As Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rahm Emanuel traded friendly banter before an audience at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park on Wednesday, the stage represented a mutual comfort zone for two veteran politicians looking for support.
For Clinton, the former secretary of state, senator and first lady, it was support for the sales of her latest memoir, “Hard Choices,” as well as a potential bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination — a post denied her in 2008 by then-home-state U.S. Sen. Barack Obama.
For Emanuel, the former senior adviser in Clinton’s husband’s White House, former congressman and former chief of staff for President Obama, the support was more immediate. The first-term mayor, soon to formally begin a 2015 re-election bid, finds his stewardship questioned for his approach on schools, crime, pensions and taxes.
At times, the special Chicago Ideas Week interview Emanuel conducted on stage with Clinton resembled a new mini-version of the play “Love Letters.”
Asked by Emanuel about a sense of governing amid an “anti-establishment” angst among voters, Clinton responded, “You’re absolutely right, Rahm.”
Emanuel couldn’t let the compliment go without a quip. “I don’t get that at home, ‘You’re absolutely right.’ So, we’re going to re-do this again. Usually, it’s the other way around. Trust me,” the mayor joked.
“Well, that probably is true,” Clinton retorted as the crowd laughed.
The two were not always on such friendly terms. In Bill Clinton’s White House, she was credited with helping to get Emanuel demoted because his brash, aggressive style upset some.
Indeed, in one exchange on stage, Clinton acknowledged that in 1995 “people were worried in the White House, the State Department and elsewhere that if I called out China” on women’s rights during an international trip it would damage U.S.-China relations.
Emanuel interjected, “That would be a senior adviser in the White House.”
“Yeah, senior adviser, anonymous source,” Clinton responded with a laugh, a reference to Emanuel making his displeasure known in the press at the time. “‘Oh my God, there she goes again,’” Clinton continued. “‘Can’t you control your wife, Mr. President?’”
Emanuel then jokingly responded with what he apparently said to President Clinton at the time: “‘Nobody wants to talk to her. Can you talk to her please?’”
But the reminiscing over the confrontational times of 20 years ago was a brief afterthought as Clinton, who was born in Chicago and raised in Park Ridge, closed out her two-day hometown book launch.
“This stage is usually graced by the elegance of ballet dancers and I would say it’s never been graced like this moment,” Emanuel, a former ballet dancer, told Clinton after the two had high-fived each other.
In his final question to Clinton on education reform, Emanuel managed to tout one of his own accomplishments. “This Friday will be the first year in the city of Chicago where every child in every neighborhood will get universal kindergarten for the first time, a full seven and a half hours,” he said.
Clinton used the mayor’s opening to compliment him. “First, let me congratulate you and Chicago on getting to full day kindergarten for every child in the city.” Clinton then said that Emanuel’s position that a better education must start in the home “should be trumpeted from the top of the Sears Tower.”
Her comment drew a loud cheer, but it was unclear whether it was because she credited Emanuel’s accomplishment or because she referred to “Sears Tower” instead of “Willis Tower.”
In introducing Clinton, Emanuel also managed to compliment himself in an unusual way. He compared his style to his predecessor, former Mayor Richard Daley, whose policies Emanuel has sought to distance himself from in several areas.
“I knew Hillary in the Clinton White House back in the ‘90s. Back then, we had an unbelievably charismatic president, a partisan Republican Congress, a hard-nosed mayor from the city of Chicago,” Emanuel said. “It’s like Groundhog Day around here. Nothing’s changed in 20 years.”
Emanuel, who has endorsed a Clinton presidential bid if she seeks the office in 2016, questioned her choice of words to ABC News this week as she defended the Clintons’ practice of making paid appearances. She receives up to $200,000 for a speech.
“Hillary, dead broke. Really?” Emanuel asked skeptically of her explanation that legal fees left the Clinton’s with a large multi-million dollar debt upon leaving the White House.
“That may have not been the most artful way of saying that Bill and I have gone through a lot of phases in our lives,” Clinton acknowledged. “We’ve been blessed and have gone through ups and downs like a lot of people.”
Clinton repeatedly praised Emanuel, crediting his work as Obama’s chief of staff. Emanuel “helped keep everybody moving in the same direction because we had more work than you say grace over,” Clinton said.
“I go back a long way with the mayor. I truly am grateful for his friendship for now more than 20 years,” she said. “He is his own form of an energy source. I’ve often thought if there were ever a blackout in Chicago, have Rahm hold some kind of cable and Chicago would electrify again.”
And Emanuel responded in kind.
“The truth is, Hillary may have left Chicago for Arkansas, and Arkansas for Washington D.C. and the White House, then the White House for United States Senate, and then United States Senate for the world stage, but she is still and will forever be a Chicagoan at heart. And every time she returns to our city, our heart fills with pride,” the mayor said.