Howard Kurtz on Rahm Emanuel's Openness to the Media

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel "thinks like a journalist," says a colleague. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 23, 2009

For Chuck Todd, getting calls from Rahm Emanuel is a staple of covering the White House. But they dwell as much on what the NBC correspondent knows as what he can get the president's top aide to divulge.

For New York Times columnist David Brooks, it's an Emanuel invitation for a White House chat at which President Obama happens to drop by.

For Washington Post reporter Michael Shear, it's three calls to his car in a matter of minutes as he shushes his kids on the way to a Virginia restaurant.

"A conversation with Rahm can be as little as 30 seconds," says CNN commentator Paul Begala, who worked with Emanuel in the Clinton White House. "He calls, drops a few F-bombs, makes his point and hangs up."

Perhaps no White House chief of staff in modern history has worked the media as aggressively and relentlessly as Emanuel. Drawing on his long-standing relationships with journalists, Emanuel serves up on-the-record quotes, background spin and the sort of capital gossip that lubricates relationships. The former Chicago congressman also seeks their take on events and floats possible administration tactics.

And Emanuel is brusquely efficient. "It's a no-nonsense relationship," Todd says. "He's always trying to extract as much information as he's trying to give."

"He thinks like a journalist," says Obama senior adviser David Axelrod, who marvels at his colleague making multiple calls and wolfing down lunch at the same time.

As chief of staff to the elder President Bush, James Baker was also masterful at working his media contacts, but usually from behind a curtain of anonymity. Many other predecessors, such as Andy Card, Mack McLarty and John Sununu, were less accessible to journalists.

Emanuel is regularly quoted in major newspapers, even in routine stories in which he is simply another administration voice. On Friday, The Post used Emanuel's remarks on the slow progress of health care reform in the 11th and 12th paragraphs of a news report; on June 7, he was quoted on the same subject in the eighth and ninth paragraphs of a Times story.

The allure is obvious: He is a colorful character who lends spice to most stories. And, some journalists say, Emanuel's accessibility serves to burnish his own reputation.

Emanuel's wife and three children are in the process of moving from Chicago, which might curtail his round-the-clock offensive, at least slightly.

Along with Axelrod, a onetime Chicago Tribune reporter, Emanuel has become a more prominent voice in print stories than press secretary Robert Gibbs, who focuses much of his energy on the daily briefing and whose on-the-record comments tend to be cautious. White House officials see Emanuel as an independent media center but are careful to coordinate strategy with him.

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