Now Playing

First Family

Zeke Emanuel reveals the secret to his family’s amazing success.

Zeke Emanuel at the Chicago Cultural Center

Zeke Emanuel at age 6 in 1963. Zeke and his brothers Rahm and Ari were raised in Uptown and Wilmette.

More than any other question, Zeke Emanuel says, he’s asked something along the lines of, “What did your mom put in the cereal?” That’s not too surprising: Born and raised in Uptown and Wilmette, the brothers Emanuel are arguably the most successful siblings in America. Zeke, the eldest, is a Harvard- and Oxford-trained M.D. and Ph.D., and served as a special advisor for health policy to President Obama. Besides being our mayor, middle son Rahm was, among other things, Obama’s chief of staff and a driving force behind Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. And the youngest Emanuel, Ari, is, as co-CEO of William Morris Endeavor, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. We spoke to Zeke about his new book, Brothers Emanuel: A Memoir of an American Family (Random House).

Why is the timing right to publish a memoir now? What compelled you to write it in the first place? There are two tracks. Track one is that I had started writing down stories for my kids. I had gotten to a certain age, and they had gotten to a certain age, where I wanted to make sure that they had all of the family stories and lore. Track two was, as the last chapter makes clear, we kept getting questions like ‘What did mom put in the cereal?’ To answer that question, you know, now you got a book.  

What’s the verdict from your family? I’m assuming they’ve all read it. I don’t know that they’ve all read it. Ha! My parents haven’t read it.

It was interesting how much fistfighting there was in the book. You guys really had to fight quite a bit growing up. That was a scrappier era. Ha, yes, I think that is certainly true. We were raised in a place where kids fighting was just much more common. You put it really well, ‘scrappier era.’ I think the other thing is that you see how hyperactive and wild we were, and yet how much more tolerant the system was. Like, now, they would have medicated us, other things. We were fortunate enough to have principals most of the way through school who appreciated that not only were we high-energy, but that the high energy wasn’t going anywhere. There were reasons we were doing things. We were protesting bad behavior, whether it was a teacher who wanted respect for no reason at all or a kid making fun of another kid. I don’t think that’s as common now. People disrupting the system are less tolerated. 

On that note, your family was involved in so many issues when you were growing up, from civil rights to protesting Vietnam. At the time, did you think that the victory of the civil rights movement was inevitable? No, absolutely not. When you’re called all sorts of bad names as a kid and when you look at the history—we’re big history readers—you think, ‘This is impossible.’

When you were writing and looked back at some of the things, like the anti-Semitism you experienced, did you feel any resentment? Like, ‘We shouldn’t have had to deal with that?’ No. That’s actually the first time I’ve ever thought of it in that context. Not at all. 

The issues that you guys addressed in the ’60s and ’70s were relatively cut and dry. Yes, that’s true of the ’60s. There did seem to be a right and a wrong that was a little easier than now. 

What are the issues today? Clearly health care is one of your passions. I think the whole issue of equality for gays and gay marriage. It’s quite obvious that it’s a generational thing. People who are 55, 65 and above, they’ll move on, and the younger generation accepts this as a matter of course. I think it’s quite clear it’s moving in that direction. 

Your parents still live in Wilmette. Does your mother, who was the big impetus of activism in the family, still love discussing the issues? We debate about these issues all the time!

There are many successful families, but could you have ever imagined growing up that you, Rahm and Ari would all be, essentially, at the very pinnacle of your chosen fields? No. And I make a point in the book that coming out of school we weren’t the kind of kids where people said, ‘The Emanuel boys are different.’ You know, ‘They were geniuses right away.’ I think of Sylvia Matthews [Burwell] from the Office of Management and Budget-—everyone says, ‘Obvious genius from the start.’ We weren’t those people. I wasn’t even No. 1 in my class; we just weren’t those kids. We were late bloomers and I think one of the reasons we succeeded was that it hasn’t been so easy, so we push, push, push and work hard, work hard, work hard. We weren’t naturally super talented out of the box. We made the most of our limited abilities.

So have your parents ever sat you all down and said, ‘Well, you guys did really good; we’re impressed!’ No. Not our parents. They don’t do that.

If a friend is having their first child and says, ‘Zeke, let me ask you some advice.’ The first thing I say is ‘Don’t try this at home.’ This is not a parenting manual. One of the things I point out [in the book] is that a lot of it is circumstance. You do have parents, who are important, but we were three kids growing up in the same bedroom. It was the times too, civil rights demonstrations and the Vietnam War. You don’t have that now. So I think a large part of it was the times. One message I would say that does come out in the book is that my parents were definitely pushy but they were not controlling. They weren’t helicopter parents. Someone said it’s the difference between being a Jewish nudje [a Yiddish term for a pest] and a tiger mom. She was definitely a Jewish nudje, not a tiger mom. That’s a very important distinction.

You addressed this seemingly boundless energy all three of you have. Has it ever been a challenge in any period of your life to keep the optimism up in terms of going out and trying to change things? Has it ever been tempting to say, ‘You know what; this is just a mess?’ No, that’s not our personalities. It is a mess. But we are also, importantly, not perfectionists in the sense that if we can’t have it our way we take our marbles and go home. We’re trying to improve things. Even if you can’t get the perfect result, making the world better is a positive thing.

How have you passed down those values to your three daughters? Clearly, with one a Rhodes Scholar and another at Yale, the academic traditions have been handed down. Yes, they’re pretty good students. And they’re also all committed to doing good in the world and social justice. They’re not into the making-money side of things. Two out of my three are pretty religious. Zero for three are doctors! My kids work hard; I think Ari’s kids are hardworking; nothing comes easy to them.

Your parents fostered a tradition of heated debates around the kitchen table. Have you kept that tradition alive in your own household? Oh yeah, my kids speak in paragraphs. You know, well-reasoned arguments. Less name-calling.

How often do you and Ari and Rahm all get together these days? Well, yesterday I ran the New York City half-marathon with Rahm’s eldest kid. Last week I saw Ari twice. We were in Montana together for our niece. And then I was in L.A. giving a speech for my nephew’s school. So quite frequently.  

Are you still competitive?
With each other? What, you think it ends?

Probably not.
We’ll be competitive until the first one is 6 feet under.