Friday, November 21, 2008

Personal Aside: Rahm Will be Prime Minister—Until He Either Quits, is Deposed—or Hit with a Potted Plant.


Tom Daschle…Eric Holder…Penny Pritzker…

While pundits speculate the identity of the heaviest hitter Barack Obama will name to his administration, they should not waste their time. Barring Paul Volcker (if he’s appointed treasury secretary), he’s already been named…and he’s not in the cabinet. And while he lasts (which may not be long), Rahm Emanuel, 49, of Chicago will be the virtual prime minister of this government. A NewYork Times photo of Obama’s top advisers…including the veteran Paul Volcker…showed Emanuel standing in the front row with hands on hips, a picture of saucy authority. Almost as if to say “these are my guys!”

He’ll be prime minister until he either quits, is fired or whacked on the head with a potted plant hurled by an angry fellow staffer. Assuredly, there’ll be controversy involved. I’ve written about him before but never told the story completely…as one who knew well the man known in Washington as “Rahmbo the Magnificent” in early formative years (he went to my Quaker Oats retirement party but we don’t talk now because of the retribution he tried to wreak on the late Henry Hyde in vengeance for Hyde’s bringing out of House Judiciary a bill of impeachment against Bill Clinton),

Chiefs of staff to presidents come in two categories. They are either paper shufflers or prime ministers. All of George W. Bush’s hires from Andrew Card his first to the current faceless professional Josh Bolten were paper shufflers, overshadowed by powerful cabinet forces and political guru Karl Rove. All of Bill Clinton’s top staffers…except Emanuel… were passive. Emanuel’s personality is a forceful prime minister type but is so terribly abrasive and profane he may well not survive beyond a few months unless there is a dramatic change in personality. He was, in fact, demoted as Bill Clinton’s political director to a lesser role because Hillary Clinton couldn’t abide him. Later, in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Clinton needed him and moved him upward again where he took over the p.r. strategy to defend his boss from impeachment (which didn’t work) and then from Senate conviction (which did).

How did Emanuel land his job in the White House with Clinton? Fresh from being what he himself called “the top raiser of Jewish money” in Chicago for Mayor Richard M. Daley, he started on the 1992 campaign trail as a fund-raiser beginning with the New Hampshire primary. But soon he would become far more than a chaser after rich contributors. Then the most serious rival to Clinton was Paul Tsongas, the ex-Massachusetts senator. Knowing that Clinton would face a serious challenge due to his proclivity for womanizing, Emanuel did two thing: he spread the word that Tsongas’ earlier serious bout with cancer was coming back (true: it happened) and convinced the Clinton team they should raise tons of money up front for use in a crisis which he knew was coming from Clinton’s womanizing and evasion of the draft. They agreed.

The crisis came with the disclosure during that New Hampshire primary of Clinton’s relationship with Gennifer Flowers and the controversy over his efforts to evade the draft in the Vietnam war. Tsongas had to withdraw because of lack of funds but thanks to Emanuel-raised money which enabled them to top Al Gore’s totals,, Clinton survived. That guaranteed Emanuel a top berth in the future Clinton White House…as political director and fund raiser.

Where will Emanuel’s influence be largely brought to bear for Obama? On a wide variety of fronts. Expect that the interest of the Democratic party will be foremost, followed—and only then—by the well-being of Israel. The Democratic party is foremost with Rahm. He has told me, “with me the patriotism for America is tied indissolubly with the Democratic party.” And Israel? He said: “Israel next—but you get what I mean? The Democratic party is tied in my mind to the United States. And then Israel.” But that doesn’t mean Emanuel would be as anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian as you would expect. He thinks his father is an old hat Israeli revolutionary.

His father, Dr. Benjamin Emanuel, was and still is the dominant factor in his life. Dr. Emanuel is a prominent pediatrician here who was born in Jerusalem and was a member of a militant Zionist group that had claims to being a terrorist organization and for whom he passed secret codes before the creation of Israel. He and his wife (Martha Smulevitz) the daughter of a local union organizer, a civil rights worker who once owned a Chicago rock and roll nightclub, named their eldest son Rahm because it means “lofty” in Hebrew. The family surname was originally Auerbach but Benjamin changed it to Emanuel when his brother, Emanuel Auerbach, was killed in a street riot with Arabs in Jerusalem. Result: everyone in the family carries the name Emanuel. The name Emanuel means “God is with us.” Rahm Emanuel is the namesake of one Rahamin, a Lehi leader.

Rahm has too high an appreciation for public relations to go around as a self-designated savior-wannabe for Israel. But his father isn’t. When Rahm was named chief of staff, his father blurted out to the Jewish daily Maariv: “Obviously he will influence the president to be pro-Israel. Why shouldn’t he do it? What is he, an Arab? He’s not going to mop the floor of the White House!” Israel’s oldest daily, Haaretz wrote this headline: “Obama’s first pick. Israeli Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff” (Italics mine). Emanuel apologized for his father profusely. The old man’s views were not politick. Beyond that, they weren’t correct.

Rahm knows Hebrew well…is as familiar with the Jewish bible as a scholar…and has been to Israel many times—at least 20-- knows the country from one end to another and corrects town misspellings in newspapers (I’ve seen him do it). In the first Gulf war in 1991, he packed up and left a comfortable job here to go to Israel where he served as a civilian volunteer for the Israel Defense Forces and repaired truck brakes in a northern Israel army base. I admired him for that. He and I were on public radio here in those days and we saluted him. When he came back, Emanuel had many colorful stories to tell. Once he told a number of us including me that he was indeed a soldier in the Israeli army; another time he claimed dual citizenship. Both were exaggerations to impress us--but were gaffes he had to live with later when they were exposed as whoppers and which he has much regretted.

Again: His militancy for Israel doesn’t mean he’s an Ariel Sharon partisan or wants to reclaim Palestinian lands. No way. He’s a Shimon Peres man (the current president of Israel) who wants Israel to survive all right—but through negotiations, rather than by continual warfare. But he takes care to see the hot button issues are not neglected. He was the only Democratic House member from Illinois who voted to sanction the Iraq War when all other Democrats voted no. Reason: the engagement was very popular with Jews immediately after 9/11 and while they don’t count for much as voters in his district, he was thinking of the national constituency that rewards his party with huge donations, top-heavy for their scant numbers (as the chief fundraiser representing the Jewish community, he raised an unheard of $72 million for Bill Clinton).

Kid Brother Ari.

Beginning in New Hampshire, raising that $72 million in what he himself freely called “Jewish money” to me, he relied largely on his kid brother. Ari (for Ariel) Emanuel, 46, is a hugely wealthy Hollywood agent who was the inspiration for “Ari Gold,” the hustling Sammy Glick character on HBO’s film “Entourage.” Ari and three others from a talent agency decided in 1995 to start their own firm. Ari was fired when the owner found his assistant rifling the files to use for his own venture but that didn’t stop Ari. He now heads his own boutique agency, Endeavor, the most powerful in Hollywood with an estimated $100 million in revenue yearly.

Ari doesn’t get much press (and doesn’t want it) but he did score in 2006 by calling on Hollywood to blacklist Mel Gibson for Gibson’s alleged anti-Semitic remarks following his DUI arrest. But there was more than religious outrage in it for Ari: Gibson was represented by a rival agency. Earlier, in 2002, Ari was sued by some of his Endeavor employees who alleged he allowed a friend to operate a pornographic website out of Endeavor’s offices, a suit that was settled for $2.25 million. Memory of that settlement sort of took the edge off some of the self-righteousness Ari used against Gibson. Rahm and Ari are as close as any two brothers can be.

If anything, in the White House Rahm Emanuel will utilize the views of Niccolo Machiavelli, employing the twin tactics of lion and fox i.e. the ends justify the means and there is no act so evil that some good cannot be deduced as flowing from it. That is the philosophy that he has pursued in his entire career and his politics. As he has succeeded in politics by brutal force…moving up through the ranks of the Cook county Democratic party by joyfully stabbing competitors…drawing a ring around what he would tell me is “big money, developer money” and being able to deliver it on cue whenever Mayor Daley needed it. He is a profane and scatological telephoner, slamming down the receiver and bellowing out a stream of epithets either at the last person he called or fate. He is not dismayed by using old-fashioned city patronage in his own behalf. He is still being probed by the U.S. attorney here for using city workers in his first congressional campaign.

Moving Upward Relentlessly.

His exhibited old-fashioned entrepreneurial talent in his own behalf after he left the Clinton White House. Using his Clinton political connections he got himself incardinated as an “investment banker” at Wasserstein Perella, head of its Chicago office where, hanging on the phone to his friend Bob Rubin, the former treasury secretary, he “negotiated” by proxy eight deals in 2-1/2 years as a Chicago banker, including the acquisition by Commonwealth Edison of Peco Energy and the purchase by GTCR Golden Rauner of the SecurityLink home security unit from SBC communications. Thereby he made $16 million plus. He made much more since.

Then he got Clinton to appoint him to the Freddie Mac board in 2000, earning him $31,060 in that year and $231,655 in 2001 in salary and mortgage deals. During his tenure on the board, Freddie Mac was torn up by scandals involving campaign contributions and accounting irregularities. An oversight board accused the board of having “failed in its duties to follow up on matters brought to its attention.” He resigned from the board in 2001 after the scandal broke. A friendly Chicago media have kept his board service virtually a closed secret ever since.

Once off the board, Emanuel leveraged his connections with Daley for whom he had raised scads of dough to run for the House to fill the old Dan Rostenkowski seat. He had six competitors for the nomination. Emanuel publicized that he was a “lifelong Chicagoan.” Wrong: he was born here but since early childhood a north shore suburban boy and went to the tony schools in Wilmette. Also, he was Jewish in a district where Polish is the strongest ethnic tie.

His top competitor out of six was a Polish legislator, Nancy Kaczak who was the leading candidate. Then elderly Edward Moskal, president of the once powerful Polish American Congress endorsed Kaczak called Emanuel a “millionaire carpetbagger who knows nothing about our [meaning Polish] heritage”…alleging Emanuel had dual citizenship U.S. and Israel and had served in the Israeli army. It was a rumor that had much basis by Emanuel’s own prior bravado …telling his friends how he braved fire as an Israeli soldier…but it was false. Now Emanuel shrieked that it was all lies, proved he didn’t have dual citizenship and Emanuel hustled sympathy in the compliant press as being a victim of anti-Semitism. Kaczak fell back in confusion…trying not to embarrass patron Moskal and yet not siding with him. Benefiting from the disarray, Emanuel won the nomination tantamount to election. But not before legions of city water department workers spent thousands of hours in his primary campaign, thanks to his relationship with Daley.

When he came to the U.S. House in short order he pushed himself forward enough to become member of the prestigious Ways and Means committee (very rare for a first termer). Even more significant, his fund-raising got him the chairmanship of the House Democratic Congressional Campaign committee (where he scored great recognition by raising massive funding with the help of brother Ari and capturing the chamber in 2006). Following that he used the names of House freshmen he helped elect to leverage himself to number four in the Democratic leadership. In fact he might have stood a good chance of moving up to Speaker after Ms. Pelosi—but the chief of staff berth is more attractive than standing in line waiting for her to retire. He has developed a plan, though. He is reported thinking about getting his own chief of staff elected to keep his Chicago seat warm and return himself later to resume the run for the Speakership. Don’t put that beyond him.

As Chief of Staff…

As to what issues he will try to juggle as chief of staff: Be forewarned that there is little if any policy matter that he won’t try to be involved in from the Middle East to the economy (on Ways and Means he was rather pro-business from the standpoint of liberal Democrats, favoring tax cuts rather than being punitively anti-rich; generally siding with the Big 3 auto companies against lefty environmentalists). But he will be left-wing on almost everything else—especially social issues where with Supreme Court appointments he will be resolutely pro-abort.

What could get him fired or prompt his resignation? His horrendous temper and insulting personality plus the dirtiest mouth with repetitive “f” words on Capitol Hill. Presidential chief of staff is a very sensitive post—one suited for a soft-spoken not stentorian negotiator. A number of those who sat there discovered this and wanted out—including Donald Rumsfeld, who served Gerald Ford. Rumsfeld found that holding his temper was no fun so after he convinced Gerald Ford to drop Nelson Rockefeller as veep in the 1976 election and Henry Kissinger as national security head (leaving Kissinger merely secretary of state)—he had Ford name him secretary of defense. John Sununu who was a gruff gatekeeper for George H. W. Bush and who often clamped down the phone receiver instead of saying goodbye made enough enemies in a few months to be canned.

They had tempers but nothing like Emanuel’s. Emanuel once mailed a dead and rotten fish to a former coworker after they parted ways. That’s become famous Emanuel lore. But this one I’m going to relate takes the cake.

On the night after the 1996 election where Republicans took over the House, humiliating Clinton and himself while Emanuel was political director of the White House, the Chicagoan stood up at a dinner with colleagues, grabbed a steak knife and began rattling off a list of Clinton’s and his own betrayers who didn’t carry their states in the election. At the mention of each name he yelled “Dead!” and plunged the knife into the table after each name as waiters and waitresses stood frozen with fear. Silence engulfed the meeting and then he stalked out.

All I can say is: Stay tuned.

1 comment:

  1. I read this column in the Wanderer and wondered why you just didn't come out and call Emanuel a "pushy little Jew" and be done with it. Apparently your preoccupation with Emanuel's religous background surpasses his own.