Rahm Emanuel's Selective Memory

Rahm Emanuel's Selective Memory
Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP
Rahm Emanuel's Selective Memory
Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP
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Mark Twain never knew Rahm Emanuel, but he would have recognized in him a type – one worth heckling. I speak not of Twain’s observation that even the most moral man who enters the White House, as Rahm did as a young man, “comes out again with a pock-marked soul.”

Nor am I thinking that Twain specifically had Emanuel, a three-term congressman, in mind when he wrote that Congress was the only “distinctly native American criminal class.”

No, the Mark Twain line that applies to the man who’d been mayor of Chicago until this week applies to most human beings, a species not as self-reflective as it fancies itself to be.  “We do not deal much in fact,” Twain noted, “when we are contemplating ourselves.”

And so it is for Rahm Emanuel, the newly minted contributing editor to The Atlantic. It’s not that his maiden voyage as a columnist doesn’t deal much in fact as much as it airbrushes the author’s own long and eventful career out of existence.

He starts by railing against the damage done to the middle class by the “privilege-hoarding” elite:   “Think of what’s happened over the past decade and a half,” he writes. “America endured a war sold on false premises, a bailout of bankers issuing entirely toxic debt, and a massive public effort to prop up auto executives who were building cars that weren’t selling.”

He’s on a roll now, so let’s let Emanuel continue:

“Is it any wonder so many middle-class taxpayers resent the elites? The middle class has been forced to bail them out from their own mistakes time and time again — and yet the beneficiaries of that goodwill haven’t apologized, let alone taken responsibility. America’s middle class is Cinderella, and the nation’s elites are her evil stepsisters — only now it’s the stepsisters who get to marry the prince. It’s infuriating.”

It’s a smart diagnosis (disproving Twain’s observation that all congressman are “idiots”), but let’s take a closer look at Rahm’s litany of elites behaving badly — and also at the role he played in each of those examples.

He begins with the Iraq War, writing:

“After 9/11, the Washington elite claimed that the country needed to neutralize Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Congress and the media largely went along for the ride. But $1 trillion and 5,000 lives and 16 years later, the public has been told that those WMDs had not existed after all. Yet as clear as that became, no one ever took it on the chin. No one from the Bush administration ever took responsibility. Middle-class families paid in both blood and treasure, but the people who had made the worst foreign-policy decision in U.S. history never owned their failure.”

True enough. What Emanuel fails to mention is that, while running for Congress in 2002, he said repeatedly he would have voted for the invasion. That vote took place in October 2002; Emanuel wasn’t sworn in as a congressman until January 2003, two months before President Bush ordered the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In a January 2005 interview on “Meet the Press,” Emanuel reiterated he still would have voted for the Iraq War even knowing there were no WMDs:

RUSSERT:  You voted -- you said you would have voted for the war if you had been in Congress.

EMANUEL:  Right.

RUSSERT:  Now, knowing that are no weapons of mass destruction, would you still have cast that vote?

EMANUEL:  Yes.  Well, you could have done -- well, as you know, I didn't vote for it.  I still believe that getting rid of Saddam Hussein was the right thing to do, OK?  But how you go about it and how you execute that war is the problem we face today. 

Next on Emanuel’s list of grievances against the powers that be is the Great Recession. He writes that “the nation’s banking elite had lent billions to home buyers without a realistic hope of making good on their debts. Their irresponsible lending not only precipitated a global financial meltdown, but also necessitated a bailout from the nation’s financially stressed middle-class taxpayers.”

As before, Emanuel’s analysis is correct – although once again he’s left out an important piece of the story. The Great Recession was not solely caused by Wall Street bankers behaving badly, it was also precipitated by the irresponsible policies of government-backed entities Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, both of which were put in receivership in 2008 after the mortgage crisis exploded the U.S. economy. Anyone want to hazard a guess who earned $320,000 during a 14-month stint on the Board of Directors of Freddie Mac from 2000 to 2001 (also a period when the organization was rocked by scandal for understating its earnings by $5 billion in an effort to appeal to Wall Street)?

Finally, Emanuel cites the auto bailout as an example of the elites sticking it to the middle class:

"And it was the same story arc with the auto bailout. For decades, executives in Detroit had made indefensible decisions. They’d been selling less reliable cars. They’d never found a way to compete effectively with their foreign competition. They’d continually lost market share. But when the bottom fell out and they were forced to ask middle-class taxpayers for a bailout, they never took responsibility. Most of the top brass kept their jobs. And once they’d recovered, they returned to business as usual. The middle class was once again expected to foot the bailout while the execs kept on like it had never happened."

When he was sworn in as president, Barack Obama inherited a bailout plan initially approved by President George W. Bush in December 2008. But it was Obama and his  chief of staff – Rahm Emanuel – who shaped and executed the terms of the bailout, which allowed those very executives to keep their jobs and pretend like it never happened.

The most brazen claim Emanuel makes in the article is that the elite “aren’t asked to play by the same set of rules. The elite get all the breaks and are shown all the shortcuts. In the meantime, ordinary people are forced to pay full freight.”

The man who wrote these words feathered his nest with $18 million for 30 months’ work at a private equity firm after leaving the Clinton White House. He’s the same man who promised transparency as mayor of Chicago but fought against open-records requests and lawsuits, eventually releasing a trove of emails that, according to the Better Government Association of Illinois, “show a mayor who gave special access to those with political power and influence as well as imagemakers including select journalists.”

He’s also the man who decided that the rules he would play by involved suppressing a video of Chicago police officers shooting a black teen 16 times, killing him in the street, because he didn’t want it to be an impediment to his re-election.

You almost have to admire the audacity of Rahm’s hypocrisy: He’s been a card-carrying member of the political, cultural, and economic elite in America his entire adult life, and is now lecturing his fellow Democrats for not holding people like himself accountable for their rule-bending, ethical shortcuts and generally bad behavior.

It was Abe Lincoln, and not Mark Twain, who liked to tell the story of the young man who, after killing his parents, sought the mercy of the court on the grounds of being an orphan. Twentieth century wags would cite this apocryphal scenario as the very the definition of “chutzpah.” Sound familiar, Rahm?

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and president of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of "Election 2012: A Time for Choosing." Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com, Twitter: @TomBevanRCP

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