Tough guy, triathlete, a man who can tease presidents and ballet dancer? He’s really a pit viper…
WASHINGTON D.C., (Fortune) — On a wretchedly hot August day outside the Caterpillar tractor plant in Montgomery, Ill., President Bush and the state’s congressional delegation gather for the signing of the massive transportation bill. This is 2005, the calm before the Katrina storm, and a rigorous mountain-biking schedule has the President in top shape.
In off-camera chitchat with the shirt-sleeved lawmakers, Bush takes note of Democratic Congressman Rahm Emanuel’s deep tan, prompting the 46-year-old Emanuel to boast about the miles of swimming and biking in his triathlon training schedule.
(This story is an excerpt from the story that ran in the October 2, 2006 issue of Fortune.
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Testosterone oozes into the humid air space between the two men. Bush invites Emanuel down to Texas to do some real biking. “So I said, ‘I’ll make you a deal, Mr. President. I’ll bike if you swim.’ Now he didn’t exactly say swimming was a wussy sport, but you could tell…. So I said, ‘Mr. President, Laura can put your water wings next to the lake. You can have your water wings.’ ”
|Emanuel on his way to a Democratic Party fundraiser in Cleveland on August 30.
At that point you might think this graduate of the Evanston School of Ballet would leave well enough alone. But Emanuel is hard-wired to go for the jugular: Politics Chicago-style are part of his DNA. So he sharpens his drill bit on the leader of the free world. “I said to him, ‘You’re not one of those tribathletes, are you, Mr. President? You know – steam, sauna, shower?’
“And Bush goes, ‘That’s g-o-o-d.'”
Banter with a U.S. President is nothing new to Emanuel; he was at Bill Clinton’s side as a political advisor inside the White House for six years and still talks strategy with him at least once a month. Now chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee – the operations center for House candidates – Emanuel is applying rugged business discipline to the Democratic Party’s historic effort to wrest control of the U.S. House from the Republicans. Last year he recruited dozens of candidates to challenge GOP incumbents. This year he is holding feet to the fire to raise record amounts for the Democrats’ effort.
Along the way Emanuel has widened his core of admirers – and made powerful enemies. Nervous about being swamped by Republican money this fall, he spent the summer locked in a bitter dispute with Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean over the allocation of election resources. In private Emanuel told off Dean. In public he’s aimed similar messages at liberal financiers like George Soros for being stingy and at the leftist activists in MoveOn.org for being ineffective.
All this matters, of course, only if the Democrats lose. “Holy Christ, his butt is on the line,” says Democratic strategist Paul Begala, who describes Emanuel’s aggressive style as a “cross between a hemorrhoid and a toothache.”
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