In the matter of Rahm Emanuel, Dr. Jeckyll vs. Mr. Hyde, we have Eric Zorn predicting that Chicago will never see the mayor-elect stabbing a table at Manny’s while yelling BURKE! DEAD! WAGUESPACK! DEAD! and John Kass holding a contest to predict when Mayor Emanuel turns into @MayorEmanuel.
I’m not the Shadow and cannot predict what lurks in the heart of Rahm. But I do have the historical record, and I think Zorn is right. While I have no doubt that Emanuel is a talented cuss, there’s evidence to suggest that he can keep his temper in check.
There are two famous stories about Emanuel’s temper. One is the Sicilian message he sent pollster Alan Secrest after a 1988 congressional election; Mark Jannot told the story in a 1992 profile of Emanuel for Chicago. The second is one of Emanuel, after the 1992 presidential election, stabbing a table with a knife and calling out various Democrats. If you’ve read anything about Emanuel, you probably know this.
What I haven’t seen as much of in the reams written about his temper is what happened next. He rose to power as the young political director of the Clinton White House… and then wiped out, being demoted to deputy director of communications. In a 1997 Trib profile, William Neikirk describes what happened:
Commerce Secretary William Daley, one of his mentors, notes a “marked change” in the brash young man who relentlessly raised $7 million in 13 weeks in William’s brother Richard’s critical 1988 race for mayor of Chicago, and who once sent a dead fish to a political pollster. When Emanuel came into the Clinton administration in the beginning, Daley says, “he was too aggressive. He was young. He got whacked down. Now, I think he is more understanding of people’s feelings and how to treat people. He is more careful with his words. I don’t hear him swearing as much as he used to.”
The second crisis came when he was fired as political director in the first year of the Clinton presidency, chiefly because he couldn’t get along with Hillary Rodham Clinton’s close confidant, Susan Thomases, a New York lawyer.
According to sources, Hillary Clinton and Thomases also believed that Emanuel was the source of leaks for the White House Travel Office firings, an allegation that he has denied. The demotion to deputy director of communications might have caused most mortals to walk away from the government with the comment, “I don’t need this.” Not Emanuel, who joked that he had been given a Playskool phone and a tiny office next door to the press secretary and vowed that he was not going to be defeated.
“Essentially, I could have died. I could have professionally had a major wreck. In both cases, life transformed itself. I think I grew out of the political one. I didn’t slow down any. I kind of focused and became more determined, but I did become more measured. It’s a learning experience . . . I think the finer piece of learning is to pick yourself up from your own failures. Life is not just one highway of success; it has its bumps and derailments. If you ask me what my parents taught me, it’s how to get back on your two feet and make something out of yourself and not let those moments stop you.”
Emanuel worked his way back to power in the White House, and developed a reputation for cleverly handling people, as E.J. Dionne describes:
He gets away with this because he is, in a certain way, Mr. Transparency. If he’s slick, it’s because he’s unslick. All transactions with him are of the postmodern he-knows-that-you-know-and-you-know-that-he knows-you-know variety. He’s always operational, always trying to move the political needle. Even his well-known love for profanity has helped him build his brand.
Then again, being a mayor is different. As Dionne points out, Emanuel’s political life has largely been spent in the service of the two most powerful Democrats of my lifetime, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Now not only is the the boss, he’s replacing a mayor who held near-absolute power over the City Council.
So it’s hard to predict whether his new role will call out the Old Rahm from the depths of his spleen. If it does, they can just set up a swear jar to lower property taxes.
2 weeks ago