Clinton brought Arkansas to Washington, and Texas followed Bush. Now, says Alexandra Starr, Obama is bringing the take-no-prisoners politics of Al Capone’s city to the Beltway
Washington may not have had an architectural makeover in more than two centuries, but the city’s political culture has shown a chameleon-like ability to change with each incoming administration. When Bill Clinton arrived from Little Rock, Arkansas 16 years ago, for example, he brought a penchant for late-night rambling discussions and a Southern disregard for keeping to schedules. Most of his underlings emulated those attributes, imbuing the town with a swing-by-the-seat-of-your-pants ethos.
President George W. Bush’s Lone Star state heritage came through in his cocksure swagger, emphasis on loyalty, and a cowboy-like disdain for memos longer than three pages. Many of his staffers also spent their formative years in Texas; even those who did not were soon priding themselves on ‘following the gut’ and scorning overt intellectualism. At times it seemed like the oil-catting city of Houston had migrated to the Potomac.
Now the nation’s capitol is due another cultural shift. President-elect Barack Obama was raised in Hawaii, but migrated to Chicago after graduating from college. The politics of the Windy City are arguably the most ruthless in the country. As the Illinois academic Paul Green notes, many of Chicago’s streets are named after people you wouldn’t want to share a lifeboat with, if they were still alive. It’s a town where gangsters like Al Capone thrived, and the legendary Mayor Richard J. ‘Old Man’ Daley punished pastors who didn’t endorse his candidates by dispatching building inspectors to their churches on Monday mornings. Senator Obama alluded to the city’s reputation when some questioned his ability to combat the Clintons and later Senator McCain. ‘I’m skinny, but I’m tough,’ he said. ‘I’m from Chicago.’
That Obama had to reassure Democrats of his flinty bona fides underscores how little he seems to embody the thuggish politician. But if you get beyond the stereotypes of who has succeeded in Chi-Town, it becomes apparent that Obama is very much a product of the city he moved to a little more than two decades ago. Political victors in Chicago have been not just aggressive, but also artful. Their campaigns are disciplined and excel at voter turnout, two things that characterised the Obama campaign. The toughest tactics are generally unleashed behind closed doors, allowing the man heading the ticket to emerge as above the fray. Enemies, what is more, are oftentimes brought into the fold after ballots have been cast. ‘Elections,’ Old Man Daley liked to say, ‘are won by addition.’
In the ways he waged his electoral bid, and is assembling a White House staff, Obama has demonstrated how much he has learned from the Chicago masters. An Obama presidency will be like a Chicago mayoralty in that it will be aggressive and take no prisoners.
Look at who Obama is taking on as employees. High-level posts are going to men and women who have cut their teeth in Chicago’s rough-and-tumble politics: chief campaign strategist David Axelrod and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett are decamping to Washington, for example, as counsellors to the President. It is the anointment of Congressman Rahm ‘Rahmbo’ Emanuel as chief of staff, however, that signals just how poised the new administration is to crack the whip.
Emanuel is the most intense, take-no-prisoners politician of his generation. He made his political debut raising money for Mayor Richard M. Daley (son of the Old Man), becoming renowned for phone calls where he berated businessmen decades his senior for not shelling out sufficiently. He ended up breaking fundraising records in that election, a coup that landed him a job with the nascent Clinton presidential campaign. That effort was, of course, successful, but Emanuel was not one to turn the other cheek even after his candidate was elected to the White House: he ended a celebratory dinner vowing to exact revenge on politicians who had crossed Clinton. After intoning each name, Emanuel plunged the blade of his steak knife into the table top, declaring ‘Dead man!’ with each thrust. On another occasion he made his displeasure known via an unusual package: he mailed a dead fished wrapped in newspaper to a pollster who had displeased him.
In 2006, four years after becoming a Congressman from Illinois, Emanuel employed his ruthlessness and savvy to engineer the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives. By twisting the arms of donors and browbeating his favoured recruits into races, Emanuel engineered the pick-up of 31 Congressional seats, ending 12 years of Republican rule. Appalled House Republicans noted that elevating Emanuel to the White House seemed to refute Obama’s implicit promise that he would run a non-partisan administration.
But Obama has a history of playing the good cop while simultaneously deploying hardball tactics behind the scenes. He may have appeared hesitant to attack Hillary Clinton publicly during the primaries, but the first negative mail-out to appear in Iowa was sent out under the imprimatur of his campaign. Indeed, much of the Clinton campaign’s frustration stemmed from what they saw as the press’s inability to see how ruthless and negative the Obama campaign was.
Obama occasionally gives voice to that competitive streak in public. During a fundraiser in Pennsylvania, for example, he quoted from The Untouchables, a film about the federal crackdown on Al Capone in the late 1920s: ‘They bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.’ But if Obama was eager to let his supporters know that he’s capable of one-upping his adversaries, he has also shown he believes in the Daleys’ hug-your-enemies-tight rule.
Look at his Cabinet. Robert Gates, the Republican Secretary of Defense, is being kept on, giving a bipartisan sheen to the withdrawal from Iraq. Hillary Clinton, whose foreign policy knowledge Obama spent months ridiculing, has been nominated as Secretary of State; simultaneously exiling her from domestic politics and appeasing her supporters.
This is an approach that has been employed to great effect in his hometown. Daley Sr often co-opted former opponents with jobs and contracts. And after his son, Richard M. Daley, won the mayoralty in 1989 despite drawing just 7 per cent of the African-American vote, he unveiled an administration where minorities made up half of the 24 members.
Calculated munificence is just a part of the Chicago modus operandi, of course: corruption still factors into the equation. Just this week, Governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested for attempting to sell the appointment to the President-elect’s now vacated Senate seat to the highest bidder. Three of the last five Illinois governments have been indicted. Obama himself has never been tarred as a machine candidate. In fact, he is one of a handful of politicians of his generation who scaled Illinois’s power hierarchy without a nepotistic connection to the old organisation. Blagojevich is the son-in-law of a powerful local politician. Two people who are purported to be eager to settle into the governor’s mansion — state attorney general Lisa Madigan and state treasurer Dan Hynes-— are respectively the daughter of the speaker of the Illinois house of representatives and the son of a former Illinois state senate president. Four years ago, Hynes attempted to become the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate, losing to Obama.
The fact that the president-elect was able to claw his way to the top in Illinois without a (literal) political daddy to pave the way is testament to his skill. He’s proven an astute student of his adopted town’s politics, and he will bring the iconic Chicago mix of an above-the-fray public persona with hard-as-nai
ls political manoeuvring to the White House. You can take the politician out of Chicago, but you can’t take Chicago out of the politician.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 13, 2008