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Reading Rahm Part 1: The Master Media Manipulator

1. From Spin Cycle: How The White House And The Media Manipulate The News, the 1998 book by Howard Kurtz.

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"Senior adviser Rahm Emanuel assumed Stephanopoulos's role of behind-the-scenes press handler."

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"The morning papers had strikingly different takes on the [tobacco negotiations]. The Washington Post quoted unnamed sources as saying the administration 'refused to intervene' in the tobacco talks until both sides agreed on a final package. The New York Times, however, cited 'a top Clinton administration official' in saying 'that the White House might be willing to play a more active role if negotiators were not able to produce a completed plan.' The reporters had obviously relied on different administration leakers.

"Rahm Emanuel, the ever-intense presidential assistant who was assuming a larger role in dealing with the press, stuck his head in McCurry's office. 'I had my headline in the Washington Post; Bruce [Lindsey] had his in the New York Times,' he said. It was a rare instance of two White House aides pushing their competing views in public, and Emanuel felt lucky that no journalist had called them on the contradiction."

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"[O]n a different story, [Wall Street Journal reporter Michael] Frisby found himself pointedly excluded. Rahm Emanuel had passed the word to USA Today that Clinton had decided to ask the Federal Election Commission to outlaw the use of 'soft money,' the large, unregulated donations that filled both parties' coffers. As other reporters picked up on the buzz, Emanuel also leaked the story to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. Even though it was not much of a story - the odds that the FEC would take such action were slim - Frisby immediately called Emanuel when he realized he had been bypassed.

"'I'm going to fuck you,' he declared.

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"After the election [communications director Don] Baer and his closest colleague, Rahm Emanuel, spent considerable time thinking about the month of January. They knew there would be a news vacuum in the weeks before the inauguration and the arrival of the 105th Congress, and they wanted to position Clinton during this period as the national healer, the repairer of the breach. They needed to stage some events that would convey this image to the press.

"Baer and Emanuel gave Clinton a strategy memo on the subject. They talked up the idea at every opportunity. The incoming chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, arranged for them to accompany Clinton a pre-Christmas trip to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, so they could get some face time with the boss. Clinton nodded in agreement at their suggestions, but he was obviously distracted. They couldn't quite get him to focus. He was preoccupied with picking Cabinet members. Baer and Emanuel decided to proceed on their own.

"They began with a well-timed leak. Baer gave a background briefing to John Harris, a voluble, easygoing reporter who covered the White House for the Washington Post, laying out the broad outlines of the coming events. Harris's piece ran the next Sunday, above the fold. 'Clinton Prepares To Push Role as National Unifier,' the headline said. Baer was thrilled. It had worked. Several other newspapers and television programs would follow the Post's lead."

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"The man who increasingly played the role of behind-the-scenes broker with the press was a wiry, curly-haired Chicagoan with an aura of intensity. Rahm Emanuel was convinced that the press operated within paradigms, neat little belief systems that fit the contours of elite opinion. The notion of objective reporting was hogwash; Washington journalists were incredibly, if subconsciously, biased. Their preconceived take on Bill Clinton, he believed, was that he was a petulant little child with an uncontrollable appetite.

"The very thought made Emanuel angry, desk-pounding angry. These pampered little correspondents with their gourmet cuisine and their full-time housekeepers couldn't be more wrong about Clinton, a man who had risen from a fatherless childhood in Hot Springs to the pinnacle of national power. He was more in touch with what folks out there wanted than these self-appointed Beltway oracles.

"It wasn't that Rahm Emanuel disliked reporters. Indeed, he spent perhaps 60 percent of his time schmoozing them, spinning them, fencing with them, yelling at them. On a particular day he might chat up columnists Paul Gigot and Mark Shields, return calls from James Bennet and Todd Purdum at the New York Times, check in with the networks, have lunch with Cokie Roberts. That was part of the job.

"Emanuel, thirty-seven, viewed himself as an early warning system for Clinton. He would often call the network folks at 10:05 a.m. right after their morning conference call with New York, to find out what they were working on and try to shut it down if necessary. On other days he would check in earlier, trying to pout out a story line before the conference calls began. He understood the rhythms of the beast."

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"Rahm Emanuel had been finance director of Clinton's 1991 campaign, but he had had a rocky first term. After starting out as White House political director, he was eased into a lesser job when his overzealous style antagonized people, but he had worked his way back into Bill and Hillary's good graces . . .

"He preferred to operate outside the media spotlight, even if a spate of newspaper and magazine profiles had recently dubbed him 'Rahmbo,' the warrior who sometimes screamed at subordinates. He didn't want too high a media profile, for he knew that officials who were puffed up in the press eventually got deflated.

"Emanuel, a dedicated ballet dancer, knew the moves; sometimes he would spin so hard that reporters felt he was insulting their intelligence or simply didn't understand the news business. He was not shy about calling a reporter a fucking idiot."

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"Often, Emanuel felt, the prevailing media paradigms worked in the administration's favor. He had been a chief strategist in helping pass the 1994 ban on assault weapons, and there the paradigm was clear: gun control good, opponents NRA stooges. The same dynamic had developed in the battle over the North American Free Trade Agreement the previous year. The media wisdom was global-minded free traders in support, labor goons in opposition. Journalists simply failed to appreciate how their deeply held views shaped their coverage."

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"And so the Clintonites decided to reach out to some of the journalists who were kicking them in the shins. William Safire was officially a White House enemy for having assailed Hillary as a congenital liar, but Don Baer spent a fair amount of time talking to him. Rahm Emanuel affectionately called him Uncle Bill, even had Safire over for dinner. Michael Kelly, now the editor of the New Republic, berated Clinton each week as 'a shocking liar,' 'occasional demogogue,' and 'breathtakingly cynical,' but Emanuel asked him to do lunch . . .

"When the president was toying with asking the Federal Election Commission to abolish soft-money donations, the plan was leaked to Alison Mitchell - and, incredibly, to Michael Kelly, who, when prodded by Rahm Emanuel, wrote a halfway favorable column about it."

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"Rahm Emanuel knew as much about the [Republican] fundraising scandal as any investigative reporter. He had his research team crank out one report after another, barking his requests into the phone, so he could play defense with the press. The White House staff spent untold thousands of dollars on Nexis searches, combing the journalistic databases for every scandalous tidbit they could find so Emanuel could knowledgeably engage in the art of spin."

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"Rahm Emanuel thought of a way to change the subject [from Paula Jones]. Chelsea would be graduating from Sidwell Friends School at the end of the week. McCurry had already told an annoyed press corps that the graduation ceremony would remain closed, in keeping with school tradition, even though the president was speaking. But perhaps that could be changed. The pictures of a proud father, with his seventeen-year-old daughter in cap and gown, would remind people of what even Clinton's sharpest critics conceded, that he and his wife had raised a remarkable daughter.

"Emanuel went to the president. 'As a parent,' he said,' I'm ashamed to bring this up. As a political person, if I didn't raise this, I wouldn't be doing my job.'

"Clinton waved him off. 'We've already made our decision,' he said.

"Emanuel tried his pitch on Hillary. She stared at him and invoked his three-month-old baby. 'Rahm, as Zak gets older, you'll know we made the right decision.'

"It was funny, Emanuel thought. The president who was always accused of being excessively political was passing up a sterling opportunity to exploit his daughter's high school graduation, and no one in the press had noticed.

"But Emanuel didn't give up. He was determined to milk the subject. He helped arrange for Susan Page to interview Clinton and Hillary for a Father's Day piece on the president as first dad. Emanuel knew that the New York Times or the Washington Post would take a cynical approach to such a piece, casting it as a crass effrort to divert attention from Paula Jones. But USA Today played it straight. Page wrote a remarkably upbeat front-page story that led off with Clinton recalling how he had hugged Chelsea after she got her diploma."

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"McCurry was miffed that NBC, alone among the major networks, did not air a separate story on the NATO expansion. David Bloom, the new White House correspondent, simply packaged the diplomatic news with his scandal story. Even worse, Bloom broke out of a press holding area and rushed up to a rope line to try to get Clinton to utter a sound bite on the Senate hearings. 'Stay on me, I'm going in,' Bloom told his camera crew. Clinton brushed him off with a cursory response, which Bloom used in his piece. McCurry couldn't tolerate such behavior. He saw Bloom as showy and aggressive, a Generation X version of Sam Donaldson. The previous month, during the flap over General Joseph Ralston, whose candidate for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had been derailed by an extramarital affair, Bloom got angry calls from McCurry and Rahm Emanuel after reporting that Clinton had little political capital to spend on the issue of adultery. Don't be surprised if ABC starts getting all the leaks, Bloom was told. "

2. From "The Limits of Rahmism"; New York Times Sunday Magazine, March 14, 2010, by Peter Baker:

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"Along the way, he stayed in touch, calling me unsolicited from time to time to trade gossip or point out something about George W. Bush's White House that he thought deserved more scrutiny from the news media. He managed to get around so much that an editor at a major newspaper at the time recalled finding Emanuel's name on the expense account of virtually every reporter covering Washington for that paper."

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"Emanuel is unquestionably a master manipulator of the news media."

3. From The Promise: President Obama, Year One by Jonathan Alter:

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"He loved it when the press retold the irresistible 'ballet dancing enforcer' stories and knew that being feared in Washington enhanced his power."

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"In his own contacts with the press, Rahm usually managed to sound candid without revealing much, and he was contemptuous of others who couldn't talk that line."

4. From Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, by Ari Berman:

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"Soon enough, details of the confrontational meeting [about strategy for the 2006 midterms with then-DNC chairman Howard Dean] hit all the major papers. Dean refused to talk about it publicly and instructed his aides to hold their fire. Rahm exercised no such restraint. He knew all of Washington's best reporters and didn't hesitate to tell them what a disaster Dean was. Practically every week, a damning article about Dean appeared in a major paper . . . Rahm fueled all of this coverage."

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[The media hailed Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm as "the architect" of the Democrats' 2006 midterm success, while Rahm's friends James Carville and Stanley Greenberg complained that even Republican pollsters said Dean's strategy had left 15 to 20 seats on the table.]

"Under closer inspection, Carville's and Greenberg's outlandish claims were quickly debunked. National Journal's 'Hotline' blog, the ultimate insider source in D.C., examined every competitive House race and concluded: 'Extra money could have made a small difference, but certainly not to the degree that Carville has been suggesting. Dean may have made strategic blunders in the past, but his fiscal responsibility here seems like the wiser course.' Even Dean's old foes among the party establishment found this particular criticism of the DNC chair utterly preposterous. Don Fowler Sr., the tall South Carolinian and former DNC chair under Clinton whose son, Donnie, ran against Dean for the job, told the Times: 'Asking Dean to step down now, after last week, is equivalent to asking Eisenhower to resign after the Normandy invasion. It's just nonsense. Carville and Greenberg - those people are my friends - they are just dead wrong. They wanted all that money to go to Washington consultants and speechwriters and pollsters.' Added the new Senate majority leader, Harry Reid: 'I didn't support [Dean's] running for DNC chair . . . I was wrong. He was right: I support his grassroots Democratic Party-building.'"

"With Dean in the hot seat, Rahm started receiving a little scrutiny of his own, as candidates who were largely ignored by the DCCC registered surprise upsets or lost narrowly while many of Rahm's favorite candidates went down as expensive failures. According to the final tally, of the twenty-one candidates Rahm first endorsed and funneled large checks to, a mere nine won. Of the sixty-two candidates the DCCC endorsed in total, only half prevailed. The top three candidates Rahm spent the most money on (nearly $10 million combined) - Tammy Duckworth in suburban Chicago, Lois Murphy in suburban Philadelphia, and Ken Lucas in western Kentucky - all lost. Rahm supported primary challenges to four other winners and snubbed a number of compelling grassroots candidates who nearly made it, such as Larry Kissell, a high school social studies teacher and former textile worker from the rolling Piedmont of central North Carolina who didn't get a dime from the DCCC and lost by 329 votes."

5. How Rahm buffaloed his Tribune courtier.

6. From "Rahm Pushes The Networks" by Howard Kurtz, Aug. 3, 2009:

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"In the days before President Obama's last news conference, as the networks weighed whether to give up a chunk of their precious prime time, Rahm Emanuel went straight to the top.

"Rather than calling ABC, the White House chief of staff phoned Bob Iger, chief executive of parent company Disney. Instead of contacting NBC, Emanuel went to Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric. He also spoke with Les Moonves, the chief executive of CBS Corp., the company spun off from Viacom.

"Whether this amounted to undue pressure or plain old Chicago arm-twisting, Emanuel got results: the fourth hour of lucrative network time for his boss in six months."

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"Sarah Feinberg, Emanuel's spokeswoman, says that after press secretary Robert Gibbs heard that network officials had concerns about programming conflicts, 'Rahm made a round of calls to network executives to discuss ways the White House could accommodate concerns.' The upshot was that the news conference was moved up an hour, to 8 p.m. - a boon to NBC, which had a 9 p.m. special featuring overnight British singing star Susan Boyle.

"Emanuel tried to create a sense of momentum - calling Disney's Iger last, for instance, and saying he had secured agreement from the other two networks.

"Some calls had little impact. Emanuel reached GE's Immelt, a member of Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, after learning that NBC chief executive Jeff Zucker was traveling. But Immelt told him that it was Zucker's decision, and a subsequent call to Zucker yielded an agreement that NBC would provide live coverage.

"Tensions have been building behind the scenes. Some television executives say the Bush administration informally floated possible news conference dates in advance, while Obama officials basically notify the networks of their plans."

7. From "Committeemen Go Along With Emanuel - He's Not Really Their Kind Of Guy, But He's Daley's - And It's A Bad Idea To Cross Him" by Mark Brown, Sun-Times, Nov. 19, 2001:

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"I've known him since he was working at the Illinois Public Action Council, a group that mixed a populist political agenda with aggressive door-to-door fund-raising tactics.

"At one point, he started his own opposition research firm, the kind that digs up dirt on political candidates. His partner did the research. His role was to plant the stories.

"He told me once that, if necessary, he liked to use a college newspaper to break the story he was pushing, just to put it in play and force the bigger news outlets to deal with it."

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"It's less well-known that he had a lead role in spreading a lot of the negative stories that helped torpedo Eugene Sawyer's re-election effort."

8. From "Emanuel Fends Off Mayoral Talk - 'You Guys Gotta Start Drinking Decaf'" by Abdon Pallasch and Fran Spielman, Sun-Times, April 28, 2010:

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"President Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel tried to tamp down talk about his running for mayor of Chicago as he appeared Tuesday at the Richard J. Daley annual Global Cities Forum at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"At the same time, Emanuel gave what might be construed as a window into how he would govern as mayor, advocating a regional approach, cooperating with suburbs to tackle problems. Emanuel shared the stage with the mayors of Paris and Philadelphia.

"'You know we have our home here,' he said, trying to beg off questions from reporters after the event. 'Don't over-interpret anything. Don't everybody get excited. At some point, when we come back, which is always our goal, which is why we rented the house . . . You guys are way too excited. You guys gotta start drinking decaf.'"

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Comments welcome.



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Posted on February 28, 2011


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