As his tenure as Chicago’s mayor comes to a close, Rahm Emanuel is attempting a public relations metamorphosis. Last year, Emanuel announced that he would not seek a third term just days before the trial of former police officer Jason Van Dyke, who murdered 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2015, was set to begin. Full of bravado in his early days as mayor, Emanuel has spent recent months legacy shopping and attempting to shore up his next act. The timing of Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term, coupled with the legal consequences of McDonald’s death playing out in the final days of his administration, makes for a pretty damning narrative. But in politics, narratives are often composed of reshuffled parts, assembled by pundits in order to tell a more appealing or strategic story — and it appears that Emanuel just might escape the checkered legacy of his administration by crafting himself a new role in the world of punditry.
From the second-degree murder conviction of Van Dyke, to Emanuel’s sacrificial dismissal of Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy after the cover-up of McDonald’s murder was exposed, Emanuel’s administration has been marked by high profile acts of state violence. In 2015, Emanuel defended police practices at Chicago’s now-infamous Homan Square facility, despite The Guardian’s findings that “no contemporaneous public record of someone’s presence at Homan Square is known to exist,” meaning that a person jailed at Homan Square is effectively “disappeared” into the system — a practice that significantly increased under the Emanuel administration.
In 2014, after hearing from a delegation of Black Chicago youth and studying a shadow report presented by Chicago youth, which activists described as revealing “the disturbing and intolerable truth that [Chicago] police officers regularly engage in torture,” the United Nations Committee Against Torture expressed “deep concern at the frequent and recurrent [Chicago] police shootings or fatal pursuits of unarmed black individuals,” stating that, “In this regard, the committee notes the alleged difficulties to hold police officers and their employers accountable for abuses.”
In 2015, after damning footage of McDonald’s murder was belatedly released, the Department of Justice (DOJ) launched a civil rights investigation into the Chicago police that led to a scathing report, detailing a climate of racist policing, excessive force and shocking brutality. According to the DOJ report, one Chicago police officer told a sex worker during a prostitution arrest that he would “tase her ten fucking times” while another officer at the scene threatened to kill her and her family: “I’ll put you in a UPS box and send you back to wherever the fuck you came from.” The DOJ report also described a “pervasive cover-up culture” and, in keeping with that culture, Emanuel chose to withhold dashcam footage of McDonald’s murder until after he had secured his re-election, a revelation that led to calls for his resignation as the city erupted in protests.
The fact that Emanuel withheld the video of McDonald’s murder until after he was re-elected suggests that the mayor was unsure his campaign would survive the scandal. But as Emanuel stares down his upcoming departure, book deal in hand, he is endeavoring to succeed in a world where his past would be reduced to an on-screen caption touting his expertise. Whether Emanuel is framed as a “commentator,” as an “analyst,” or as the former mayor of Chicago, he may not have to worry about the scandals of his past cropping up much in the world of punditry. Cable news networks are known for going very light on the details about why their former “someones of note” should be listened to, and Emanuel would hardly be the first public figure to become a successful commentator in the wake of personal or political disgrace. Former Los Angeles cop Mark Fuhrman famously blew a hole in the state’s case against O.J. Simpson by lying under oath about his use of the n-word, but went on to serve as a talking head for Fox News. G. Gordon Liddy, a White House operative under Nixon who directed the Watergate burglary, parlayed his post-prison celebrity into a decades-long career in commentary. These pundits generally do not have to defend their prior actions in their daily work. An interview printed in Bloomberg in December reveals what may be a harbinger of Emanuel’s future as a talking head: There is no need to defend your past if you can freely erase it.
In his interview with Emanuel, Albert R. Hunt stated that Emanuel “was the tactician when Democrats last wrested control of the House of Representatives from Republicans, in 2006.” His role in “plotting strategy” for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign is likewise touted. There’s even a reference to his time serving the Clinton administration. Hunt then catapults his narrative forward in time, saying, “Now he’s the second-term Democratic mayor of Chicago,” without any reference to the scandals, investigations and protests that have plagued Emanuel, and without any mention of the fact that Emanuel will be leaving office — or why. Hunt then goes on to ask Emanuel a series of questions about the future of the Democratic Party. The piece is titled, “How Democrats Can Thrive in the Age of Trump,” as though Emanuel were still a sought-after bastion of strategic ideas, as opposed to a beleaguered mayor who covered up a murder to keep his crown, but lost it all the same.
In the interview, Emanuel made comments that should have raised a red flag, given the Chicago police force’s record during his terms: In discussing gun control, he argued that “the only people who should speak about this in our party are those who are from the military or law enforcement.” This statement should have triggered questions about the credibility of Emanuel’s own police, who, between scandals, have frequently called for tougher gun laws despite evidence that such laws do not reduce crime. While Emanuel’s comments were generally incongruent with his own record, Hunt offered no pushback.
In a society where well-connected white men are often allowed to fail upward, Emanuel’s graduation from fallen mayor to political prognosticator seems entirely plausible. In October, Emanuel appeared on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” palling around with Chris Christie and joining the Republican governor in cautioning Democrats against launching too many investigations of President Trump. In recent discussions of the 2020 presidential election, Emanuel has been wheeled out as a knowledgeable voice by MSNBC, offering musings about the potential candidacy of Beto O’Rourke that were quickly retread by Esquire, Fox, The Hill and other publications.
Ironically, Emanuel’s much-repeated take was, “If Beto O’Rourke wants to go and run for president, God bless him, he should put his hat in and make his case. But, he lost. You don’t usually promote a loser to the top of party.” This commentary stands in stark contrast to how Emanuel himself has been treated by the press as he attempts to pivot from his tragic failures as a mayor to a role in which he would attempt to dictate what Democrats must do in order to succeed. In his case, Emanuel seems to think it appropriate to elevate “a loser,” whose tenure as mayor was disastrous for Chicago, to a role where his voice could affect the direction of the party during one of the most consequential presidential elections in the history of the United States.
Rahm Emanuel’s brother, Ari Emanuel, served as the inspiration for the lead character of HBO’s “Entourage.” In recent months, the talent agency Ari heads up, William Morris Endeavor, has represented Rahm, securing him meetings with cable news executives and garnering the outgoing mayor a book deal. In December, Emanuel appeared on David Axelrod’s TV show, “The Axe Files,” in an interview that felt more like an extended audition tape for a cable news gig. During that interview, Rahm invoked a familiar excuse for the violence Chicago endured under his watch, saying gun violence in Chicago was largely the product of “too many guns, too little values.”
In the end, that’s always been Rahm’s version of the story: He didn’t fail Chicago, Chicago failed him. But those who live here know better.
At a time when authoritarianism threatens to tear apart the social and political fabric of the United States, the idea of elevating the voice of a disgraced ex-mayor who was implicated in the cover-up of a murder committed by his police, a man who pioneered the use of drones to surveil protesters in his city, is wholly unacceptable. Emanuel, who is a symbol of the very failings Democrats must overcome to build trust and credibility with the public, should be disqualified from playing any role in setting the Democratic Party’s political tone in the run-up to 2020. This is especially urgent given that a white supremacist currently occupies the White House.
Despite the protestations of establishment politicians, the best momentum against Trumpism has come in the form of highly progressive politics, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s push for a Green New Deal — an environmental and economic initiative that has gained the approval of 92 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans. Making a neoliberal voice like Emanuel’s central to Democratic messaging at this juncture could prove disastrous for the party.