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One-on-one with Rahm Emanuel

Aired April 28, 2012 - 21:00   ET


PIERS MORGAN, CNN HOST: Tonight the one man who knows President Obama better than just about anybody else.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Rahm has exceeded all of my expectations.

MORGAN: Rahm Emanuel, on President Obama, Mitt Romney, and the battle for the White House.

RAHM EMANUEL, MAYOR OF CHICAGO: If it was up to Mitt Romney, we wouldn't have an auto industry. He said let them go.

MORGAN: The Democrats' tough-talking champion and bare-knuckle politics, his bold plan for keeping America great, and his new battle for world peace.

EMANUEL: I wanted the kids to have this opportunity to speak and learn from people who stood up and made a difference.


Good evening. I'm in Chicago where Nobel Peace Prize winners from around the world are gathering. Everyone from Jimmy Carter to Mikhail Gorbachev to the Dalai Lama who I'll be talking to later in the week. They're all here to promote global peace and how one person can make a difference.

But our big story tonight, our primetime exclusive with Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel, better known for his take-no-prisoners style. As President Obama's former White House chief of staff.

Tonight he's talking about his bold plan to keep America great starting with his hometown of Chicago.

And an exclusive interview later with Sean Penn. He's being honored here by the Peace Prize winners for his commitment to human rights. Listen to what he says about that.


PENN: I've got a better grasp of the -- of what my mission is in Haiti and so that I'll be able to take the things that I've been affected by there and perhaps they'll fit somehow into the work I do elsewhere.

(END VIDEO CLIP) MORGAN: Our big story tonight. Rahm Emanuel. We're here at Von Steuben High School, one of several Chicago schools where Mayor Emanuel has brought Nobel Peace Prize winners to speak with students. He joins me now for a primetime exclusive.

Mr. Mayor, welcome.

EMANUEL: Thank you.

MORGAN: Or rather, thank you for welcoming me.


MORGAN: Are you aware of the history of this school? Baron Von Steuben?

EMANUEL: Are you aware of the history?

MORGAN: Well, I'm aware that he was George Washington's ruthless chief of staff --



MORGAN: And therefore personally responsible for annihilating a lot of Brits.

EMANUEL: Von Steuben did, actually was in the Army, as you know. He was also on -- I mean Hamilton has a view of whether he was not, in fact, Washington's chief of staff. Obviously the history you're missing is my mother graduated from here.

MORGAN: Really?

EMANUEL: Yes. So there's more than just the history the -- of the name of the school. And if I didn't mention that, it'd be a long year for me.


MORGAN: You were born in Chicago. You went to school here and, as you've just told me, I didn't realize that.

EMANUEL: Chicago area. Yes.

MORGAN: And your mother went to this particular school. People say that the bedrock of any great nation is education.

EMANUEL: Without a doubt.

MORGAN: Do you agree with that?

EMANUEL: I -- Piers, we wouldn't be doing -- you and I wouldn't be doing this interview if it wasn't for both the love of our parents and the education we received and their focus on education. That's true for any individual. That's also going to be true for families, it's going to be true for cities, it's going to be true for a country.

If you educate your students, you educate your young, and even, in our lifetime now, lifetime education, you have the potential for anything coming at you and anything you want to do in life.

MORGAN: America's falling behind in education, globally. Why is that?

EMANUEL: Well, the fact is that we haven't focused like we need to on our educational system. And I wouldn't so much say America's falling behind as others are catching up, and we haven't taken our -- we've taken our lead for granted. We need to focus on college. We need to focus on our -- on what I call our community colleges to make sure we have an entire workforce trained to the economy, whether that's your MBA program, your law schools, your engineering schools, your four- year institutions and also your technical education.

And I think you have to not look at one or the other, but the entire, I would say, menu of higher education because three quarters of the jobs in the future will require a post-high school, at least minimum two years' college education.

MORGAN: But your big idea, which I like, by the way, is --

EMANUEL: I'll take that as an endorsement.


MORGAN: It is an endorsement. I'm endorsing this idea. Not all of it, but this idea. You have been very exercised about the fact that in Chicago, in particular, the number of hours that students come to school is simply no where near -- the average is 51/2 hours. You want to push that to 71/2 hours.

And to me, this makes perfect sense because, as you said, that allows the debate about whether you chose social stuff over sciences or whatever, it's a negated debate because actually there's enough time for a rounded education and to do it all.

EMANUEL: Well, first of all, just I don't want to again repeat, but you and I wouldn't be here on a five-hour and forty-five-minute day -- and the shortest day, shortest amount of time in class and the shortest school year of any major city in the country. And our teachers and our students are caught in a false choice education. So the system is working against them.

MORGAN: Your mother produced three -- some would say brilliant men, I would certainly go along with that. You, you rose to the higher echelons of American politics. One of your brothers is a huge Hollywood talent superstar, and your third brother, probably the most talented of them all, I think we'd all agree on that, is a brilliant physician.

EMANUEL: Except for Ari and I. We'd have a veto power --

MORGAN: You would both disagree with that, of course you would. But we would all agree with the third brother.

Tell me about your mother's ethos for her kids. She was educated at this very school.

EMANUEL: Well, she went -- Albany Park is where she grew up. I -- as I talked in that room about -- to the students, my grandfather on my mother's side came to this country, 1917, leaving the pogroms of Eastern Europe as a -- to meet a third cousin he never met here, 13 years old.

Now, the first ethos, if you want to use that, is the importance of being an immigrant. You came to this America because of the unique opportunity. You came to Chicago, the -- the most American of American cities because of the opportunity to give your children something they could not get.

MORGAN: How does she define the opportunity to you?

EMANUEL: Well --

MORGAN: At the time?

EMANUEL: Well, first of all, there's a couple of things, and it's not -- it's hard to reduce. One of the things my parents had in our family, and our family room wall, there are pictures of relatives who never made it to America. And in the middle of that were the passports of my grandmother and my two great-aunts, which was their way of reminding us you're lucky. Now use it.

Second, and I'll -- you know, something I actually try to learn from, I think there's -- I think our -- and I say this as a criticism of my generation, I think we're over-involved in our kids' lives. We need to leave our kids more to fail. We try to protect our kids too much, and I think my parents allowed each of us --

MORGAN: I totally agree with this.

EMANUEL: To -- to fail.

MORGAN: Modern kids don't -- are not encouraged them to understand losing.

EMANUEL: To fail. And because if you look at one of the things I say at graduations all the time, while these are great milestones for you, the test of character is what happens when you have -- face adversity, how you pick yourself back up.

MORGAN: What was your biggest ever failure?

EMANUEL: Well, I've had two. One is -- I can -- that I think are -- for me, one was I nearly lost my job working for President Clinton. And that was something I'd worked all my life to get to. And I faced a very critical juncture at a time in which I may not be there anymore.

The other time is I'd cut my finger, but because of carelessness, I was in a hospital for seven weeks. And for a 48-hour period of time nearly died. And my three roommates, if you'd call them -- yes, they were roommates at different times --

MORGAN: Which was the finger?

EMANUEL: My middle finger on my right hand.

MORGAN: Because it was amputated, right?

EMANUEL: Yes, they had died, different -- at different times. And I think knowing the value of life. So those are different times. And what happened for me after that. And --

MORGAN: What did you learn about yourself?

EMANUEL: Well, from the one incidence in the hospital, never, ever take life for granted; more importantly than that, I wanted to get everything I could out of life, because you never know when it can flip on you.

Second, while I had worked all my time career-wise to get to that moment in the White House, I realized that at any moment, that can go. And I needed to change what I was doing and how I was focusing.

So my whole thing, though -- and I want to get back to this -- is giving our children an education in school. But remember one thing I want to also emphasize, because I believe we have great kids, great teachers, locked in a system that is not working with them. Do not lose sight of the fact that the most important door a child walks through for their education is the front door of their home.

I could not have succeeded at school if my parents didn't teach me the value of an education. And what's missing here is teachers need parents as partners to succeed. They also need a principal like Mr. Alonzo here at Von Steuben, who manages to set a tone for their building and what happens --


MORGAN: Tell me, how responsible can a president be and an administration to the reality of a school like this? How much is actually down to a mayor and to local education --

EMANUEL: Well, first of all, you have to have a -- from the top all the way through to the classroom and including the kitchen, where parents talk to their kids or the house, you have to have a culture of accountability. A president sets the tone, a secretary of education sets the tone. They don't get a pass on that. And I reward President Obama for taking on reform and that's what the Race to the Top was.

You have to make major changes in how we teach and holding people accountable. I believe that as mayor I'm going to be held accountable. I've set goals and not just in our K-12, but in changing community colleges to a career-focused education in the sixth growth sectors for the city of Chicago.

I believe in being held accountable.

MORGAN: We're here in Chicago because you're hosting the World Peace Summit, and unbelievably, you've managed to persuade Mikhail Gorbachev to come to this school today, and Sean Penn. So you've got, you know, one of the great world leaders, one of the great actors. What is the idea behind bringing them to a school like this?

EMANUEL: Well, first of all, what I -- we have, with Robert F. Kennedy and the City of Chicago, Robert F. Kennedy Foundation, the City of Chicago, the Nobel Peace Prize winners from around the world. President Jimmy Carter will be here, Mikhail Gorbachev, Desmond Tutu, Dalai Lama, among others, will all be here.

I wanted the kids to have this opportunity, as did the Robert F. Kennedy Foundation, to speak and learn from people who stood up and made a difference for peace, made a difference for economic and social and political justice. And I wanted our kids the opportunity in the city of Chicago not to see some summit on the news, if they saw it, or on some blog, but to interact with these leaders. And we're going to have them here for three days. And I think it gives a unique opportunity for the kids of Chicago.

MORGAN: Let's take a short break. I want to come back and I want you to put your teacher's hat on, to give a little school report on President Obama and also your ideas for how to keep America great.


OBAMA: We are all very excited for Rahm as he takes on a new challenge for which he is extraordinarily well qualified. But we're also losing an incomparable leader of our staff and one who we are going to miss very much.




FORMER PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: So you need a big person for the job. Now Rahm's not even six feet tall.


CLINTON: He probably weighs about 150 pounds dripping wet.


CLINTON: But in all the ways that matters, he is a very big person for this job.



MORGAN: President Bill Clinton, campaigning in January last year for Rahm Emanuel, and Mayor Emanuel is back with me now to talk about one of my favorite topics, keeping America great.

A little heightist, I thought, there, President Clinton.

EMANUEL: That's OK. I can handle it.


EMANUEL: Because he knows when I worked for him I was 6'2".


EMANUEL: I lost it all there.

MORGAN: You were obviously famously known as President Obama's right- hand guy. You still talk to him regularly, you're still one of the people I guess he listens to most. Give me a school report. We're in a school. If you were really being dispassionate of being the teacher and saying, "President Obama, tick-tick-tick, cross-cross-cross." What would you say?

EMANUEL: Well, first of all, it's like everything. Here -- he inherited a country that was -- the economy was spiraling, more than just a recession, into something much more severe. An auto industry, not one company, but the entire auto industry that was weeks away from totally shutting down and collapsing, which was about a million-plus manufacturing jobs. The industrial base of America.

A financial sector, not just the savings and loan, frozen up to the point that you couldn't get a car loan, a student loan or a home loan. Nothing could move or -- a small business loan.

America's reputation around the world, because of Iraq and Afghanistan, a decade worth of war, was not what it was when you think of the American century. We were not held in high regard. And he literally, piece by piece, put this country back on track.

Today the auto industry is hiring again. It wasn't -- it was literally closing its doors at one point. The financial sector is lending again and much healthier. The economy, rather than losing 800,000 -- or 750,000 jobs a month is now somewhere around 200,000 a month of gaining jobs. And that every sector, is it different? Is it fast enough? Is it diverse enough?

He'd be the first to tell you, I have a middle class more secure, no. Are they where they were before? Absolutely much better, but we have a long way to go, and we have work to do, and we can't get off this course of making sure now that's it --

MORGAN: What would you -- what would you put into the must-do-better box?

EMANUEL: Look, he'd be the first to say that there are -- there are more things to do in the sense of getting the middle class the economic security they need. They came off, literally, for the first time in American history, from 2000 to 2010, the American median income declined $2300, in a period of when there was some, quote- unquote, "growth" to the economy, it was the first time in American history the middle class actually went backwards, not forwards, didn't participate in that growth.

And you cannot have another decade in which the middle class falls farther behind. That's not healthy for the economy. That's not healthy for the country. That's not healthy for our political process. And the middle class are squeezed economically and we need to continue to give them from college assistance for their kids, their health care, to economic security that -- so they can hold on to that American dream and pass something to their children that today is under assault.

MORGAN: Only one American president in history, I think, who's ever been elected with unemployment above 8 percent. The polls have just -- it's pretty close with the assumed nominee, Mitt Romney, President Obama, your guy, has a fight on his hands, doesn't he?

How is he going to win the economic argument against Mitt Romney, who will be chucking the kitchen sink at him and saying, I'm the business guy that can get us out of this?

EMANUEL: Well, first of all, the policies Mitt Romney advocate are the policies that got us into it. So it's hard to get you out of something that you're actually advocating the same policies that led right to this crisis.

Second, the president is also -- as you -- since you decided to focus on polls, is more trusted when it comes to fighting for and protecting the middle class. And this still -- while under assault, the middle class is still the heart and soul of this country, and the policies -- and we're going to have a debate in the coming weeks -- about student loans.

So the question is, whose side are you going to be on? How are you going to help those students? Because as you and I are sitting in this building, these kids, we have a 90 percent graduation rate. If they don't get to college, they don't finish college, their -- their individual economic opportunity and gains, as well as for the city of Chicago and for the country, are diminished because we live in an era of where you earn what you learn.

MORGAN: People assume that President Obama would come in and fulfill the greatest expectations in the history of American presidents, and clearly he hasn't, because probably nobody could. But has he been frustrated, do you think, that he can't force the rate of change as much as he'd like to, and what does he blame that on?

EMANUEL: Well, you have to -- I'm not going to speak for him. You have to do that. You have a political system that needs to measure up to the challenges we have and measures up to the greatness of the people of this country. And does he want change? Yes. And he wants change in a direction that helps the middle class.

I would say clearly Mitt Romney's economic policies want to take us to a point in time which actually led to this crisis that we've had, both in the auto industry, the financial sector and the economy as a whole. Remember, if it was up to Mitt Romney, we wouldn't have an auto industry. He said, let them go. And President Obama said absolutely not. I'm going to double down on the American worker and whose policies was right for that industry is also who's right for this country.

MORGAN: What do you think, in the end, the American voter will decide where their place their vote on --


MORGAN: -- this election?

EMANUEL: No, no, Piers, you can't -- there's a set of -- there's not a thing to look at both the individuals, their character, their judgment and their policies. And people will weigh each of those differently. But those are going to be an assortment of things. And I think over the arc of time, they'll see both the individuals and their policies and where they want to take the country and who they're going to go into that Oval Office and fight for.

MORGAN: Is America --

EMANUEL: And so -- Piers, here's the thing. Nothing going into that Oval Office is easy. And they're going to ask themselves a fundamental question, the president and Mitt Romney will ask. Whose voices will get heard at that Oval Office desk? Whose interests will get served? Whose concerns will be listened to?

And I think the big concern of the American people have about Mitt Romney is their voices, their concerns, their children's futures will not be heard at that Oval Office desk, because he has not had a career hearing those concerns of the middle class.

MORGAN: America is not the land of --

EMANUEL: Only not hearing them, fighting for them.

MORGAN: America is not the land of opportunity that it was --


MORGAN: -- when your mother was at this school. America has got big problems right now.

EMANUEL: No, no, I don't buy that.

MORGAN: You don't buy that?

EMANUEL: No. I think we have -- I think we have a great opportunity to shape things in the future, to continue America's greatness. And this question is, are we willing to take the risks and the challenges head-on? You can either shape your future or be shaped by it.

What I'm trying to do here in the city of Chicago, if I don't mind getting back to Chicago, whether it's our college to career, which is what we're doing at our community colleges, so they're focused on giving kids a career-based education, what we're doing at our K-12 in the sense of the fundamentals and time to literally learn, what we're doing in making sure we're recruiting businesses and growing our economy, investing in our infrastructure so we can move our goods and services quicker and faster and be productive, we can meet these challenges.

We know what they are. We know what the policies are to solve them. The question is, will you meet those challenges and decide what needs to get done? Or will you be shaped by them rather than decide them?

MORGAN: What does being an American mean to you?

EMANUEL: It means a great -- a great country with great people with great promise. And the question is, will you give that to your children? Every generation has sacrificed so their next generation will have something better.

My father came to this country, my grandfather on my mother's side came to this country to give both their children and their grandchildren something better. I am hoping that's exactly what I'm going to do for my children. I am hoping as mayor that's what I do for the kids of this city, the opportunity, like Sunal (ph), who I just -- in that other room, whose parents came here through Saudi Arabia from Yemen. She's on her way to Northwestern with a four-year scholarship.

That was never going to be achieved in Saudi Arabia or Yemen, nothing against those countries, this is a young woman whose parents made sacrifices so she could come to the United States, came to Chicago, is graduating with a 4.0, has four years going to Northwestern, wants to be a film writer.

Where else but in America? This is the greatest country with the greatest potential.

MORGAN: Let's take another break. Let's come back and talk about particular issues that Chicago faces. Gang crime, black teenagers killing other black teenagers, and how it relates to the Trayvon Martin case, and race in America generally.



EMANUEL: No other city can claim more Nobel Laureates than the city of Chicago in the United States.


EMANUEL: We're lucky to have one of the Nobel Laureates and one of the great peacemakers of the past century with us today. Former President Mikhail Gorbachev.


MORGAN: The Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel, introducing Mikhail Gorbachev to a group of Chicago high school students earlier today, encouraging them to fight for world peace by speaking truth to power. And Rahm Emanuel is back with me now, talking more about keeping America great.

Chicago, you've been mayor now for -- it's still less than a year, but 60 percent higher homicides in the first quarter of this year is a shocking statistic. Everybody looks at Chicago now and thinks, what the hell is going on, you know, with places like Inglewood, with young black teenagers killing young black teenagers indiscriminately. What are you going to do about this and what does it say about race in America right now?

EMANUEL: Well, first of all, I was in Inglewood yesterday at a church, because we have to bring the ministers and what goes on in that church outside that church. The strength of that church, the strength of that congregation, is what we need on the streets.

Second of all, our overall crime rate is down 11 percent. But we have a gang problem, and also kids raised with no sense of values when it comes to life, that they can indiscriminately shoot, gang-on-gang violence. And it's unacceptable.

And as I said at that church two very important messages, if a kid's shot in Little Village or a kid's shot in Inglewood, that's a terror to our city. Nobody can walk around in our city and say, well, that's down there. That's over there. No. That's in our city. That's unacceptable, because we have a great city with great people.

Number two, is about putting more police on the street and getting kids, guns and drugs off the street. The access to guns are unacceptable and we need a change in policies, which is why I've talked about that. We've empowered communities to shut down these liquor stores in the neighborhood. OK?

But it is working on a strategy that takes guns out of gangs, puts gangs on notice that these streets belong to our kids, belong to our families. They don't belong to you.

MORGAN: You've been very vocal about gun law in the past, and you've been strong on that and consistent. When you look at the Trayvon Martin case, to me, the race element is a slight red herring to the bigger problem. It's not something you can negate, and it may be that the trial reveals there was a form of racial profiling.

But in relation to what actually happened, George Zimmerman is using the "Stand Your Ground" law in Florida, and the fact that he was allowed to just walk around with a gun anyway as his defense, what do you think of that part of the debate on the Trayvon case?


EMANUEL: Well, let me tell you -- look, I'm here, the mayor of the city of Chicago. I'm focused on what's happening in Inglewood. I'm focused on what's happening in Little Village. I'm focused on what's happening in our communities and our neighborhoods here. That individual case, there's a gun element to it, there's a -- race element, there's a criminal justice.

I think the policies on those type of gun laws are exact opposite of why I fought for the Brady bill, the assault weapon ban, and a juvenile Brady bill, OK? But my concentration, my time, my energy is making sure the kids in our city of Chicago can walk to school thinking of their studies, not their safety.

MORGAN: Half the states in American virtually --

EMANUEL: Not Illinois --

MORGAN: I know that.

EMANUEL: Illinois stands out.

MORGAN: But Mayor Bloomberg, where it's also not --


MORGAN: -- applicable in New York, has been very vocal, saying "Stand Your Ground" is unacceptable in modern America. Do you agree with that?

EMANUEL: Yes, it's totally unacceptable. I'd like to see our state, which is why I introduced laws that relates to buying a title for a gun like you do for a car, like you do for anything else.

But my focus, my time, my energy is not about the case in Miami. There's enough voices to that. I have my thoughts on it.

My time and energy is making sure our police departments are doing what they need to do. The people of faith are out on the -- not just in their church, but out in their communities, which is why we're working particularly opening so we can bring up that neighborhood, Little Village, West Garfield, all our communities, to give our kids and families the sense of security.

Because without that, everything else you're trying to do is all that much harder.

MORGAN: The Secret Service scandal, when you see Secret Service agents protecting the president behaving in such an amoral way, that doesn't help kids at a school like this, does it? It's not good for the message that comes down from the top.

EMANUEL: I don't want to generalize, because I don't even know what the kids here are -- what they're thinking about this. I don't know how you can do it. I can't do it. I haven't talked to them about it.

I think anybody in a position of authority or a position of with responsibility should act according to that office, in the sense of the responsibility that comes with it, the authority that comes with it. That's true. That goes beyond the Secret Service, because there are good men and women in the department. The individuals that did that have besmirched not only their career, but the entire department and the culture that lives there. So that's not -- doesn't take me off to say that about. That's also true of all of us in public life. It's true about you guys in media. It's true about other people other institutions who have fallen short from the role and responsibility and the voice that our voice carries in the sense of that responsibility.

So I don't -- can I look at them in the Secret Service? Yeah. But I don't want to step on a pedestal and look down, because there's people in public life who have, in my view, on ethical and otherwise, haven't actually carried out what they need to do.

So all of us have a -- should know this: when you have a unique position, which you do, Piers, and which I do as mayor, it comes with something of responsibility. Which is why I think -- let me get back again to the schools. I think over years people agree to things that people of responsibility acted irresponsible. That shouldn't have happened.

We should never have gotten to a situation in the city of Chicago has a the shortest school day and shortest school year of any major city in the country. We should not be in a position where our gun laws are working against our criminal justice system. They should be complimentary.

So that's what I mean. And then why do I say I'm so optimistic about the future? Because if we take responsibility and do the tough things, we have a great future for us. We can do Risonal (ph) and the rest of her class mates, give her a city or give her a country they can not only be proud, they can make something of themselves.

This is an America where you can still do that, which is not true in other countries.

MORGAN: Mr. Mayor, it's been a great pleasure. I know that you're classically going to leave me now for Mikhail Gorbachev. I've been his warm up.

EMANUEL: I don't want you to think that I'm trading up. Don't take it personally.

MORGAN: It's been a pleasure. Thank you very much.

EMANUEL: Thank you.