It’s a long path to the matzo ball soup when you’re lunching with Rahm Emanuel, former mayor of Chicago and top adviser to America’s past two Democratic presidents.
First there are mounds of corned beef hash and dripping trays of stuffed green peppers to turn down before getting to the kreplach soup and potato pancakes, staples of Manny’s, Emanuel’s favourite Jewish cafeteria on the near west side of Chicago.
Then there’s the fact that Emanuel stops to greet every member of staff individually — from the server with the bleach-blonde Mohican under her hairnet to the guy carving pastrami in a paper Manny’s hat. Fists are bumped, hands are shaken, and when a union member thrusts out his hand with a staccato “Local 134”, the former mayor responds “electrical workers”. There’s an African-American Vietnam war veteran in shorts and flip flops to greet, and a young doctor who announces that he works at the same hospital as Emanuel’s brother Zeke, a prominent oncologist (a third Emanuel brother, Ari, is a Hollywood superagent).
“How’s the family?” Emanuel calls out each time. “Miss you,” they as often as not reply. It’s clear that this place nourishes not just the former mayor’s slight frame, but his well-developed political ego too.
Last year Emanuel chose not to run for a third term in Chicago. As mayor he was criticised over the city’s response to the police shooting in 2014 of a black teenager, Laquan McDonald, which political analysts said had soured relations with the black community. But Emanuel insists that the decision to stand aside was personal in nature. “We were empty-nesters, I’d done 24 straight years of hard politics . . . I knew my energy level, and I didn’t have all four years in me,” he says, adding: “If you know anything about politics, third terms are snakebitten terms.”
When it comes to pressing the flesh, Emanuel, who turns 60 on November 29, learnt from the best. Former US President Bill Clinton, whom he served as a senior adviser in the 1990s, was famous for asking not just “how’s the family”, but enquiring after each member by name. Emanuel lacks the Clinton touch: several of those who approached him in the queue claimed to have met him before, but he clearly had no recollection. Clinton would have faked it more convincingly.
Even so, this is definitely his home turf. Emanuel’s maternal grandfather immigrated to this part of Chicago from Russia in 1917, at the age of 10. His Israeli-born father, a Chicago paediatrician, treated indigent patients for free, while his mother was a local civil rights activist who occasionally spent a night in jail for her beliefs, leaving three little boys at home.
He cut his teeth on his mother’s activism, but he credits a stint as a ballet dancer for giving him backbone. (He bristles when I mistakenly ask about his days as a “ballerina”.) “It probably toughened me up. Back in the 1970s, there weren’t a lot of men taking dance. Both the ridicule, the criticism, the jokes, the snide remarks . . . it was formative . . . and I was also willing to take a gamble. Take a risk.”
That appetite for risk led him to spend a lifetime in politics. After advising Clinton and six years as a US congressman from Illinois, he gave up a quest to become the first Jewish speaker of the US House of Representatives to become President Barack Obama’s first White House chief of staff in 2009. In 2011 he succeeded Richard M Daley, a member of the dynasty that dominated Chicago politics for decades, as the city’s mayor, a post Emanuel held until May this year.
Manny’s was where he spent every election day, Emanuel recalls. The storied Chicago eatery has a pastrami-and-corned-beef “mayor’s special”, he says. But he’s just gone vegetarian, so he loads his buff plastic cafeteria tray with a bowl of matzo ball soup and a spinach salad instead. I opted for the Midwest comfort food of my childhood, a plate of flaccid green peppers stuffed with ground beef and slathered with tomato sauce, plus a mound of mash and green beans with the nostalgic whiff of school lunch.
At the cash register, he nips back for a potato pancake (“I need something to clog my arteries”), but gives a wide berth to the pastrami. “Growing up, we always had half a cow in the freezer downstairs,” he recalls, since his grandfather drove a meat delivery truck in the city once known as the “slaughterhouse of the world”. But the mayor’s youngest child, a vegan, recently asked him to give up meat and the death of his 92-year-old father in October clinched it. It’s “more than a body shocker, it’s a rejection of my family,” he chuckles.
Emanuel may have abandoned his taste for deli meats, but his appetite for politics has not abated. We’re meeting for lunch almost exactly a year before the 2020 presidential election, and these are heady days for the politically addicted. The US Congress is holding impeachment hearings and the Iowa presidential caucuses are on February 3.
The Democratic primaries “are shaping up as a battle between people who believe there should be a revolution and people who believe there should be reform,” he says, making quick work of the meagre spinach salad. “If you look at [Democratic candidates Joe] Biden and Pete [Buttigieg] on one side as more the reformers, and [Elizabeth] Warren and Bernie [Sanders] on the other side more as revolution, that’s basically the two teams that are battling it out right now,” he says, wincing as he slurps the hot broth from the matzo soup.
Can any of them beat President Donald Trump, especially here in the battleground Midwest, which handed victory to the maverick Republican in the 2016 presidential election? And if so, which one?
“We have a very, very, very unpopular president . . . if I told you that a president had 3.6 per cent unemployment, would you predict [he’d be at] 43 per cent or 63 per cent [approval rating]?” he asks, incredulous that Trump scores only at the lower end of that range, given the strength of the US economy.
Gesturing with his right hand, with its amputated digit — Emanuel lost a piece of his middle finger after an incident with a meat slicer while working part-time at a fast-food restaurant — he quickly adds a caveat: “Nothing is a given in politics today — or ever — and they’re not going to just fall into your hands.
“I think there’s a telling sign from England: Boris Johnson is unbelievably unpopular, but how is [Jeremy] Corbyn doing?” he says, referring to the fact that, at the time of speaking, the UK prime minister had a commanding lead in polls over the Labour party leader. “That’s at least a rhythm of music we should listen to, as Democrats,” he adds.
Trump is “definitely beatable”; about that Mayor Emanuel is sure. Or maybe not so sure: “the soft underbelly for Democrats is that impeachment blocks out our agenda, and it becomes all we care about,” he says. Though Washington DC is consumed with impeachment fervour, opinion polls in key swing states show many voters do not rank it as their top issue.
“If you want to beat them, you’ve got to be really smart about this and strategic. Our hearts and souls should not be the only thing guiding us.” So who is the heart-and-soul candidate, and who is the strategic contender? Emanuel dubs former vice-president Biden the “comfortable” candidate. “People are comfortable with Joe and Joe is comfortable with himself, and that comes across. You can’t underestimate the power of that right now. But he has to have a campaign and a candidacy that can make that a real strength.”
Warren, who surged against Biden in polling over the summer, is clearly not his “strategy” candidate. Under the op-ed headline “Someone needs to say it: Medicare-for-all is a pipe dream”, Emanuel attacked the political prospects of the government-run healthcare plan that has become the trademark issue of Warren’s campaign.
Back in 2010, when he was chief of staff during the battle for Obama’s Affordable Care Act, even with 58 Democrats in the Senate “we couldn’t get a vote on a public option”, he says. “Please name me” the Republicans who will join Democrats to get a single-payer system through the Senate, he demands, exasperated.
“People have anxiety in their life and the last thing you want to do to assuage that anxiety is to say, we’re going to take your healthcare away. This is one of the principal pieces of economic insecurity and our motto is, well, we’re going to take it away from you. I used to say this to Obama all the time. People don’t like the status quo too much, but they’re not too excited by change either.
“And don’t promise something that you can’t deliver, because it’s really going to be a bad policy and a bad political outcome when you fail.”
So does that mean he’s betting Warren could not beat Trump? “I’m not here to do crystal ball all day,” he bristles, trying to steer me away from a line of questioning he considers too foolish to suffer gladly. “This is going to be a long year. Tell me what unemployment is going to be [a year from now], tell me if he gets impeached, there are too many unknowns. Anybody who sits here in this chair and tells you, here’s what’s going to happen, bull-crap,” he says, the closest he comes to uttering (at least on tape) one of the profanities for which the irascible mayor is famous.
But he will place a bet on a record turnout. “This is going to be a massively high turnout election. Massively high. [Trump is] going to turn out their base, he’s going to turn out our base,” he opines. The key to victory for the Democrats will be to “persuade the persuadables”, those not firmly in either party’s camp.
He breaks off for a moment to dash across Manny’s retro black-and-white linoleum floor to retrieve the cane of an elderly man who dropped it when paying for his food. A look of delight spreads across the man’s face: the encounter with the erstwhile mayor has obviously made his day.
Emanuel picks up the thread of his electoral exegesis: he identifies two key demographics for next year, in nine key swing states: “women with a college degree that are married, mainly living in the suburbs, and women without a college degree. Those are the two demographics that have moved the most against Trump since 2016 through 2018 and stayed moved.
“That group voted against Hillary . . . they didn’t vote for Trump,” he says, adding that “they voted against Trump” in the 2018 midterms.
Is he disappointed to be just another political pundit now, at this most exciting of all electoral moments? Did he ever aspire to run for the top office himself, hoping to become America’s first Jewish president? “No”, he says flatly. And the reason is intriguing: Emanuel believes that mayors can get more done in the world today than can presidents. He has a book coming out in February whose title says it all: The Nation City: Why Mayors are Now Running the World.
“The nation-state we all knew growing up is retreating and the city nation is emerging. As somebody who has been in both the Oval Office, the halls of Congress and on the fifth floor of [Chicago] City Hall, I think I have a unique insight into that. The nation state is retreating and one of the reasons it retreats is because it’s distant, dysfunctional and disinterested. The city is immediate, impactful and intimate.”
He goes on to list some of the improvements he made to life in Chicago, at a time when national politics was in gridlock: “the lowest unemployment level. One of the lowest poverty levels ever, and the highest level in math attainment of any major urban school system in America.”
Would his mother, the civil rights activist, be disappointed at the state of race relations under Trump? Only days before we met, a mainly African-American group at a suburban Chicago restaurant was asked to change tables because another customer objected to sitting next to black diners, triggering a backlash against the chain. “We’re closer, and we’re further apart [on race]”, he says, noting that the restaurant fired the employees involved.
“We’re dealing with things we haven’t ever dealt with, honestly,” he argues, but adds that racism “isn’t going to be over in one day”. He points out that he was chief of staff to the country’s first black president — “but nobody in the White House thought that somehow we were in this post-race world. You guys wrote about it” — over lunch he takes several swipes at “journalists” — “but nobody thought it”.
I ask whether he underestimated the toxicity of race relations in Chicago, to his obvious annoyance. “No. No, having grown up in my mother’s home, no.” He is terse. “At a certain level, I would say that Chicago is much further along with that subject and addressing it than the nation as a whole.” I ask for an example. “Look around,” he says. “You are sitting in a place that’s multiracial.”
He leans toward the Pollyanna-ish on the subject of wider divisions in American society too: “I know everybody likes to say we are polarised . . . but I think that’s on the water’s surface, below that I think people know . . . there is more to us as a country, as a people, as a society, than our divisions. Somebody who can touch that chord and speak to that would be a great counterpoint”, he says.
But now the potato pancake is gone, Manny’s cavernous dining hall is emptying, and the mayor is getting restless. What’s next for him, I hurriedly ask? He responds that there are five great jobs in American politics: US president, governor of New York and California, mayor of New York and Chicago — “and I’ve had 1.5 of them”, referring to his job in the Obama White House.
“If you’re from Chicago, the mayor is top dog and I got to be mayor for two terms. I did what I wanted to do,” he says, adding “right now I’m taking a breather, like I did after I left the Clinton White House, and I’ll come back to politics when I’m refreshed”. Until then, Manny’s will be there, whenever he wants to indulge his taste for a bit of retail politics — and maybe even an occasional potato pancake, despite those arteries.
Patti Waldmeir is the FT’s North America correspondent
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