Rahm Emanuel: The Terminator?

Rahm Emanuel has been described as a street fighter with a killer instinct—as explosive, profane, wired and ruthless—sometimes as a compliment, sometimes not. But no one has ever cast him in the role of elder statesman, at least up until now. Emanuel, a 48-year-old congressman who grew up, somewhat weirdly, to study ballet and practice Chicago politics, has generally adapted to his situation in a combative, not diplomatic, manner. As an indifferent high-school student, he badly cut his finger on the beef-slicing machine at Arby's. That night, after his high-school prom, he jumped into Lake Michigan. The tip of his finger became infected and he nearly died. Ever since, Emanuel has relished raising his hacked-off middle figure at his foes. In conversation with almost anyone about anything, Emanuel uses the F word like a sergeant in a World War II motor pool.

Emanuel would never be confused with Averell Harriman, who, in a gentlemanly way, stood up to presidents from FDR to LBJ. Still, someone may have to deliver the bad news. When the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives voted articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon in the summer of 1974, it fell to the GOP's grand old man, Barry Goldwater, to go to the president and say, "Mr. President, this isn't pleasant, but you want to know the situation and it isn't good." Goldwater told Nixon that there were, at most, 18 votes to acquit in the Senate—and then twisted the knife by saying that he himself was undecided.

Who will tell Hillary Clinton that the time has come to fold her tent? (Or, in a less likely scenario, Barack Obama?) It almost surely won't be Howard Dean, the head of the Democratic Party. Unlike his predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, a charming glad-hander who played golf with Bill Clinton, Dean has no personal relationship with the Clintons. In late March, when Dean suggested that the race should be wrapped up by July 1, Hillary promptly sought an interview with The Washington Post to assert, "I have no intention of stopping until we finish what we started." Just by virtue of her position, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi might seem like a logical candidate for the dirty deed, but she lacks stature with the Clintons. Former vice president Al Gore? No love lost there on either side. Sen. Ted Kennedy? Sen. John Kerry? They're partisan, having declared allegiance to Obama. Maybe a wily, old hand like superlawyer and Clinton golf confidant Vernon Jordan will step in, as NEWSWEEK'S Howard Fineman suggests.

But it may be that the most obvious candidate is Emanuel. He is an old friend of Barack Obama's campaign strategist, David Axelrod (so close that Axelrod signed the ketuba, a Jewish marriage contract, at Emanuel's wedding, an honor that usually goes to a best friend). At the same time, Emanuel worked on Bill Clinton's '92 campaign and was an effective operative in the Clinton White House, and he is tight with various Clinton advisers like James Carville and former campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle (whom he calls his "little sister" from the Chicago political wars). He has the loyalty of many Democratic congressmen, whom he recruited and for whom he prodigiously fund-raised, helping to secure the Democratic majority in the 2006 election.

"He's in a good position," says Axelrod. "He's very, very close with Barack and is very close with the Clintons. He thinks of Barack as a peer, but he's very mindful and respectful of the Clintons." The only uncommitted superdelegate from Illinois, Emanuel has been joking for months that he is "hiding under his desk." Last week he told NEWSWEEK that he is not ready to play Barry Goldwater, and doesn't think he'll need to. "I may, but there's as good a chance I may not have to," he says. With perhaps more hope than the realism for which he is generally known, Emanuel continued: "I have confidence in both of my friends that they will be good Democrats. Both candidates will do what's necessary to help the party. Neither wants to be seen as a spoiler … They [the Clintons] are dear friends, and they have been selfless in their commitment to Democratic Party ideals."

If Obama upsets Clinton in Pennsylvania on April 22, all sides seem to agree that it's game over. If Clinton wins narrowly—by less than 10 points—the noise will grow louder for her to drop out and crescendo if she loses Indiana. "I have a sneaking suspicion it's over after North Carolina and Indiana [May 6]," says Emanuel. "It will be clear by then who the presumptive nominee is." But it may not be, in which case the Democratic Party will be in for a fight regarding how and whether to seat delegates from Michigan and Florida, whose primaries were nullified because both states defied party injunctions by holding their votes too early in the primary season. The nomination fight could be still unresolved going into the Democratic National Convention in Denver in late August. That's the scenario that would call for Emanuel—or some other broker-peacemaker-statesman to step in and end the fight.

Top Clinton campaign aide Harold Ickes doesn't deny Emanuel's political skills, but he says there won't be any blood feud to referee. "There's all this apocalyptic talk about a bloody convention," Ickes tells NEWSWEEK, "a raging fight over credentials—some reports have gone so far as to analogize the possibility of Chicago in 1968. This is just overwrought hype … I think this issue will be settled well before the convention." Joe Sinsheimer, an old friend of Emanuel's and onetime staffer on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, tells NEWSWEEK that Emanuel can't serve as a broker because the Clintons don't totally trust him, in large part due to his alliance with Axelrod. Emanuel has always been closer to Bill than Hillary. Indeed, Hillary tried to get Emanuel fired as a White House aide in 1993 (reportedly because he was too abrasive with others), but Emanuel refused to leave until the president personally told him to pack his bags. Bill couldn't bring himself to do it. Sinsheimer says that Emanuel may have selfish reasons for wanting to stay uninvolved and avoid playing the role of party elder. "Rahm has his own ambitions," says Sinsheimer. If he runs for Speaker in four or six years, "why does he want to have 5, 10, 15 people on one side of this chasm or another mad at him over something?"

Another longtime Clinton aide, Bruce Reed, also doubts that Emanuel would play the Goldwater role. "I don't think he has any aspirations of playing peacemaker or Middle East liaison," he says, "and to me it just doesn't seem like a likely scenario." On the other hand, Reed credits Emanuel with having the qualities required. "He's a realist, he's honest, he tells it like it is," says Reed. "Rahm is extraordinarily good at getting things done." Reed describes Emanuel as "an acquired taste. I always tease him that those of us who don't hate him love him a lot."

Certainly, there is nothing bland about Emanuel and never has been. Although he once won a summer scholarship with the Joffrey Ballet, he preferred the combat of politics. As a Democratic Party official, he once sent a pollster who was late delivering polling results a dead fish in a box. Old Clinton hands still laugh about the night after Bill Clinton won the 1992 presidential election. In his book, "The Thumpin': How Rahm Emanuel and the Democrats Learned to Be Ruthless and Ended the Republican Revolution," Chicago Tribune deputy Washington bureau chief Naftali Bendavid writes that, as about a score of them sat around a picnic table mushily declaring their love for one another, Emanuel picked up a knife and called out the names of different politicians who had "f–––ed us." After each name, Emanuel would cry out, "Dead man!"—and stab the knife into the table. Bendavid recounts that "Emanuel, jokingly called 'Rahmbo,' even by his mother, muscled weaker Democrats out of races in favor of stronger ones, and ridiculed the chairman of his own party."

But it's a mistake to see Emanuel as a blowhard or a bully. Heath Shuler, a former Washington Redskins quarterback, recalled to Bendavid how Emanuel recruited him to run for Congress in 2006. Shuler told Emanuel that he was worried that he would have to sacrifice family time as a congressman. "The next day," Shuler says, "Rahm calls and said, 'Hey, I just wanted to call you and tell you I'm taking my kids to school. I'll call you later.' … Then he calls me back three hours later and said, 'Hey, I just wanted you to know I stopped by my daughter's school. I'm going to lunch with her.' That was it. No conversation. He calls me a few hours later, 'I want to let you know I'm picking my kids up. I'm taking them to swim class'." This went on for two or three weeks—calls from dance recitals, swim classes, with the sounds of kids happily playing in the background—until Shuler agreed to run for Congress (he won).

Emanuel professes to be unworried about the presidential race. He's more involved pushing his favorite new policy idea—requiring school through age 19 so that everyone has to have at least one year of college or postsecondary training to bring the workforce up to snuff—than he is engaged in the jockeying between Obama and Clinton. (One senior Hillary adviser, who didn't want to be named discussing a sensitive issue, says he still calls, but never about getting Hillary to drop out.) He doesn't think the race has been too nasty, not by Chicago standards, at any rate. He notes that in his own first House race, his opponent made an issue of his Judaism by saying, "He's not one of us." But even Emanuel has his limits. "This has got to come to an end by June. It has to be over and it will be over," he says, with the authority of a man who will make it over if he has to.