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Rahm Emanuel's old-school style was key to new presidency

President Obama's chief of staff, stepping down to run for Chicago mayor, was instrumental in the passage of a stimulus bill and the healthcare overhaul — but will be remembered largely for his tough, profane persona.

October 01, 2010|By Peter Nicholas, Tribune Washington Bureau

"To some extent, a chief of staff has to play bad cop to a president's good cop, and a disciplinarian is needed because people have to line up and do things they may otherwise not want to do," Reich said. "But the complaints I got was that he was unnecessarily brutal, demeaning to people."

Some aides describe a softer side. Bill Burton, a deputy press secretary who has worked with Emanuel for years, said Emanuel was routinely solicitous of aides' families. If Emanuel called and Burton said he was eating dinner with his wife, the chief of staff would hang up with a quick, "Go eat." He would refer to himself as "Uncle Rahmmy,'' Burton said.

"People who feel he rules by fear and intimidation completely misunderstand him," Burton said.

Emanuel also could make his team laugh. Chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra would come to staff meetings and give uniformly upbeat reports, administration aides said. One time Emanuel looked at him and said: "Whatever you're taking, I want some."

Emanuel had a hand in war strategy, political maneuvering, communications and economic policy. Bob Woodward wrote in his new book, "Obama's Wars," that Emanuel made a habit of calling up CIA Director Leon E. Panetta and asking about the lethal drone strikes aimed at Al Qaeda. "Who did we get today?" he would ask.

When the White House wanted to clear the field so that Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania could run uncontested in the Democratic primary, it was Emanuel who tried to make it happen.

He called up his old boss, Clinton, to ask that he dangle a job offer in front of Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) to get him out of the race. It didn't work; Sestak said no and went on to beat Specter.

A fiercely partisan Democrat, Emanuel was selective in his dealings with Republicans. GOP leaders say they saw little of Emanuel.

Asked if Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky had heard from Emanuel, a spokesman for the senator said, "Not in recent memory."

Emanuel would court certain Republicans who might be persuaded to break with party leaders and vote with Democrats. He spent considerable time with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in the hope of reaching a deal to close the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay. Emanuel thought Graham was key to any progress on Guantanamo. Yet the prison remains open.

"He had some rough edges, but he also reached out to the Republican side many times with great success and most of the time unheralded," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). "People didn't know what he was doing behind the scenes."

Christi Parsons in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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