In a compelling new profile of Father Michael Pfleger by New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos, the most intriguing and telling tidbits are actually about Mayor Rahm Emanuel. (It’s no wonder that Emanuel’s most fervid critic, the Reader’s own Ben Joravsky, advised Osnos as he was reporting the piece.)
Not far into the story, Pfleger recalls confronting Emanuel about the controversy surrounding the death of Laquan McDonald—particularly accusations that the mayor, fearing for his re-election campaign, helped suppress the dash-cam video that showed officer Jason Van Dyke shooting the teen 16 times. As the priest tells it, Emanuel practically got down on his knees to plead his case:
“He told me to my face, ‘Mike, I did nothing illegal. I swear to God. Nothing, Mike.’ ‘It’s O.K., I believe that,’ I said.” Emanuel has maintained that he was following City Hall procedure by keeping the video a secret, but Pfleger considers that to be a failing. “I said, ‘You knew the process was fucked up, so you hid behind the process.’ ”
Later in the piece, during a sit-down with the mayor, Osnos asks Emanuel about how his administration has been monitoring the political fallout of the McDonald case and widespread misconduct in the Chicago Police Department. Osnos’s question provokes the return of what Chicago has come to think of as the Real Rahm: the feisty, profane Emanuel who, during the past five years, has been conspicuously absent from public view—or perhaps has been barely obscured under a V-neck sweater.
During our interview, I asked if he was conducting any internal polling about the crisis. He said no, adding, “Now you know that all the assumptions you have about me are fucking wrong.”
There are quite a few notable Emanuel-related moments in Osnos’s story:
- Pfleger trades text messages with Emanuel on a regular basis. But Osnos writes that the priest is “torn between wanting to be close to Emanuel, in order to exploit his vulnerability, and needing to be seen as a critic. . . Rather than call for Emanuel’s resignation, Pfleger is asking for something that he regards as more precious: jobs and development projects in African-American areas of Chicago.”
Emanuel views protests and calls for his resignation from black activists and community leaders in Chicago as merely “part of a national trend.” The mayor tells Osnos, “I found out from my colleagues: The mayor of Minneapolis was booed off the stage; she didn’t finish her speech. The mayor of Denver couldn’t get his M.L.K. event off the ground.” He continues, “I know the difference between people who are protesting on the issue and people who are relitigating the 2011 and 2015 election. And I’m not the only person getting protests across the country.”
Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle is asked about whether Emanuel has the public’s confidence in the wake of the McDonald video. “I don’t know,” she tells Osnos. “Whatever legacy he hopes to have as mayor will be impacted by how he addresses this issue.”
Osnos also writes insightfully on Emanuel’s crisis of character:
In the end, Emanuel’s prospects for recovery hinge partly on the ingredient that he may have the most trouble wrestling into submission: his own personality. Despite a long career in politics, most of his positions have been appointed, not elected, and as mayor he has struggled to convince voters that he is listening. When he took office, he muscled through one of his signature education goals—lengthening the school day—and distressed many public-school parents by closing fifty schools. But his steamroller treatment of opponents left him with a reputation for being high-handed and vengeful. Even five years later, people mention that Karen Lewis, the head of the Chicago Teachers Union, says that he told her, in the midst of a heated discussion over the longer school day, “Fuck you, Lewis.”
And yet, for the first time in memory, the problem with a Chicago mayor was not that he was too strong but that he was too weak. Would Emanuel be able to forge the political alliances that he will need in order to address the city’s systemic problems?
In all, Osnos devotes roughly a third of the profile to Rahm. Toward the end, he summarizes the relationship between the politician and the priest as fraught: “Emanuel needs Pfleger—now more than ever—but Pfleger may not be able to help him.”
Pfleger, meanwhile, said of his congregation’s view of Emanuel, “He would get booed if he walked in here now.”