turned to Emanuel when he needed the Export-Import Bank to release a multimillion-dollar loan so that a Russian firm could buy contracting equipment from Caterpillar, an Illinois company. According to Simon, “I called him, and an hour or two later, we had a decision.”

There were internal things, too. Emanuel has pushed the White House to be proactive on the issue of immigration. “I just wanted to be ahead of this issue and have our staff on it, defining it constantly,” he says. Not coincidentally, it’s a hot issue in Texas and California, two key states in 1996.

At other times Emanuel’s mix of ambition and the desire to get things done caused him to make promises he couldn’t keep–which created more detractors.

The best example came during the battle over the stimulus package. Emanuel and DNC chair David Wilhelm were charged with drumming up public support for the spending bill. Inside-the-Beltway critics say the result of Emanuel and Wilhelm’s work was a deafening silence, allowing Republicans to define the stimulus as more pork than Oscar Mayer makes in a year.

“I had my part in screwing up the stimulus, though I don’t think I screwed it up alone,” is all Emanuel will say.

In fact, he’s right. Mistakes were made throughout the administration, from the DNC to the president, who seemed to lose interest in the stimulus package once it was sent to the Hill. Ultimately, though, it was Emanuel who got the blame.

“Rahm did more around the realm of providing strategic communications advice than around trying to build up political relationships inside Washington,” explains Joan Baggett, Emanuel’s replacement. Translation: Emanuel should have schmoozed more. And he “was very clear inside our department that he viewed our role as to build political relationships outside the Beltway.” So when the stimulus failed, “those of us in the political operation were criticized by various people of the Hill for not providing enough grassroots political support.”

Emanuel could have survived the stimulus disaster if he had had a core of supporters in Washington. He didn’t–but in a way, he only had himself to blame. He hadn’t learned the rules of the Washington game, hadn’t realized that in Washington, personal success depends not so much on accomplishment, but on the perception of accomplishment.

Take the case of David Mixner, a gay political activist who should have been willing to support Emanuel. During the campaign, Mixner had worked with Emanuel as he helped raise $3.5 million for Clinton from the gay community. But when Clinton spoke of separate facilities for gays in the military, Mixner slammed Clinton in the papers and was preparing to go on “Nightline” when he received what he calls “an extraordinary phone call” from Emanuel.

“He told me that if I proceeded to go on ‘Nightline’ and publicly criticized the president, I might not walk through the White House doors again,” Mixner remembers. “I was stunned by that. I thought he was a little young to be acting like Richard Nixon.”

Emanuel has a rather different version of what happened. “We never had that phone call,” he insists. Therefore he couldn’t have told Mixner not to go on “Nightline.” “Had I known [of Mixner’s plans],” he is quick to add, “I would have told him not to appear on ‘Nightline.’ But I never had that conversation with him.”

Who’s telling the truth? Probably a little of each and a little of neither. It’s typical Emanuel to come down hard on someone he decided was disloyal to Clinton. On the other hand, was it a bad thing for Emanuel to try to enforce a little discipline? After all, Clinton has already done more for gays and lesbians than any other president. Yet he’s probably taken more flack from those groups than any other president.

In the end, the answer was yes. At least, that seems to have been the opinion of Mack McLarty, Clinton’s chief of staff. McLarty declined to be interviewed for this article, but sources say that he decided that Emanuel had become too controversial. Sources say too that Hillary Clinton’s anger at Emanuel for the negative publicity he generated was the last nail in his coffin, though Emanuel won’t even come close to commenting on that one. In June, McLarty moved Emanuel to his new “rapid response” post, where he will help coordinate White House responses to political attacks or try to preempt them altogether. So far he’s successfully worked to fend off Republican attacks on Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the nominee for surgeon general, and to drum up support for the president’s reconciliation budget.

“You could say my detractors got me,” Emanuel says. But he prefers another explanation: “The president has been screaming about us not responding and getting defined by the opposition. And if I’m a total failure, I don’t think they would have given me that responsibility.”

In the aftermath of the personnel shifts at the White House, things have gone smoother for the administration. The National Service bill looks as though it will pass, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg was approved for the Supreme Court, as was Louis Freeh for the FBI. And, with the administration working the phones night and day, the House and Senate passed the budget. The media started being nice again. Suddenly the distractions were gone, and the Clinton administration was rolling. Or crawling, anyway.

What happened? The administration finally got its White House in order. The lobbying campaign on the budget, for example, was a much more intense affair than it had been with the stimulus package.

But maybe more important was the sense that, in the unspoken battle between the capital’s permanent residents and the new president, the president blinked first. The press, the lobbyists, the Congress–they made the administration take the blame for the rough-sledding early on. They forced some heads to roll, and they gave Clinton some favors in return. And while Emanuel might not have been the best-known head, he was probably the one the business-as-usual crowd was happiest to see leave.

“Sometimes the people that I talk with outside the White House, people that might not have liked Rahm very much personally, will say things to me about, ‘Oh, I’m so glad you’re there and not Rahm,'” says Joan Baggett. “I try to diplomatically send a signal that those comments aren’t welcome.”

There is another interpretation of the White House juggling. Maybe David Gergen and Mark Gearan are a diversion, a Trojan pony for Washington insiders to ride, and the soldiers of the Clinton administration haven’t really been disarmed, just hidden. The administration, in this view, is populated not with wimps, but with non-ideological pragmatists who have very quickly developed the cynicism necessary to survive in this city.

Washington types “think they’ve got another coup,” says Tony Coelho, former chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “They think they got one with George, and they think they got one with Rahm. George today is stronger than he’s ever been, and those people who feel they’ve stopped Rahm, they don’t understand the ability and loyalty that he has with Clinton and the principals. They’re going to need somebody who really understands how to make politics work. Rahm will be stronger than he’s ever been in 1996.”

Rahm Emanuel might agree. More likely, he doesn’t know himself what his fate will be. Which is probably why, in the end, he’d rather not talk about it.

Richard Blow is a frequent contributor to Mother Jones.


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We have about a $170,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign that ends Saturday. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

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