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The Chief

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To appreciate the sheer reach of the Emanuel legend, one need look no further than the upper rungs of the Obama administration. “Everyone in government believes they’re working for Rahm,” one Obama official recently told me. “If I were a cabinet secretary, and Rahm called me up and said, ‘I think you should go left,’ I would go left.” This official recalls once having a casual conversation in economic adviser Larry Summers’s West Wing office, when Emanuel popped his head in. Both men stopped talking and reflexively stiffened. “He was not coming in to shoot the shit--‘Hey guys, what are you doing this weekend?’” this official says. “You sat up, paid attention. He has that way about him.”

At 50, Emanuel has the lean, taut look of a lifelong swimmer, with broad shoulders and distractingly prominent quadriceps. But at the heart of the Emanuel mystique is the family patois, which lurches between pronounced curtness and vivid, sometimes scatological, imagery. Emanuel will casually toss off quips like, “You’re in the bowels of nothin,’ man.” One former colleague recalls making two or three requests during a sensitive negotiation, only to have Emanuel respond: “Well, I guess if I can take care of Bill Clinton’s blow jobs, I can take care of that.”

And then there are the f-bombs, which Emanuel reels off like a verbal tic, sometimes embedding them in other words with Germanic aplomb. There is, for example, “Fucknutsville” (his pet name for Washington) and “knucklefuck” (an honorific bestowed on Republican opponents). In administration meetings, Emanuel will occasionally announce, “I think it’s fucking idiotic, but it’s your call.” (That would be Rahm-speak for: “You have more expertise than I do on this subject.”) He’s even been known to use the imprecation as a term of endearment, as when he signs off friendly phone calls: “Fuck you. See you later. I love you.” As Phil Kellam, one of Emanuel’s star recruits from the 2006 election cycle, recently joked to me, “If you could sum up Rahm Emanuel, it would be: big ideas, big mouth, big heart, little finger.” (Emanuel lost half his middle finger in a teenage accident.)

Among those most fluent in the Emanuel vernacular are members of the Obama economic team, with whom the chief of staff interacts constantly. For example, on February 10, 2009, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner delivered a speech laying out the various steps he would take to revive the financial system. The pundits promptly panned it, and the markets began to swoon. Both had expected Geithner to deliver a detailed set of remedies; instead, the secretary offered only the broad contours of a strategy.

Emanuel went ballistic. “He was like, ‘How could they have let expectations get so out of whack?’” recalls one official. Soon after, he began to take a special interest in Geithner’s work-- in the way that a Jewish mother can be said to take a special interest in her son’s romantic life.

A quick review of Geithner’s schedule from one week last February will illustrate the point. On four of the five days, Geithner attended a White House senior staff meeting from 8:15 a.m. to 8:45 a.m., which Emanuel runs. In addition to this, Geithner joined a conference call with Emanuel and Larry Summers on the afternoon of Monday, February 16. On Tuesday, Geithner had a call with Emanuel scheduled from 8:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday afternoon brought Geithner to an Oval Office meeting with Emanuel, Summers, and the president. This was followed by an hour-long meeting in Emanuel’s office. Geithner was back at the White House Thursday morning for a one-on-one meeting with Emanuel; Emanuel then called that afternoon and spoke to Geithner for 15 minutes. The next morning, it was Geithner who called Emanuel. A few hours later, Geithner turned up for a 90-minute meeting in Emanuel’s office.

When the Treasury Department released Geithner’s schedule last fall, the media made much of his conversations with Wall Street CEOs. But, as one official told me, “the interesting story wasn’t that Tim speaks to bankers--every treasury secretary does. It’s the extent of time he’s on the phone with Rahm.”

And yet, even here, the Cheney-Rove-Rasputin analogy breaks down. Emanuel wasn’t dictating policy to Geithner. Rather, the mantra of the meetings was “no more surprises.” (The president had inadvertently added to Geithner’s February 10 fiasco by talking up the speech beforehand; Emanuel partly blamed himself for the mix-up.) As another official describes it, “Rahm did not spend a lot of time on the ‘What, we have to bail friggin’ AIG out? It’s going to kill us politically.’ He just started making sure everyone was communicating.” Emanuel also wanted to ensure that, as the administration rolled out specific proposals--toxic-asset purchases, relief for troubled homeowners--Treasury sold them preemptively to journalists and Wall Street muckety-mucks.


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