By Sam Youngman - 09/29/10 10:00 AM EDT
President Obama can find plenty of people to fill the job of chief of staff, but he will be hard-pressed to find one with the larger-than-life personality of Rahm Emanuel.
If Emanuel decides to leave this week to run for mayor of Chicago, as he is expected to do, Washington will lose one of its more colorful characters.
Emanuel, or “Rahmbo,” as he is known by some, is still in the process of making a decision on whether to run in Chicago, but a source close to him said an announcement could come this week.
If Emanuel returns to Chicago, where a number of his former donors are eager to start writing him checks again, he will be leaving behind a legacy filled with urban legends grounded mostly in reality.
There is the story of Emanuel sending the pollster the dead fish, replicating a scene in “The Godfather” and screaming he wanted President Clinton’s enemies “dead!”
There is the famous family. Emanuel’s younger brother Ari is the inspiration for super-agent Ari Gold on “Entourage,” and older brother Zeke is a renowned doctor at the National Institutes of Health.
Emanuel himself has become part of Hollywood lore; the former Clinton White House aide has long been thought to be the inspiration for the character Josh Lyman on “The West Wing.”
Emanuel is well-known for his penchant for the F-word, his time volunteering with the Israelis during the first Gulf War and his nub finger, disfigured in a slicing accident during a high school job at Arby’s.
And then there is the story of Emanuel’s encounter with former Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.), who said he and Emanuel (whom Massa later called the “son of the devil’s spawn”) got into a shouting match while naked in the showers at the congressional gym.
Emanuel is a classically trained ballet dancer and a multimillionaire from his time as an investment banker. He’s also been described by some as the most powerful chief of staff in modern history.
But for every funny, surprising or unnerving story that gets retold in the bars of Washington, Emanuel can point to a major accomplishment he has spearheaded.
He led the Democratic effort to win back the House in 2006 as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and he was the man at the helm of the White House when Democrats did what Emanuel was unable to as a senior adviser in the White House — pass healthcare reform.
Despite those and other successes, Emanuel has long been viewed with suspicion from the left, which sees him as a creature of compromise who readily sacrifices the ideals of the Democratic Party at the altar of victory.
In 2006, liberal Democrats — and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean — criticized Emanuel for recruiting centrist, conservative-leaning Blue Dog Democrats to run. But in a fight over resource allication, Emanuel dug in, getting into a heated shouting match with Dean en route to overseeing the tidal wave that kicked Republicans out of power for the first time since 1994.
During his time at the White House, Emanuel has time and again come under fire from the “professional left,” which sees similarities to his time as chairman of the DCCC.
It was Emanuel, liberals claimed, who led Obama to abandon the public health insurance option.
Despite his reputation for partisan bullying, Emanuel does have admirers on the other side of the aisle.
During Obama’s transition, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) said Emanuel was “well-suited” to be the new president’s chief of staff.
“Rahm knows Capitol Hill and has great political skills,” Graham said, according to The Washington Post. “He can be a tough partisan but also understands the need to work together.”
Obama has repeatedly and publicly voiced confidence in and support for his chief of staff, going so far as to say Emanuel would be a great mayor for Chicago if he decides to run.
Should that happen, the men reported to be on Obama’s shortlist for chief of staff — deputy Pete Rouse; Vice President Joe Biden’s chief of staff, Tom Donilon; and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) — don’t carry the same mystique or reputation Emanuel does.
That could be a good thing for Republicans, Obama or both, but it will be a loss for the city’s storytellers.
This story was originally posted on Sept 29, 2010 at 06:00 AM.