Farewell to an Original Clinton Warrior
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 16, 1998; Page A6
In the middle of 1993, after the Clinton administration's fumbling debut, a senior White House official came to political director Rahm Emanuel with a not-so-subtle suggestion: perhaps Emanuel would be happier with a job at the Democratic National Committee.
Emanuel, having been shown the door, refused to walk through it. He would leave if President Clinton personally told him to, he told colleagues. Otherwise, he was staying.
Some five years later, Emanuel is going. Monday is the last day of work for one of this White House's ultimate survivors, a wiry-thin, foul-mouthed ballet dancer from Chicago who moved to Little Rock in the fall of 1991 as one of the first advisers to Bill Clinton's presidential campaign.
And he is leaving with a hug rather than a boot. The long embrace between Clinton and his 38-year-old "senior adviser" at a crowded State Dining Room farewell ceremony Wednesday evening was a poignant moment, according to several aides in attendance. An evening of wisecracks at Emanuel's expense could not disguise a haunting sense that the Clinton administration is nearing its wind-down phase, under different circumstances than either the president or his tireless young aide would have chosen.
Emanuel's departure coincides with other high-level White House resignations, including Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles and press secretary Michael McCurry.
But Emanuel's decision to leave carries more emotional resonance. Unlike Bowles and McCurry, he was one of the original members of the Little Rock "War Room." His departure leaves Clinton with just a handful of people who have served in the White House continuously from the beginning, including domestic adviser Bruce Reed, economic adviser Gene Sperling and speechwriter Michael Waldman.
And more than any other adviser, Emanuel seemed to personify the administration's vicissitudes.
In 1993, Emanuel's brash, punish-your-enemies style aptly reflected a White House in which certitude sometimes outpaced judgment. He lost support internally and, in a move that sources said first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton urged, was fired from his job as political director.
The next couple of years taught Emanuel a lesson in persistence and repositioning at a time when Clinton himself was learning the same virtues. With an imprecise job portfolio, Emanuel took on projects that had the cumulative effect of recasting Clinton with a more centrist image. Some were big, such as helping lead lobbying for the North American Free Trade Agreement. But many Emanuel projects were mocked as small-bore, such as Clinton's pronouncements on school uniforms and trigger locks for guns.
"It was amazing that he was so down and out and he came back," said Commerce Secretary William Daley, a close friend. "He did not get whiny. . . . He did his job."
Emanuel's persistence paid off. In 1997, he was promoted by Clinton and moved into the office next door to Clinton's that used to be held by White House aide George Stephanopoulos.
Long before the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal broke, Emanuel, who has two young children, had signaled that he and his wife, Amy Rule, would be moving on. As he returns to Chicago, where he will work in investment banking while teaching a college class, he said the sex scandal must be put in the context of Clinton's accomplishments.
"That is part of his moral character, but there is a lifetime of work that no one will ever strip from him," he said yesterday in an interview. "Every one of us is judged by the totality of our words and deeds, not just by our fellow human beings but by God."
The religious reference underscores a contradiction. While adapting an image of blustery swagger, Emanuel is an observant Jew and holds private sessions with his rabbi twice monthly. The tough-talking aide also takes time out each Saturday to don tights and practice ballet, which he began to study in high school. Beneath his hard edges, Emanuel has a surprisingly sweet side -- sentimental and attentive to friends -- that made him a popular figure among White House colleagues.
The insistent style that made him effective as a fund-raiser in 1992 proved transferable as he moved to politics and policy. His ethic is that there is no detail too small to sweat when it comes to Clinton's image.
His interview yesterday was interrupted regularly as he flicked on a television's sound to hear exactly what sound bites cable news was carrying about yesterday's budget deal. Even stories buried deep in the newspaper can excite his ire. "I can't put up with this idiocy," he sputtered one day this month, before hanging up on a reporter in mid-sentence.
Colleagues make fun of Emanuel's penchant for pushing initiatives on to Clinton's schedule. At the Wednesday ceremony, Sperling cracked about a fictitious Emanuel proposal to put trigger locks on water pistols and noted that his friend's typical policy proposals must cost no money and be related to "two obscure tragedies a decade."
Emanuel is unapologetic about his succession of small initiatives, especially as they relate to crime. It is another irony about him: While most of his friends in the original Clinton team from 1992 -- including Sperling, Stephanopoulos and political advisers James Carville and Paul Begala -- are traditional Democrats, Emanuel was a major force prodding Clinton to fashion a "New Democrat" image.
Bowles, who will leave his post next week, said Emanuel's greatest skill was putting ideas into action. While the bureaucracy wants to study things for 18 months, Bowles said, Emanuel would insist that a proposal be ready for a presidential announcement in 18 days. "He moves the trash," said Bowles, using a favorite Southern phrase.
For his part, Emanuel said he has learned to become more politic in his White House years. Even the first lady became a supporter. Acknowledging that he was too brash for his own good early on, he said that "as influence grows, so should humility."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company