WHEN I was a senior at Sarah Lawrence College in 1978, I kept hearing things about this new kid named Rahm Emanuel. People were talking about him as some sort of big man on campus.
I met him just once, during a late-night bull session about politics at the Pub, a campus student center. The drinking age back then was eighteen, and the Pub served beer, so it was probably a beer-fueled bull session.
We had a gifted group of students at the time and the conversations tended to be pretty interesting. Among the people I was pallin’ around with were Ira Kaplan, who went on to found the rock band Yo La Tengo; Mark Kozlowski, who became a constitutional law scholar and the author of The Myth of the Imperial Judiciary: Why the Right is Wrong about the Courts; and Jo-Ann Mort, who writes regularly for Josh Marshall’s TPM Café and is co-author of Our Hearts Invented a Place, a book on kibbutzim in today’s Israel.
I can remember parts of the conversation that took place that night. We were talking about politics and political theory. Somebody began to talk about Marx, and Emanuel, who I believe was taking a course in classic liberal theory (Hobbes, Locke, and company), started asking questions.
This is the reason I remember the evening: because of this very bright kid with an intense intellectual curiosity. As one of our resident twenty-year-old socialism experts talked about the democratic current within Marxism—the idea that socialism could bring about a more democratic society, a society in which democracy was extended from the political to the economic realm—Emanuel continued to ask questions. There was something striking about him: he was obviously very sure of himself, but he was uninterested in throwing his ego around. He wanted to hear what other people had to say; he wanted to learn.
I should make it plain that I don’t think this anecdote says anything about the man Emanuel is now or about what kind of chief of staff he’ll be. But when I read about him—when I read articles, pro and con, about what his selection is likely to mean for Obama’s White House—I keep remembering that night. I keep remembering what a strong impression I received of the kid who was confident enough to ask questions.
Brian Morton‘s novels include Starting Out in the Evening and Breakable You. Homepage and feature photo: Rahm Emanuel holding a press conference as a U.S. Representative (House of Representatives / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain).