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The Man Who Would Be George

Rahm Emanuel, centrist of the universe.

It is late afternoon on Christmas Eve and the West Wing of the White House is almost empty except for Rahm Emanuel, who is sitting in his office, taking and making his own phone calls and, as always, looking out his window. It is, perhaps, the best window in the building. From it he not only can monitor who comes and goes into the West Wing (he especially loves the military flag ceremonies that accompany the visits of foreign dignitaries), but he can also see who is being interviewed by the TV reporters from their stakeout positions on the North Lawn. Today, however, there are no visitors and the stakeout positions are empty. The sky is darkening to blue-black, and almost everyone in the federal city is off, thinking thoughts of goodwill. But not Emanuel.

The president’s new George Stephanopoulos is yelling. “No federal funds for Ebonics!” He slaps the small round table in front of him. He is not angry; this is a moment of triumph. He is not demanding that there be a policy of no federal funds for the teaching of Ebonics in public schools; he is announcing that he has achieved this. But he is annoyed at the time it took. “It took me a day and a half to put that together,” he says. That extra half-day rankles him. Why so long to establish a federal policy? “Riley wanted to make sure his legal staff was on board,” Emanuel says. He is speaking of Richard Riley, the Secretary of Education. “Riley has this funny way of talking, like those frogs on the Budweiser commercial: `Bud... wei... ser... Bud... wei... ser.’” Emanuel now does an imitation of Riley, surely one of the rarer imitations in Washington: “’The policy is right, we’re right on the policy, but we want to make sure legal is on board.’” Emanuel shakes his head. “This is the year we want to focus on raising educational standards. Ebonics would be moving the other way.”

The phone rings and Emanuel picks it up. “I’m flakking today,” Emanuel says to a White House staffer on the other end. “We’re going to get a pretty good New York Times and Washington Post story on the Ebonics thing. ABC has called. But someone be sure to call USA Today. And call Headline News. If we have to put somebody on TV for them, we will.” All of which is very much the Emanuel trademark: the on-the-wing creation of an easily understood and centrist new policy that is symbolically, New Democratically right—followed up by maximum media exposure. And if the Department of Education wants an extra half-day to make sure everything is actually within the law, that’s OK, more or less.

“Bureaucracies are the enemy,” Emanuel says. “They don’t have the initiative. The president has the initiative. We will bubble with initiative. There is no time to rest. I’m impatient. I’m hyperactive. But we need to gain the initiative!”

If he is eager this day to gain the initiative from a brand new office, which happens to be filled with cardboard boxes full of leavings from its previous occupant, Emanuel does not say so. It is enough that everyone in the White House knows he has gotten George’s office, a perk he insisted upon. Having already announced he was leaving the White House, there was no way Emanuel was going to be persuaded to stay without it. It is a tiny office, more architectural afterthought than workspace, but in the White House, size does not matter. Stephanopoulos’s office, the office of the Senior Adviser to the President for Policy and Strategy (Emanuel also insisted upon George’s title), is the closest work space to the Oval Office. Behind the small but lovely desk is a door. And behind that door is the private dining room of the Oval Office. And quite often, especially in the first two years of his presidency, that door would open and the president of the United States would poke his head around it and say, “George, I need you.”

“George was, in some ways, the conscience for Clinton,” presidential spokesman Mike McCurry says. “George would talk about the reasons we were all here and why we called ourselves Democrats—real liberal theology. But Clinton is much more surefooted now in what he wants to do in his second term. He is much more oriented in accomplishments and getting things done.” And he no longer needs a liberal conscience.

Enter Rahm Emanuel. Where Stephanopoulos was patient, quiet, left-liberal and totally devoted to his president, Emanuel is impatient, loud, a centrist and totally devoted to his president. “He gets things done,” Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles says. “He gets them done on time, and he gets them done right.” That may sound mundane, but these are the qualities that matter in a functioning White House, which Clinton only got after living through the disaster years of 1993 and 1994.

With Emanuel’s appointment, the staff arguments between the left and the right in the White House appear to be over or at least subdued. The issues that Emanuel has pursued for the last few years as White House director of special projects--nafta, the crime bill, the assault weapons ban and immigration reform—are the very issues that defined Clinton as a centrist. At first, the motives were defensive. “If you look across at what for the past twenty years have been wedge issues--crime, welfare and, recently, immigration—I think on all those fronts we have developed a very thorough and tough policy that from a political standpoint makes those policies unassailable,” Emanuel told The Washington Post during the 1996 campaign. If you move to the right, you can’t be attacked from the right. But what started as political tactics coalesced into a strategy of governance. The center is where Clinton is comfortable, where he wants to be for his second term.

The days at the Immigration and Naturalization Service would always begin the same way. “The phone would ring early in the morning,” a senior staffer there says, “and there would be this voice saying, `You piece of shit, what have you got for me today? What have you done for the president today? What are you doing right now?’ And it would be Rahm. No matter how early you came in, Rahm had already been working for an hour. No matter how late you stayed, Rahm was still at the White House.”

In four years at the White House, he took only four trips with Clinton. He was much happier staying home, monitoring the traffic on the White House lawn and pushing the agenda. “Wedge issues are truly what Emanuel lives for,” the INS staffer says. “Every three weeks we’d have ‘dark cabal’ meetings where we’d gather and talk about immigration control, and Rahm would be very outspoken. As long as we dealt with illegal immigration, we could be to the right of Attila the Hun. Rahm felt that Americans believed too many people were coming into this country, too many foreigners, so he wanted to show the administration returning people, deporting them, putting up bigger fences, sending them back. That’s how Rahm viewed it; he viewed it from the eye of the prospective voter, from Joe and Judy Six-Pack. He has an uncanny feel for that.”

And if that kind of immigration policy sounded faintly like Pat Buchanan’s immigration policy, well, Pat Buchanan’s supporters were more than welcome to vote for Bill Clinton. (On Election Day 1996, one out of every five persons identifying himself as a conservative voted for Bill Clinton.) Emanuel didn’t push Clinton to the center; he helped develop policies to show people that Bill Clinton was already there.

Take school uniforms. Over lunch at a restaurant near the White House, Emanuel told the story of how the policy came to be, and the whole time he talked about it, he kept scratching his fingers on the white tablecloth, making little scritchy-scritchy noises. This, it turns out, is an approximation of the sound of the chatter from the staff as Bill Clinton is rehearsing his 1996 State of the Union speech in front of them. (Other presidents might pass speeches around for comment; Clinton likes to perform.) Clinton reads the speech aloud until he gets to an endorsement of school uniforms—so kids won’t be killed for what they are wearing—and, scritchy-scritchy, the trouble begins.

Mark Penn, Clinton’s pollster, had tested school uniforms (no administration has ever polled as much as the Clinton administration) and the issue had not gone over well. Besides, the speech is too long anyway, so why not just cut this part? Emanuel disagreed. School uniforms are a good issue, and he wanted school uniforms in the speech. “School uniforms is a way for the president to bring together two things: education and a disciplined environment for kids to learn in,” he argued. This is Emanuel’s specialty: seeing how things fit together. School uniforms were education, they were crime, they were discipline. And more. To Emanuel, school uniforms were everything except school uniforms. He didn’t really care about the actual uniforms. The point was the symbol of the uniforms. “Uniforms were a manifestation of greater parental involvement in the schools,” Emanuel says. And what parent didn’t want that?

Scritchy-scritchy went the talk around the room. Were uniforms effective? Was it fair to make parents buy them? What did the civil libertarians think? “Screw it,” Clinton finally said, and the chatter stopped. “It stays in. And here’s how I want to say it.” And he wrote something about how if school uniforms save just one life, let’s do it. (When he later delivered that line in his State of the Union speech, it brought down the house.) Afterwards, Emanuel got some slaps on the back from other staffers for going toe to toe with the pollsters and winning. He now admits, however, to having had a wee little ace up his sleeve. “I knew school uniforms were in Hillary’s book,” he says.

Emanuel is 37 years old, whippet thin and handsome, with large brown eyes and dark hair shot through with gray. He swims a mile a day, three days a week, and every Saturday and Sunday he takes time out for private ballet lessons. One day in Little Rock in 1992 he came out of class and bumped into the Clintons. “There they are taking Chelsea for her ballet class,” Emanuel told People magazine, “and out comes their national finance director in his leotard and tights.”

That is how he started out with the Clintons: raising money. Everyone agrees he was terrific at it. “This is an insult!” he would scream into the phone. “Five thousand is an insult! You are a $25,000 person! I won’t take it. It is beneath you! I am sending the check back!” And he would slam the receiver down and wait. And the phone would ring and the person would be begging to give more money.

“He did a fabulous job raising money,” says a woman who worked with him in Little Rock in the 1992 campaign—and who refused a White House job rather than ever work in proximity to him again. “He was relentless in pursuit of money. He would stand on the desk—on the desk!—and shout, ‘Goddamit, Bill Clinton is not going down there to that fund-raiser for that kind of money! We want more! More!’ When he was on the phone, I never saw him sitting down.”

When Emanuel left his hometown of Chicago, where he had worked on Richard M. Daley’s mayoral campaigns and where he headed his own opposition research consulting firm, to come to Little Rock in November, 1991, he did not find a well-oiled machine. “I called and said I was coming down Sunday and could somebody pick me up at the airport and then I would like to meet my staff,” Emanuel says.

“Well, I’ll pick you up,” the guy at Clinton headquarters told Emanuel, “but nobody here works Sundays.”

“You do now,” Emanuel replied. Which was a good idea, considering the Clinton campaign had only about $600,000 in the bank. But in something like twenty days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Emanuel organized twenty-six fund-raisers that raised more than $3 million. And after that he just kept going and raised $17.3 million. “The money was credibility,” Emanuel says. “It showed that a governor from the state of Arkansas could play in the major leagues.” By February, 1992, Clinton was being rocked by stories of extramarital affairs and draft evasion, and here the money helped save him. “During the primaries with [Gennifer] Flowers and the letter to the draft board thing, the money we raised was a test of whether the campaign had staying power and strength in the legs,” Emanuel says. “That’s the way money is interpreted by the national media. They see money as a vital sign, like taking a patient’s temperature.”

But in raising that money, Emanuel made a critical decision that resonates today. Instead of raising money through direct mail, which was a popular but expensive method, he decided to raise money through fund-raisers. “They don’t require a lot of up-front money,” he says. Instead they require up-front time, the time of the candidate. He laid it out for Clinton: make the time and you can make the millions. Clinton made the time.

But when the campaign was finished, Emanuel had the survival instinct to leave fund-raising behind him. “I don’t want to be known as a fund-raiser,” he told Chicago magazine in 1992. “It ain’t what I’m going to be doing November the eighth, I’ll tell you that.” He left fund-raising behind, but he also left a legacy, a fund-raising operation built upon the use of a president who had learned that his mere presence at an event could persuade people to contribute huge sums to his campaign coffers and to those of the Democratic Party. By the 1996 campaign, it was Clinton who was asking his fund-raising staff why they had not assembled more events for big donors. Didn’t they know how much people would contribute just to shake his hand?

That lay in the future, though. There were no fund-raising scandals in 1992, and today Emanuel is proud of the fact that he has never had to testify before a congressional investigating committee. (Though he had to give testimony to staff investigators from the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee about Travelgate.) Emanuel may have been an aggressive fund-raiser, but he was also a careful one. At the time Emanuel was working in downtown Little Rock, so were a number of the people now embroiled in the Clinton soft-money scandal: Charles Yah Lin Trie, owner of Clinton’s favorite Chinese restaurant; James Riady, who was connected to the Worthen Bank there; and John Huang of the Lippo Group. But no one has connected anything Emanuel did with any of those men. “I never met or talked to or knew Trie,” Emanuel says. “I never met or talked to or knew Riady, although I did talk to an individual at the Worthen Bank. And John Huang, as I remember, he didn’t help in ‘92, until late in the general election. I didn’t talk to him until the end of the summer of ‘92, and at that time I was at the DNC.”

You can talk to Emanuel for hours and hear him speak only about domestic policy. But when you ask Bill Daley, the Secretary of Commerce-designate, who worked with Emanuel in Chicago and on nafta, what the one thing is that Emanuel really believes in, really cares about, Daley answers instantly: “Anything to do with Israel. He has such strong attachments, religious and emotional.” Emanuel’s paternal grandfather left Odessa and emigrated to Palestine in 1917. His father was born there in 1922. His grandfather supported David Ben-Gurion’s underground Haganah in the fight for Israeli independence, and his father fought in Menachem Begin’s underground Irgun, running guns and putting up movie posters that carried secret codes. When Emanuel’s uncle, Manuel, died in the fighting, the family changed its name from Auerbach to Emanuel to honor him. His father, now a doctor, and his American-born mother, who would become very active in the civil rights movement, moved from Israel to America in 1959, and Rahm was born four months later. For the next fifteen years, he maintained dual American-Israeli citizenship, dropping Israeli citizenship only when keeping it would have meant being subject to the Israeli military draft.

In 1991, when Emanuel was working on the reelection campaign of Richard Daley, the Gulf war broke out. At a time when thousands of Israelis were leaving Israel, Emanuel flew there to volunteer. (Emanuel is missing half the middle finger on his right hand, and, while rumors abound in Washington that he lost it to a Syrian tank, in fact he cut himself on a meat slicer while working at Arby’s as a teenager.) Emanuel spent the duration of the brief war working at an army base in Northern Israel, rust-proofing brakes.

But Emanuel does not talk much about the Gulf war, or anything having to do with Israel. “Foreign policy is not what I get involved in,” he says. “I don’t give opinions on it. I’m not a back door to the president on foreign policy. I don’t contribute unless asked.”

And has Clinton ever asked? Once, after the fact, about “the settlements issue,” Emanuel says, but will provide no more details.

It is very much the operating style of Bill Clinton, however, to ask the people close to him what they think about an array of matters and then compare their answers. And, a senior White House official says, Clinton privately has gone to Emanuel and said, “You understand the Israelis better than anyone else, what do you think is going on?” And Emanuel has given his analysis.

And whether he wishes to talk about it or not, no person with ties so close to Israel has ever been this close to an American president. Emanuel believes his enemies will try to use that against him, but he is prepared for it. “Nobody is going to be able to accuse me of dual loyalty,” he says, choking up. “I know the promise and commitment of America. I know what this country has done for my family.”

Almost every day, the senior policy, communications and administrative staff of the White House gather in the Oval Office for what is called the “pre-brief.” Here they tell the president what he can expect from the public event he is about to face, the political implications, the questions he is likely to get from reporters and how he might want to address them. It is a formal event. Clinton sits behind his desk and his staff stands before him in a semi-circle. George Stephanopoulos always stood at the center of the semi-circle. One day in December, Rahm Emanuel took that spot. “Let’s get your answer down to one-two-three, Mr. President,” Emanuel said that day about Clinton’s next budget. “Let’s ask ourselves what you want to say here, state the goal, state the policy, and then say it: one-two-three. But let’s get moving.”

Roger Simon is the Chief Political Columnist of Politico.

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