Rahm Emanuel: Foot in the door

Barack Obama's chief of staff could have been a ballet star. And when the new team moves into the White House, his are the moves that everyone will be watching
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The Independent Online

If you want, at the dawn of this brave new era, a sobering insight into the way Barack Obama will go about being the Most Powerful Man in the World, try sitting down with a copy of the official report into his office's dealings with the disgraced Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich.

The document, published on the news-burying day of 23 December, was written by Obama's own lawyer, Gregory Craig, and details every contact the president-elect's transition office had with the dodgy politician who now stands accused of attempting to "sell" a seat in the United States Senate.

It makes for chilly reading. Not because Craig reveals any corruption in the Obama camp (in fact, he exonerated the future president and his aides), but instead because of the light it shines on the chummy horse-trading between Blagojevich and the man many believe to be the future US president's most powerful lieutenant, Rahm Emanuel.

Mr Emanuel's official title is chief of staff. But really he's the Obama team's pantomime villain: the tough-guy "fixer" who cuts deals, twists arms and is responsible for actually getting things done in Washington. Like a transatlantic version of a parliamentary whip, his personal style veers between pit bull and mafia don. Certainly he has become a key player in the "Blago" scandal.

Despite Obama's public promise after the election that he and his team would take a "hands-off" approach to selecting his successor in the Senate, it emerges in Craig's report that the president-elect actually authorised Mr Emanuel to do the reverse.

In fact, Obama's chief of staff spoke to Blagojevich twice in early November, suggesting on one occasion that Valerie Jarrett would be an "acceptable" candidate to replace the new president as Illinois senator.

Later, Emanuel had four conversations with Blagojevich's chief of staff John Harris (who is also facing criminal charges for allegedly trying to benefit personally from the appointment), telling him "with the authorisation of the president-elect" to consider four other potential Illinois senators: Dan Hynes, Tammy Duckworth, Jesse Jackson Jnr and Jan Schakowsky.

According to the Craig report, the duo "discussed the merits of potential candidates and the strategic benefits each would bring to the Senate seat".

It must be stressed that Emanuel has not been accused of anything illegal here. In fact, what he was doing was standard Washington power-broking. But the very fact that the conversations took place at all makes a mockery of Obama's claim to be bringing a fresh approach to the business of government. They also led Blagojevich's attorney Ed Genson to seek a subpoena forcing Mr Emanuel to testify to his impeachment panel. So until the Blagojevich scandal is resolved, the future president will be tainted by association with one of the murkiest episodes in America's recent political history. Yet Obama never appointed Rahm Israel Emanuel because it would make him popular. Instead, he brought him to the heart of his administration to steer a path through the legislative quagmire of Washington.

Nicknamed "Rahmbo" because of his combative demeanour, Emanuel is a former White House staffer who became one of the most partisan Democrats in the House of Representatives. More recently, he has styled himself as the next president's sharp-elbowed "enforcer". Colourful anecdotes about his modus operandi abound. During the 1980s when he was a fundraiser in his native Chicago, Emanuel sent a local pollster who had upset him a rotting fish in the post. It came with a note attached: "It's been awful working with you. Love Rahm."

A few years later, after helping to raise funds for Bill Clinton, Emanuel jollified a celebration dinner in Arkansas by naming prominent Democrats who had failed to dig sufficiently deep into their pockets to help his boss win the presidential election. As he listed the guilty parties, Emanuel plunged a steak knife into the table, shouting "Dead! Dead! Dead!" after every name.

In the late 1990s, when he was working in the White House, Emanuel took the visiting British Prime Minster Tony Blair to one side to discuss a joint press conference that the two leaders were about to conduct. It was the height of the Monica Lewinsky Scandal. His advice: "This is important. Don't fuck it up!" If Blair was surprised, then he should have reflected that the old analogy about everything being bigger in America even extends to the egos of political staffers. In British terms, Emanuel combines the volatility of Alastair Campbell with the Machiavellian genius of Peter Mandelson.

Emanuel's excitable manner and choice use of expletives are said to have made him the inspiration for the short-tempered John Lyman in The West Wing. Democratic strategist Paul Begala described his personal style as being like "a cross between a haemorrhoid and toothache".

When news broke of Emanuel's appointment as Obama's chief of staff in November, it set off a predictable furore. Republicans were outraged. John Boehner, the house minority leader, told reporters that it was "an ironic choice for a president-elect who has promised to change Washington, make politics more civil, and govern from the centre".

Democrats, among whom he has almost mythically high regard, were over the moon, however. "He's the perfect choice," gushed New York state senator Chuck Schumer. "He knows [Capitol] Hill, he knows substance, he knows politics, and most importantly, he can get the job done."

The appointment was also seen as a shrewd move to shore up Obama's support in the Jewish community, which had originally been lukewarm about his election. Emanuel was born in 1959, grew up in the wealthy Chicago suburb of Wilmette, the son of a Jerusalem-born paediatrician who had once been a member of the Zionist militant group Irgun.

Emanuel's mother Martha was a social worker with ties to the civil rights movement, who is reputed to have brought her children on marches with Martin Luther King. The family spent most summer holidays in Israel, and Emanuel retained dual citizenship until the age of 18.

His brother Ari is a renowned Hollywood agent who was the inspiration for the foul-mouthed character Ari Gold in the TV series Entourage.

At high school, Rahm was a talented ballet dancer and could have turned pro: at 19, he was offered a scholarship to join the renowned Joffrey Ballet. Instead chose to study ballet at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, before taking an MA in communication from Northwest University.

Perhaps the most crucial incident in his youth came at 18, when he experienced a brush with death which apparently pushed him to succeed in life. Working in the fast-food restaurant Arby's, he cut his middle finger in a meat-slicing machine. The wound became badly infected, and by that evening, he was laid up in hospital, where doctors said he might not live through the night. Eventually, the top half of his finger was amputated.

After university, Emanuel moved back to Chicago to work as a fundraiser. He turned out to be considerably talented, and played a crucial role in Richard Daley's election as mayor in 1989.

After a brief stint in Israel during the first Gulf War, where he volunteered as a mechanic to support his threatened homeland, he returned to the US and became the fundraiser for Bill Clinton, then a little-known governor. The rest is history: Clinton's stock soared and Emanuel rode on his coat-tails to the White House, where he became political director of the new administration, a serious accolade for a 32-year-old.

He was later demoted, after a serious falling out with Hillary Clinton over her doomed attempt to pass a healthcare bill through Congress, and two years before Clinton left office, he decided to fill his personal coffers by a brief stint in the private sector.

The president appointed him to the board of the then uncontroversial and solvent mortgage giant Freddie Mac, and shortly afterwards, Emanuel returned to Chicago and became managing director of Dresdner Kleinwort, earning $18m in three years.

In 2002, having made himself financially secure and acquired a wife, Amy, together with three children, Emanuel launched his own political career, winning a seat in the House of Representatives. By 2006, he was a leading figure in Democratic circles, running a brilliant campaign that saw the party win a majority in the House that year.

"He's a good tactician," said Danny Davis, a fellow representative from Illinois after that victory. "He's a creative thinker. But I think what probably makes him most successful is that he has the will to follow his convictions."

Barack Obama's rise to prominence came as a further boon to his career, since the two men were already well acquainted through Illinois political circles. Regardless of where Blagojevich takes him, he is now one of the most powerful lever-pullers on the most important presidency in US history.

The road ahead could be rocky, but Emanuel is nothing if not prepared for conflict. Recently, when he arrived back in Washington, he was asked by reporters whether his confrontational style would be suited to Capitol Hill. He paused, considered his response, then announced curtly: "I didn't come here to win a popularity contest."

A life in brief

Born: Rahm Israel Emanuel, 29 November 1959. Father Benjamin was a paediatrician. Mother Martha was a civil rights activist who later became a social worker.

Education: First attended Bernard Zell Anshe Emet, a conservative Jewish day school in Chicago. After moving to Wilmette, he attended Romona School, Wilmette Junior High, and New Trier West High School. At university, he studied ballet at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, before taking an MA in communication at Northwestern University.

Career: from 1984 to 1989 was a Democratic fundraiser in Chicago; then spent three years as chairman of presidential candidate Bill Clinton's fundraising committee, raising a then record $72m; then senior adviser at the Clinton White House. In 1998 joined Dresdner Kleinwort as managing director; from 2002 to 2008 was Democratic member of the House of Representatives, fifth district of Illinois. Became chief of staff to Barack Obama this year.

He says: "When people told me, 'It's great to be here,' they meant here at the House [of Representatives]. Not with me."

They say: "He's not running for Miss Congeniality, ever" – Jan Schakowsky, Illinois Democrat