SO MUCH TO DO, SO LITTLE TIME. AND so many things that could go wrong. No wonder Rahm Emanuel—general manager of the Presidential Inauguration Committee—is having trouble sleeping at night. "You bolt up in bed at 4 in the morning, and your mind is just rushing with what you have to accomplish," he says. Charged with orchestrating one of the biggest and most accessible Inaugurals this nation has ever seen, Emanuel paces in his Washington, D.C., office—fretting about invitations, bad weather, security risks. "I can't seem to get that music from Jaws out of my head," he says with a wry smile.

For all his anxiety, there is little doubt that Emanuel is up to the challenge. Fondly known as Rahm-bo by friends, the tireless 33-year-old made a name for himself as Bill Clinton's national campaign finance director. After Clinton's nomination, he amassed a record-breaking $71 million war chest. Since the election Emanuel and his 300-member staff have, in just seven weeks, put together plans for the ambitious, five-day American Reunion, a celebration from Jan. 17 to Jan. 21, the day after the Inauguration. It will include a Clinton-Gore bus tour, 11 balls, several concerts and opening the White House to the general public. Says former campaign strategist James Carville of the lithe, 5'8" Emanuel: "I have never seen that small a mass produce that much energy."

Emanuel's hard-driving style is the stuff of campaign legend. According to his onetime aide Mark Middleton, Emanuel had no sooner arrived at Clinton's Little Rock campaign headquarters in November 1991 than he leapt on a desk to herald his arrival. Later he announced that the staff would raise a million dollars in Arkansas before Christmas. "I told him he was crazy," remembers Middleton. But Emanuel came close. They raised $906,000. He is also famous for fearlessly opposing political foes. A few years ago, during a dispute with Washington pollster Alan Secrest, he sent Secrest a note reading, "It's been awful working with you. Love, Rahm." Attached was a rotting fish.

The fund-raiser, a Chicago native, is the second of four children of Dr. Benjamin Emanuel, a pediatrician who was an underground lighter in the struggle to establish the State of Israel, and Marsha, a social worker. The Emanuels spent their summers in Israel, and family meals were given over to heated political debates. Says Emanuel: "You came to dinner prepared to do battle." (Years later, during the 1991 Gulf War, Rahm showed himself ready for another kind of battle by volunteering for the Israeli Army.)

Early on, Rahm also showed a special talent for ballet. Though he eventually turned down a scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet School ("I was too small to be anything major, and I have too much ego to be a secondary performer"), he continued his twice-weekly training regimen even during the presidential campaign. One day, after a dance class, he bumped into the Clintons. "There they are taking Chelsea for her ballet class," he says, laughing, "and out comes their national finance director in his leotard and lights."

In 1980, during his senior year at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., Emanuel worked on an Illinois congressional campaign with David Wilhelm, who eventually became Clinton's campaign manager. He got his master's in speech and communications at Northwestern in 1985, and in 1989 formed his own Chicago-based consulting firm, working with clients including Mayor Richard Daley and Virginia's Gov. Douglas Wilder. In October 1991, when Wilhelm joined the Clinton team, his first order was "Get Rahm."

Within a week of Emanuel's arrival, the number of fund-raising events on the December calendar jumped from zero to 27. Not everyone was thrilled with his bulldozing tactics and expletive-ridden speech, however. "He can offend people," close friend and Inaugural Committee spokesperson Richard Mintz concedes. "He's a perfectionist." Emanuel responds: "Pushy? Yes, I am pushy. If you think raising $71 million was a tea party....I mean, I got the job done."

Indeed he did—and in the process made himself so indispensable to his boss that when a week after the election Clinton asked him to work on the Inaugural, Emanuel had to ditch his planned postelection Caribbean scuba-diving vacation. Even ballet has fallen by the wayside, as has Emanuel's ritual 10:30 P.M. bedtime. He is living temporarily at Washington's Mayflower Hotel, by coincidence in the same suite FDR occupied before his 1933 Inaugural. Emanuel's girlfriend is getting her MBA at Northwestern's Kellogg Graduate School of Management. He wouldn't count out a job offer from the Administration. That would help Emanuel achieve one remaining goal. "There's the folklore of the parents who are proud of their son, the doctor," he says. "My goal is that Jewish parents can also say, 'My son, the political consultant.' "

ELIZABETH GLEICK
MARGIE SELLINGER in Washington, D.C.

  • Contributors:
  • Margie Sellinger.