Rahm flashes the impatient stare that is a cross between contempt and pity, followed by a sigh and a long, uncomfortable silence. I brace myself for the tirade -- or the freeze-out. He's been known to meet reporters for lunch or dinner and, if they fail to impress, spend the meal ignoring them. And within the first 45 seconds or so of our first interview, he called me a [expletive] idiot -- though I soon learned I wasn't special in that regard. James Carville, Rahm's pal since their days together on the 1992 Clinton campaign, later told me not to sweat it: "Everybody is a [expletive] idiot to Rahm." Not even Bill Clinton is spared. When I ask the former president what is the bluntest thing Rahm has ever said to him, he tells me, "It's unprintable."
Instead, though, Rahm leans in close and gestures like he's trying to start a car that just won't turn over. He rotates his right hand, the one that's missing half its middle finger, and laments that the new Bush strategy has blunted the Democrats' momentum. Republicans are still in danger, but the wave he'd been hoping for is looking more and more far-fetched. He makes a sound like a faulty car ignition: "Kshhhh, kshhhh -- both sides are stuck," he says.
Instead of a national referendum on Bush and on Washington corruption, it looks like Rahm and his lieutenants will be forced into a race-by-race dogfight, which means they're going to have to get dirty. Or dirtier.
It so happens that earlier this very day, a story began to break about a Republican representative of a sprawling district in central Florida, and as we near the end of our meal, Rahm is anxious for an update. He asks his communications director, Bill Burton, who has joined us for dinner, to retrieve the story, and Burton pulls the article on the Web site of the St. Petersburg Times. "A Democratic congressional candidate is calling for an investigation of Rep. Mark Foley," Burton reads, "over an e-mail exchange he had with a teenage boy who had been a congressional page." For the first time all night, Rahm cracks a smile.
RAHM'S TASTE for blood goes way back, not just to the Clinton years but to his days as a Chicago political operative in the 1980s, when he worked on the campaigns of Paul Simon and Richard Daley. In 1988, in between those two stints, he served as the national campaign director at the DCCC. It was during that campaign that he wrote a manifesto for Campaigns & Elections magazine called "How to Beat a Republican." His advice? Once "you have succinctly spelled out your own program, you can start dredging up dirt on your opponent." To which he cheerily added, "The untainted Republican has not yet been invented."
But it was his fund-raising prowess for Daley that attracted attention in party circles, and in 1991 he was snapped up by the long-shot Clinton campaign, where he became famous for standing on his desk and screaming at donors who he believed could write bigger checks than they had offered.