Rahm Emanuel Tackles the White House

The facts and myths surrounding Obama's chief of staff.

ByABC News
November 7, 2008, 3:06 PM

Nov. 7, 2008 — -- Is he a ballet dancer who lost part of his finger in the Israeli Army? The streetwise Chicago political operative who once mailed a dead fish to a political adversary? Or perhaps he's the political prodigy in the Clinton White House who inspired the role of Josh Lyman in "The West Wing."

It's all part of the mystique surrounding President-elect Barack Obama's pick for White House Chief of Staff, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill.

The facts: Emanuel did study ballet when he was growing up and even had a chance to go to college on a ballet scholarship. He did inspire the "West Wing" character. He did lose part of a finger in a childhood accident, but he was never in the Israeli Army, despite serving in a civilian capacity in support of the Israeli military during the first Gulf War.

And the dead fish story, while taking on epic proportions in media coverage of Emanuel, has not been confirmed. But it's so often repeated because it's something that would fit in with Emanuel's tough persona and "take no prisoners" politics.

Even his allies and friends say working with Rahm Emanuel can raise one's blood pressure.

"We scream at each other all the time," says James Carville, who worked with Emanuel on the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign. "He's abrasive, but people who work for him love him."

Another colleague from the Clinton years, Paul Begala, has reportedly described Emanuel's leadership style as a cross between a hemorrhoid and a toothache.

It's that reputation that's got critics wondering if he's the right man for the job. Shortly after the official announcement by the Obama staff, GOP House Minority Leader John Boehner condemned the choice.

"This is an ironic choice for a president-elect who has promised to change Washington, make politics more civil, and govern from the center," said Boehner in a statement.

But Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., another top Republican and best friend of defeated GOP presidential nominee John McCain, said exactly the opposite.

"This is a wise choice by President-elect Obama," Graham said. "He's tough but fair -- honest, direct and candid. These qualities will serve President-elect Obama well."

Emanuel has a long political resume that reflects high-profile stints in both the White House and Congress.

After working on the Clinton presidential campaign in 1992 as a senior fundraiser and strategist, he worked in the White House as a policy advisor to President Clinton.

In 2002, he pursued his own political fortunes, winning an Illinois congressional seat.

But perhaps his biggest political victory to date was the orchestration of the 2006 Democratic comeback and takeover in the House of Representatives -- an achievement that would earn him the appreciation of his Democratic colleagues and a promotion to party chairman.

It's widely believed that if he had kept his job in Congress, he would be in position to rise in the leadership, perhaps to speaker of the House. But the chance to serve as chief of staff to the first African-American president, who happened to share his Chicago roots, proved too much to pass up.

Emanuel grew up Jewish in an upscale Chicago suburb -- the second of three sons, each now as successful as the next.

His older brother Ezekiel Emanuel is an oncologist and a nationally recognized medical ethicist with a doctorate in political theory. Rahm is the political wonder boy.

But he's not the only family member made immortal on the small screen. His younger brother Ari, a successful Hollywood agent, inspired the acerbic, hyperactive agent portrayed by Jeffrey Piven on the hit HBO series "Entourage."