November 16, 2012
Is the Rahmfather of Chicago — Mayor Rahm Emanuel — his own worst enemy?
Only a mayor's worst enemy would brush off a critical issue, like secretly taping reporters' phone calls, which is a felony in this state, and say it's much ado about nothing.
That's not very likable. It depletes the political Likability Bank, which for mayors holds something more precious than treasure. But then, the Rahmfather isn't interested in being liked. He's interested in power.
So the other day he brushed off a recent Tribune story about his administration secretly taping reporters and quoted William Shakespeare.
I'm told by sources that the city inspector general's office has opened an investigation into the matter. It's not the crime of the century, but the Rahmfather's response is a serious public relations mistake.
Why? It's just the kind of thing that becomes infected.
"I, I'm going to just say this: I didn't read that story," the Rahmfather said the other day. "But when I kind of got a briefing on it, it kind of reminds me of Will Shakespeare. Much ado about nothing."
He didn't read it? If the words "Rahm Emanuel" were listed as ingredients in some tasteless breakfast cereal, he'd take a magnifying glass to the tiny print on the back of the box. So if he didn't read it, I'm Kim Kardashian.
And that reference to "Will Shakespeare" was just too precious to be much ado about nothing.
The future isn't nothing. The present is where we live, but the future is the place that great cities like Chicago dream of going.
The future is everything for a talented political operative driving solo for the first time — Emanuel finally out front, the government wheel in his hands, open road ahead.
That's why I'm puzzled by his response to the story of the secret taping. It reveals a flaw in his design, something that should be addressed soon before it ruins the mechanism. Because he's out front now. He's no longer the guy behind the guy.
For years, in the background, he was the political hammer. He'd chase a congressman into the shower, jab that shortened Arby of his into the lawmaker's chest and explain the context of things.
He was the media manipulator, dropping stories, cajoling, purring, playing to win. Former Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, the brother of the last mayor, had this to say to Politico awhile back.
"I'm not reflecting on Rahm, but I'm not angling for something else, you know? Rahm is a lot younger, and he knew he was going to be doing something else in two years or four years or eight years, and I'm in a different stage. I'm not going to become the leaker in chief."
As President Barack Obama's chief of staff, Emanuel approached politics the way a mechanic approaches an engine. He understood what drives it.
Money drives it. Without money, a politician can't run those gorgeous ads honoring himself. Without revenue, an elected official can't hand out goodies to voters while clubbing opponents into line.
Competency is another requirement, or at least the appearance of competency. An elected official who can't project a sense of competency might as well change his name to Todd Stroger, or Mr. Buffoon.
But there's another critically important ingredient:
Some politicians love to be feared. Others seek love from their peasants. But the wise politician knows it's best to be liked.
Not loved, liked. Love and fear are about passion, and passion can break bad. Like is different. Just think on the last presidential election. The economy was, and is, in the garbage can; too many people were, and are, without work. But people liked Obama more than they liked the other guy. And Obama won re-election.
Oddly enough, the last mayor of Chicago possessed this quality for years. Rich Daley sold the city by the pound, wasting the city's treasure on deals for his cronies, selling Chicago into virtual bankruptcy. But people liked him.
He shrugged, he made faces, said goofy things about rats in your sandwich and whether his shorts were properly "scrootened." He played the bumbler like some clumsy Mayor Columbo.
And they liked him for it. Until finally, the corruption all around him caught up with him. Up until then, all the accounts in his Likability Bank were full.
The Rahmfather's Likability Bank is almost in receivership. He never had much there to begin with. So he doesn't have much to waste.
I like him personally. In private, he's funny and smart, and he loves the city. But this is about the public man, and publicly, the Rahmfather has opted to cultivate an air of ruthless competence.
So his public persona may compel him not to worry about secretly taping reporters. But that kind of thing depletes the Likability Bank big time. Any rookie alderman would have told him that, and this, too:
Every mayoral administration eventually suffers a crisis, which I'm told is a terrible thing to waste. Somebody at City Hall says something or does something stupid. Somebody always gets caught reaching into the cookie jar. Bad things happen.
And mayors start whining that reporters won't give them a decent break. But by then, it's too late. Because by then, with the Likability Bank empty, political whining is just desperate noise.
You might call it much ado about nothing.
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