In dealing with the press, Mayor Rahm Emanuel often tries to emulate his former boss, President Barack Obama. But Emanuel can’t match Obama’s calm demeanor.
In fact Emanuel’s temper can get the best of him. I found out yesterday when I asked him a question about where his children would go to school, and he let his famous temper emerge.
For some background, I had the chance to ask Barack Obama a similar question in 2008, just after he had won election and was transitioning to the White House.
Since the president had sent his own children – Malia and Sasha -- to private schools in Chicago we wondered how he might relate to the nation’s public education struggles.
He replied in his typical calm and collected manner that his choice of school was a family decision. Fair enough.
Fast forward to July 2011 when I asked a similar question of Chicago's new Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
During a sit down, one-on-one interview, I asked where Emanuel's three children will attend school upon their return to Chicago.
The interview was supposed to focus on a new Emanuel initiative – the creation of an Office for New Americans – but I crammed in questions on labor, Mayor Daley’s union negotiations, and more. But when his press secretary Tarrah Cooper said time was up just 10 minutes into what was scheduled as a 20 minute interview, I tossed him the school question.
Similar to his former boss, Emanuel said it's a private decision.
While I appreciate the desire for privacy, I tried to explain that the Mayor’s family is now in the public eye as Chicago's First Family, and that the public would want to know whether Emanuel is confident enough in the public school system to send his own children there. But Emanuel broke in.
“Mary Ann, let me break the news to you. My children are not in a public position,” he said, curtly. “I am. You’re asking me a value statement and not a policy. … No, no, you have to appreciate this. My children are not an instrument of me being mayor. My children are my children, and that may be news to you, and that may be new to you, Mary Ann, but you have to understand that I’m making this decision as a father.”
The mayor stood up to leave.
“I look forward to our future interview,” he said before unclipping his lanyard microphone and dropping it to the floor, and walking out of his office. I asked my camera man to stop rolling.
As I tried to explain further, Emanuel doubled back. He looked directly at my two college interns, and said, "You are my witnesses."
Then, the Mayor of Chicago positioned himself inches from my face and pointed his finger directly at my head. He raised his voice and admonished me. How dare I ask where his children would go to school!
"You've done this before," he said.
This was the Emanuel we had heard about, and it was one of the oddest moments in my 29 years of reporting.
My two interns followed out of City Hall and back to the station.
Several hours later I called the mayor directly since I happened on his cell number and saved it. I thought it might be best to clear the air. But no air was cleared.
“My children are private and you will not do this," he said into the receiver.
He said other children of public figures - Chelsea Clinton and the Obama girls - have been kept out of the public eye, despite media attention on the admission to the Sidwell Friends Academy in Washington D.C.
I tried to explain he had a point, but their parents too had to answer the question of what school they would attend. No one is trying to have lunch with the first children.
I also let him know that I felt wronged and bullied during his earlier tirade.
“You are wrong and a bully," Emanuel fired back. "I care deeply for my family. I don't care about you."
With that, he hung up the phone.
Not quite the same as his former boss, Barack Obama. But then again, this isn’t the White House.