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.
After several minutes, he suddenly stopped and shot out of his seat to fling open the door. Bowing with a wide, showy sweep of his hand — an exaggerated smile plastered on his face — Emanuel said loud enough for the women in the outer office to hear, "And, dear sir, the horse you road in on."
Midway through Clinton's second term, Emanuel left for Chicago to work in investment banking. The firm he joined was soon sold and Emanuel made millions, giving him the financial security to get back into politics.
Clinton appointed Emanuel to mortgage giant Freddie Mac's board, a post that paid him at least $292,774 in director's fees, according to a financial disclosure report Emanuel filed in 2002 when he ran for Congress. Emanuel served on the board when Freddie Mac misstated its earnings by $5 billion for 2000-2002. When the problem was uncovered in 2003, three top Freddie Mac executives were forced out.
He was vice chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority and also served on the boards of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, beautyjungle.com and Slim-Fast, whose founder, S. Daniel Abraham, is a major Democratic donor.
His first financial disclosure statement as a House member showed that he had about $9.7 million in earned income in the previous year.
When he was tapped to oversee the 2006 congressional campaign effort, Emanuel led a record fundraising effort, bringing in far more money than four years earlier. The single biggest source of money was other members of Congress, which irritated some members who faced fierce pressure to contribute.
The additional money allowed House Democrats to expand the field, going into districts that hadn't been considered competitive before. That sometimes meant recruiting more conservative candidates, an Emanuel strategy that generated some complaints.
But his success in electing a Democratic majority soothed most hard feelings and confirmed Emanuel as a major force in the House — perhaps even a future speaker.
He's been a friend of top Obama adviser David Axelrod for nearly 20 years.
Axelrod, a Chicago political consultant, knows about Emanuel's persistence firsthand.
"When I was a reporter and he was working for a public interest organization and wanted a story written, he tracked me down to the recovery room after one of my children was born to ask me how my story was coming," Axelrod told the Chicago Tribune in 1999. "This guy is relentless."
Wills reported from Chicago.
6 months ago