What to expect from Rahm Emanuel as Obama's chief of staff.

What to expect from Rahm Emanuel as Obama's chief of staff.

What to expect from Rahm Emanuel as Obama's chief of staff.

Media criticism.
Nov. 6 2008 6:51 PM

Rahm Emanuel, Press Tamer

What to expect as Clinton's enforcer becomes Obama's chief of staff.

Rahm Emanuel.  Click image to expand.
Rahm Emanuel 

"Always be closing!"—shouted by Alec Baldwin in the movie version of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross could be Rahm Emanuel's slogan.

Working for Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign, the hyperaggressive Emanuel—who knows his way around lewd speech as well as any David Mamet character—raised money by the tanker-load, helping to make the Clinton victory happen. Inside the White House, he prodded, schemed, bullied, and screeched in service of his boss as a political director and senior aide.

After leaving the White House in 1998, he went to work for financier and vanity-press mogul Bruce Wasserstein and outdid the Baldwin character, who bragged about making almost $1 million a year, by taking down at least $16.2 million dollars in just two and a half years, according to a 2003 Chicago Tribune story. (A later Fortune article puts his haul at $18 million.)

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"It's a striking sum even in the richly paid world of corporate deal-making, let alone for someone without an MBA or any prior business experience other than running a small political consultancy," the Tribune reports. After closing that deal, Emanuel returned to politics, winning a House seat and going on to raise even larger mountains of campaign cash for the Democratic Party.

Today, Emanuel agreed to return to the site of his earlier victories by accepting the job of chief of staff under President-elect Barack Obama. Emanuel loves the press on many levels. He loves leaking to them, manipulating them, packaging stories for them, and recycling crap to them. As the New York Times' Elisabeth Bumiller wrote in 1997:

Reporters say Rahm is smart, but complain that he has a bad habit of peddling shopworn goods as scoops. ''I got along with him, but like everybody else who ever covered that place, I also hung up on him,'' says David Lauter, who was in charge of the 1996 election coverage for the Los Angeles Times. ''You just want to say to him, 'Enough,' He'll call you up and start spinning something about how this is the greatest thing that any President has done in the history of man.''

Howard Kurtz's 1998 book, Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine, portrays Emanuel as a tireless, conniving salesman of Clinton hoo-ha. Once, when Emanuel fed an assortment of Clinton mini-initiatives to several newspapers, USA Today put "Clinton Lays Plans for Millennium Activities" on Page One. "Next, reporters joked, they would be leaking presidential Post-it notes," Kurtz writes.

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But far from resenting the kibble that Emanuel scattered, some in the press corps made their resentment known when they missed a feeding. In one case, according to Kurtz, Emanuel leaked Clinton's decision to request a campaign-finance rule change to USA Today, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times but passed over the Wall Street Journal's influential Michael Frisby. To abbreviate the story, Emanuel repaired relations by having the incensed Frisby (" 'I'm going to fuck you,' he declared") fed an exclusive about Clinton's "national conversation" about race. Yes, this is how Washington journalism works.

Emanuel "spent perhaps 60 percent of his time" on the press, Kurtz writes, relying on charm, insults, and bluster to advance Clinton's many agendas.

"On a particular day he might chat up columnists Paul Gigot and Mark Shields, return calls from James Bennet and Todd Purdum at the New York Times, check in with the networks, have lunch with Cokie Roberts," Kurtz writes. "He would often call the network folks at 10:05 a.m., right after their morning conference call with New York, to find out what they were working on and try to shut it down if necessary." NBC Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert got a couple of calls a week from Emanuel, who would complain about coverage, push a story, or just pester.

Writing in Slate in 1996, Jacob Weisberg described Emanuel as perhaps "the [Clinton] administration's most diabolically effective tactician" and credited him as being "largely responsible for moving the Clinton campaign beyond mere 'rapid response' to pre-emptive strikes—engineering, for instance, Clinton's endorsement by the Fraternal Order of Police on the day Bob Dole was set to launch a major attack on the president's crime record."

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Bumiller writes that after Clinton won in 1992, his advisers, including Emanuel, met at Doe's Eat Place to discuss taking revenge on journalists (and others) who had wronged them during the campaign. Even so, Emanuel appears to be a proud member of the "Fuck you—let's go to lunch" school of press management. William Safire, who called Hillary Clinton "a congenital liar" in 1996, may have earned White House enemy status, but to Emanuel, the columnist was "Uncle Bill," Kurtz writes, and Emanuel "even had Safire over for dinner." Michael Kelly of the NewRepublicwon a lunch date with Emanuel for calling Clinton "a shocking liar," "occasional demagogue," and worse. (Note to White House reporters: For a face-to-face with Emanuel, write the most scathing thing you can about Obama.)

Emanuel games everybody and everything, so the press shouldn't take it personally—and it won't. In fact, as I write, the White House press corps is doing whippits in celebration of his appointment. The Obama campaign famously kept the press at arm's length. Emanuel, on the other hand, can't shut up. (Whose fault do you think it is that the whole world knew for days that Emanuel had been offered the chief of staff job but couldn't make up his mind?)

The Obama campaign provided the press with no internal drama, forcing reporters to intuit the real agenda. Emanuel, on the other hand, is a drama queen; seething, foaming Mamet production; a big mouth; and a calculating mensch who loves nothing more than to stoke the feed bag for press-corps noshers. With Emanuel at the top, the Obama administration might not get the stories it wants, but with the Emanuelian forethought and topspin, it might just avert the stories it dreads.

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Thanks to the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz for writing a book that I could sieve into a column so efficiently. He's very thoughtful, that Kurtz. And it's a good book. Read any good books about media manipulation lately? Send titles to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Rahm in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.