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Sign Language

As Rahm Emanuel’s campaign for mayor of Chicago heads toward victory, he’s sending different messages—not a Boss, gay-friendly, disciplined, even rabbinical—to different audiences

Rachel Shteir
February 16, 2011
Rahm Emanuel's signs and signals.(Clockwise from top left: Scott Olson/Getty Images; John Gress/Getty Images; Scott Olson/Getty Images; Chris Sweda-Pool/Getty Images)
Rahm Emanuel's signs and signals.(Clockwise from top left: Scott Olson/Getty Images; John Gress/Getty Images; Scott Olson/Getty Images; Chris Sweda-Pool/Getty Images)

The Chicago Code

There’s less than a week until the election that will give Chicago its first new mayor in 22 years, and Rahm Emanuel is sitting pretty, leading in the polls by 30 points. But the winner on February 22 needs to score at least 50 percent of the vote, plus 1 vote, to avoid a run-off and another two more months of the shrimp-cocktail circuit. So, there’s campaigning to be done

At a mayoral forum on Valentine’s Day, the moderator asked all the candidates if they thought the mayor of Chicago needed to be a Boss, a word that conjures up visions of Old Chicago. Emanuel has positioned himself during the campaign as an anti-Boss, visiting hip online startups. I have yet to accompany him to an event at a meat-packing plant or a slaughterhouse.

This week, he visited Threadless, a company that makes T-shirts, lunchboxes, thermoses, and iPad cases with rainbow and heart designs and sells them over the Internet. In the lobby, there was a red beanbag chair and two vintage airstream campers. Cool music blared from speakers. No child laborers or illegals here; this was a hip, multicultural work force. The male staffers were geeky emo hipsters, the kind that break your heart and then hold your hand to say they’re sorry. The girls were pretty with long hair, the kind who believe style means layering vintage aprons over skinny jeans.

Only one brief eruption between the campaign and the press at Threadless suggested the gritty Back of the Yards neighborhood more than The Social Network: The press area had been set up in the back of the room, and a few reporters surrounded a short campaign staffer—almost all the staffers I’ve met are short—to protest. “It’s not like we’re going to rush him,” one reporter said, looming over Rahm’s munchkin, who stood her ground. The disgruntled scribes took it upon themselves to pick up their chairs and move them closer to the podium. “We staged a coup,” one said.

But in the end, as in the case of so many attempted worker coups in the stockyards, management triumphed. Emanuel instead did his question-and-answer session in the lobby, answering questions about the Rahm Tax (will save working families $200) and his role in the Blagojevich trial (none) while standing between the beanbag chair and the air trailer. Doing things his way, without being the Boss.

The Un-Rabbinical Master of Nine-Fingered Sign Language

“If elected, Emanuel would become Chicago’s first Jewish mayor. That’s a potent lure for the city’s Jewish voters, usually a reliable liberal swing constituency,” lamented Laura Washington in In These Times, as if identity politics alone explained why Jews are not voting for so-called progressive candidates in this race.

Sorry, but the reason the progressives are not an alternative is that they are not an alternative. On Sunday, at a forum with Cornel West, one of them, Carol Moseley Braun—the first African American woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate—made a joke invoking Hitler and Emanuel in the same sentence. (She later apologized, and Emanuel accepted.) The other progressive, Miguel del Valle, is widely considered too nice to be elected in Chicago.

Among conservatives, the consensus is that Emanuel has become a sage of our fathers. The septuagenarian Joseph Epstein, a former Northwestern University lecturer, in the Weekly Standard cast Emanuel as Maimonides, describing the candidate’s recent tolerance as “positively rabbinical,” and at the same time claiming that his being elected will prove that Jews can produce a candidate as mediocre as that of any other group. A few days earlier, the New Republic’s John Judis, who, like Jonathan Alter of Newsweek and David Brooks of the New York Times, had parachuted in to Chicago for a day, described Rahm as an “aging rabbinical student.”

These guys may be savvy political commentators, but they are not fashion gurus. Emanuel is way better dressed than the other candidates, not to mention the rabbis and rabbinical students with whom I’m acquainted. I have not seen him once rotate what is apparently an enormous collection of beautiful silk ties. He prefers tasteful, expensive, well-cut suits to faded jeans.

And Rahm is un-rabbinical in another way. In debates and forums, he lacks magnetism. His diction, which is not crisp, is chopped up by long pauses every two or three words, especially when he is presenting an agenda. A mayor. Is a person. Who will. Lead. And lay a vision out. And listen.

When Emanuel recites these haikus, his face often settles into a mask, like a Noh actor. His ramrod-straight posture adds to the robotic effect, which is rarely softened by the naughty wit or charisma that peeps out in unscripted appearances. (He never gets tired of teasing reporters.) And although Rahm moves his hands more than any other candidate—listing his position points on his nine fingers is a favorite—these gestures just add to his human-hand-puppet-like quality.

At the Threadless event, Emanuel made a finger-steeple while talking about cutting enormous chunks out of the city budget. At another, similar event, he made a big globe and then a small one with his bowed fingers while he talked about “growing the economy.”

But it wasn’t until last Wednesday, when I saw Rahm twice—once at a mayoral debate sponsored by the historical black weekly, the Chicago Defender, and then on a webcast of Chicago’s first-ever mayoral forum sponsored by gay-rights groups that had occurred earlier that evening—that the full complexity of his hand gestures and body language hit me.

First, some background: There has been a lot of self-congratulatory talk in the media here about how this is the first post-racial mayoral campaign in Chicago. The two events I watched on Wednesday evening told a more complex story.

Because of the storm, the Defender debate was rescheduled to conflict with the gay-rights groups’ forum, to the ire of forum’s sponsors. Rahm’s people assured me that he would attend both events and that he would arrive on time at the Defender debate, which started at the DuSable Museum in Hyde Park at 6:30. When I got to the museum, which is located on the westernmost edge of that neighborhood, signs for Carol Moseley Braun and William “Dock” Walls, a fringe candidate whose main experience is that he worked for former mayor Harold Washington, were stuck in huge piles of snow . A crowd of schoolchildren was ramming themselves into the building.

Inside, it was freezing. There was chaos. There was also a lot of time to sit around and chit-chat. A man sitting in front of me who had pinned the buttons of all the candidates to his lapel and wanted to be identified as John Q. Public asked about Emanuel: How did he make so much money? He was talking about the $18 million Emanuel earned in two years as an investment banker. “I would like to make that money,” he said.

At 6:30, the debate started. At 6:41, Gery Chico, another candidate, attacked Emanuel in absentia for threatening to take away city workers’ pensions. At 6:47, Rahm ducked through the curtain onto the stage. He began robotically talking about education. People in the audience began to boo, and Marion Brooks, the moderator, had to tell them to keep it down.

Emanuel was seated next to Dock Walls, who is his opposite in demeanor as well as politics. While Dock swiveled his body around when he answered questions as though his torso were connected to his legs by a spring, Rahm sat motionless, staring forward when he spoke. In contrast to Rahm’s minimalist diction, Walls made the most of every word. Rahm swiveled and cocked his head to look at his rival while keeping his body facing forward. This gave him an air of incredulity, as if he could not believe he was sitting there.

This was the first time I had seen all the candidates together, and Emanuel was the only one sitting with his legs crossed, which gave him a feline air. He made many of his trademark gestures—the steeple, the beach ball. But he also fidgeted. He stroked his chin. He looked at his tie. He formed his fingers and thumb into the shape of a gun.

The most contentious question of the evening came from the audience: “Are you willing to support reparations for descendants of United States slaves?

Rahm agreed with the other candidates that reparations were desirable. “I think we have to be honest and frank with ourselves,” he said. “We have a budget deficit that needs to be addressed. … Not only is the city facing a budget deficit, our schools are.” As he said the word city, he moved his hand from the audience to himself in a circular gesture as if to say that he was the city, and he at one with the audience.

The audience, some of whom held “I Heart Carol” posters in their laps, did not buy it. They began to hiss, boo, and heckle Rahm.

Later, when Patricia Van Pelt Watkins, another fringe candidate, attacked Emanuel, saying “this country was built on our backs” and talking about “doing right by the black community,” Rahm put his fingers to his lips. (Photographers captured this moment.)

When I got home that night, I watched the gay-rights groups’ forum on the web, to compare. There were about 200 people in the room. Clad in black, Tracy Baim, the publisher of the Windy City Times, a gay weekly, sat in a chair near the podium and read the rules.

“You will find the audience expectations set forth in the program; you will find the ground rules. Please review the expectations as failure to follow any of these rules may result in your being asked to leave.” She paused. “By the way, I’m reading these, I did not write them.” There was laughter, then more rules.

Then she welcomed the first candidate, Rahm Eman-u-el, as she pronounced it.

Rahm, wearing a fetching red tie, sprang to the podium.

“Those are incredible rules,” he said. “I could’ve used those in the White House.”

“Well, we know you set some strong rules there,” Baim replied.

“I think that’s a violation of rule three,” Emanuel joked, to laughter. “But I’ll let that go. For an extra moment on the podium.” More laughter.

And then there were some softball questions about gay rights.

There Are No Children Here

The following evening, I drove to see Emanuel in a televised forum sponsored by Fox TV and the Chicago Urban League at Kennedy-King College, in the blighted Englewood neighborhood. New Yorkers often ask me what is it like to live in Chicago, and I try to tell the truth: I say that it is more segregated than any other American city I know. That it is more violent. That these things have had an effect on my life in ways I can’t even begin to talk about. The New Yorkers have probably read about it all, but they don’t hear me. What they say instead is that they really like Chicago and they wish that they lived here. At Kennedy-King, cops swarmed the building, acting as doormen, sitting in their squad cars, watching.

The forum was uneventful. It was also sparsely attended, maybe because it started at 9:30 p.m. Rahm was again positioned next to Dock Walls, but because they were both standing behind podiums, there was not a lot of telling hand gestures and body language to see.

The other candidates took tired swipes at Emanuel, who this week racked up endorsements from the African American community and the gay community. The master of nine-fingered sign language took the high road.

After the forum, the reporters waited for Rahm to appear to for questions. But, we were told, he had left the building. He was probably on the highway in his black SUV, speeding out of that isolated and lonely TV studio in the ghetto into his ideal of the city, which probably does not and will not exist, no matter who is mayor. Chicago has a past: the city that works and the city with big shoulders. It is not clear what kind of future it will have, whether under Mayor Rahm or anyone else.

Next week: This is the other candidates’ last chance to make a dent and force a runoff; Emanuel either has 49 percent of the vote or 54 percent of the vote, depending on which poll you believe. Perhaps putting some blind faith in the number 50—the percentage of the vote he’ll need to win outright—Rahm has started a tour of 50 wards in 50 hours. Will it put him over the top?

Rachel Shteir, a professor at the Theatre School of DePaul University, is the author of three books, including, most recently, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting. She is working on a biography of Betty Friedan for Yale Jewish Lives.

Rachel Shteir, a professor at the Theatre School of DePaul University, is the author of three books, including, most recently, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting. She is working on a biography of Betty Friedan for Yale Jewish Lives.