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Emanuel shows similar feistiness with the press, treating reporters like sparring partners. He can be genial and harsh—sometimes both at once. When I first sat down with him, three weeks after he took office, as an icebreaker I told him a story about how, upon arriving at Millennium Park for his inauguration, I was attacked by a bird, a red-winged blackbird, I think. I asked him if it was a bad omen. He curtly replied, “You could [see it as an omen] if you were paranoid.” A bit later, when I asked if he had been surprised by anything in the job so far, he deadpanned, “Just the bird that attacked you.”
He lost his cool in late July during an on-camera interview with the veteran NBC reporter Mary Ann Ahern after Ahern asked about rumors that he planned to send his three children to private school. Accusing her of crossing a sacred line of privacy, he unclipped his microphone and stormed off. According to Ahern’s account, he circled back, got inches from her face, and told her off some more. (In apparent retaliation, Emanuel gave an exclusive interview later the same day to a rival network to officially confirm the rumor that he was sending his children to the private University of Chicago Lab Schools in Hyde Park.)
You would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the local political press corps who hasn’t received a tongue-lashing from the mayor—myself included. Back in June, at the height of Weinergate—the sexting scandal involving the New York congressman Anthony Weiner, a friend of Emanuel’s—I asked Emanuel about the scandal. “I’m not talking about it,” he snapped. “There’s no reason for me to comment. If I wanted that, I’d go on a TV show and blather about stupidity.” And then, when I broached the subject of his possibly taking the stand at Rod Blagojevich’s trial, he brushed off my question testily: “C’mon! Who cares?”
But that was nothing compared with his response when I mentioned that some lawmakers I had spoken to were highly critical of his combative negotiating style.
“On what? On what?” he shot back. “I don’t mean to do your job for you. On what? On what?”
It was a fair question. I had neither named names nor offered specific examples. Trying to hold my ground, I started to say something in general about his brusque manner with aldermen and other officials. The mayor saw right through it.
“Good luck with the journalism part,” he said, slapping his hands on the table and abruptly walking out of the room into his office next door. Moments later, he returned to work me over some more. “On what? On what?” he demanded, now practically shouting. “What did we do? You’re just repeating something. We didn’t do anything. I’m asking you, on what?”
By many accounts, Emanuel is obsessively controlling of his public image. As Peter Baker, of The New York Times, wrote in a profile last year, he is “unquestionably a master manipulator of the news media.”
Emanuel, who earned a master’s degree in communications at Northwestern University, has brought a new level of sophistication and discipline to the City Hall press shop, which some critics have derided as a Washington, D.C., or Rose Garden, style. Whereas Mayor Daley’s press office was largely defensive minded (reactive rather than proactive) and often unaccommodating (many unreturned calls), Emanuel’s is fast, aggressive, and highly choreographed. At a recent City Council meeting, for example, reporters received e-mailed news releases from the mayor’s office announcing that the council had passed this or that measure, just seconds after the actual votes.
The mayor scoffs at the Rose Garden criticisms. “A smooth-operating operation—I think that’s a compliment,” he says. “What would you like, the opposite?”
Emanuel’s office tries to restrict his exchanges with the press to brief, carefully scripted events, invariably from behind the lectern in the City Hall briefing room or set up elsewhere, including once in front of a large recycling truck for a press conference he held at a Streets and Sanitation facility about changes to the city’s recycling service. Emanuel also gets aggravated when news photographers take pictures of him away from the lectern. One journalist witnessed him barking at an aide to “control” a photographer who was following him after he delivered his remarks.
“So what if I use a podium,” he replies when I ask about his reliance on it. “I will leave people who have time to think about style points the luxury [of doing so].” (He meant me.)
Paradoxically, Emanuel and his office are not above scrutinizing the other side: the press. Emanuel’s aides are known to call reporters—and their editors—to complain about coverage that the mayor’s office doesn’t like, not necessarily objecting to the facts but to more picayune things, like punctuation and even word choice.
The office also tries to quash bad press before the media can get the word out. One journalist tells me that Emanuel’s press staff keeps close tabs on the Freedom of Information Act requests filed by reporters to see what they’re digging around for. In one case, after discovering credit card abuses at the Chicago Park District, Fox Chicago News and the Better Government Association filed FOIA requests seeking additional records about credit card spending at sister agencies in the city. But before Fox and the BGA received the data—let alone responses from the agencies—they got a call from Emanuel’s press office. A spokesperson said that the mayor’s office had reviewed the information and, indeed, found egregious abuses, particularly at the Chicago Housing Authority. But instead of handing over the information to Fox and the BGA to report, the mayor’s office issued a memo to his cabinet and the heads of all the sister agencies ordering them to immediately cease the use of credit cards. “Don’t worry,” the spokesperson told Fox and the BGA, “you’ll get first bite at the apple” as a “quote-unquote exclusive.” In other words, the mayor’s office acted proactively, before the media could report the news. So instead of headlines like “Fox Chicago and the BGA Expose Credit Card Abuses at City Agencies,” the headlines were “Emanuel Cuts Use of City Credit Cards” (Chicago Tribune) and “Emanuel Orders Agencies to Stop Using Credit Cards” (The Daily Herald). “It was an interesting display of power,” says the journalist, who has firsthand knowledge of the episode.
* * *
Back in Emanuel’s suv, we continue driving down the Bat Road, traffic-free and with no potholes. Soon, though, we come to a halt in front of a closed gate.
“Uh-oh,” says Emanuel. “What happened here?”
He turns to me and says, “This is where we drop you off. Sayonara.” He cackles with devilish laughter. For a moment, I think he’s half-serious.
The driver swipes a keycard, and we travel on. We soon emerge from the McCormick Place tunnel to post-card-like views of Burnham Harbor and Northerly Island. Moments later, when we’re cruising by Soldier Field, I look out the window, westward, and see that we’re also going by a townhouse complex in the South Loop that is part of Central Station. I point it out to Emanuel and remark that Mayor Daley lives there—as if he didn’t know. It was, basically, an off-the-cuff attempt to get him talking about Daley—a touchy topic the loquacious mayor gets evasive about. He ignores me.
After several more minutes, Emanuel seems to get jittery—his impatience starting to show. He reaches out to a small panel on the console facing his seat and pushes a button that controls the radio’s volume. Like that, the sound cuts out. Emanuel looks befuddled.
“I told you not to play with the buttons,” Mather teases him, smirking.
“I know, I know,” an annoyed Emanuel says, fiddling with the knob, to no avail.
His frenetic energy, some have said, could turn out to be his Achilles’ heel. “His strange combination of intense focus and attention deficit disorder might send him careening off course,” the political writer Jonathan Alter recently put it.
Emanuel readily admits that he will no doubt make some mistakes down the road—some of them because of his impatience. But he adds that, like with anything else in life, he’ll learn from his missteps and move on. “I step in the dog shit, and I’ll come back—maybe an hour later, a week later, a month later—and say, ‘Well, that was boneheaded. That’s life.’” Put another way, he says, “Some days I’ll do well. Some days I’ll strike out. But nobody will ever say, ‘Rahm didn’t try.’”