Profs reflect on former student, now Chief of Staff

Nathalie Tadena

School of Communication professor David Zarefsky acknowledged the word “ruthless” has been used to describe his former student Rahm Emanuel.

It’s probably a good thing, Zarefsky said.

“I think it can be applied to him in a positive sense because he’s just very determined to achieve his goals,” he said.

Chicago Congressman and Northwestern alumnus Rahm Emanuel recently accepted an offer from president-elect Barack Obama to serve as his White House chief of staff. Emanuel, who received a master’s degree in speech and communication from NU in 1985, served as a top adviser to President Bill Clinton prior to running for congressional office.

In a 2001 interview with The Daily, Emanuel said his studies at NU helped his career.

“It gave me a sense of critical thinking,” Emanuel said. “I worked on speeches, I worked on communications strategy. But I also worked on policy.”

Emanuel’s academic interests in rhetorical analysis and persuasion makes him well-suited for his new role as chief of staff, said communication studies professor Irving Rein.

“Rahm’s always been good at analyzing situations, looking at all of the possibilities and coming up with the best argument,” said Rein, who knew Emanuel when he was a graduate student. “He’s also very persuasive in helping others realize the best choice. All this information goes to the chief of staff who presents it to the president and the Cabinet and they work through that kind of situation.”

Zarefsky said he was not surprised Obama chose Emanuel for the position.

“He’s the perfect person for the job,” he said. “He’s a very driven person who is really dedicated to doing whatever it takes to achieve his goals.”

Upon graduating from NU, Emanuel became the national campaign director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He then went on to work for Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s campaign and eventually earned the title of senior adviser for policy and strategy under President Clinton. In 2001, Emanuel ran successfully for the congressional seat in Chicago’s 5th District, succeeding another NU alumnus, current Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

After leaving the Clinton administration, Emanuel returned to NU as a guest professor for Spring Quarter 2000. His course, the Presidency and the Press, was designed around Emanuel’s experience in politics and speechwriting, said Zarefsky, dean of the School of Communication at the time.

Only six of the 27 students enrolled filled out CTECs, but all six of those reviews were positive, especially praising the guest speakers. One called Emanuel a “laid back person.”

Emanuel has come back to NU a handful of times, including to speak at the School of Communication’s commencement.

“When you see someone come into the program and are able to use what they’ve taught and be able to see the former student use that in a real world situation in a very public way, it’s very gratifying to us as a faculty,” Rein said.

[email protected]