When it comes to Rahm Emanuel, there is more than one fish story. All of Washington knows the tale of the dead fish: how he delivered one, Corleone style, to a polltaker he didn't like. But few know the grilled-fish chronicles: the private, off-the-record dinners he has hosted in recent years for a bipartisan posse of his fellow congressmen. (Story continued below...)
Known primarily, but incompletely, as the Democratic Party's foulmouthed enforcer, Emanuel as a member of Congress also was a nonideological, convivial centrist, eager to trade backroom intelligence with like-minded Republicans. "The wine flowed, the food was good and we all talked candidly," says Rep. Fred Upton, a Republican from Michigan. "Everyone agreed that if things leaked, we'd disband it. Nothing ever did." The dinnertime ties paid off, Upton says, in support for legislation like the banking bailout. "Rahm works every angle," says Upton, "often in ways that people don't expect."
It's impossible to overstate the significance of President-elect Barack Obama's first big decision, announced within a day of his victory, to make Emanuel his chief of staff. Having campaigned as an outsider with a big, ambitious agenda, Obama means to control Washington. "By hiring Rahm, Obama is saying that he wants to make things work again after eight years of flailing by George Bush," says Rep. John Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat who has had testy but respectful dealings with Emanuel. "Rahm will be the mechanic."
The "Yes, We Can" visionary has hired the ultimate "Can Do" man. As part of the House leadership, Rahm was a master of figuring out whom the leadership could pressure for votes. Most of the time the leverage was money, the fact that a "wrong" vote would jeopardize access to Emanuel's carefully nurtured cadre of donors and bundlers. Now, as White House chief of staff, he'll have access to a panoply of presidential power—to do favors, to withhold them; to offer fundraising help, to deny it.
Emanuel's clout, though, stems from something else: an obsession with deep research about the wishes and weaknesses of other players. When Yarmuth was mounting his first campaign, Emanuel was dubious. The Kentuckian, a publisher by trade, had written wild editorials for an alternative magazine many decades earlier. "Rahm knew more about my obscure writings than I did," Yarmuth recalls with a laugh. (Of course, Emanuel's need to know can cause problems, as when his political conversations with Rod Blagojevich ended up on FBI surveillance tapes of the embattled Illinois governor.)
Emanuel can be brusque and profane—even if, as friends insist, he has mellowed over the years. But the real risk isn't that he'll torch a staffer. It's that he (and, by extension, Obama) will try to control too much, especially in Congress, where members are likely to switch from complaining that they are ignored to complaining that the White House is paying too much attention—and not enough heed. "I'm concerned that the Congress won't be able to pursue its own agenda," says Yarmuth. Congress needs to find its own Emanuel. The original is moving to an office downtown.