As a former Congressman and aide to two U.S. presidents, Rahm Emanuel has made quite a name for himself in the world of politics. The now 53-year-old has gained a reputation for being exceedingly bright and thoroughly aware of policy details on the one hand, while also coming across as hard-charging and brash, unafraid to use colorful language (often not fit for a family publication) when the mood strikes. But it is his relatively new role as the first Jewish mayor of Chicago – wherein he has thrown himself wholeheartedly into tackling such daunting challenges as the city’s excessive crime rate, failing public schools and high unemployment – that has landed Emanuel on the cover of Time magazine, alongside the descriptive title “Chicago Bull.”
Emanuel has also attracted attention over the years for his visibly Jewish identity. A member of the Modern Orthodox Chicago synagogue Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel, he made a high-profile visit to Israel in 2010 to celebrate his son’s bar-mitzvah. Emanuel’s combination of feistiness and upfront Jewish affiliation is most likely rooted in the influence of his father, who was born in Jerusalem and was once a member of the Irgun, the famed paramilitary organization that operated in Palestine prior to the founding of the state of Israel in 1948.
The cover story in Time outlines how Emanuel has made a strong impression as Mayor of Chicago, one that cuts both ways, as some praise him for exerting great efforts to turn the troubled city around while others condemn him for making decisions they deem reckless and hurtful to vulnerable city residents. As the article notes, Emanuel installed a new police commissioner who has sought to reform the police department in a manner that would more aggressively address the stubbornly high rate of violent crime. While it took a while before positive results could be seen, the most recent statistics show a turnaround. Over the first four months of 2013, Chicago tallied 102 murders, a noticeable drop from 167 killings in the same period of 2012.
Simultaneously, though, some members of the city’s African-American community are critical of the new police department measures, which entail more cops out on the streets and a tougher approach to crime. “The message I got was that they would shoot first and ask questions later,” comments Pamela Wright, whose soon was shot to death in January.
“We have young people who are afraid of the police when they need to be able to trust the police.”
Struggling to deal with a billion dollar deficit in Chicago’s schools budget, Emanuel’s subservient school board voted a few weeks ago to close down a whopping 50 public schools. While the mayor may have deemed this an absolutely necessary emergency action, the powerful Chicago Teachers Union reacted with utter outrage. Union president Karen Lewis called Emanuel “the murder mayor – he’s murdering schools, he’s murdering jobs.”
Emanuel’s tendency to draw reactions from the polar opposite sides of the opinion spectrum is perhaps best epitomized by actor-director Robert Redford’s recent plans to create an eight-part reality television series about Chicago that would prominently feature – in Redford’s words – the “tough, visionary mayor.”
Responding to the national news magazine’s in-depth portrayal of the mayor, one Chicagoan wrote a letter to the Chicago Tribune stating, “The recent cover article in Time magazine about Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel should have read ‘Chicago Bully’ rather than ‘Chicago Bull. We must end Emanuel’s rule as a bully. He cannot serve another term to harm the citizens of Chicago. Emanuel must go back to Washington where he can be a bully.”
Taking note of the recurring rumors that Emanuel might someday wish to parlay his wide-ranging government experience into a run for the presidency, the article’s author, David von Drehle, writes that “the office [of mayor of Chicago] is a poor stepping-stone to any other job in politics. Chicago mayors are sometimes feared, sometimes scorned, sometimes investigated—but almost never promoted,”
“No. I’m not,” Emanuel says concerning a possible presidential run. “Never. It is not happening. I don’t know how else to say it. No...I’m done with [Washington politics]. I worked eight years in the White House for two great presidents (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama). They talk about things they want to do—I’m doing it. This is the happiest I’ve ever been in public life. I’ve always wanted to be mayor.”
As previously mentioned, Emanuel’s youth and family background clearly helped mold his lively and unabashedly Jewish-identified personality. His first name, Rahm, means high or lofty in Hebrew. The surname Emanuel, which means “G-d with us,” was adopted by their family in honor of his father’s brother Emanuel Auerbach, who was killed in 1933 in an altercation with Arabs in Jerusalem.
While the family lived in Chicago, Emanuel attended the Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School. Emanuel and his brothers attended summer camp in Israel, including the summer following the June 1967 Six-Day War. Maintaining his emotional affiliation with the Jewish state, Emanuel served as a civilian volunteer assisting the Israel Defense Forces for a short time during the 1991 Gulf War, repairing truck brakes in one of Israel’s northern bases.
Emanuel’s wife, Amy Merritt Rule, converted to Judaism shortly before their wedding. Emanuel is a close friend of fellow Chicagoan David Axelrod, chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns, and Axelrod signed the ketuba, the Jewish marriage contract, at Emanuel’s wedding. The spiritual leader of the shul Emanuel attends, Rabbi Asher Lopatin, has described Emanuel’s family as “a very involved Jewish family,” adding that “Amy was one of the teachers for a class for children during the High Holidays two years ago.” Notably, Emanuel has said of his Judaism: “I am proud of my heritage and treasure the values it has taught me.”
Emanuel held the position of senior advisor to President Clinton at the White House from 1993 to 1998, after serving as Assistant to the President for Political Affairs. He was a leading strategist in White House efforts to institute NAFTA and universal health care, among other Clinton initiatives.
As has been well-documented, Emanuel is known for his “take-no-prisoners style” that has earned him the nickname “Rahmbo.” On one occasion, he sent a dead fish in a box to a pollster who was late delivering polling results. On the night after the 1996 election that saw Clinton reelected to a second term, angry at Democrats and Republicans who he felt had “betrayed” them in the 1992 election, Emanuel stood up at a celebratory dinner with colleagues from the campaign and began plunging a stake into the table, rattling off names while shouting “Dead! Dead! Dead!” Before British leader Tony Blair gave a pro-Clinton speech during the impeachment crisis, Emanuel reportedly screamed at Blair, “Don’t (expletive deleted) this up!” while Clinton was present.
Stories of Emanuel’s personal style have entered the popular culture, inspiring articles and websites that chronicle these and other quotes and incidents. The character Josh Lyman in The West Wing was said to be based on Emanuel, though the television show’s executive producer denied this.
After working in investment banking, in 2002 Emanuel pursued and won the U.S. House seat in the 5th District of Illinois previously held by Rod Blagojevich, who successfully ran for Governor of Illinois. Emanuel held onto the seat until 2009. During his tenure in the House, Emanuel held two Democratic leadership positions, serving as the Chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2005 to 2007 and as the Chair of the House Democratic Caucus from 2007 to 2009.
On November 6, 2008, Emanuel accepted the Cabinet-level position of White House Chief of Staff for President Obama. Some Republican leaders criticized Emanuel’s appointment because they believed it went against Obama’s campaign promises of less divisive politics, given Emanuel’s reputation as a partisan Democrat. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham disagreed, saying: “This is a wise choice by President-elect Obama. He’s tough but fair, honest, direct and candid.” Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said that the choice indicated that Obama would not listen to the “wrong people” regarding the U.S.–Israel relationship. Some commentators opined that Emanuel would be good for the Israeli–Palestinian peace process because if Israeli leaders made excuses for not dismantling settlements, Emanuel would be tough and pressure the Israelis to comply.
In a 2009 article in The New York Times, Emanuel was characterized as being “perhaps the most influential chief of staff of a generation.”
Continuing to perpetuate his reputation for colorful behavior, at a closed-door meeting in the White House with liberal activists, Emanuel called them “(expletive deleted) retarded” for planning to run TV ads attacking conservative Democrats who didn’t support Obama’s health-care overhaul. In February 2010, Emanuel apologized to organizations for the mentally handicapped for using the word “retarded.” He expressed his regret to the chief executive of the Special Olympics after the remark was reported in an article by The Wall Street Journal about growing liberal angst at Emmanuel. The apology came as former Alaska Governor and conservative activist Sarah Palin called on President Obama to fire Emanuel via her Facebook page.
As Chief of Staff, Emmanuel was known for his often-outrageous sense of humor. During a staff meeting, when the Chief Technology Officer gave uniformly upbeat reports, Emanuel is said to have looked at him and said: “Whatever you’re taking, I want some.” Emanuel had a hand in war strategy, political maneuvering, communications and economic policy. Bob Woodward wrote in Obama’s Wars that Emanuel made a habit of calling up CIA Director Leon Panetta and asking about the lethal drone strikes aimed at Al Qaeda, “Who did we get today?”
In 2010, Emanuel was reported to have conflicts with other senior members of the president’s team and ideological clashes over policy. He was also the focal point of criticism from left-leaning Democrats for the administration’s perceived move to the center. By September 2010, with the Democrats anticipating heavy losses in midterm elections, this was said to precipitate Emanuel’s departure as Chief of Staff.
Without a doubt, Rahm Emanuel is sure to continue courting controversy, whether as Mayor of Chicago, or in any future public rolehe may assume.