In These New Times

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Loretta Keller: Political roast reveals ruthless Rahm

Posted by seumasach on November 22, 2008

Pasadena Star 

21st November, 2008

LAST weekend C-span1 re-aired a Nov. 5, 2005 roast by now President-elect Barack Obama and other Washington bigwigs. Far from being some mouthwatering food that comes out of a hot oven, a political roast is usually a fund-raising benefit dinner during which pols mock a hot target. They’re good-natured about it but they show no mercy.

In this case, the proceeds went to help cure epilepsy and the target of the barbs was Obama’s future chief of staff, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Il.

The picture of Emanuel that emerged from the 2005 roast was that of a cross between a white whale and a Jewish Goliath – to those who dare to cross him. In addition to Obama, those who took turns being the intrepid David were Democratic senators Hillary Clinton and Chris Dodd; Rep. Tom Cole, R-OK; former Commerce Secretary William Daley (brother of the Chicago mayor) and New York Times Columnist William Safire. They didn’t slay the dragon but they cut him down to size.

When aroused by what he considers rough opposition, Emanuel is reputed to be aggressive, acerbic, foul-mouthed and rude – but indefatigable in getting what he goes after. Though he’s feared by some, he’s liked by many. Even Republicans like him for being a devout centrist who can be counted on to stay the course. And he has no pretensions or airs.

After a witty introduction by Democratic political strategist Paul Begala, Obama said it was great “to come together to do something that makes everyone feel better which is to insult Rahm Emanuel.” To William Safire, he said, “most of Rahm’s vocabulary cannot appear in the Sunday Magazine section.” To Tom Cole, he said, “other Republicans were invited to the roast this evening but they said they would come only if there was a real fire.”

He joshed about Congress electing a man from Illinois with a name like Rahm. He said with a straight face that Rahm goes to synagogue regularly and not only talks about the Ten Commandments but lives them – “with some modifications,” such as “Thou shall not kill, unless he’s a target.”

And recounting the time Emanuel lost part of his middle finger in a slicing machine accident, Obama quipped that the loss “essentially rendered Rahm mute” and that now he can’t give a high-five – he can only give a high four-and-a-half.

Stories about Emanuel abound. One is about the decomposing fish he sent to a pollster who angered him. Others tell of the many times he hung up on political contributors in a Chicago mayor’s race because they offered a mere $5,000. But some say the best story is about a knife-wielding incident that occurred in Little Rock, Arkansas after Bill Clinton was first elected to the presidency in 1992.

Emanuel, who was Clinton’s chief fundraiser, was seated at a restaurant table with other Clinton aides, all of who wanted revenge for the wrongs that were done them during the campaign. Suddenly Emanuel took his steak knife and forcefully brought it down into the table. Needless to say, the fish story, the donor story and the tale of the knife found their way into the roast.

Emanuel grew up in an orthodox Jewish home in which failure was not an option for him or his brothers, Zeke and Ari. His mother, who calls him “Rahmbo,” one of the kinder names his cohorts have for him, insisted that he study ballet when he was young and he excelled in that as in everything else. To illustrate this softer side, Obama pointed out that, “he studied ballet for a few years. In fact, he was the first to adopt Machiavelli’s `The Prince’ for dance. As you can imagine, there were a lot of kicks below the waist.”

When it was Hillary’s turn to speak, she too teased Emanuel and then said he was “mishpucha” to her and Bill and they loved him dearly. Mishpucha is the Yiddish word for “family” – but also for “crime family.”

However, nobody ribbed Emanuel about his deep feeling for Israel. His father was born there and fought with the Irgun for Israeli independence. When Emanuel’s uncle, Manuel, died there, the family honored him by changing its name from Auerbach to Emanuel.

It was quite a telling evening. The dinner was organized by Susan Axelrod, the wife of David Axelrod, Obama’s senior campaign strategist. The entree may not have been roasted, but Emanuel came out well done indeed.

Loretta Keller is an artist and a columnist. She lives in Altadena.

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