Rahm Emanuel regularly swims at 5:30 a.m., sometimes with his children in tow, so that he can get to the office about 7. Lindsey Graham doesn’t do business in the morning. “Nothing good happens before 9:30,” he declares.
Emanuel, a fast-talking Chicago native, made his name as a top aide to President Bill Clinton. Graham, raised in small-town South Carolina, helped manage the Republican effort to remove Clinton from office.
Emanuel is an observant Jew who volunteered at a military supply depot in Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. Graham is a churchgoing Southern Baptist who became an Air Force lawyer.
And yet, at a time when voters are clamoring for bipartisan cooperation in Washington, this unlikely pairing of White House chief of staff and Southern senator represents one of the highest-level conduits between the polarized political parties. Graham has had more in-person meetings with Emanuel than any other Republican lawmaker, roughly eight or 10 since Obama took office, aides said. The two men also talk regularly by phone.
The main topic these days is Guantanamo Bay — how to close the military prison on the U.S. Navy base there. But their conversations are broader than that, embracing a wide-ranging deal pitched by Graham that would shut down the prison; provide funding to move detainees to Thomson, Ill.; keep the Sept. 11 trials out of civilian courts; and create broad new powers to hold terror suspects indefinitely.
If their odd-couple conversations come to fruition, the two men could chart a course for U.S. detainee policy for years to come. And it starts with two guys who clearly see a little of themselves in each other.
“There are differences between Chicago and South Carolina, but you know there are some similarities, too. He’s pretty good at throwing elbows,” Graham said of Emanuel. “I think he’s smart. ... Everything he’s ever told me about what the administration would do, they did. When he tells me something about where the president stands, I’ve found it to be solid and accurate.”
“I just like Lindsey. I just like him, but it doesn’t blind me to our differences,” Emanuel said in an interview with POLITICO. “What I knew about him and read about him is only half the story. He’s just a very honorable person to work with. He’s easygoing, but clear-eyed about his objectives. Even when you disagree, he doesn’t make it personal.”
Emanuel says the cultural chasm between the two men isn’t much of an obstacle, though he sometimes needles Graham about it, saying, “Senator, a doughnut is not a bagel, even though they both look the same.”
Thus far, Emanuel and the administration have publicly neither endorsed nor rejected Graham’s proposed deal. But Emanuel has been unusually public in declaring Graham to be the linchpin for Obama’s hopes of closing Guantanamo. “You can’t close Guantanamo without Sen. Graham,” Emanuel told The New York Times last month.
Some observers think Graham can ultimately deliver the votes of a bipartisan bloc of centrist senators who have qualms about aspects of Obama’s terrorism policies but also believe the Bush administration snubbed Congress and was too extreme.
Emanuel is reportedly simpatico with Graham on the Guantanamo issue, but others in the Obama administration, such as Attorney General Eric Holder, are not. Where the president will ultimately come down is unknown.
“I think the Guantanamo issue is one where [Emanuel] understands what I’m trying to do,” Graham said. “There are things that I want to do that require the administration’s buy-in. There are things they want to do that require my buy-in. ... He understands you can only go so far by yourself.”
Aides to Graham and Emanuel said the two men had their first substantive dealings during the 2008 presidential campaign, when they were tapped by Obama and the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, to hammer out the rules and formats for the debates.
“They got it done in a very expeditious way,” said GOP lobbyist Charlie Black, who was a top adviser to McCain. “Compared to the way some of these things go, it came out very satisfactory to both campaigns.”
“I just found [Emanuel] good to deal with. ... We formed a relationship that allows us to just pick up the phone,” Graham said.
But Emanuel remembers their first interactions takingplace years ago on Capitol Hill. “When I was in the House, I’d walk over to my caucus office building and a lot of times he’d be walking to the Senate and we’d walk and talk for 200, 300, 400 feet,” the Obama aide said.
The chief of staff said the “rancor” between the parties is near an all-time high at the moment but there are still some exchanges like that taking place. “There’s more of it that goes on than you think — and not enough to meet what’s necessary,” he said.
Graham also represents a more centrist voice when it comes to climate change, another topic of his chats with Emanuel. Former presidential adviser David Gergen said some of Emanuel’s dealings with Graham may be more about gathering information about Republicans’ positions than hammering out actual legislation.
“Rahm has a large social network that includes Republicans, and he’s been that way as long as I’ve known him. ... Rahm’s realistic enough to know it also doesn’t lead necessarily to productive legislative outcomes [and] to know a friendship with Lindsey Graham isn’t going to change that,” Gergen said.
“It seems a bit odd at first blush, but it’s really not that mysterious,” said John Podesta, a former chief of staff to Clinton. Emanuel and Graham “are both no-BS kinds of guys, one with a South Carolina accent, one with a Chicago accent.”
Podesta noted that when Obama met McCain in Chicago after the election, Graham and Emanuel flanked the two principals. As it turns out, the two consiglieri seem to have gotten along better than the presidential contenders.
“The outreach to McCain was genuine. I think McCain sort of decided to go on a different track. I don’t begrudge that. It’s just what it is,” Podesta said.
That has led some to wonder whether Graham has stepped into a vacuum left by McCain. “It used to be obviously, in some ways, that McCain played this role on the Republican side,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) “Clearly, for whatever reason, including I’m sure his Republican primary challenge, McCain has done a 180 on a lot of these issues.”
Nearly every report of dealings between Graham and Emanuel elicits scorn and suspicion from liberal observers. “Meet Lindsey Graham, our new attorney general,” liberal blogger and defense attorney Jeralyn Merritt wrote. Scott Horton of Harper’s Magazine slammed Emanuel’s dealings with Graham as “appeasement.”
Conservatives are none too happy with Graham, either. Republican committees in Charleston and Lexington, S.C., have criticized him in recent months for his efforts to make common cause with the White House on climate change and immigration.
While Graham hasn’t been shy about drawing attention to his dealings with the White House, he has continued to join in some of his party’s sharpest attacks on the Obama administration’s national security team — including calling for the depature of Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan. “He has lost my confidence,” Graham said on Fox.
One longtime friend and colleague of Emanuel’s, Bruce Reed of the Democratic Leadership Council, said the Obama adviser is such a unique character that any friendship or negotiation Emanuel enters into is certain to involve sharp contrasts.
“If Rahm could only deal with people on the basis of identity politics, who would he talk to?” Reed quipped.