Since Barack Obama asked Rahm Emanuel to be his Chief of Staff, the folklore surrounding Emanuel has grown. Of course, Emanuel was already known as one of Washington’s bad boys–some call him a Democratic attack dog–after years as an aide to the Clinton Administration and an Illinois Congressman. Emanuel’s high-profile appointment has given the public a reason to take a closer look at the man and some of his uniquely wild exploits.
The recent popularity of RahmFacts.com is one example of this trend. The site contains a series of facts (28 in total) about Emanuel, and that’s it. The concept of a fact site is not new (ChuckNorrisFacts.com does the same thing) but the interesting thing about RahmFacts is that the facts are real. ChuckNorrisFacts were funny because they’re exaggerations, RahmFacts are funny because they’re true.
While the facts paint a rough sketch of Emanuel, it takes some recollections from people who knew him in his younger days to help fill in the details. Emanuel’s reputation as an abrasive, hard-charging, partisan is certainly accurate, but it’s not the whole story. We can explore Emanuel’s character through a carefully selected collection of facts from the site and some first hand testimony to help explain them, and perhaps gain some insight about what kind of Chief of Staff he will be.
Rahm Emanuel can dance ballet better than you.
While it’s hard to empirically prove this one, there’s a good chance it’s true. Emanuel is a graduate of the Evanston School of Ballet (he grew up in suburban Chicago). Emanuel continued dancing through college. Sarah Schwartz, a friend and former girlfriend of Emanuel’s at Sarah Lawrence College, remembers that his biggest extracurricular commitment during freshman year was the Modern Dance Program.
“He was a renaissance man. When I think of big man on campus, Rahm was that guy at Sarah Lawrence,” Schwartz said. “He was not one of those people who breezed through life,” Schwartz added.
Some people have trouble reconciling Emanuel’s reputation as a belligerent politician with his career in ballet. Obama himself made fun of this contradiction in a roast of Emanuel from three years ago, saying that Emanuel was the first person to adapt Machiavelli’s The Prince for ballet. It involved a lot of “jumping, spinning” and “kicks below the waist.”
Rahm Emanuel’s Rabbi lets him work on Rosh Hashanah.
This is an anecdote that has been widely reported: Emanuel’s rabbi gave him permission to work on the bailout plan over Rosh Hashanah. Emanuel comes from a strong Jewish tradition: his father was an Israeli immigrant, he has attended synagogue his entire life, and his middle name is Israel.
Emanuel has a deep investment and interest in Jewish life, but, once again, we see that his passion and engagement cannot be confined by one thing. Schwartz said that during her freshman year at Sarah Lawrence, she attended some of the campus Hillel events and never saw Emanuel there. She suggests that in such a Jewish school, there was less of a compulsion to actively seek out Jewish life. This no doubt left him more time to pursue his myriad other interests.
Rahm Emanuel’s mother calls him Rahmbo.
The nickname seems to fit his reputation, and while it’s difficult to prove this fact, it’s easy to believe. Rumor is, the only person in the Emanuel family more vulgar than Rahm is his brother Ari, an agent and the inspiration for the character Ari Gold (his other brother is a world-renowned doctor). Examples abound to support this assertion, including his famously sending a dead fish to a pollster who had made him angry, and his stabbing a table with a knife yelling “dead, dead dead!” about Republican “traitors” at a Clinton dinner.
But the testimony of those who knew him suggest that while his belligerence may be a way to achieve what he wants, it is not necessarily a defining or permanent quality. “He had no enemies [at Sarah Lawrence],” Schwartz said. She remembers that when they used to have dinner together he would immediately leave the table and start mingling. “He was a real politician,” she said.
A student from the class that Emanuel taught in the School of Communication at Northwestern in 2000 said in their CTEC “Professor Emanuel is an energetic speaker and teacher, yet a laid back person which is a great combination.”
This assessment suggests that Emanuel can bring the fight when he wants to get something done, but does not need in some deeper way to be abrasive or confrontational. It seems that his “Rahmbo” tactics are a way of getting involved and making an imprint. He approached politics with the same passion he had for dance, but instead of leaping and jumping to accomplish his tasks, he mailed dead fish and stabbed knives into tables.
Professor David Zarefsky in the School of Communication was introduced casually to Emanuel when Emanuel was a Communications grad student at Northwestern. Later when Emanuel returned here to teach, Zarefsky said Emanuel “gets what he wants and doesn’t let things get in his way.” But he also acknowledged that in a personal capacity, Emanuel seemed laid back.
This portrait of Emanuel begins to reveal what Obama (who has known Emanuel as a colleague and friend for years) saw in Emanuel that made him want to offer him the job. Emanuel will be engaged on all kinds of issues with all kinds of people. Evidence of this is already emerging. In the past few weeks, Emanuel has been talking up a storm with officials from both parties on issues that range from the auto industry to Iraq and Afghanistan. He will complement Obama especially well. Obama is methodical and focused–he will have more success dealing with one issue at a time in depth than jumping around doing the leg work–and that’s where Emanuel will come in.
While Emanuel will no doubt produce a batch of new scare stories and RahmFacts in the coming years, his broad passion and relentless need to be engaged that will mark his tenure in the Obama Administration more than his confrontational style. In the meantime, Emanuel is leaving the controversy to his impersonators and conducting his business profanity and death threat free. Perhaps he’s taking measure of the challenges that lie ahead. He’s got a big job, and that’s a fact few could argue.