I first met Rahm Emanuel in 2005 when he was a congressman, and I was a visiting scholar at George Washington University, researching the second volume of the life of our 42nd president, Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency.
I admired Rahm then - and do still. Quite a number of ex-Clinton staffers and administration officials refused to be interviewed by me, lest they upset former President Clinton at a time when his wife, Senator Hillary Clinton, was expected to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Not Congressman Emanuel, though! He had a young, devoted staff, and beside the Stars and Stripes flag in the corridor outside his office he had set up a tripod with a board giving the latest casualty toll in Iraq that day - an indication of his profound objection to President George W. Bush's reckless decision to invade the country, and its tragic consequences for our courageous troops.
In my interview, Rahm was direct and candid; he radiated a sort of idealistic energy quite different from other Clintonistas, because it seemed to come from his heart - neither deferential towards his old boss, nor hypercritical, but very much his own man, compared with stalwarts like Madeleine Albright and others who wouldn't dare be quoted. It didn't surprise me at all, therefore, when Rahm opted to serve as chief of staff to the 44th President, rather than hewing to Hillary's camp. And I felt the same admiration, truth be told, after interviewing Leon Panetta in California earlier that year - another former congressman with the courage of his own convictions, not an apparatchik.
Panetta, of course, was the man who rescued President Clinton from his disastrous first eighteen months in office, as Clinton's chief of staff. Panetta had served in the military, and been elected a congressman nine times. The son of Italian immigrants he had no airs; instead, you felt in the presence of a man of total honesty and integrity, but also of deep intellectual courage. Again, it did not surprise me when President Obama summoned him to lead the CIA, despite his age.
How has Rahm Emanuel performed as chief of staff to the president? No doubt, White House watchers will have their own divided views, but for my money, the verdict must surely be: with enormous distinction! Whereas President Clinton's first two years were characterized by serial mishaps, scandals, leaks, indecision and arguments over his co-president (his wife), his second two years in office, when Panetta managed the White House, were the polar opposite. The President was at last able to become President - as he did over the Oklahoma City bombing, and his defiance in the face of Gingrich's shutdown of the government.
As Emanuel saw it, Clinton was no beginner. He did not have to learn the global and domestic issues of the day in the White House, for with a near-genius intelligence he had studied them for years, both as Governor of Arkansas and founder of the centrist platform, the DLC. What Clinton had not prepared himself for was the business of being president, such as Reagan and other successful presidents had: not only how to delegate to a competent chief of staff (at least, a man more competent than his old kindergarten buddy, Mack McLarty - who proved a delightful, trustworthy individual but utterly incompetent as chief of staff) but how to focus his prodigious energies on the things he could influence, not those he couldn't. Forcing peace in Bosnia would be President Clinton's greatest (though often forgotten today) triumph: the moment when, thanks to Panetta's tough managerial style, Bill Clinton truly became President Clinton.
Typically, the final Bosnian peace accord - that remarkable achievement in modern world history - was reached at the very moment when Speaker Newt Gingrich was, typically, busying himself with what he had called, when threatening it, a "train wreck" - closing down the U.S. Government!
Fifteen years later, Rahm Emanuel has had to deal with not one but two Gingriches: indeed two of the most negative individuals in modern congressional annals, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). How, in the face of such die-hard obstructionism, Rahm Emanuel, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) managed to get through so much crucial legislation over the past eighteen months will be seen as a miracle one day. And how the President managed to keep his head, while all others about him were losing theirs, will also be seen as near-miraculous.
As Tom Friedman writes in today's New York Times, we need leaders who can convince voters that we actually have a strategy "to make America great again." Tea Party dottiness - "shrinking government and slashing taxes" may temporarily channel the frustrations voters feel at the high levels of unemployment, but it won't make America great again. President Obama's steadiness rallied the nation at a time of severe economic crisis, saved Detroit, rescued a spiraling Wall Street, stanched the flow of blood in terms of the mortgage crisis and rising joblessness - while also achieving what no president since FDR has managed to do: bring health care reform that will finally stop penalizing tens of millions of the sick in the world's most prosperous economy - including our children!
Emanuel can leave the White House, then, with considerable pride in his accomplishments. Once President Clinton had, following his disaster in 1994, "figured out the combination to the Republican lock," he told me in 2005, "there wasn't a safe in America he couldn't open." Will President Obama work out the new combination, in order to bring the country to its senses, and restore it to greatness, as President Clinton did in 1995? We'll see. But it will be without a great chief of staff - bless his white cotton socks.