By Steve Hendrix and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.
Tom Korologos, a veteran Washington super-lobbyist, called Emanuel's choice a "brilliant move" by Obama but said it was strange that he performed his Hamlet act in public.
"It's a little bizarre, a little backwards," he said. "I guess they're learning. It's a glitch on the first day."
The holdup, according to what Emanuel told friends over the past weeks, was twofold: stepping off a possible track to become speaker of the House and concerns over what the endless demands of the job would do to his family. According to a Democratic aide familiar with the situation, moving the household to Washington would disrupt a long-standing agreement Emanuel and his wife, Amy Rule, have to raise their three children, 9, 10 and 11, in Chicago, where the couple, like Barack and Michelle Obama, have their closest friends.
John W. Rowe, chief executive of Exelon and a friend, said Emanuel recently called him while he was shopping at a bookstore and agonizing over the toll that a move back to the White House would take. "There will be a long periods when there won't be Saturday mornings at the bookstore with my kids," Rowe recalled him saying.
According to Ezekiel Emanuel, a noted Harvard oncologist, his little brother Rahm ultimately said yes because of a dictate handed down by their maternal grandfather: "He told us all, 'If you've been called up in life to take on big responsibility, you may not want to do it, but you drop everything and you do it.' My brother will turn himself into a pretzel to do his duty."
Emanuel's other brother is Hollywood super-agent Ari Emanuel, inspiration for the Ari Gold character on "Entourage." The three hyperachievers grew up in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, the sons of a Jerusalem-born pediatrician who worked for the Israeli underground in his youth. His mother, the daughter of a union organizer, took the boys to civil rights marches in the 1960s, instilling an interest in politics that would eventually take her middle boy to the inner sanctums of the White House -- twice.
According to two previous inhabitants of the office next door to the Oval Office, Emanuel's key asset as chief of staff will be his well-established friendship with his new boss. That probably will be enough to compensate for the political brush fires sparked by Emanuel's flint-and-steel personality.
"The job is to tell the president what he needs to know, not necessarily what he wants to know," said Kenneth Duberstein, who served as Ronald Reagan's chief of staff. "Because of his relationship with the president-elect, Rahm will be able to deliver not just the good news but the tough news as well. He has the ability to be a reality therapist inside the White House."
Mack McLarty, Clinton's first chief of staff, who has known Emanuel since the "War Room" days of the 1992 presidential campaign, agreed.
"My sense is that they have a relationship that is authentic and that will give them an important level of trust," McLarty said. "Given that, I think the strength of his high-energy personality will serve him well."
McLarty said Emanuel will start the job with an advantage he didn't have: experience on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. "It will help enormously that he's worked in the White House before," McLarty said. "I hadn't done that. He's got both pieces."
But it's Emanuel's congressional Rolodex that may be most of use to the Obama administration. With Joe Biden's intimate lock on Senate relations, Emanuel's three terms in the House could prove invaluable. Despite the egos he bruised along the way, Democrats hail Emanuel as an electoral Moses. As chairman of the 2006 Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Emanuel delivered the party from 12 years in the minority wilderness.
But his accomplishment came at the cost of bitter feuds with party Chairman Howard Dean, Congressional Black Caucus members and several candidates he pushed off the ballot in favor of his favorite centrists.
"There was a lot of frustration on the ground, trying to figure why the national Democratic Party was trying to squash a strong local movement like this," Kevin Spidel said in 2006 when he was campaign manager for Christine Cegelis, a liberal candidate he said was starved of funds by Emanuel in favor of Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq veteran.
Many of the candidates Emanuel recruited are now members of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog caucus, a group of Democrats Obama will badly need for any of his pricier initiatives.
"These are folks that know that Rahm looked out for them both in the campaign and in their first term in Congress," said Amy Walter of the Hotline political report.
The ease with which Emanuel slides down the halls of Congress would suggest he has never left. But he used Washington's revolving door to great personal profit, using his White House contacts to become a multimillionaire before returning as a member.
He was a guy of relatively average means when he left the Clinton administration in 1998 to become a partner at Wasserstein Perella & Co., a global investment and merchant banking firm. Four years later, as he began his first campaign, financial disclosure forms revealed him to be rich.
At the firm founded by Bruce Wasserstein, one of Clinton's Wall Street buddies, a top Democratic fundraiser and brother of the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein, Emanuel turned his blunt charm to the business of financial dealmaking. And by all accounts, he was good at it.
"He could go from the politics of the deal to the economics of the deal to the corporate strategy of the deal, and he just goes back and forth like quicksilver," said Rowe of Exelon, a company that Emanuel helped form out of the merger of two smaller utility companies.
The money rolled in quickly -- more quickly than is usual for a new member of Congress. On his 2003 disclosure, he listed $9,678,775 from the firm, enough to force a footnote that specified he had earned the money before his election.
His stock listings on the same form are filled with the all-too-familiar companies from the economic collapse: Lehman Brothers, Freddie Mac, J.P. Morgan.
Emanuel's political and financial connections, built during his time on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, have made him a darling of Wall Street when the New York financial hub has lost its luster.
One of Clinton's going-away presents to Emanuel was an appointment to the Freddie Mac board of directors, a year-long service for which he was reportedly compensated to the tune of $292,774.
Obama has clearly calculated that Emanuel's connections to the financial scandal are fleeting and not disqualifying. But they may yet be a vulnerability. In his career, Emanuel is among the top 25 members of the House or Senate when it comes to receiving campaign contributions from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- a total of $51,750.
And his prowess on Wall Street has translated into campaign cash for himself and others. He raises more money from the financial industry than from any other.
The man whom Emanuel will replace in a few months has spent the past two years battling the Chicago politician. Bolten leaves with a healthy admiration for his skills, saying he is "unusually smart. He is effective. He's a good tactical and strategic thinker. And he's very funny."
Bolten and Emanuel are not close friends. But they have shared a Nats game together. Bolten had the tickets, but Emanuel insisted on paying for his. But if Bolten thought they would talk only baseball -- not politics -- he was mistaken.
"He's got a mind that doesn't shut off. He was just a string of entertainment," Bolten said. A string of entertainment or a string of something else?
"That, too," he said.
Staff writers Paul Kane and Alec MacGillis and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.