The oversimplified coverage of 'tough-talking' Rahm Emanuel

Rahmbo: The tough-talking Emanuel, former White House chief of staff, is a popular press caricature.
Rahmbo: The tough-talking Emanuel, former White House chief of staff, is a popular press caricature. (Tim Boyle/bloomberg)
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 2010

Rahm Emanuel's candidate may have won the presidency, but that didn't dull Emanuel's serrated edge.

"He's a guy who stabbed a steak knife into the table at Doe's restaurant after Bill Clinton's election," his former colleague Paul Begala recalls. "He was screaming about people screwing us in the campaign."

The media portrait of the man dubbed Rahmbo -- the foul-mouthed, take-no-prisoners, twist-your-arm-out-of-its-socket operative -- is grounded in reality. But it isn't the whole picture.

Most journalists, to some degree, are caricaturists. We may be interested in nuance and context, but the compression of reporting often reduces people to a couple of attributes at best. You know the shorthand: "tough-talking" and "aggressive," or "soft-spoken" and "mild-mannered."

Guess which sells better at the box office? When you read an account of a closed-door meeting, isn't it more vivid if a politician "demanded" an answer, "shot back" a response or, better yet, banged his fist on the table?

That's why the recently departed White House chief of staff has been such a media favorite (in addition to the fact that he constantly calls reporters, sometimes to spin, sometimes to carp). He is, to trot out another cliche, a larger-than-life character, suitably satirized on "Saturday Night Live."

But the Rahm image, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote last week, "doesn't square with the guy I've covered for the past decade. . . . Far from a head-busting capo, I've found him to be more thick-skinned about criticism than most people I write about. Overall, Rahm is a warmhearted Machiavellian."

Some reporters concede the point. "There are two Rahms," says CNN correspondent Ed Henry, who has been on the receiving end of some of his outbursts. "There's the ruthless political operator, and that's been well-chronicled -- fast-talking, expletive-filled, trying to win the day, the hour, the minute. But there's a Rahm heavily focused on major initiatives, deeply involved in policy."

Not everyone agrees. Washington Examiner reporter Julie Mason says the "underreported" story is that Rahm was rough on his staff, especially some of the women. "I'm sure he was very nice to David Brooks," she says. "But to suggest his abrasiveness was a construct of the media doesn't really wash."

Begala says his pal is "a sensitive guy," and he wasn't surprised when Emanuel choked up while talking about his parents during an East Room ceremony marking his departure. But Begala understands why, say, "The Plan: Big Ideas for Change in America," which Rahm co-wrote last year, drew little attention:

"You can't expect a serious policy book to get the same amount of coverage as sending a dead fish to a pollster," as Rahm famously did. Henry points out that "it's more fun to write about the ruthless Rahm because it's someone people can relate to."

My periodic dealings with Rahm, dating back to the Clinton White House, suggest a more complicated fellow than the public persona. But that makes me wonder: Do we do this to people all the time? Do we paint everyone, from politicians to athletes to movie stars, in overly broad strokes? To what extent does our coverage oversimplify public figures?

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