By Rick Pearlstein
It’s hard to remember a time when Rahm Emanuel wasn’t a Democratic Party superstar. Go back to 1991, when the thirty-two-year-old took over fund-raising for Bill Clinton. He was soon renowned for making the staff come to work on Sundays, shrieking into the phone to donors things like “Five thousand dollars is an insult! You’re a twenty-five-thousand-dollar person!”—and, not incidentally, helping Clinton afford the blitz of TV commercials that saved himfrom the Gennifer Flowers scandal, clearing his course to the White House. The legend continued through this past April, when Rahm—in Chicago and D.C., he’s known by that single name—won a second term as the mayor of Chicago in a come-from-behind landslide.
Nine months later, Chicagoans—and Democrats nationally—are suffering buyer’s remorse. Last month, a Cook County judge ordered the release of a shocking dashcam video of a black seventeen-year-old named Laquan McDonald being shot sixteen times by a policeman while he was walking away. Five days later, the officer was charged with murder. The charge came after four hundred days of public inaction, and only hours before the video’s release. Of almost four hundred police shootings of civilians investigated by the city’s Independent Police Review Authority since 2007, only one was found to be unjustified. So the suspicion was overwhelming that the officer would not have faced discipline at all had officials not feared a riot—especially after it was learned that McDonald’s family had been paid five million dollars from city coffers without ever having filed a lawsuit. Mayor Emanuel claims that he never saw the video. Given that he surely would not have been reëlected had any of this come out before the balloting, a recent poll showed that only seventeen per cent of Chicagoans believe him. And a majority of Chicagoans now think he should resign.
For twenty years now, there have been those who say that this emperor never had any clothes on in the first place. Given the speed and intensity of his fall, perhaps it’s time to reconsider their case.
Start with the 1992 Presidential campaign. Emanuel persuaded Clinton to prioritize raising money. This, to put it lightly, caught up with him. And while Emanuel was never tied to the fund-raising chicanery involving forgotten names like James Riady, Yah Lin Trie, and John Huang, it was that zeal for cash that provided Clinton’s Presidency its original taint of scandal. Obsessive fund-raising is also the foundation of Emanuel’s political operation in Chicago. When two reporters for the Chicago Reader filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the mayor’s private schedule in 2011 (unlike previous mayors, his public schedule was pretty much blank), they discovered that he almost never met with community leaders. He did, however, spend enormous blocks of time with the rich businessmen, including Republicans, who had showered him with cash.
There are moral complaints to be made about this, to be sure. But the behavior has also failed Emanuel on political grounds: when he found himself in trouble, he was left without a broad base of political support, unlike the previous mayor, Richard M. Daley, who in similar straits fell back on his close relationships in all fifty city wards. When one of those rich Republicans donors—Bruce Rauner, with whom Rahm has vacationed—became Illinois’s governor, last year, at least the scolds could comfort themselves that their mayor would enjoy privileged access to lobby for the city’s needs. But that hasn’t worked, either: instead, Rauner has given Rahm the cold shoulder.
But return to Washington in the early nineteen-nineties, when a grateful Clinton awarded his young charge a prominent White House role. There, Emanuel’s prodigious energy, along with his contempt for what he called “liberal theology,” rocketed him higher and higher into the Clinton stratosphere. “He gets things done,” Clinton’s chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, enthused late in 1996, when Emanuel usurped George Stephanopoulos as senior adviser for policy and strategy. Among his special projects was helping to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement and the 1994 crime bill. He also tried to push Clinton to the right on immigration, advising the President, in a memo in November, 1996,to work to “claim and achieve record deportations of criminal aliens.” These all, in the fullness of time, turned out to be mistakes.
nafta, in alienating the Party’s working-class base, contributed to the Democrats losing control of the House of Representatives in 1994. As for the crime bill, which included a “three strikes” provision that mandated life terms for criminals convicted of violent crimes even if their other two offenses were nonviolent, Clinton himself has apologized for it, saying that the policy “made the problem worse.” The attempt to out-Republican the Republicans on immigration never took off. Republicans are the party solely associated with vindictive immigration policies, which leaves them in the long-term crisis they’re finding themselves in now—identified as anathema by Latinos, the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic group. If Rahm had had his way, that never would have happened.
After Washington, Emanuel made eighteen million dollars in two and a half years as an investment banker. (His buddy Rauner helped get him his job.) He came back home—although diehards will insist that Emanuel isn’t really a Chicagoan, having grown up in suburban Wilmette—and won a congressional seat in 2004. His next step was chairing the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in charge of recruiting House candidates. In 2006, he got credit when Democrats took back the lower chamber. One Democratic strategist from California who saw him working a room of worshipful admirers shortly afterward marvelled, “Inside the Beltway, Rahm is like … well, not Dylan or Madonna but maybe Britney or Paris.”
But that achievement disintegrates the more closely it’s examined. At the D-Trip, as the D.C.C.C. is known, Emanuel aggressively recruited right-leaning candidates, frequently military veterans, including former Republicans. But many of his hand-picked choices fared poorly, losing in general elections. Some even lost in their primaries, to candidates backed by liberals—many of whom won congressional seats resoundingly, even after the D.C.C.C. abandoned them.
Victory, like defeat, can have a hundred fathers, and we can’t know what was ultimately responsible for the Democrats’ success that November. Anger at Republicans for the Iraq War (which Emanuel supported) certainly drove many voters’ decisions. What is indisputable is that the 2006 majority proved to be a rickety one. Critics argue that, even where Emanuel’s strategy succeeded in the short term, it undermined the party over time. One of his winners, the football star Heath Shuler, of North Carolina, would not even commit to vote for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House, and was one of many Rahm recruits to vote against important Obama Administration priorities, like economic stimulus, banking reform, and health care. Many are no longer congressmen. Some Democrats now argue that, in the long run, 2006 might have weakened the Party more than it strengthened it. “Rahm’s recruitment strategy” was “catastrophic,” the retired record executive Howie Klein, who helps run a political action committee that funds liberal congressional challengers, said, and it contributed to the massive G.O.P. majorities we have now, the biggest since the nineteen-twenties.
Obviously, that conclusion wasn’t shared by Barack Obama in 2009, when he named Emanuel as his White House chief of staff. There, however, Emanuel’s signature strategy—committing Obama only to initiatives they knew in advance would succeed, in order to put “points on the board”—nearly waylaid the President’s most historic accomplishment: health-care reform. Emanuel wanted to scale it back almost to the vanishing point. It took a concerted effort by Speaker Pelosi to convince the President otherwise. This time, it was Emanuel who apologized: “Thank God for the country he didn’t listen to me,” he said after the Supreme Court upheld Obamacare, in 2012.
By then Emanuel had became the mayor of Chicago, elected with fifty-five per cent of the vote in the spring of 2011. Since then, there have been so many scandals in Emanuel’s administration that have failed to gain traction that it’s hard to single them out. One signature idea was lengthening Chicago’s school day by thirty per cent—controversial because he proposed compensating teachers only two per cent more for the extra work. The Chicago public-schools inspector general was soon investigating allegations that a local pastor linked to Emanuel was arranging buses to pack public hearings with supporters of the idea, paying at least two “protesters” twenty-five to fifty dollars each.
The city also rolled out a new “smart card” system for customers to pay transit fares, a product of the San Diego-based defense contractor Cubic. The system, known as Ventra, worked about as well as Lucille Ball on a factory production line: some people would get on the bus for free, while others would be charged several times. The cards were supposed to double as debit cards for Chicago’s “unbanked” poor. But buried deep within the thousand-page contract with Cubic were nice little Easter eggs, like the seven-dollar fee for customers who didn’t use the card for eighteen months, and another five dollars tacked on for each dormant month after that.
The manager of Cubic’s Chicago division while the project was under negotiation had previously been the Chicago Transit Authority’s vice-president for technology; then, when it came time for implementation, he spun back through the revolving door to his former city job. Well, that’s Chicago. Then Emanuel promoted the C.T.A. chief responsible for the system as his mayoral chief of staff. Then he appointed him as the Chicago public schools’ C.E.O., following the resignation of his previous pick, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, ahead of an indictment for a kickback scheme, to which she later pleaded guilty.
Byrd-Bennett had taken over the job from an unfortunate gentleman named Jean-Claude Brizard, who was forced to take the fall when Emanuel lost a teachers’ strike in 2012.* She was then tasked with another of Emanuel’s sketchy initiatives: closing fifty-four schools, many of which were in the city’s black neighborhoods. Why were forty-nine pillars of community stability ultimately shuttered? Suspicions of venal motives abounded, but nobody could really be sure. A fact-check by Chicago’s public-radio station, WBEZ, discovered that many of the facts that the city gave about the decision were not accurate. But don’t confuse that inquiry with a joint investigation by WBEZ and the schools magazine Catalyst Chicago which discovered that Emanuel’s claim about high-school-graduation rates—that they would increase by fifteen percentage points—was also a mirage. (Dropouts are reassigned to for-profit online education programs that demand very little work, and then are awarded diplomas from the school they last attended or one near where they live.) Or with the multi-part series by Chicago magazine that blew the mayor’s claims about Chicago’s supposedly declining homicide rates out of the water, too. (One method: categorizing homicide victims as “noncriminal deaths.”)
Now the sins of Emanuel are finally catching up with him. Lucky for him, however, the compounding police-shooting scandal has erased from the news a peccadillo from this past November: the mayor’s press team was eavesdroppingand recording reporters while they interviewed aldermen critical of the mayor. A spokesman responded to the press by saying that their only intent was also “to make sure reporters have what you need, which is exactly what you have here.” That made no sense. But then so much of the legend of Rahm Emanuel’s brilliant career makes little sense. The bigger question, perhaps, is what this says about a political party and the political press that bought the legend in the first place.