Tuesday, January 31, 2006

It’s Not the Same Old Rahm I Knew (From the `80s)

Way back in the 1980s I first met Rahm Emanuel when, as a friend of Mark Hornung’s (then editorial page editor of the Sun-Times) he was striving to be a player on talk radio. Then the only talk radio panel worth thinking about was Bruce DuMont’s on public radio. Rahm wanted to get on it. Since I knew Bruce, Rahm would call me at Quaker Oats every day and say: “Tommeee! Can you put in a good word for me with Bruce?” Distracted by the weight of serious public policy issues involving oatmeal, I promised but soon forgot. The next morning: “Tommmee! Did you--?” l said no but I will.

So one day I did and Bruce kindly invited him on. None of this really appreciated how much this meant to Rahm. He wasn’t too bad a guest on a panel that had liberals and conservatives. But I remember his mantra in those days. Reagan was president and had made national security a major issue vis-à-vis the Cold War. Democrats had been the party of nuclear freeze and disarmament since George McGovern. Rahm, a very bright upwardly mobile job aspirant, stressed how his party should re-take the center with a strong national security policy. Well, it didn’t thanks to Mondale and Dukakis. All this while, Rahm was stressing that his party was woefully weak on a central issue of concern to Americans. One night in despair he said that the only way he would get inside the White House would be to rent a tuxedo and pose as a waiter, a rather locally famous observation at the time. Rahm’s steadfast declarations in behalf of a strong national security policy was bolstered by his undeniably forthright willingness to volunteer as a lay worker in Israel and serve in military hospitals during Iraq War I. That decision won applause from all of us, including his detractors.

When he got to the White House, having been a successful fund-raiser for Bill Clinton, I imagined he kept his original views on national security intact. After Clinton, he became a multi-millionaire, having parleyed his friendship with Bob Rubin into investment banking of which he knew nothing—and then used his riches to help fund his own congressional campaign. Close investment banking ties led him to a berth on Ways and Means and fund-raising expertise to the chairmanship of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Not bad for a decade or so of work. And his finding Tammy Duckworth goes to his credit, too. This severely wounded Iraq War helicopter pilot can, with Rahm’s direction, just manage to get elected. If she doesn’t (and it looks like rather than lying down Duckworth’s dovish primary opponents won’t, touting the Nancy Pelosi line) it won’t be Rahm’s fault. But he has been taking flak from the Democratic party left for stepping into the primary in the 8th and picking Duckworth.

Maybe his defending himself from flak from the left explains the story in yesterday’s Trib which showed Rahm embarrassed at a DCCC fund-raising breakfast in Columbus, Ohio when he was called on the mat by fellow Democrats for declaring that national security would not be an issue in 2006. Not an issue in 2006? With Karl Rove declaring that Republicans will be running on this issue? With a galaxy of GOP presidentialwanna-be’s tuning up on defense for 2008? And every halfway savvy pundit saying that this is the only way Republicans can beat the odds? And Rahm is taking the issue off the table for Democrats when he will be judged on how he does in House races in 2006?

What happened to the old Rahm Emanuel? Either he’s mad (no likelihood) or trying to mute his hawk image and cozy up to Nancy Pelosi, the super-dove for now. But if his candidates lose, count on him to do a u-turn after 2006 and declare her strategy lost the Dems their chance to re-gain the House and lead a battle against her for minority leader. That’s the Rahm I know, the one who would call me up and begin purringly, “Tommeeee!”

Now your comments about Rahm.

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