Should The Left Worry about Rahm Emanuel?

by James M. Wall                                      


The Hippocratic Oath is usually attributed to Hippocrates, a Greek physician born in 460 BC on the island of Cos, Greece, While other oaths of medical ethics for physicians have evolved, the Hippocratic Oath remains the standard for guiding medical ethical behavior.

The phrase, “First, do no harm”, does not appear in the Oath, but it does belong to Hippocrates and suggests the central theme of the Oath.

“First, do no harm” is good counsel for doctors. It is also good counsel for a newly elected president who campaigned on change and wants to heal a nation and a world. Which is why progressive left supporters of Barack Obama are deeply troubled over Obama’s choice of Rahm Emanuel as his White House Chief of Staff.

Will Rahm be harmful or helpful to the new president’s vision? The record is not reassuring. Emmanuel was a staunch supporter of Bush’s Iraq war. When recruiting 2006 congressional candidates, he pushed aside peace-oriented candidates and brought in moderate conservatives, preferably military veterans.

His position on the Middle East is unrelentingly pro-Israel, one likely reason for his strong backing of the Iraq war. 

Richard Nixon, an ardent anti-communist, went to China. Will Rahm going to the White House be good for peace in the Middle East? Or will Rahm’s return to the White House violate the “do no harm” oath for peace making?  These are the questions that trouble Obama’s progressive supporters.

Emanuel and Obama’s are friends, but Rahm was the only Illinois Democratic member of Congress who did not endorse Obama in the primaries. Citing his long service to, and friendship with the Clintons, he stayed neutral until Obama finally defeated Hillary Clinton. To some that looked like loyalty to the Clintons; others saw it as political calculation. 

There is also anxiety over Emanuel’s personal style, well documented in the media as profane and at times, downright nasty. It is an image the congressman has cultivated.  It helps to have his enemies fear him. But will that style allow Emmanuel to successfully herd the cats in a White House filled with egos as large as his?  Will his prickly style make him an effective Obama advocate with members of Congress?

Too soon to tell, but we do have a fictional view of Rahm in this You Tube West Wing clip.featuring a fictional Josh Lyman, who is based on Emanuel.

Veteran Washington Post columnist David Broder favorably compares the current Rahm to the younger Rahm:

Emanuel is a volatile personality. When he was in the White House the first time, he was a shouter. When angry about something that I’d written about Clinton, which he often was, his protest calls were so high-decibel that I often found myself holding the phone at arm’s length, just to spare my eardrums.

But Emanuel has calmed down a lot — at least in my experience. In the past four years, I have found him responsive and remarkably smart in his assessments of national and congressional politics. He is as serious about policy as he is about politics, and while he waited a long time before endorsing Obama out of loyalty to Bill and Hillary Clinton, he clearly has earned the trust of the new president.

The successful and almost flawless campaign that nominated and then elected Obama, was run by what one writer described as “the disheveled David Axelrod, his close friend and political strategist, and the meticulous David Plouffe, the campaign manager”. Personalities on the staff were subsumed under Obama’s vision. The campaign was never about the two Davids. 

Emanuel was not a part of that leadership team. His strength has always been fund raising, not campaign strategy.  He and Alexrod have been close friends since they first worked together in Illinois Senator Paul Simon’s first run for senate in 1984.

 Chicago Sun Times columnist Carol Marin, writing about that campaign in a recent column, notes that Simon and his campaign manager recruited a core group of young people who have since graduated to higher realms in politics.

The group included Emanuel, Alexrod, David Wilhelm, who served as Bill Clinton’s national campaign manager in 1992, and later directed the Democratic National Committee from 1994 to 1996.  Forrest Claypool, another member of the 1984 campaign staff, is now on the Cook County Board. He is one of several possible contenders for Emanuel’s seat in Congress. paul-simon-ap1

Emanuel arrived at that 84 campaign with the blessing of AIPAC (he was 25 at the time) and a rolodex that served to finance a large part of the Simon campaign. It is his long standing and uncompromising Zionist record that makes him such an effective fund raiser.

Now that record dismays Obama supporters on the progressive left. Since his earliest days in Israel as a sometime resident and frequent visitor, Emanuel has been an outspoken supporter of Israel, clinging to his political faith with the zealotry of a Sarah Palin on the hunt for terrorists.

During the first Gulf War, Rahn served as a civilian violunteer in an Israeli army unit. Ha’aretz reports that he was on duty on two separate occasions. Until he was 18, he held dual citizenship with both Israeli and US passports. He also has retained enough basic Hebrew to converse in two languages with Israeli leaders. 

Rahm’s father, who moved back to Israel after raising three (highly successful) sons in the US, was recently quoted using a demeaning phase about Palestinians. Rahm would never make that mistake. Should he be held accountable for his father’s remarks? Probably not, but the quote does not help Rahm with his critics.

(UPDATE: After the offensive quote from the senior Emanuel surfaced, Nick Papas, a Rahm spokesman, issued a statement which appeared in a New York Times politics blog:

“Today, Representative Emanuel called Mary Rose Oakar, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, apologized on behalf of his family and offered to meet with representatives of the Arab-American community at an appropriate time in the future.” 

Emanuel was responding to a letter from Oakar, a former member of Congress, and a prominent member of the Arab American community.)

Ha’aretz, the Jerusalem newspaper, interviewed Jewish supporters in Chicago after Obama’s Grant Park victory speech:

Alan Solow, an attorney from Chicago, a leader of the Jewish community and a veteran Obama supporter. . .used to live in Obama’s neighborhood, and says that Obama has always had “excellent relations with the Jewish community.” . . .

. . .I went with him to Israel for a week in January 2006, and when he started the race for the presidency I had no doubt I’d support him. . . “I said with a smile that he will be the first Jewish president. He also has a deep understanding of issues that confront Israel and the Jewish community. . .

Michael Bauer, a Chicago Jewish political activist, was overjoyed at Obama’s election.  Asked about Rahm’s role in the White House, Bauer told Ha’aretz:

Let me say something about Rahm. One of the things people don’t like about him is the fact he’s short with people, but it’s only because he’s such a smart person. He doesn’t need a 15-minute phone conversation, he gets to the issues in three minutes. Israel – it’s in his blood. 

These rave reviews for Emanuel’s appointment have created considerable dismay in the progressive community which had hoped that Obama would move away from the Clinton-Bush pro-Israeli stance and work to end the oppressive occupation that has long brutalized Palestinians.

They doubt that Rahm’s Zionism will be helpful.  He was, after all, part of a Clinton White House that pretended to be an “honest broker” at Camp David while its negotiators served behind the scenes as “Israel’s lawyers”.  

Ali Abunimah, a respected Palestinian American writer and advocate who lives in Chicago, is an outspoken critic of Israel’s occupation policies and of the US strong tilt toward Israel in both the Clinton and Bush administrations. 

Abunimah’s father is a retired Jordanian diplomat. The younger Abunimah is one of the leading scholar-advocates for the Palestinian cause in the US.  He is also a friend of another Palestinian American, Rashid Khalidi, the former University of Chicago scholar who now directs Columbia University’s Middle East study program.

Ali Abunimah is aware that ignorance of Palestinian-Israeli history is at the root of the strong support Israel enjoys with US media and the public. His work with his web site, The Electronic Intafada, and his occasional article in the main stream media, brings information to the discussion rarely heard or seen by the US public. 

Recently he described Rahm Emanuel’s Zionist passion as a giant shadow over his appointment as White House Chief of Staff:

. . . Emanuel – whose father fought with the Irgun, the pre-state Jewish militia that carried out terrorist attacks on Palestinians and the British in the 1940s – has a hawkishly pro-Israel record. He has never publicly distanced himself from his father’s contribution to the dispossession of more than 750,000 Palestinians, nor criticized Israel’s frequent attacks on Palestinian communities that have killed and maimed thousands of civilians.

In June 2003, Mr. Emanuel signed a letter criticizing President Bush for being insufficiently supportive of Israel. “We were deeply dismayed to hear your criticism of Israel for fighting acts of terror,” Mr. Emanuel, along with 33 other Democrats, wrote to Mr. Bush. . . the New York Observor, whose Mondoweiss blog is a testimony to the wit and fervor of the Jewish left, can be counted on to track down items that expose Israeli perfidy, like this reminder of the blockade of Gaza.

Phillip Weiss, an investigative reporter for the New York Observor, writes his own blog, Mondoweiss, in which he reports on Israel’s perfidy as occupier. He recently posted this report on the food and fuel blockade of Gaza.

He has weighed in frequently on the Emanuel appointment.  Recently he posted this reference intended to reassure those who feel Obama’s choice of Rahm is a capitulation to Zionism: 

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency says Obama chose Emanuel strictly for his attack-dog executive abilities:

One thing Emanuel is not, all agree, is the president-elect’s conciliatory signal to the Jewish community after a campaign fraught with worries that Obama would tip toward even-handedness in dealing with the Middle East. 

Emanuel was chosen strictly for his political skills and his closeness to Obama, said Steve Rabinowitz, whose public relations firms does work with both Jewish groups and the Democratic Party and its affiliates. His closeness to the Jewish community “would be a tiny factor, if at all” in the hiring, Rabinowitz said.

If one wants to view Emanuel’s new job from the “glass half full” perspective, one thing is certain: At a time of the nation’s worst economic crisis since the Depression, Rahm will be a Chief of Staff who knows the world of finance. The New York Times reports on the time he spent between the Clinton White House and his election to Congress:

. . .in between those two roles, Mr. Emanuel made millions of dollars on Wall Street as an investment banker with Wasserstein Perella, as the boutique firm was known at the time.

Despite having little experience or education in finance, Mr. Emanuel became a managing director at the firm’s Chicago office in 1999, helping to bring in business and seal deals.

Rahm Emanuel’s strengths include knowledge of the world of finance and an ability to knock heads together in search of solutions. He also has considerable political savvy; he will follow mandates laid out by President-elect Obama on domestic and foreign policy.  

As Obama organizes his foreign policy plan, the news is encouraging to the “worried” political left. Phillip Weiss reports in Mondoweiss, that the Obama advisors on Iran do not come from the neo con camp. 

Instead, Obama has turned to a panel of American diplomats and other experts who are telling the president-elect:

Don’t pile on economic and military threats; it doesn’t help. . . The Iranian people ”have seen the outcome of U.S.-sponsored regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq. They want no part of it,” the report said.

Far more likely to succeed, said former U.S. ambassadors Thomas Pickering and James F. Dobbins, Columbia University scholar Gary G. Sick and 17 other experts, is to ”open the door to direct, unconditional and comprehensive negotiations at the senior diplomatic level.

The progressive left will, no doubt, continue to worry about Rahm Emanuel.  But rather than worry, a more productive tactic would be to adopt a “wait and see” attitude. Let Rahm make the trains run on time and keep recalcitrant congress members in line. (See Josh Lyman above).

A good Chief of Staff is chosen because he or she is loyal and competent. We should take President-elect Obama at his word. As he likes to say, he is not perfect.  There will be time enough to note mistakes he will inevitably make. Thus far, Rahm Emanuel is not one of his mistakes.

Photo at top from Charles Rex (Arbogast/AP)

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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7 Responses to Should The Left Worry about Rahm Emanuel?

  1. I agree with you on “wait and see,” Jim. I am not comfortable with all the fuss and screaming by critics of Israel (and I am one) about his Zionism, his past, his father, etc. Feels like a litmus test and a “one issue” fixation, and this does not help the cause of changing US policy of unconditional support for Israel’s policies. We should choose our battles. Yes, wait and see. Wait and see who Obama puts in policy positions — who is he going to put on Israel-Palestine? When he appoints Dennis Ross, then you’ll hear me screaming, and I will encourage others to join in a tactical effort to get to Obama.

  2. Kathy Kelly says:

    Dear Jim,

    Thanks for all of your very helpful articles. I’m particularly appreciative of this one.

    Voices activists and Christian Peacemaker Team members have spent considerable energy developing vigils and office visits, clamoring for Emanuel to oppose increased funding for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He steadily voted in favor of defense spending and supplemental funding.

    Your thoughts about a “bigger picture” give me some hope that Emanuel’s niche in a new Obama administration might tap some of his organizing skills and perhaps cool off some of his ardor for basing foreign policy on threat, force, weapons and bloodshed.

    From Jan 1 – 19, we’ll hold Camp Hope in Hyde Park, Chicago. The idea is to offer a congratulatory sendoff to the Obama family as they depart for DC but also urge a new Obama administration to swiftly act on progressive steps envisioned along the campaign trail.

    Very best, Kathy



  3. Marc Cutright says:

    Hi, Jim. I always enjoy your insights, and find your knowledge of the Illinois and Chicago backgrounds of the new administration to be particularly helpful.

    Re RE’s White House appointment: I’m hoping that it does, as you suggest, set up a Nixon-goes-to-China initiative in the Middle East. The appointment sends a very strong message about support for Israel’s existence and security. From that base, we can push much harder for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state and the restoration of land to it.

    I might go even further. I favor a real wild-card name for appointment as ambassador to Israel: Lieberman. Same Nixon-to-China setup, and has the side benefit of getting Joe out of the Senate, so that a real Democrat can be named and eventually elected to the seat.

  4. SALLY MITCHEL says:

    Thanks for insight into apptment of ER as Chief of Staff.

  5. Harris Fawell says:

    Jim. I Very interesting article about Rahm Emmanuel. I was concerned when I first heard about Obama’s appointment of Rahm Emmanuel as his White House chief of staff (general temperment) but after reading your article my concern is much greater. What our country badly needs is an objective view of the Palestinian-Israeli situation. It appears Obama won’t get that view from his Chief of Staff. More of George Bush’sviews in regard to the Palestinian-Israeli situation is precisely what our nation does not need.
    Harris Fawell

  6. Pingback: Wingnuts, Blinders and Bubbles: Obama Continues U.S. Obeisance to Israel « Wallwritings

  7. Norman Altstedter says:

    I wish Obama had a different chief of staff.

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