Emanuel’s season on the brink

The caricature of Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), the public face of the Democratic sweep of last year’s midterm elections, is that he swears, fidgets and throws temper tantrums.

The Thumpin’, by Chicago Tribune reporter Naftali Bendavid, solidifies Emanuel’s born-to-kill image with a range of funny and biting scenes from the campaign trail. I won’t give away the best scenes here.

The narrative arc of the book reads like an underdog football team’s journey to winning the Super Bowl. There were the low expectations, the hard work to recruit good candidates and raise money, a run of good luck, the uncertainty and various low points, and the ultimate victory on election night.

Granted unlimited behind-the-scenes access to Emanuel in exchange for not reporting details until after the election, Bendavid has written an end-of-the-season highlight reel showing the campaign season’s hardest hits and greatest catches.

Let’s just say Emanuel is true to his word that he is an equal-opportunity haranguer: Nobody — lawmakers, spouses, staffers, moneymen, consultants or reporters — is spared his creative use of the “F” word, which in Emanuel-speak is a noun, verb, adjective and, at times, a metaphor for affection.

The book pays homage to Emanuel in ways that go overboard at times, too. It is not a surprise that Democratic leadership staffers in other offices were jealous of him. Larry Sabato, the ubiquitously quoted political scientist, has described Emanuel as “the Jewish LBJ.”

Lyndon Johnson operated at a different level than today’s politicians. He relieved himself while his staff watched. He all but stole his 1948 election to win a Senate seat. He carried on very public extramarital affairs. He passed civil rights legislation and created Medicare and Medicaid.

Emanuel is no Lyndon Johnson.

Bendavid digs beneath Emanuel’s reputation as just a political gunslinger. But it is tough to understand what drives Emanuel’s rage, intensity and outbursts. Not an Israeli, Emanuel might nonetheless be described as a “Sabra,” which is how some people characterize Israelis who are like the native-born cactus plant that is thorny on the outside but sweet on the inside.

Moreover, Emanuel possesses a fatalism that makes him almost charming. In one of the most personal scenes in the book, Emanuel explains that his three children were 9, 7 and 6 when he took the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) chairmanship in 2005, and he was acutely aware that he wanted to be around when they were older.

“There is a higher than normal suicide rate among members’ kids, when you look at it on a per-capita basis,” Emanuel said.
Rep. Nancy Boyda (D-Kan.) told The Hill earlier this year that she had to coax Emanuel off of the ceilings after she decided to forgo DCCC money this election cycle. But she added Emanuel worried about her in a way that was “grandmotherly.”

Indeed, the DCCC job took a physical and emotional toll; Emanuel lost weight, never slept, caught colds and aged noticeably. (Bendavid left out Emanuel’s decision not to seek the chairman’s job for another term, which The Hill first reported last summer.) Now, in the wake of the Democratic victory, Emanuel has accumulated more fame, power and enemies.

Another chapter tying Emanuel’s ambition to something deeper and expounding on his future plans would have made the book even more absorbing. Still, for a fast and fun read on the last campaign season and a how-to book on campaigns, The Thumpin’ is a fine work.