"Don’t get up," Rahm Emanuel said to me Thursday. He was standing on my throat at the time.
No, wait. That’s a lie. That’s "Legend of Rahm" stuff. Actually, he was just being polite.
Emanuel, who is Barack Obama’s chief of staff, had just entered a meeting room at the St. Regis hotel in Washington for a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with reporters. As is the custom at these breakfasts, the newsmaker walks around the table and shakes the hand of each reporter, pretending to recognize several of them.
Rahm asked me not to trouble myself by getting up to shake his hand — though, of course, I did. I wanted to be polite, and also I wanted to prove that journalists don’t always do what the White House tells them to do.
For the next hour — he actually showed up four minutes early — Emanuel was charming, funny, informative and totally non-profane. In other words, he did not live down to expectations.
Where do these expectations come from? Who relentlessly promotes the Legend of Rahm, portraying him as aggressive, profane and evil-tempered?
No, not the media. Try the president.
At the Radio-Television News Directors Association dinner last week, President Obama said: "In Egypt, we had the opportunity to tour the pyramids. And by now I’m sure you’ve all seen the pictures of Rahm on that camel. I admit, I was a little nervous about the whole situation. I said at the time: ‘This is a wild animal known to bite, kick and spit. And who knows what the camel could do?’"
At the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner last month on the day before Mother’s Day, Obama said, "This is a tough holiday for Rahm Emanuel because he’s not used to saying the word ‘day’ after ‘mother.’"
In 2005, at a roast to raise money for Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy, then newly elected Sen. Obama said of Emanuel, "I think, as many of you were aware, he was working at a deli, (had an) accident with a meat slicing machine, he lost part of his middle finger, and as a result of this, this rendered him practically mute."
Emanuel was noticeably un-mute at breakfast Thursday, where about 40 reporters were in attendance. Only Karl Rove and Hillary Clinton have drawn more, and that was in 2003, when there were many more reporters working in Washington.
In a profile I did of Emanuel for The New Republic in early 1997, I described him as "whippet thin and handsome, with large doe-like brown eyes and dark hair shot through with gray." The only thing that has changed is that his hair has gotten grayer.
It probably will get grayer still. The Obama administration is taking on some very big initiatives in its first year — health care, the environment, immigration, the economy — and the media are primed for Obama’s first failure so we can do our "Obama stumbles" stories to show, if nothing else, how we are not in the tank for Obama.
Emanuel talks to the press a lot, though usually not in such large groups and often when the rules of engagement are more flexible. At one point Thursday, Emanuel turned to David Cook, the Monitor‘s Washington bureau chief, and said, "There is no way I can say something off the record, is there?"
"I can’t bind 40 reporters," Cook said.
"I was just going to make a joke," Emanuel said.
"They’re a nice bunch," Cook offered.
Emanuel knew better, of course. And he kept mute on whatever joke he was going to make, contenting himself with joking about the recently disgraced Mark Sanford — "The guy could have used a cigarette" — and his own ability to talk while his mouth is full — "If this were more like a Jewish family, I would feel fine."
He was never off-message, which is not surprising because he is one of the people who determines what the message is. He said the president is trying to get "bipartisan votes" for his initiatives and, if he doesn’t get as many as he would like, "that doesn’t mean we failed, it means those who defended the status quo failed."
He had the fruit plate and even managed to get in a few bites, though, as his staff rushed him to his next appointment, he stood and said, "Can I take my plate with me?"
He didn’t wait for an answer, just picking up a slice of honeydew instead.
But who would have said no? Who would have dared?