Chicago — Rahm Emanuel has juked me again. I let him out of earshot for the first time all day — to debrief a young couple who’d just finished chatting with him between bites of scrambled egg at the Lincoln Restaurant, a greasy spoon with purple vinyl booths and an Honest Abe theme in Chicago’s North Central neighborhood — and, just like that, he was gone.
I have spent much of the last week trying to massage his press flacks, to acclimate them to the idea of a National Review reporter trailing their candidate and assure them that this isn’t to be a policy piece so much as a look at the circus surrounding his homecoming after two years in the White House. They are polite enough, but aloof, and seem to be perpetually trying to shake me.
So I bid goodbye to the couple, quickly track north in the direction I think I saw Team Rahm driving, and after a few minutes spot him greeting shoppers outside a supermarket. There is something ridiculous, if not a little endearing, about Mr. Dead Fish, the most fearsome man in the Obama White House, glad-handing old ladies with their bags full of high-fiber cereal and cantaloupe.
Of all those angling for the mayoralty in the city that’s pulled the lever for Daley for the better part of a half century, Emanuel is the most formidable operator and the best fundraiser by far, and yet in the nebulous but already crowded field, it’s not clear that he’s the favorite. Immigration activists are greeting him with protest signs. Aldermen are skeptical. Labor hasn’t forgotten his perceived betrayal on the public option or his “F – the UAW.” And the simple fact is that Rahm was out of town during the worst of the recession as Chicago’s budget shortfall widened and violent crime went up. So these supermarket flesh-pressers, these diner stop-and-chats that compose his “Tell It Like It Is” listening tour, are about grabbing front pages and getting his name back out in the wards, about reconfiguring himself as both a native son and a reformer — as both the logical successor of, and the antidote to, the Daley dynasty.
All politics is local, but that doesn’t make local politics any less tedious, a fact that doesn’t seem lost on Emanuel when he gets bumped by a derelict shopping cart, turns, and shoves it off just a little harder than necessary toward the collection area.
Rahm has hitherto avoided any acknowledgment of my existence, as if there were an NR-reporter-shaped hole in his space–time continuum. But when his eyes shift from the offending cart and he sees I’ve caught up with him again, he looks amused. As he walks past me, he gives me a punch on the shoulder — playful, begrudging.
“You can’t be having that much fun,” he says. I don’t say, Neither can you.
The flacks told me that once I was in Chicago I’d get evening alerts about where Emanuel would be campaigning the following day. Mysteriously, the e-mails never come. I nag early and often — I’m on the clock here. They say something about them “bouncing back” from my address. It must be a peculiarly selective glitch, since I’ve been having no problem getting the perfectly useless recaps they send out after each day’s events.
So on the Friday morning of Week One of Rahm’s homecoming, I find myself at a downtown coffee shop, trying to get some research done and waiting for a response to my umpteenth request for information. When I finally get word, I’m already too late for one appearance and have less than an hour to get to the next one, clear across town in Chicago’s western hinterlands. If I were any farther away, I’d be in Lake Michigan. Still, after a lengthy, expensive, and highly improvisational cab ride, I manage to beat him to the spot, pen and pad in hand, by a good five minutes.
The Home Run Inn, a pizza shop in North Lawndale — on the edge of the city near the border with Cicero, where Al Capone set up shop when Chicago got too hot — is a family joint. Dark brick walls, wood paneling, the homey smell of pepperoni grease, wall mirrors etched with Budweiser emblems, cola sloshing in big frosted plastic glasses.