A Rahm for the Money

FROM OUR AUGUST 1992 ISSUE: Bill Clinton’s finance director—once the best professional fundraiser in Chicago—may be too good for his own good

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During his tenure at the Congressional Campaign Committee another, at least as prominent, side of Rahm Emanuel came out in its most infamous manifestation to date. The 1988 campaign had just ended, and the Democrats had managed to eke out a net gain of three congressional seats despite failing to capture the White House—the first such gain by either party since 1960. During the campaign, Emanuel had feuded with Alan Secrest, a well-known pollster. The Democrats had lost a close race for Jack Kemp’s old seat in Buffalo, and Emanuel blamed the loss in part on a faulty Secrest poll. When the campaign was over, he sent Secrest a dead fish, accompanied by a handwritten note: “It’s been awful working with you. Love, Rahm.”

Secrest responded with his own letter, six typed pages that began with the words “What a waste,” and went on to diagnose Emanuel’s supposed problems with “star-fucking,” “hubris,” “immaturity (personalizing conflict),” and “lying.” Secrest also accused him of wanting to cook the polls to bring back favorable results. The letter became public, though both Secrest and Emanuel deny leaking it. But, afterward, Emanuel was happy to show it to people who hadn’t seen it.

“Who can figure faxing that thing around?” asks a bewildered Alan Secrest, years after the fact.

But who can’t figure it? Picking such a high-profile fight—Campaigns & Elections magazine devoted a lengthy feature to the feud— has done nothing but enhance the Rahm Emanuel mystique: Anyone who can inspire that kind of passionate bile Secrest poured into his letter has got to be a force to be reckoned with. “I sent it around because if you read the letter you see how crazy the son of a bitch was,” says Emanuel, who plans to frame the Campaigns & Elections article and hang it in the Ravenswood house he shares with Amy Rude, an M.B.A. candidate at Northwestern. “It’s a great story, isn’t it? Probably the only thing I would  have done differently today would be to send him a jar of tartar sauce with the fish. The kinder, gentler Rahm Emanuel.”

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One of the first important decisions the Clinton finance team made last December was to rely on fund-raising events rather than direct mail for the bulk of its contributions. Since at least the early 1980s, when the Republican Party turned direct-mail solicitation into an art, postmarked entreaties for cash have been a staple in political fund raising, particularly on a national level. You develop a stable donor base, keep sending letters, and keep reaping contributions, thousands of checks, all under $250, and all, therefore, qualifying for Federal matching funds. “But investing in direct mail requires putting out cash that you then don’t hold,” Emanuel says. “Any prospecting, you have to lay down the cash. So we decided not to use direct mail but do it all event based. We could hold the cash and use it for the TV we needed to win.”

The strategy worked. In New Hampshire, when the Gennifer Flowers flap hit and Clinton was assailed on the draft question, the campaign had the money to blanket the airwaves in reply. As Wilhelm puts it, “There’s no question that one of the major reasons that Bill Clinton is going to be the Democratic nominee is that we had a little bit more money and even through some of the difficult times we were able to meet our objectives, and that in large part is due to Rahm’s persistence.” (Even so, Clinton’s rocky fortunes had put unexpected demands on the campaign budget. Heading into the convention, Clinton was holding emergency fund-raisers to help erase a $4-million debt.)

The only problem with all the accolades that so regularly come to him is that Emanuel is not particularly interested in being a fund-raiser. “He’s done such an astonishing job raising money for Clinton that he’s only augmented his image as one of the primary fund-raisers in the Democratic Party,” says David Axelrod. “In a sense he’s the victim of his own success, because I think that’s probably his least favorite thing to do in politics.” Indeed, Emanuel takes great pains to stress his other political accomplishments—the Research Group, for example, a company he cofounded in 1989, has quickly become one of the top campaign research firms in the country. “I don’t want to be known as a fund-raiser,” he says. “It ain’t what I’m going to be doing November the eighth, I’ll tell you that.”

But what will he be doing? In the past, Emanuel has taken time off after campaigns—to get a master’s in rhetorical theory at Northwestern, to audit a class on transcendentalism in American literature, to travel in Australia and New Zealand, and to get back on a regular schedule of ballet classes, which have been part of his fitness regimen since high school. This time, maybe he’ll do the same—depending, of course, on how the vote falls on November third. “I will say that this will be the last campaign for a long, long time,” he says. “It’ll be a long sabbatical or a job in the White House.”

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