The Chief's Chief
Friday, November 7, 2008
It was another October midnight on Capitol Hill and the $700 billion economic bailout deal was flat-lining. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had the president's chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, on speakerphone and was getting nowhere on the final few sticking points. Next to her, Rahm Emanuel decided it was time to exercise one of his core political principles: When in doubt, shout.
"You gotta understand, Josh, this is politics at this point," thundered Emanuel, the Democrats' caucus chairman. In one of his signature high-decibel blasts, he described the relentless procedural torture Pelosi could inflict if the administration didn't yield. "That," he yelled, "will be like a fast football at your head coming down Pennsylvania Avenue!"
Within minutes, the White House bowed to the Democrats' demand, and by 12:30 a.m. Emanuel, 48, was settled in next to a statue of Will Rogers as Pelosi announced the deal.
And another Rahm bomb had found its mark.
Emanuel's flair for the well-timed verbal hand grenade -- or epithet or insult or, in one case, an actual dead fish -- has grown legendary during his 16-year career in politics. His explosive style, and midnight work habits, have fueled a noisy migration up Pennsylvania Avenue, from White House fixer under Bill Clinton to a House leadership position on Capitol Hill.
And now Emanuel is U-turning back to the West Wing to take over Bolten's job as White House chief of staff, mixing one of Washington's most combustible temperaments with President-elect Barack Obama's celebrated cool.
"He is that rare breed who can engage in a back-alley fight but also understands that there's a time to set aside bare-knuckle fights and attempt to move an agenda," said Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), who has battled Emanuel in the House. "Don't get me wrong. He's as tough as they come."
Obama must know exactly what he's getting by putting his White House in the charge of the man who once bluntly warned Tony Blair not to "[foul] it up" before the British prime minister left the Oval Office for a joint appearance with Clinton. The two have known each other for years.
"The first time I ever heard about Barack Obama was from Rahm," said Paul Begala, another Clinton alum and friend of Emanuel's. "When Obama was thinking about running for Congress against Bobby Rush, Rahm told me, 'This guy is the future of the Democratic Party.' "
The Hawaii-born and Harvard-educated Obama has grown to rely on the Windy City way. He turned to Chicago operative David Axelrod, a veteran of former Chicago mayor Harold Washington's campaign, to help execute one of the most improbable and incredible wins in history. Now he is putting his executive operation in the hands of a three-term congressman from the Polish and Catholic precincts of District 5 and a onetime protege of Mayor Richard M. Daley.
"He is a no-nonsense, fast-talking politician, and we've had a few of those in Chicago," Obama said of Emanuel in a 2006 interview with The Washington Post. "He's a little bit larger than life. We like them with a little bit of personality."
Personality is what Obama is sure to get, much to the delight of political reporters accustomed to getting unsolicited calls from the loquacious Emanuel at all hours. After months of Tupperware-tight leak control from the Obama campaign, Emanuel offered up one of the first peeks inside the machine, with an almost operatic two-day public debate with himself over whether he should take the job.