Odd that Richard M. Daley, who ruined the city, financially, and ruled with an autocratic disdain that makes Rahm look like Pat the Bunny, never had even half-serious competition after he won office, and was respected if not exactly liked, either, while Rahm, who has a more open, accessible style, is lathered with contempt. People keep pointing to Rahm's style, particularly the manner in which he closed those 50 schools, as if having more hearings, and inviting more protest, and holding parents' hands and gazing dolorously into their eyes, would changed the outcome. No parent was going to urge their nearby school to close, no matter how empty or poorly run it was. Rahm got the job done. Chicago used to value that.
Anyway, when Esquire asked me to profile the mayor last year, I began the article this way, following the mayor through a Walmart on 47th Street. The magazine didn't like the opening and hacked it apart. But I thought it showed something of the man, for good and ill, and thought I'd mark —heck, celebrate—his reelection by posting it here.
“Hey it’s the mayor!”
A disembodied voice off to the right, just as the pair of big black Chevy Tahoes lurch to a stop in front of the Walmart on 47th Street and Rahm Emanuel, his bodyguards and support staff—photographer, press secretary, scheduler—start climbing out. A quick glance in that direction.
“Mr. Mayor! Mr. Mayor!” the voice continues, “Can I take your picture?” The last two syllables, tinged with barrio mockery. Not the tone of someone who wants a picture or even necessarily owns a cell phone to take one. Rahm seems to instantly sense this and, staring straight ahead, a little rigidly glides quickly into the store, where all is brightness and security. A welcoming committee—an assistant manager — shakes his hand.
Immediately, Rahm is on the prowl.
The scattering of Saturday afternoon shoppers neither flock to him nor shy away, but passively accept that the mayor of Chicago is walking through the brightly-lit, mid-sized Walmart Neighborhood Market. A few drift in his direction, some timidly, some boldly.
“Come back here, I need your picture,” calls an elderly woman in an electric scooter, emboldened by age and disability, a clear plastic oxygen line under her nose, waving a phone. Rahm does, posing in a slight crouch to get himself into the frame. Nearby, a shopping cart half filled with bags of Jet-Puffed Pumpkin Spice Marshmallows, a buck a bag, holdovers from Halloween.
But nothing approaching a crowd. Mostly the shoppers go about their business while Rahm goes about his, hitting every aisle, as methodically as if he were sweeping the floor.
Every aisle with someone in it, that is. He leaves greeting cards, enters dog food, finds it empty, reverses like a robot vacuum cleaner hitting a chair leg, and heads in the other direction.
“Hey, how are you?” he calls to a clerk.
“I met you the last time,” she reminds him.
“I remember it,” the mayor says, recovering. The store has only been open less than a year, but he has already been here before. He’s comfortable here.
This is 47th Street, Back of the Yards, a poor neighborhood for the past 150 years, since it was the home to the cow-splitters who worked the Union Stockyards supplying meat to federal troops during the Civil War. The shoppers now are black and Hispanic — Rahm shifts seamlessly into guidebook Spanish. “Coma esta?” he asks a young lady. “Bien” she replies, shyly.
“That’s a lot of beer,” he tells a man in a sheepskin-lined jacket, toting an 18-pack of Modelo. “You need some food.”
A standard line of Rahm’s—calling him “Emanuel” sounds wrong, like calling Elvis “Presley” and nobody in Chicago does it. He is “Rahm” or “The Mayor” or “Mr. Mayor.” A fitness fanatic who exercises seven days a week, whose weight fluctuates between 149 and 150 pounds, who as a child put pinholes in his mother’s cigarettes to protest her smoking, Rahm mildly rebukes shoppers picking up alcohol and little else. “A lot of liquids,” he observes to a woman pushing a cart with three big bottles of margaritas.
Or maybe this banter isn’t about health so much as the venting of some primal Rahmian need to bust chops. Even though he is in full greet-the-public mode, the boozehounds give him a chance to subtly chide somebody.
“Don’t drink it alone,” he tells another.
So ribbing more than scolding. Rahm is what they call in Yiddish a kibitzer: he needles, he prods. He takes you down a notch because he can, for fun and out of habit.
Otherwise, Rahm, dressed in his Saturday casual uniform of jeans and a black sweater, is a machine of pleasant fleeting interaction. He sizes up the person in front of him, instantly processing age, race, gender, clothing. A Vietnam vet logo on a baseball cap worn by a tall older black gentleman with grizzled hair sparks “Thank you for your service.”
It takes Rahm a full 10 minutes to work his way to the back of the store, his security detail—a beefy cop with a Grabowski mustache—trailing silently behind, a discreet 20 feet away at all times, glancing around. Rahm ducks into the restroom for another bathroom break, the second in an hour. The mayor drinks a lot of water. Gotta stay hydrated.
His smile has been described as a “tight smirk” but no matter the flutter of posing and the usual trouble with the phone’s camera app, no matter how many shots are requested, or how many others come up and want their pictures taken, too, his notorious impatience is never seen. There is no trace of the exasperation that a normal person, someone who is not a politician, might betray. His smile is warm or an amazing facsimile of warmth. He waits, impassive, the endless moment until the picture is snapped. The taking of the celebrity photograph is a cherished American ritual that must be observed.
Two days later, on the other side of town, cutting a ribbon on the rebuilt Loyola L stop entrance, posing for pictures with Dunkin’ Donuts employees, a young female clerk standing next to Rahm will let her hand stray from his waist to grab an unambiguous handful of well-toned mayoral ass. Rahm won’t move, his face won’t flinch, until the photos are taken and she lets go.
Part of the job.
Rahm is best with children—his father was a pediatrician.
“You wanna go in here?” he coos to a crying 3-year-old standing next to a shopping cart, checking first with mom—or perhaps grandma, it can be hard to tell— “Can he go in here?” Lifting him into the seat, calling for a pack of tissues from press secretary Tarrah Cooper to address the boy’s runny nose, gazing at him intently. “You okay now? Better?” Then the lesson. “What do you say to Tarrah?” he asks the boy, who is silent. “Thank you?” prompts the mayor, himself a father of three, two girls and a boy. He is also like that with adults — the mayor likes to instruct, to teach, to deliver the truth.
Working his way to the front of the store, Rahm slides over to his security man and quietly says “I’m ready.” But nearly to the doorway, where a lady at a table hands out samples of a fried pork rind snack food, he stops, goes back and spends a few more minutes greeting voters before finally returning to Chevy SUVs idling at the curb. An old Bill Clinton trick—“I learned from a master,” he says, repeatedly, whenever asked about his interactions with the public. Lingering an extra moment conveys, “I just can’t tear myself away from you good people.” It can’t be that he really doesn’t want to leave the Walmart.
Someone witnessing the past 27 minutes in the life of Rahm Emanuel might conclude it is election time and he is campaigning. Only there is no campaign. The next Chicago mayoral election is well over a year away. He could stay hidden in City Hall, making phone calls, working the levers of power. Rahm could let his money—he’s already raised more than $5 million for the next election—do his runny nose wiping.
But he doesn’t.
“I love meeting people,” Rahm explains.