Political insight, killer in a fight, Yiddishkeit – it’s an inseparable package when it comes to Rahm Emanuel, say those who know President-elect Barack Obama’s pick to be the next White House chief of staff.
Since his days as a fund-raiser and then a “political adviser” – read: enforcer – for President Clinton, Emanuel has earned notoriety as a no-holds-barred politico. Accept the good with the bad because it’s of a piece, said Steve Rabinowitz, who worked with Emanuel in the Clinton White House.
“He can be a ‘mamzer,’ but he’s our mamzer,” said Rabinowitz, using the Yiddish term for “bastard,” speaking both as a Democrat and a Jew. “Sometimes that’s what you need.”
The apocrypha is legendary, if somewhat hard to pin down: Jabbing a knife into a table screaming “Dead!” as colleagues shout out the names of political enemies, sending a dead fish to a rival, screaming at friends and enemies alike for no good reason.
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Even his allies acknowledge that Emanuel, 48, can be on edge at times.
“He’s not running for Miss Congeniality, ever,” said U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who has known Emanuel since they worked at Illinois Public Action, a public interest group, in the early 1980s. “He is relentless, he doesn’t give up, but in a strategic way. He’s good at figuring out other people’s self interest and negotiating in a way that comes out in his favor.”
Emanuel, an Illinois congressman who boasts strong ties to his local Jewish community and the Jewish state, also can be seen as embodying Obama’s stated commitment to Israeli security and diplomacy: During the first Iraq war, Emanuel flew to Israel as a volunteer to help maintain military vehicles. Two years later he was an aide to Clinton, helping to push along the newly launched Oslo process.
Within four months of joining the U.S. House of Representatives in 2003, Emanuel had an impressive command of the issues, said Michael Kotzin, the director of the Chicago Jewish Community Relations Council.