Rahm's Grad School Days at Northwestern

In Washington, D.C., Rahm Emanuel was known for BlackBerrying where no man had BlackBerried before: meeting with the president in the Oval Office, where most staffers turn in their phones at the door; and on the floor of the House of Representatives, where cellphones are banned.

At Northwestern in 1984–85, Rahm Emanuel was the guy who was always on the one public phone in the communication studies program’s old house at 1815 Chicago Avenue (now the Hardy House, home of the Northwestern University Debate Society).

“Whenever we had a break he would zing out, be the first one on the phone and monopolize the phone,” says fellow classmate Stephen O’Leary (GC87, 91), now an associate professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. “If you needed to make a phone call, you had to leave class early to get to the phone first.”

The incoming crop of grad students in ’84 was especially tight-knit. The 10 to 15 new students agreed to lunch together at the long picnic table in the kitchen and stuck to it, says Mark Pollock (GC89), now an associate professor of communication studies at Loyola University Chicago.  

“What I remember most is that (Emanuel) liked arguing as much as I did,” Pollock says, chuckling. “And he was somebody who, like me, saw arguing as something that was fun, intellectually stimulating, wasn’t personal. So we could argue for half an hour about politics and have a drink and be friends, which is something that I value.”

“Well, that may be the specificity of a Jewish immigrant background,” Emanuel says with a laugh when told about Pollock’s comments later. “Arguing does not mean you don’t like each other. It means you’re trying to win an argument. That’s all it means!”

Emanuel helped Pollock by suggesting he read The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt when Pollock was researching a dissertation topic. The book became the subject of Pollock’s thesis.

Emanuel also helped Tami Soto (GC87), introducing her to philanthropists Charles and Marjorie Benton (H83), who were looking for a graduate student to live at their house because they traveled so much.

Communication studies, says longtime faculty member Irving Rein, is “the whole notion of being able to understand the nature of discourse, the way it functions, the underlying strategy of the producer. The audience and the kinds of choices people make is essential in this program. It’s a real art form.”

In a program filled with PhD candidates on their way to academia, Emanuel stood out with two years of political experience under his belt.

Rein, who knew Emanuel even before he started the graduate program, thinks the mayor does particularly well with a key rhetorical concept from Aristotle, ethos (see “Rahm’s Rhetoric: The Power of Persuasion”). Ethos is “the audience’s perception of the communicator,” critical to establishing the speaker’s credibility, says Rein.

Emanuel’s ethos, says Rein, is “he’s a can-do guy. Can do, will do it. … If you look at the way he runs his office, despite the controversy about him, he seems to understand the nature of how to get to the basics with his constituency.”

“My ethos?” says Emanuel. “That’s great. OK. Well, I’m working on it, tell him. Every day I get up at two in the morning thinking about my ethos.” — Cate Plys

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