- - Thursday, March 5, 2020

Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago from 2011 to 2019, is introduced in a splendid Chicago Tribune profile by Christopher Borrelli as “Chicagoan, shark, bully, pitbull, leviathan, sledgehammer, former mayor, former Democratic operative and fundraiser, former  White House (Obama) chief of staff, former Hillary Clinton headache … investment banker, father, husband, ballet dancer, Sunday morning TV talking head, and now author.” 

That pretty well covers it. We might wonder what someone dubbed “Rahm the Impaler” was doing studying ballet, apparently so accomplished that he was offered a place with the Joffrey Ballet, or why he chose to attend Sarah Lawrence, where the smart girls used to go. But it would take a brave man to ask such questions. 

Nor are they answered in this book, for the most part a discussion of what today’s mayors are doing to revitalize their cities, in the face of non-support from an increasingly dysfunctional federal government. What the federal government should be doing is unclear, but he does refer at one point to an LBJ program promulgated by champions of the Great Society (albeit before it all went bankrupt.)

Mr. Emanuel’s view of  contemporary big-city mayors’ duties are basic: First, seeing to it that functions that keep the city running are effectively carried out — “get the garbage picked up, the snow plowed, and the potholes filled. They must balance the budget.” 

But there are also bigger issues: There must be a good school system, “cultural events and venues, playgrounds, parks and other green spaces, libraries, and effective … public transportation. There must be an appreciation of and respect for diversity. There must be room to welcome immigrants.” And finally, this rather oddly worded requirement: “There must be wisdom and forethought when it comes to the issue of climate change.”

Mayors sometimes fall short on some of these issues, he writes. “But our local governments come closer to solving them than national governments do, by a long shot.”

In all, this pretty much accounts for the subject of the book — the way in which his expressed ideas for the governance of Chicago succeeded, and how other mayors are carrying them out, both here and abroad. Among the overseas mayors to whom he gives most space are the mayor of London, who thanks to Brexit (of which Mr. Emanuel disapproves) is facing a very cloudy future, and the former mayor of Copenhagen, one of the world’s most homogenous cities, and as such largely free of the racial concerns of American cities. 

In fact, it was race that most Chicagoans believe played a major role in his decision not to run for a third time, reversing a previously announced decision. “In late 2018,” he writes, “I announced that I would not seek a third term …. But after twenty-four years in politics, I realized it was time to take a break.”

Also, there was a distinct chance of losing. Blacks and Hispanics had grown increasingly restless, with powerful groups like the teachers’ union convinced he was indifferent to their needs. During his race for reelection in 2015, he was forced into a run-off with Cook County board commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. Also, in 2015, there was the police shooting of a young black man named Laquan McDonald, the city’s refusal to release a video of the shooting and a resulting federal investigation into the Chicago police department. This in turn attracted the attention of professional racialists like Al Sharpton, who would encourage blaming the mayor for the whole sorry mess — all of which no doubt made a reelection campaign less than attractive. 

Crime? The figures vary — most recently those from Chicago show overall crime down, violent crimes and shootings up. There again, the problems of a big-city mayor defending his record are apparent. There is no doubt that, as mayor, Rahm Emanuel made an already attractive city more attractive by reclaiming neglected areas and improving Chicago’s unique lakeshore and system of parks — wonderful areas, welcoming to walkers, families and tourists. (All true, but when tourists and citizens fear being attacked by muggers or worse, the welcome can wear thin.) 

In all, an effective and readable treatise, albeit occasionally stilted and repetitious. But there’s also another book here, fighting to get out. In the first dozen pages, in clean, evocative prose, he tells the genuinely moving story of his family, beginning with the escape of his 10-year-old grandfather from Eastern Europe, his journey to America, ending in Chicago and the creation of a truly productive family. 

In short, a heartfelt testimonial to the efficacy of the American Dream.

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

• • •


By Rahm Emanuel

Knopf, $26.95, 235 pages

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