Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Amazing Emanuel Brothers

The Emanuel brothers: the nature and nurture of success

My study of Rahm Emanuel, "Hothead of State" appears in the July/August issue of Psychology Today. For reasons of space, some material was omitted, and so I am including on my blog some aspects I would have likes to have covered in more depth.

If anybody wanted to study a natural experiment in what makes success, they might consider studying the Emanuel brothers. It is exceedingly rare to find a family with three uber successful brothers, each of whom has reached the pinnacle of their respective fields. Rahm is Barack Obama's chief of staff. Ari is Hollywood's top talent agent and the inspiration for Ari Gold the "manic barracuda" agent in Entourage. And Zeke is a physician who advises the president on healthcare and may be on the short list for a Nobel Prize.

What interested me in the Emanuel brothers at first is that they all seem to have hypomanic temperaments, a mildly manic disposition that I have linked to success in my books, The Hypomanic Edge: the Link Between (a Little) Craziness and (a Lot of) Success in America and In Search of Bill Clinton: A Psychological Biography. I have found that super successful people often have energy, drive, confidence, creativity and charisma, as well as the restlessness, impatience, irritability and impulsivity that comes with being just a little bit manic as a stable trait.

The "hyperkinetic Emanuel brothers" have been overly active since birth. The family was forced to move from their second floor apartment because of the noise their commotion created. "We were the vilder chaiah of the block," Zeke said, using the Yiddish term for "wild animal." And they are still that way as adults. In her New York Times profile of the three brothers Elisabeth Bumiller wrote "They're all intense, pugnacious, and in perpetual motion," their inability to be still evidenced by the fact that "At one point, all three brothers, apparently unknowingly, are jiggling in unison;" And she noted, they all have a diminished need for sleep: "All three get up before dawn." In particular the brothers are known for their combativeness. We could call them the fighting Emanuel brothers. Since birth, these brothers have shared a high energy temperament that includes strong aggressive drives. When the three brothers discussed their relationship on the Charlie Rose show, Rahm said "We're all very aggressive," To which Ari replied, "The aggression is in our DNA."

However, what started as a simple case study in hypomania in a successful family became much more interesting as I progressed in my research. It was the interaction of nature and nurture that produced these three remarkable brothers. While it seems that they came from an unremarkable middle class Jewish family, something very remarkable happened. The parents were very supportive of their talents and interest-but that's not so unusual. Virtually every member of the Emanuel family tree is a rebel or revolutionary in the service of some cause-more so than most Jewish families, though this too is not uncommon. The Emanuel family was one where aggression was modeled and tolerated but integrated within loving relationships, as symbolized by the Emanuel family dinner table where debate was "gladiatorial," but in the spirit of a friendly "Talmudic debate." With an Israeli immigrant father, they all had the typical ambition of the immigrant family. But even together these factors would not predict the Emanuel brothers amazing success.

I began to think of Darwin's observations of the Galapagos Islands. Darwin noted that when a gene pool was isolated, weird mutations are more able to take hold because the new genes are not so easily diluted by the general gene pool. Evolutionists who study man's origins believe the modern human was born in a small isolated community of hominids in East Africa, whose very isolation allowed their helpful mutations to quickly become expressed by the entire small population.

The Emanuel family was similarly isolated. At first they lived in a lower middle class neighborhood where they were virtually the only Jewish family, and later in a suburb where they also stood out as different being the only ultra-liberals. They recall being the only children in their large high school who wore black armbands when Martin Luther King was killed. Their mother was a civil rights worker who took them to rallies and often got arrested.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Emanuel story is the unusually close relationship between the three brothers. They were stuck with each other, and left to their own devices, with little in the way of toys, "We occupied ourselves more with imagination than things," said Zeke. The small room they shared became "a fort, a pirate ship." The brothers spent most summers in Israel with no structured activities. "We just did things together: hung out at the beach, went fishing, played soccer." Only one of those summers were they enrolled in camp. They "pitched a fit" when assigned to different bunks and got their own room which became the "camp social club." "We were a unit." There was "a lot of competition, a lot of bloodshed, plenty of fights" between the brothers, said Zeke. But they have also had a deeper bond that has transcended and contained their aggression. Loving and competitive feeling were integrated in this tri-filial relationship.

While most gifted high energy kids must deal with the confusing feelings that come with being different, they had their own subculture, their own peer group. "Each Emanuel brother derives a large part of his identity from that of the others. No one else, it seemed, mattered as much," wrote Elisabeth Bumiller. Like the X-Men at the mutant academy, the brothers felt normal in one another's presence, and could be themselves with a vengeance.

The brothers have developed their own culture and even their own language. They still talk every day but it's not what most people would call a conversation-more like high speed shorthand with "no real verbs or adjectives or connecting words," according to Rahm.

One of Freud's great insights was that childhood relationships become templates for adult relationships. Rahm's capacity for good relationships with other hard driving alpha males and females is a major asset in Washington. The middle child, he knows all the fraternal positions.

Rahm knows how to be a good big brother: Though he pushes his teams relentlessly (Gotta shake ‘em up," he says) , according to Axelrod, most of his people "would walk through walls for him." Perhaps because they also know he cares about them. He is "amazingly sensitive to his staff's private concerns and family problems," said Sabato.

Rahm also knows how to be a good middle brother. He has maintained surprisingly close working relationships with his peers, the other senior political advisors from the Clinton Whitehouse, Paul Begala, James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. It was recently revealed that the four men have spoken on the phone almost every day since 1992. Like the three brothers, they use rapid clipped phrases, typically without hellos or goodbyes. "I refer to it as the 17-year-long conference call," Rahm said.

And finally, Rahm knows how to be a good little brother, which may explain the unusually intimate chemistry that has already developed between Obama and Emanuel, an asset which may have as big an effect on Emanuel's effectiveness in his new job as his ability to refrain from shouting or cursing. "In meetings, it is not uncommon for Mr. Obama and Mr. Emanuel to engage in teasing banter," wrote Leibovich. When Obama complained during a meeting that Emanuel's knuckle cracking was distracting him, Emanuel stood up and held "the offending knuckle" to Obama's ear and "like an annoying little brother, snapped off a few special cracks." It's not that he doesn't recognize Obama's dominance. "He still comes to attention when Obama enters the room," Leibovich told me. But like an annoying younger brother, he must playfully challenge his boss, which elicits in Obama the indulgent teasing attitude of an older brother. When Emanuel received a call from Steny Hoyer, Emanuel proclaimed he was too busy to talk, and handed the phone to the President sitting next to him in the limo. Obama jokingly said he was, "always happy to take calls for his chief of staff."

While some presidents might take offense at such irreverence, Obama, with his team-of-rivals approach, has shown a confident capacity to work with strong personalities. "Obama values truth telling and bluntness" and he "has a lot of loving-teasing relationships," Leibovich said. "The Emanuel dinner table represents his idealized cabinet meeting."