Tony Curtis would have made a terrific Rahm Emanuel. I can see him as a tortured, angry chief of staff in a tense fin de siècle drama of rising shadows in a White House under siege. Just as easily, I can picture Curtis joyfully elbowing his way through a comical role as Emanuel the Picaresque, jabbing lefty bloggers with glee and keeping his much more serious boss on time and off guard, throwing F-bombs like bouquets around the wacky West Wing.
Alas, the eras did not align. Emanuel is off to Chicago and Curtis off this mortal coil at 85 - and well remembered, I think, by the Siren as a man who who could nurse a grudge with the best 'em.
Other actors went on talk shows and sat down for print interviews and laughed or shrugged off the mockery they'd endured. Not Curtis. It needled him, and nothing was going to stop him saying so. He was too much the Bronx native to let a slight pass. He was going to stay worked up about it as long as you kept bringing it up.
Hard to find a better description of Emanuel, except for the Bronx part (Chicago suffices), and here's another thing the two men had in common in addition to their Jewish heritage (let's not mention this to Rick Sanchez) and a passing facial resemblance: providing comfort to those in the presence of their performances. Curtis played the kind of characters that made you uncomfortable, providing the nervy, forceful energy that often moved the plot and created situations of drama or comedy. He wasn't a big, comfortable presence - a real leading man. He was a grumbling engine, a nagging voice in the narrative; for all his good looks, the Curtis characters always seemed to be unhappy, pinched, deprived, impatient, pissed off.
In the drama that is Washington, Emanuel had a similar role. The big media types wrote the grand narrative and then farmed out the script: young inspiring President hires tough guy enforcer as all-out political warfare begins - gimme either Operation Petticoat or Spartacus, baby, but make it sell. Yet Emanuel wasn't even a glint in the President's nascent brand when the 2008 version of Barack Obama was selling hope and change to a hungry nation - he was the living antithesis, in fact, of what liberal Obama supporters projected on their candidate: a profane, centrist, DLC type with scars and combat ribbons from the hated Clinton Administration. Rahm was a candidate for a new Clinton administration - along with people like Gates, Jones, Holder, Lew, Summer and Hillary Clinton herself. From the first "WTF!?" moment of John Podesta's appointment to run the transition, there was a sense among the progressive voices who'd supported Obama through the long campaign that the matador had pulled the cape away and nicked them with the knife.
I had no sympathy whatsoever. They always projected upon Obama their ideal Presidential qualities, rather than the perfectly fine strengths the living candidate actually possessed. They were all waiting for Superman and thought Obama wore the cape. What I saw was a serious, considered, centrist Democrat who made practical decisions and compromises in the course of attaining power - a fine and powerful speaker with a fairly wide intellectual perspective, and the Senator's instinct for compromise (and a Columbia man to boot). While I was disappointed that President Obama did not deliver a more forceful agenda during the early days of his term when he clearly possessed the people's mojo to force several important issues - particularly the thin gruel of phased health insurance reform that served as the understudy for actual healthcare reform - I was not unhappy with the rather easy choice of Barack Obama over any living Republican politician.
Mainly, I don't understand anyone who blames people around President Obama for Administration policy, management, or its somewhat controversial attitude toward the so-called Democratic base. I smiled when Ezra Klein tweeted that Chicago's Mayor Daley did the "professional left a solid" by stepping aside so big, bad Rahm could leave the White House to run for mayor. Yeah, now that meek and rudderless Obama character will no longer be stuck under Emanuel's Clinton-loving, third-way worshiping, DLC-licking thumb! Here's Klein on Emanuel's legacy:
The Obama campaign was about poetry. It was the pretty rhetoric of hope and change. The Obama administration has been, to the surprise of many of its supporters, entirely about prose. It's been about the thousands of pages of legal language that tell the government what's changing. And no one represented that shift better than Rahm Emanuel ... Rahm Emanuel is not post-partisan. He is not of the new politics.
Heh-heh, really. What new politics? I've seen precisely none. And really, Ezra, "poetry?" Not a relentless ground game and intensive and expensive branding funded by tens of millions of campaign contributions, including more maxed out Federal donors than either Clinton or McCain? You can almost picture Emanuel's smirk - as played by Tony Curtis, of course - at a line like that. As the Siren remembers: "here's Curtis, enduring an agonizingly long shoot on Spartacus, surrounded by English actors playing Roman generals, turning to dainty Jean Simmons and groaning, 'Who do you have to fuck to get off this picture?'"
You can't blame Emanuel for pre-negotiating away the public option, adopting Bush era positions on civil liberty and security, and foot-dragging on gay rights and immigration reform. Nor does Rahm get the credit for restarting America's relationship with key world power centers and averting total financial catastrophe. He's not responsible for the wars - one on the wane, the other doubled down on.
Emanuel was one of the bogeymen of the base, particularly among the Obama true believers who didn't - and still don't - want to blame the President directly. This Administration clearly has no patience for constant and substantive disagreement in the ranks of commentators on the left - from Robert Gibbs to Joe Biden to the President's not-so-subtle urging of progressives to get back in line, the Obama political corps wants Democrats to focus on its successes, go easy on the disagreements, pull on the same oar. Many strong voices don't like the suggestion of "whining" over welcome public debate, and have no problem blaming the President directly. [See Peter Daou, Melissa McEwen, Jane Hamsher, Glenn Greenwald, Digby and Memeorandum on any given day].
Yet, it's worthwhile to consider the alternative in the context of the mid-terms. Wild-eyed, government-killing radicals have infected the Republican Party from the right and two years of race-baiting, birtherism, and appeals to violent revolution - combined with horrendous economic conditions and a collapsing middle class - have created an opportunity for conservative non-government. I was in the room when Bill Clinton told a bunch of bloggers that if the Republicans seize the House, the Obama White House faces unending subpoenas and investigations during the next two years. Let's just say he knows what he's talking about in this regard.
I thought Bob Shrum had a good line today in The Week - along with the rare and welcome use of the word "incarnadined" - that summed up the deal on Obama's plate on his side of the political dinner table:
Obama can change the political weather by a few degrees—and that might be just enough. In the process, he has to inspire and not just scold disappointed progressives. But he has a point when he says that it’s “inexcusable” for Democrats to skip the midterms: “People need to buck up.”
They need to realize that the Republican plan is to drag out or destroy the recovery—and then they need to vote.
These mid-terms could set the nation back a generation. It's valid and important to push the President and to push this administration, especially on civil liberties. But it's also important to hold the wrong forces of "change" at bay. Or as Tony Curtis's Sidney Falco put it, and Rahm Emanuel might have: "The cat's in the bag and the bag's in the river."