WASHINGTON--White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel shared two painful episodes of his life during his Sunday commencement address to graduates of George Washington University.
Emanuel picked up an honorary doctorate at the ceremony. "Doctor," said Emanuel. "I just want you to know that you've made one Jewish mother happy in Chicago, who spent many a sleepless night wondering what would happen to her middle son."
The stories Emanuel told--how he sliced off half of one of his fingers--and getting fired from the Clinton White House as political director--are often related in Emanuel profiles. What's interesting in recounting is that Emanuel is talking about his personal traumas in his own words.
"As the President's Chief of Staff, I am humbled, a quality that does not come naturally, and amazed by the incredible array of problems that President Obama confronts on a daily basis, a day that will be filled with hard choices about our policies with regard to struggling automakers and unstable financial markets, rising health care costs, growing dependence on foreign oil, dangerous regions in the world, and a difficult job market here at home," Emanuel told the Class of 2009.
EMANUEL LIFE LESSON ONE: THE FINGER
At age 17, working at an Arby's roast beef joint, Emanuel accidently sliced off the top portion of his middle finger. Emanuel made this joke on himself at the April 2007 Gridiron dinner. "Of all the fingers to lose! I could not express myself for months. I had to learn to talk with my left hand."
EMANUEL TO GRADUATES: "I want to start with a lesson that I learned the hard way. When I was in high school I was a pretty reckless guy. Let's just say I wasn't the staid and somber figure that stands before you now. I had lost -- I was working as a meatcutter and sliced my finger deeply and not being -- being 17, went swimming in Lake Michigan, ended up -- it was prom night; that's a legitimate thing to do -- ended up with five blood infections, two bone infections, gangrene, and a 105 fever, and in a hospital for two months, and for the first 96 hours I battled between life and death.
"But what started as a minor mishap turned into a life-threatening infection. There were several weeks in the hospital, sleepness nights in the intensive care unit, five roommates who died. It was a terrible time for me and worse for my parents. But to be honest, I'm glad I went through it, because a funny thing happened along the way back from the precipe: Nearly losing my life made me want to live my life.
"So the first lesson I'd impart is this: Don't be reckless with what you've been given. Take what you do and how you live your life seriously. It is that seriousness of purpose that I learned in that hospital bed for eight weeks, and I'm grateful for that lesson every day of my life, the things that didn't matter so much any more, the little things. And I knew I wanted to make something of myself and make a difference in this world.
EMANUEL LIFE LESSON TWO: THE FIRING
In June, 1993, Emanuel was dumped as the Clinton White House political director, his abrasiveness a reason for his downfall. Emanuel, who went to work for the Bill Clinton campaign as a fund-raiser found his sudden fall humiliating after his fast rise. At the time, Emanuel wanted the spin on the story to be that he was being merely transferred to the communications team to beef up its rapid response operation. Emanuel offered a far more candid story on Sunday.
EMANUEL TO GRADUATES: "The second lesson I want to share with you is about learning from your failures. I've been fortunate to have found success in my life and I know most of you will be successful as well, because you have the love of your parents and a college education from a great university. But that success will depend on what you do when you fail, because you will fail along the way. We all do.
"1992 was a good year, as the President noted. I joined Bill Clinton's long-shot presidential race as finance director. He was talking about hope, he wasn't from Washington, and no one thought he could win. It sounded so familiar. We raised a lot of money that helped us spread our message and win a great victory. Soon afterward, I was named political director in the White House. I was on top of the world, and in a pretty good job for someone just several years out of college.
"But the truth is, it may have gone to my head a little bit, and I think you can strike the word "may." I probably shot off my mouth a few too many times and I problem picked up a few too many fights, and before I knew it my dream job was hanging by a threat. I was demoted. It felt terrible, and here I was, thinking that I had messed up the biggest opportunity of my life.
"But I didn't give up. I didn't quit. I dug in and I dug deep. I refused to leave. But I did try to act with a little less bravado and a lot more humility. I threw myself into the efforts to pass the assault weapon ban, NAFTA, welfare reform, the crime bill, and while doing my best to prove that I could work well with others. And by the way, that's a work in progress sometimes.
"But that's the second lesson in life: Learn humility and wisdom when you stumble, because it will help you when you succeed. Being forced to come back from that failure is why I'm standing here today. You will have failures in your life, but it is what you do during those valleys that will determine the heights of your peaks."