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My take on Rahm

No, he’s not a shrinking violet, my friend Rahm Emanuel.

I say friend — now. Way back when I started work at the Clinton White House in December 1996, it would not have been the first word I thought of when I thought of Rahm.

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Let’s just say, to put it mildly, there were many times, weeks, even months, when we disagreed strongly on political and tactical judgments.

Strong as an adjective in front of the name Rahm Emanuel is a redundancy. Let us say Rahm has strong opinions and expresses himself with strong words when he disagrees. Indeed, the expletives I have heard Rahm invoke to express that disagreement — usually after the word “you” and strung together, one after the other, as adjectives in front of the word “idiot” — were diverse, colorful, creative and never duplicative. Sometimes they were even alliterative. It would often leave the listener — even if you were the “you” in the sentence — in awe, speechless. 

So what I am about to write doesn’t come from a person who has always gotten along well with Rahm.

That said, here’s my take on Rahm Emanuel, who resigned last week as President Obama’s chief of staff and now heads for Chicago, allegedly to run for mayor. Three things:

First, he is a mensch.

What is a “mensch”? (Even Jews have a hard time translating that much-used Yiddish word.) Let me define it by giving you an example from one of my memories of Rahm.

As noted, we had a history at the Clinton White House of not exactly exchanging a lot of love. But we fought together in the trenches — and came to at least feel the common alliance those in the trenches feel as missiles arrive virtually every day. Then, on the final day of my service at the White House (Jan. 30, 1998), Rahm showed up — to my surprise — at my going-away reception, hosted by President and Mrs. Clinton in the historic Diplomatic Reception Room on the ground floor of the residence. 

After a few nice comments about me by colleagues, Rahm, without warning, stepped up to speak. I am paraphrasing (using some poetic license from my distant memory):

“I was wrong — Lanny stepped up to the line. I am here to say he’s not as bad as I said he was.”

What a compliment!

What a mensch!

Second, Rahm is loyal to his friends — through thick and especially through thin. That is an understatement. Just ask President Obama and former President Clinton.

When I needed help in the past year after an unfortunate incident involving someone in the Obama White House, I called Rahm. He answered the phone. He heard me out in 10 seconds, said, “I get it” and hung up. The next day I got a call from him. In his typically extensive and complex phrasing, he said: “Done” — and hung up. 

Finally, Rahm is a leader. He is smart. He knows people. He is direct (!), communicates clearly (!!), isn’t afraid to make tough decisions and, if things turn out badly, to take the flak for the boss. 

Take the health insurance issue. He and President Obama made the obvious and necessary decision to get a historic national insurance bill passed without a public option, rather than no bill at all. They knew that few if any of those 33 million people who were uninsured, or those who had been denied insurance due to pre-existing conditions, would prefer no bill at all to one lacking a public option. 

The purist left of the Democratic Party was (and still is) furious. And whom did they attack? Mostly Rahm Emanuel — not the man he worked for. That was OK with Rahm — he knew that was his job. He also knew that incremental change is better than no change, and politicians are elected to solve problems, not make ideological stands. 

Sound like someone who can bring warring local community factions together, deliver services, improve public schools and fill potholes?

Sounds that way to me.

So, I expect, next stop for Rahm Emanuel is Chicago City Hall.


Davis, the principal in the Washington law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which also specializes in legal crisis management, served as President Clinton’s special counsel from 1996-98 and as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.  He is the author of the book Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America.