Every profile of Rahm Emanuel must include a passage about how the new mayor is cleaning up the mess he inherited from Richard M. Daley. David Bernstein’s article in October’s Chicago magazine is no exception.
But Bernstein gets at a few points that out-of-town reporters have missed. First of all, that the Daley Administration’s legacy was not as much the result of corruption or mismanagement as staleness. There’s a reason the federal government and many states limit their leaders to eight years in office. After eight years (twelve at the most), administrations run out of ideas and turn into self-perpetuating bureaucracies. It’s even worse when the administration is actually a 43-year-long political dynasty whose twilight years are consumed with securing a family legacy and fortune.
Since taking over as Chicago’s 46th mayor in May, the 51-year-old Emanuel has projected energy, urgency, and confidence. He has brought a more professional, West Wing–like management style to City Hall, which had felt increasingly anachronistic in the waning years of Richard M. Daley’s reign. (Emanuel’s office wasn’t even wired for Internet service when he moved in.)
Spend time around the mayor’s office and you can’t miss the small army of 20- and 30-somethings (some of them returning Obama administration veterans) in power suits, clutching their Starbucks cups or BlackBerrys, bouncing around the hallways or busily at work in a hive of cubicles. It is a marked contrast to the perceptible malaise and inertia of Daley’s last years, in which new ideas seemed few and far between and there was a palpable sense of an administration merely treading water.
Bernstein also gets a great quote from Emanuel in which he suggests that, despite reports of a deal between the White House and City Hall, Daley didn’t hand him the mayor’s office as much as he took it for himself.
“This is the best job I’ve had, and I’ve had great jobs,” he tells me. “I jokingly say—and it’s a joke—I always thought it was a great job, but if I knew it was as great as it is, I’d have challenged Rich [Daley] four years ago.”
As Sigmund Freud famously said, “There’s no such thing as a joke.” Especially when it’s told by a character as humorless as Emanuel. And especially if he has to say, “It’s just a joke.” The essence of that quote is, “I could have been mayor whenever I wanted, but I let Rich hang around another four years.”
The rest of the article portrays Emanuel as a man who has to one up everyone around him, all the time, in every interaction.
He betrays a slight annoyance at my presence in the back of the SUV—as if he were unhappy at being dragged into this car ride. Famously prickly, Emanuel at first spits out staccato answers to my questions. But the more he talks, the more revved up he gets…Suddenly he practically leaps out of his seat. From his window, he notices that we are approaching a private road that runs through a tunnel at McCormick Place—a route that the mayor’s security detail sometimes uses as a shortcut to the Loop.
“All right!” Emanuel calls out excitedly as we enter the tunnel. “I’m like Batman! I’m going down the Bat Cave! The Bat Road!”
He turns to Chris Mather, his communications director, seated next to him, and cracks, “We’re going to rename it. I want a sign made—‘Bat Road.’”
“We got rid of those,” Mather replies, in the obliging straight-woman role. (A couple of weeks earlier, Emanuel had put an end to displaying the mayor’s name on city signs, a practice, he explained, that wasn’t worth the cost, given the city’s financial woes.)
“Are you kidding? I can donate a sign,” says Emanuel, who likes to have the last word.
Elsewhere in the article, Emanuel chides Bernstein for asking “the same f---ing five questions” as every other journalist, and we learn he’s a hands-on negotiator with the City Council, grabbing aldermen’s arms, a la Lyndon Johnson. There’s also a great anecdote about how Emanuel one-upped the media by studying Freedom of Information Requests. When he saw Fox Chicago News and the Better Government Association were looking into credit card spending, he stopped the practice and issued a press release, pre-empting their investigation.
It’s not the first Emanuel profile we’ve read -- GQ, The New York Times Magazine and Bloomberg Business Week were there first -- but it’s the most access he’s given to a local print reporter, so check it out.
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