And other Chicago players
Feb 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 22 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
One of the delights of this mayoral campaign is watching the performance of what one assumes is the currently highly self-suppressed Rahm Emanuel. The volatile pol, famous for his temper and foul mouth—“feisty,” I believe, is the favored euphemism—has been coming across cool and serene, positively rabbinical. (At a roast of Emanuel, Barack Obama recounted that, working at a delicatessen as a boy, Rahm had lost a good part of the middle finger of his right hand, which “rendered him practically mute.”) In commercials he speaks of his sadness at viewing poor children going off to Chicago public schools with “no hope in their eyes,” and how he is intent upon changing that. During what must have been the infuriating legal battle over his residency status, he appeared, with impressive sangfroid, before the Chicago election board committee and the screeching questions of the local press as if he were auditioning for the part of Father Flanagan.
When Emanuel appears in his often-shown television commercials, I think of him as the Rahmbomb, after the great 12th-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who, in an anagram of the initials of his name in Hebrew, was known as the Rambam. Rahmbomb because one is waiting for one of those famous f-bombs of Emanuel’s to explode on a tape or a microphone he might mistakenly have thought was turned off.
On the other hand, the one with the middle finger intact, there is no reason for Emanuel to explode. Once the residency business was out of the way, his campaign became smooth sailing, and on a luxurious yacht. With a campaign chest of $12 million, at last reporting, the Rahmbomb had three times more money to spend than all his opponents combined.
(Emanuel, taking a brief break from politics between 1999 and 2002, quickly accumulated a fortune of his own—estimated at $16 or $17 million—while working for an investment banking firm called Wasserstein Perella. Bill Daley, Richie’s younger brother, who has taken over Emanuel’s post as Obama’s chief of staff, before starting his new job had to divest himself of more than $7 million worth of stock from his days working for JPMorgan Chase. Amid all their high public service and good works, these boys always manage to connect for a little jackpot of $8 or $15 million of their own.)
With his vast campaign funds, with his pathetic field of competitors, does the Rahmbomb have anything special in mind for the city he desires to govern? If so, he has thus far pretty much kept it to himself. Like everyone else, he lisps in clichés: He is going to improve the schools, get crime off the streets, relieve the municipal debt. He claims to be able to accomplish that last by streamlining the city’s tax system and increasing efficiency among city workers. (Old joke: Why does it takes 14 Chicago Streets and Sanitation Workers to change a light bulb? Answer: Because 13 of them, after having someone sign in for them, are at work doing business with the city at their privately owned asphalt companies.)
Why does the Rahmbomb want to be mayor of Chicago? Naturally no mention is made of his enjoying power of the kind that being mayor of a Democratic stronghold like Chicago confers. Might sheer egotism backed by effrontery have anything to do with it? Not in his version. In his version he loves the city. (He actually grew up outside it, on the North Shore, and went to New Trier High School, one of the most academically competitive secondary schools in the country, where the students speak of their days as Preparation H: preparing, that is, for Harvard. Emanuel made it only to Sarah Lawrence.) He suffers from acute idealism, he tells us, learned from his pediatrician father and psychiatric social worker mother. The man wants to do good. His religion, he tells us, has reinforced this idealism.
Emanuel’s being Jewish is a question of genuine interest. Chicago isn’t a very Jewish city. With roughly a quarter million Jews, the city is only 3 percent or so Jewish. Apart from Jewish aldermen elected from the city’s two or three heavily Jewish wards, Jews have never taken an out-front position in local politics. Powerful Jewish pols such as Jacob Arvey, the man behind Adlai Stevenson’s career in Illinois politics, functioned as éminences grises. A Jewish mayor is something else again.
Chicago is a city of peasants, or, more precisely, people of peasant background: Poles, Italians, Irish, Greeks, blacks. Peasants, I think it fair to say, don’t get Jews. And the Rahmbomb is an anti-Semite’s dream. He is wealthy, aggressive, he even took ballet lessons, for God’s sake; all the anti-Semitic stereotypes are in place, except for his not being highly cerebral.
Jews, a character in the movie Barney’s Version says, are not more intelligent than anyone else; they are just more wary. Whether Chicago does or doesn’t elect Rahm Emanuel its mayor will, either way, constitute another little chapter in the history of anti-Semitism in America. American universities that once strictly enforced quotas against Jewish students have now all had Jewish presidents, almost all of whom, let it be said, have shown themselves quite as mediocre as their predecessors. Has the time come when the country is also able to support Jewish politicians quite as mediocre as their predecessors? Let us hope so.
To win the office, the Rahmbomb must get above 50 percent, or be forced into a runoff with the second leading vote-getter. As things stand at the moment, it appears that he will win in a canter, without having to break a sweat, and the chances are good, too, that he will be able to avoid a runoff. The sweati ng—the real schvitzing, to use the Yiddish word, which conveys so much more—will come only after he is elected and has to deal with plug-ugly backroom pols, recalcitrant union workers, and enormous budget deficits, at which point, expect many a bomb from the Rahm.
Joseph Epstein is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.