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Rahm Emanuel, hero or goat

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 24, 2010; 9:15 AM

When you're as high-profile a practitioner of pragmatic politics as the former Chicago congressman, you're going to draw plenty of media attention.

If President Obama was riding high right now, we'd be awash in puffy profiles about the blinding brilliance of Rahm Emanuel. Because the president is struggling, he's going to get a big chunk of the blame.

Never mind that a chief of staff basically carries out the boss's wishes -- even as skilled a legislative tactician as Rahm. Part of his job is to butt heads, be the bad guy, and take bullets intended for the president.

Anyone with Rahm's hard-charging personality and high-ranking job would be a major Beltway figure. But Emanuel also talks to reporters all the time, some of them several times a day, on the record and off, and has a major role in crafting his media image.

As his friend CNN commentator Paul Begala explained: "A conversation with Rahm can be as little as 30 seconds. He calls, drops a few F-bombs, makes his point and hangs up."

I got to know Rahm in the Clinton White House and he is a force of nature. These days, he doesn't write, he doesn't call. He is back in the news because of the administration's effort to revive health care -- and because of Dana Milbank.

With some on the left and right calling for Rahm's scalp, the Washington Post columnist wrote that "sacking Emanuel is the last thing the president should do. Obama's first year fell apart in large part because he didn't follow his chief of staff's advice on crucial matters. Arguably, Emanuel is the only person keeping Obama from becoming Jimmy Carter."

Milbank went on: "Obama's greatest mistake was failing to listen to Emanuel on health care. Early on, Emanuel argued for a smaller bill with popular items, such as expanding health coverage for children and young adults, that could win some Republican support. He opposed the public option as a needless distraction."

This drew a response from Leslie Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who had taken on Rahm earlier:

"When you write that the president of the United States should replace his chief of staff, someone will fire back. So it was that Rahm Emanuel apparently struck back at my piece last week on The Daily Beast through a column in Sunday's Washington Post. Only this time, the return fire had a rare twist, one that could produce Washington convulsions. It was seemingly aimed at me (and others who published suggestions of Emanuel's limitations as chief). But whether it was intentional or not, the volley actually struck the president himself. . . .

"The leaker must have felt safe because Milbank has so many sources all over town, making the leakers harder to trace. . . . It sure looks like Rahm (or someone near and dear to him) trying to save himself at the president's expense. This is an incredibly unusual leak, seemingly a chief of staff undermining his own boss, the president. . . .

"Which is why another possibility has to be considered: that Rahm was not the leaker. The leak was so egregious, so anti-Chicago crowd minus Rahm, so devastating to the president, that Emanuel couldn't have been stupid enough to leak a story where he was the sole, surviving hero."


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