Rahm Emanuel’s Cuban Vacation

Column: A mayor so bad he makes De Blasio look good

Rahm Emanuel
Rahm Emanuel / AP
January 1, 2016

No doubt you, too, spent the holidays relishing the humiliation of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the overrated and obnoxious Democratic Party hack who, finally, is teetering on the brink of political oblivion. How the former ballet dancer and Sarah Lawrence alumnus parlayed ambition and drive and the ability to scream like a lunatic into high office and a fortune of more than $10 million is one of the remarkable political stories of our time. "Emanuel has succeeded in almost every professional endeavor he has undertaken," Ryan Lizza wrote approvingly in 2009. Spoke too soon.

How bad is Rahm Emanuel? He makes Bill De Blasio look good. He was forced into an unprecedented runoff before winning a second term last spring. In early December his approval rating was 18 percent. Protestors, including Democratic powerbroker Al Sharpton, want him to resign for the city’s withholding of video in the case of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager killed by a police officer in 2014. Gang violence is pervasive. Municipal finances are a wreck.

Normally one might be inclined to sympathize, however faintly, with a city manager out of his depth and at the mercy of events. Not in this case. And I suspect my reluctance to commiserate is widely shared among the very large class of people in Chicago, in D.C., in Los Angeles, and in New York who have been at the receiving end of one of Emanuel’s tantrums, or had to put up with his B.S., or pretended to excuse his loutishness and misplaced self-confidence as a funny, even endearing, quirk of personality. Emanuel has been wise to limit his screaming of obscenities to "private" interactions with colleagues or employees, so that this revolting side of him is discussed typically in profiles, giving the reader the feeling of being an "insider" who understands what it means to say, "That’s just Rahm being Rahm."

Well, the shtick is up. What once seemed like a knack for identifying and occupying the political center has revealed itself as a self-serving tone-deafness that is both clueless and abrasive. Earlier this month, when Mike Allen of Politico offhandedly mentioned before a live audience that the Emanuel family would be traveling to Cuba for Christmas vacation, the mayor lashed out, sputtering, "Thanks for telling everybody what I’m going to do with my family. You just had a private conversation with me and now you’ve decided to make that public. I really don’t appreciate that," before demanding Allen call Mrs. Emanuel and apologize.

Leave aside the obvious question, which is how on Earth could Emanuel have thought that the location of his family vacation would remain private in the middle of controversy. Consider a second question, which is what did Emanuel fear in having the information disclosed? Is he ashamed of traveling to Cuba? And did it ever occur to Emanuel, Emanuel’s wife, the group of families the Emanuels regularly vacation with, or any member of Emanuel’s political and communications retinue that traveling to a Communist dictatorship while being accused of insufficient attention to civil rights was, you know, maybe a bad idea? Or were they too afraid of "Rahm being Rahm" to object?

I actually doubt that any of the well-meaning liberals surrounding Mayor Emanuel had second thoughts about a holiday jaunt to the despotism of Fidel and Raul Castro. What could be wrong, in their view, with a visit to a forbidden land newly opened to tourism by President Obama’s Cuban détente? City Hall told Lynn Sweet that the official purpose of the Emanuel vacation was "educational activities" and that the stay would be "jam packed" with "cultural and educational visits." Nothing more "educational," I suppose, than an examination of the geology and coastal ecosystem of Playa Larga.

Take a minute to picture Mayor Emanuel there, in guayabera shirt, board shorts, and Ray-Bans, cell phone balanced precariously on the arm of his beach chair, as he sips absentmindedly from a caipirinha, takes the occasional puff of a Partagas cigar Serie D, watches his children and their friends play in the surf, and listens to his golf buddies discuss the cover essays on growing economic inequality in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. Imagine them later in the day, during a "cultural visit" to the rooftop terrace of La Guarida that lasts hours and includes slices of lemon pie and several bottles of wine, as the party gazes at the Havana skyline and wistfully contemplates how this "authentic" city will be transformed, for the worse, when the Yanqui corporations arrive in force. An old waiter paid by the Cuban government entertains them with stories of the revolution. Emanuel nods his head solemnly.

A liberal who jumps at the chance to vacation in a slave state—and thinks it’s somehow adventurous or even brave to take your children to a place romanticized by left-wing utopians since it went Communist in 1959—is not only morally blinkered. He’s banal. He’s the sort of liberal for whom there is no difference between self-interest and the public interest—a trait Emanuel picked up from the Clintons. He rationalizes leaving the White House for an investment bank, using political connections to amass "$18 million in just two-and-a-half years," making six-figure fees from a board seat at Freddie Mac, and savaging anyone who dares question the priorities and self-righteousness and sanctimony of multimillionaires who "just want to make the world a better place." He joins the chorus in favor of criminal justice reform despite slow walking and obstructing an investigation into a police shooting for personal gain.

The situation in Chicago is so dire Emanuel cut short his vacation—the poor dear. The other day a small group of protesters gathered outside his home. He held a press conference where he announced changes in police tactics. But he is really just a worm on a hook at this point. He’s lost his mandate, his reputation, his press. And as he viciously chews out whichever naïf underling has wandered, doe-like, into his midst, you just know he pities himself and lamenting: I wouldn’t have this sort of problem in Cuba.

Published under: Rahm Emanuel