From the May 2008 issue of Washingtonian
The joke among the Emanuel brothers is that Zeke, the eldest, is bringing the family down.
That would be Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, 50, chair of the department of bioethics at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center. Zeke is an oncologist with a master’s from Oxford, an MD from Harvard, a PhD in political philosophy from Harvard, and a 27-page CV that includes fellowships, professorships, books, and numerous awards and honors.
“Ari and I tell Zeke: ‘You haven’t done squat for the family,’ ” says Rahm, the middle brother.
That’s because Zeke hasn’t had a TV character based on him, as have Rahm Emanuel, the Illinois congressman and former Bill Clinton adviser who was said to be part inspiration for White House aide Josh Lyman on The West Wing, and Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel, the model for lovably trash-talking agent Ari Gold on HBO’s Entourage.
But part of being one of the hyperkinetic Emanuel brothers is being relentlessly competitive. So Zeke points out that the charge against him is not entirely true. The eldest brother notes that he was a participant in a British reality TV show during his Oxford days. “They loved to hate me there because I was the American on the team, the loud American.”
Loud, like his brothers. And impatient, intense, and successful. Three hard-driving superachievers in one family is kind of like having the Eiffel Tower, Washington Monument, and Statue of Liberty all in one town. People often ask their parents, Benjamin and Marsha Emanuel, what was in the water in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, where the family lived. Benjamin, an Israeli immigrant who still has a heavy accent, says there was no magic to their child rearing. He and his wife just paid a lot of attention to their kids.
“If you figure it out, let me know,” says Marsha, who at age 74 still works as a psychiatric social worker. “I honestly don’t know. I do know there was a lot of love and affection and treating them all like they were intelligent babies.”
The three brothers, less than four years apart, have risen to prominence in three different fields—medicine, politics, Hollywood. But it’s hard not to notice similarities: the wiry frame and dark hair (in varying degrees of volume and gray), the big personalities, the headstrong nature that lands each of them in the headlines and with their share of enemies.
Rahm, 48, is the best known—at least on the East Coast. Now the fourth-highest-ranking Democrat in the House, the three-term congressman gets much of the credit for his party’s success in the 2006 elections, when he raised lots of cash—sometimes by threatening candidates and browbeating colleagues—as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Appointed to that post in 2005, he rattled House Republicans who recognized that for the first time in a while “there was a killer at the helm of the Democratic Party,” says Rahm biographer Naftali Bendavid. “He really, really, really wants to win—whatever it is—and he’ll go to extraordinary lengths to do it.”
The stories of his ruthlessness, honed in the rough world of Chicago politics, are legendary: sending a dead fish to an associate with whom he’d had a falling-out; plunging a steak knife into a restaurant table as he denounced political adversaries; flashing his right middle finger, especially disarming because the finger was severed by a meat slicer when Rahm was a high-school student working at an Arby’s.
Rahm, who was President Clinton’s political director and an original member of the 1992 Little Rock “war room,” admits he’s driven in part by a fear of failure. “You’d bring shame to the family,” he says, only partly joking, in his Capitol hideaway office that’s filled with family photos. “I always tell the staff failure is not an option. You never give in, and you never give up.”
Zeke, who commutes to Washington from his home in Chicago every week, says that his staff jokes that it’s a good thing he’s in the office just three days a week. A pioneer in the field of end-of-life care who’s been an NIH chief for the past decade, Zeke has been a passionate voice for healthcare reform. He’s been so outspoken that he’s had to issue caveats making clear that he speaks for himself only and not as a government official.
“We don’t accept the current circumstances as somehow given,” Zeke says of the brothers. “We’re always challenging. We want to know, ‘Can it be better? Let’s make it better.’ It often comes across as we don’t respect authority a lot.”
Ariel, or Ari, the youngest at 47, has held up his end. He broke off from International Creative Management to start the Endeavor Agency in Beverly Hills and has turned it into one of Hollywood’s most successful talent agencies. Ari’s clients include Larry David, Aaron Sorkin, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Martin Scorsese. He called on Hollywood to blacklist Mel Gibson after the actor’s drunken, anti-Semitic tirade in 2006. He denounced Disney chief Michael Eisner after the mogul tried to prevent distribution of Fahrenheit 9/11, made by Ari’s client Michael Moore.
“It’s not what you’re supposed to do as an agent,” says Rahm, suggesting that his brother has more soul than the TV character based on him.
In the family room of the middle-class suburban home where the boys grew up and where their parents still live is a wall of black-and-white photos of relatives, most of whom never made it to America. One of the photos is of their father’s brother, Emanuel, who was killed in the 1936 Arab insurrection in Palestine. Benjamin’s parents changed the family’s last name from Auerbach to Emanuel in their son’s honor. In the middle of the wall, in a frame, is a crocheted money belt that the boys’ great-grandmother wore when she emigrated from Russia.
“There’s nothing subtle in Jewish families,” Rahm says. “It was my parents’ way of reminding us of our fortune of being here, the sense that it’s a privilege and an honor to be in this country, and that that can’t be wasted.”
Rahm says his parents also gave their children two seemingly contradictory thoughts—“one is to always challenge authority; the other is to always respect it.”
Their father, a pediatrician who moved to the States from Israel in 1959, devoted himself to public-health matters in Chicago, helping to get lead paint removed from houses, treating poor immigrants for free. As a young doctor trying to build a practice, he quit the American Medical Association over its position on national healthcare. “Not exactly the brightest move in 1962 when you’re trying to raise three kids,” says Rahm.
Their mother was a civil-rights activist in the early 1960s. She ran the north-side branch office of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, and occasionally, if she didn’t expect violence, took the boys to civil-rights marches with her.
“Early on, she wasn’t present in our lives,” says Rahm. “She was in jail.”
There was always extended family living with them—“nerve-racking for me but extremely helpful for the children,” says their mother. It was a loud household where the parents encouraged reading and debate, held monthly meetings at which anyone could say anything, and gave each son 15 minutes of “only child” time each day.
The Emanuels taught the boys to swim by the time they were 18 months old, made them all take ballet lessons, and had no qualms about pulling them out of school for trips all over the world.
Rahm describes dinner-table conversations, which often included his large and opinionated grandfather, a six-foot-four meat cutter from Moldavia, as political free-for-alls. “You had to get ready for dinner conversations at our house,” the congressman says. “You didn’t just come down to dinner and say, ‘How was your day?’ You either came ready or you got shut out.”