Obama chooses 'Rahmbo' as chief of staff

Former Clinton adviser renowned as a political bruiser is given key post

Rahm Emanuel, an aggressive member of the Democratic leadership, yesterday agreed to become President-elect Barack Obama's chief of staff, a key position for the success of the new administration, after struggling with family and political considerations.

The choice of Mr Emanuel, a US Congressman, was one of Mr Obama's first decisions after becoming President-elect on Tuesday. Known as "Rahmbo" to insiders, he has a reputation as one of Washington's most ferocious political operators.

A close friend and ally of the President-elect, he was chosen for his sharp political elbows, essential assets in ensuring that Mr Obama's ambitious agenda for change does not get bogged down in a Washington quagmire. But some Republicans fear that Mr Obama's choice sends a disturbing message after the President-elect promised a bipartisan approach to politics.

The initial 100 days of a new administration are crucial. Mr Emanuel has agreed to take on the burden of endless 17-hour days and political arm-twisting as the process of establishing the next administration got under way.

He was the political brains of President Bill Clinton's White House and even survived an attempt by Hillary Clinton to fire him. His reputation became the inspiration for the character Josh Lyman on The West Wing and friends theorise that his proverbial toughness is in fact an outgrowth of being a ballet dancer in his youth.

The common thread between Mr Emanuel and Mr Obama is the President-elect's chief strategist David Axelrod, éminence grise of Chicago political consultants, who was reported to have accepted the post of senior adviser last night. Both men are Jewish – Mr Emanuel had Axelrod sign the ketubah (the Jewish marriage covenant) at his wedding – and both worked for Chicago's Mayor Daley. In his first run for congress, Mr Emanuel was criticised as being a wealthy outsider and Mr Axelrod created an ad with a Chicago policeman endorsing him – revealed at the end of the commercial to be Emanuel's uncle.

Mr Emanuel initially dithered about taking the position. After consulting with his wife he agreed to do the job rather than remain in Congress. He had hoped to become Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Working for Mr Clinton he was fearless in taking on tasks others refused. He brought about a ban on assault weapons – since overturned – and was responsible for beating back the Republican-led impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky affair. Mr Clinton once likened him to a pit bull.

In a RollingStone Magazine article about him, the former Clinton aide Paul Begala said: "He's got this big old pair of brass balls, and you can just hear 'em clanking when he walks."

His intensity is said by friends and enemies alike to be key to his success. Stories about him are legendary, including one about a rotting fish he sent to a pollster who had angered him.

But it is true that on the night after Mr Clinton was elected, Mr Emanuel exploded in anger at the president's enemies and at a celebratory dinner he grabbed a knife as he shouted out their names: "Dead! . . . Dead! . . . Dead!," he said, plunging the knife into the table.

With hundreds of jobs to fill before his 20 January inauguration, President Obama and his transition team have a huge and difficult task of filling positions. It is complicated by his anti-lobbyist campaign promises. Back in Israel, Mr Emanuel's paediatrician father, Dr Benjamin Emanuel, was somewhat off message with Mr Obama's campaign promise of hope and change. In an interview with the newspaper Ma'ariv, he said he was convinced that his son's appointment would be good for Israel. "Why wouldn't he be? What is he, an Arab? He's not going to clean the floors."

The White House chief of staff is expected to do much of the President's dirty work in getting laws through Congress, where members can be notoriously independent minded. He will also need to help Mr Obama maintain good relationships on Capitol Hill, and few in Washington are considered more able to take on the role of gatekeeper.

When Mr Emanuel was a boy, his mother forced him into ballet lessons, which he threw himself at with the intensity he took to politics. "The guy had been a ballet dancer in college," his friend Bruce Reed told RollingStone, "yet grown men lived in mortal fear of what he might do to them."

He won a scholarship to the prestigious Joffrey Ballet but turned it down and went instead to Sarah Lawrence College, where he earned a bachelor's degree. He also has a master's degree in speech from Northwestern University.

He is from a closely-knit Jewish family that immigrated to Chicago from Russia in the last century and is married to Amy Rule, a woman he met on a blind date. They have three children. His brother, Ari, is a high-powered Hollywood agent who became the inspiration for the Ari Gold character in the HBO series Entourage.

Between his stints in Washington, Mr Emanuel made a fortune as an investment banker and once sat on the board of Freddie Mac. Known as a political centrist, he is in sync with Mr Obama and has long backed incremental, family-friendly tax breaks .

He sharply criticised George Bush's handling of the war in Iraq, but has favoured a gradual troop withdrawal. The bloggers and grass roots activists who have been a driving force behind Mr Obama appreciate Mr Emanuel's combativeness, which they hope will rub off on other Democrats.

Emanuel's father: An Israeli terrorist?

The appointment of Rahm Emanuel triggered widespread interest in Israel, the native country of his former Jewish underground fighter father.

The older Emanuel, a paediatrician born in Jerusalem, was a member of Irgun, the hard-line militant group which fought for Jewish independence until 1948. It was described as "terrorist" at the time by Britain. Mr Emanuel's appointment could reassure Israel that Mr Obama will continue America's close alliance. The Ynet news service quoted Michael Kotzin, a leader of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, as saying Mr Emanuel is a frequent attender at Israel-related events.

He co-sponsored a Bill defending Israel against a world court advisory opinion in 2004 criticising the route of the military's separation barrier for cutting deep into the West Bank, and co-sponsored another Bill congratulating Israelis and Palestinians who work together for peace. He is credited with choreographing the famous handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn in 1993.

Donald Macintyre

Life imitates art: The new chief of staff on screen

The parallels have been drawn between Barack Obama and President Matt Santos – the Hispanic who broke through the colour barrier on The West Wing. Now Rahm Emanuel, the man who was the real-life inspiration for Santos's wing man Josh Lyman, has been named as Obama's chief of staff. Is life imitating art or art imitating life?

For proof that Rahm was the spark for Josh, look no further than a dead fish. In Season Five of The West Wing, when Josh is still deputy chief of staff to President Bartlett, a self-aggrandising profile of him appears in The Washington Post.

"This story about me sending a congressman a dead fish wrapped in newspaper – the Post get this from you?" he barks at his assistant, Donna. Nope. Try Mr Emanuel, who reportedly sent the very same gift to a pollster with whom he'd fallen out.

With his arrogant, cocky manner, Josh was never interested in winning the popularity stakes and took immense pleasure in playing Congressmen off against each other to get his own way.

Mr Emanuel's steamrolling personality has similarly upset people on the Hill. There have been snippy comments about his "clanking brass balls" and even the man himself admits to waking up some mornings "hating me too". But there is a softer side to the pair. Mr Emanuel, for example, studied ballet in high school and was offered a scholarship to a prestigious dance academy. West Wing viewers never saw Josh don a pair of ballet pumps, but he did confess to Sam in series three that he had wanted to be a ballerina, when he was four. "I'd kinda like that not to get around," he quickly adds, aware his macho image may be threatened.

Both men are Jewish, although Rahm is observant while Josh is non-practising. But while Josh is an incorrigible womaniser, his alter-ego is a family man: Josh fools around with Amy Gardner; Rahm is married to Amy Rule. And Mr Emanuel will be hoping he avoids one other Lyman fate – being seriously injured in an assassination attempt by white supremacists.

Claire Soares

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