Does Rahm Emanuel's Pick Mean the Chicago Machine Is Coming to Washington?

I hope people outside of Chicago don't assume that President-elect Barack Obama has a lot in common with Congressman Rahm Emanuel just because he selected him to be his White House chief of staff.

Yes, yes, I know -- they're both allies of Chicago's mayor, Richard M. Daley. But don't read too much into that. With the exception of a few political oddballs and misfits, almost everyone around here is part of Daley's team. They really have no choice. For better or worse, Daley controls the schools, parks, and police, not to mention hundreds of pay rollers and billions of property-tax dollars. If you want a zoning change, building permit, or a business license, you have to go to Daley, or at least to people he has appointed or hired. The attitude in Chicago is you can't beat him -- so you might as well succumb.

For the most part, Mayor Daley's rather benevolent about his power. At least, he believes in being inclusive. Blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanics, gays, even country-club Republicans -- they're all welcome to kiss his ring. His only requirement is abject obedience.

The key to understanding the differences between Emanuel and Obama is to analyze the circumstances under which they joined Daley's team.

For his part, Emanuel hooked up with Daley just about as soon as he could -- back in the late 1980s, when he was barely 30 years old. In 1987, Mayor Harold Washington -- the city's first and only elected black mayor -- had died in office. The City Council named former Alderman Eugene Sawyer to fill Washington's vacancy, but from the get-go Daley geared up to run in the 1989 special election.

Emanuel was no dummy. He knew Daley would defeat Sawyer and, once in office, would probably rule for life -- just like his father, the late Richard J. Daley. So Emanuel did what any bright and ambitious young politico would do -- he signed on with Daley. By all accounts, he made himself indispensable to the boss as a fundraiser, badgering, bullying, or guilt-tripping the locals into giving money to Daley's campaign. It was then that Emanuel established his reputation as Rahmbo -- the brash, arrogant, and tempestuous assistant that political bosses use to get things done.

After helping Daley win, Emanuel made himself just as indispensable to Bill Clinton, first as a fundraiser and later as a key White House aide. Emanuel managed to piss off nearly everyone in Washington, but when Clinton's term was up, Daley, apparently still grateful for the money raised, welcomed him back to Chicago with open arms. In 2002, Daley endorsed Emanuel to fill the congressional seat left vacant when Rod Blagojevich ran for governor.

It was sort of funny to watch Emanuel in that first campaign. He was on his very best behavior. No brashness, arrogance, tempestuousness, or impatience -- he was actually charming, almost nice. You'd see him hanging out under the el stops in the morning, politely shaking the hands of commuters rushing to catch the train for work. I once watched him make the rounds of a senior citizens' center in a white ethnic neighborhood on the city's far northwest side. He feigned interest in their bingo games and laughed at their jokes. He only looked at his watch once or twice before bolting for his next stop.

Frankly, I don't know why he even bothered to be so sweet. With Daley's backing, Attila the Hun could have won that election. The mayor brought out the pay rollers to make sure that Emanuel steamrolled his opposition. I happen to live in the district and I remember the fellows on the sidewalks outside the polling places on Election Day. Beefy boys with thick necks and fat bellies, they passed out palm cards that pretty much said, "Vote for Emanuel -- or else!"

So thanks to Mayor Daley, Emanuel got to go to Congress, where he railed against Republican corruption and scandals, conveniently overlooking all the corruption and scandal in his hometown.

In contrast, Obama's what passes for a reformer in Chicago -- at least he took a longer, more circuitous path to winning Daley's good graces. Running for state Senate in Hyde Park, a liberal independent-minded neighborhood near the University of Chicago, Obama basically pretended as though Daley and his Machine didn't exist. He didn't run with Daley, but he didn't run against him either. He stayed away from local zoningĀ and land-use fights that pitted his South Side neighbors against Daley. And he didn't take a very strong stand against the countless patronage, bribery, or minority-front scandals that have plagued Chicago for the last decade or so. In short, Obama didn't bother Daley and Daley didn't bother him.

In fact, I doubt Daley paid much attention to the relatively obscure state senator from Hyde Park until the winter of 2004, when Obama stunned the state by convincingly trouncing several wealthier, better-known rivals to win the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. And even then Daley watched from afar as Obama, starting with his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, systematically ascended the staircase to international political superstardom.

Finally, in the winter of 2007, Obama endorsed Daley for re-election and Daley endorsed Obama's fledging presidential campaign. It was a marriage of convenience, brilliantly brokered by David Axelrod, a campaign strategist for both men. Obama's endorsement cut the ground out from under Dorothy Brown, Daley's most significant black challenger. And with Daley's blessing it was suddenly safe for everyone and anyone in town to join Obama's campaign for change and become a reformer. So long as it was Washington, and not Chicago, getting reformed.

So why is Obama hiring Emanuel as chief of staff? Probably for the same reason Daley hired him way back in 1989. He's ruthless, cunning, and absolutely unafraid to be a jerk. In fact, I think Emanuel enjoys being a jerk. Moreover, by being a jerk, I predict Emanuel will do a great service for Obama. By the time Emanuel is finished irritating, humiliating, and infuriating folks in Washington, Obama will look like an angel. People will probably like him even more just because he's not Emanuel.

In the last few days, Emanuel's been telling friends in Chicago that he had to think long and hard over leaving Congress. But I doubt it was that tough of a decision.

It couldn't have been easy for Emanuel to be a congressman, particularly at election time when he had to be nice to everyone like those old folks in the bingo parlor.

Now he gets to go back to being nasty. I suspect it will be like a dream come true.