- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama promised daughters Malia and Sasha a new puppy when they move into the White House in January.

But with the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff, some are speculating that Mr. Obama already will have a political pit bull to occupy a watchdog place of power right outside the Oval Office.

Mr. Emanuel, the brash Illinois congressman and Chicago political operative known for his fundraising prowess, brings a bracing partisan edge to the thoughtful and chill public personality projected by Mr. Obama, whose campaign pledge was to move far from politics as usual in Washington.

“Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long,” Mr. Obama said at his emotional and historic election night rally in Chicago’s Grant Park.

And yet, with the Emanuel pick, political opponents say they are left to wonder if those words were simply empty, gassy “come together” rhetoric, far removed from the new president’s intention to govern as the president of all the people once he takes office.

“Rahm Emanuel is clearly a hyperpartisan whose naming undermines the very premise of Obama’s candidacy,” says Republican National Committee spokesman Danny Diaz. “Obama said he was going to be someone who exhibited change and who would reach across the aisle, and yet he chooses one of the most partisan political insiders in Washington to run his White House.”

True, Mr. Emanuel’s Democratic legacy is the stuff of Hollywood, the oft-recounted anecdotes of his political life at once humorous, vicious and theatrical. He is reported to have inspired the Josh Lyman character on television’s “West Wing,” and one of his two brothers, Ariel, served as the inspiration for Hollywood uber-agent Ari Gold on HBO’s “Entourage” show. His own mother reportedly calls him by his nickname: Rahmbo.

As ruthless people go, he’s an 11 on a scale of 10; one political friend jokingly called him “a cross between a hemorrhoid and a toothache.” He was a ballet dancer growing up, and some have speculated that the rigors, pain and intense discipline of the dance helped shape his inner-moxie and drive to plow ahead in politics.

Among the better stories from his past: Mr. Emanuel once employed “Godfather”-style tactics and sent a political operative a stinking, dead fish to signal his disapproval. During his days in Little Rock working on former President Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, Mr. Emanuel shook up a dinner meeting by stabbing a steak knife into a table and screeching “Dead!” - a la “Animal House” - after reciting the names of a list of political detractors.

He also seems well aware of his public image as aggressive and not exactly lovable. At a Washington Press Club dinner in February, where he was among the guest speakers, Mr. Emanuel tried to make fun of his infamy, noting that he was much different from his congressional colleague, Sen. John Cornyn, who was also a speaker.

“If you called central casting and asked to send a senator, they’d send John,” he said. “If you asked for a terrorist, they’d send me.”

On Capitol Hill, his style seems to be push ahead and ignore his critics. “I didn’t come here to win a popularity contest with them,” he said in one published media account. “I wake up some mornings hating me, too.”

Media accounts have also recounted the fit and attractive Mr. Emanuel’s fondness for dropping the F-bomb, an emphatic and profane way of getting his point across with passion - particularly when referring to Republicans.

Democrats defend his political style.

“I like Rahm,” says Donna Brazile, one of Al Gore’s presidential advisers, in an e-mail. “He’s smart, tenacious, knows both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue and will pull together a terrific team for President-elect Obama.”

Even Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who worked with Mr. Emanuel to shore up specifics of the presidential election debate schedule on behalf of Sen. John McCain, praised Mr. Emanuel’s selection as “a wise choice.” He called him “well-suited” for White House chief of staff.

“I worked closely with him during the presidential debate negotiations, which were completed in record time,” Mr. Graham said in a statement. “When we hit a rough spot, he always looked for a path forward. … He’s tough but fair. Honest, direct and candid.”

Some who know him in Chicago say his extreme tendencies in his political youth have given way to a softer, gentler Rahm - kinda, sorta.

“He’s tough as nails with a rubber coating now,” says Chicago political consultant Kitty Kurth, who thinks Mr. Emanuel has grown up since his 1994 marriage to Amy Rule and the birth of their three children.

In marrying, Mrs. Rule converted to Judaism, a faith that shaped Mr. Emanuel’s life as he grew up in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, Ill., the son of a pediatrician father and a mother who was a social worker.

This time, when Mr. Emanuel got the call to come to Washington, he paused for a moment - instead of running into the fire - and acknowledged publicly that this was a difficult choice that would no doubt affect his family. He considered their needs, too.

“Being married and having kids has toned him down a lot,” she said. “When he’s at home in his district, he brings the kids to a lot of things. I think there is probably a lot different Rahm than what you see publicly. The dad and the husband Rahm is probably much different than his earlier incarnation.”

Political consultant Philip Molfese says Mr. Emanuel’s political skill inside the famed world of Chicago-style politics has been his ability to shake trees and do what it takes to make things happen, particularly in raising money.

“He certainly has a hard-charging personality, but I think that is only in the interest of getting the job done,” Mr. Molfese said.

Mr. Obama, it seems, agrees. “No one I know is better at getting things done than Rahm Emanuel,” he said upon announcing his selection as chief of staff.

And what does Mr. Emanuel bring to an Obama presidency?

Mr. Molfese, who cites Mr. Emanuel’s middle-class upbringing, which included teenage stints working at Arby’s, thinks “he can connect well with all types of people from different backgrounds.”

“I think he is very involved in his faith and is very family focused,” he said. “Those parts of him are more private, and I don’t think people really see that, but I do think they shape who he really is. … Here, he’s viewed as sort of a fresh, new ideas guy, hard-driving but also with a common man’s touch. I think the rest of it is overblown and overplayed.”

Miss Kurth says she thought for a time how the selection might benefit the seemingly no-drama Obama, then decided that “it totally made sense.” Mr. Emanuel’s past White House experience, his work helping President Clinton smooth the way with Congress in the early days of his presidency and his own experience on the Hill along with knowing the current players, gives him an experienced edge to hit the ground running in difficult days.

At 49, Mr. Emanuel also is close to Mr. Obama’s age of 47 - they share a generation - and is among his devoted inner circle of Chicago-based go-to guys.

“I think it’s actually perfect in a weird way,” she said of their pairing, which puts Mr. Emanuel at the doorstep of power, just a step away from the Oval Office and in charge of who gets time with the president and who is turned away. “Their styles are so different, but I think Rahm will be the tough guy who lets President Obama stay on track. While I was surprised at first, the more I think about it, the more it will work, a very yin-yang, good cop-bad cop” relationship.

Already, Republicans aren’t so sure and cast an uneasy eye as to the meaning of Mr. Obama’s first pick and what it portends as he pieces together his administration. If the new spirit is bipartisan, they wonder, why did Mr. Obama, the change candidate, pick as his trusted wingman a congressman with a track record of feather-ruffling who voted with Democrats 98 percent of the time during 2007?

House Republican Leader John Boehner, Ohio Republican, issued a statement upon Mr. Emanuel’s announcement as chief of staff, calling it “an ironic choice for a president-elect who has promised to change Washington, make politics more civil and govern from the center.”

While Mr. Boehner’s spokesman declined to elaborate on his concerns beyond the leader’s public statement, the RNC’s Mr. Diaz says Republicans are right to express skepticism, given Mr. Emanuel’s history, that it isn’t a choice that will bring about progress in Washington.

“Only time will tell,” Mr. Diaz says. “But this so totally refutes and undermines any claims that Obama has made to want to work with both sides of the aisle.”

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