He was hurtling down an asphalt road in upstate New York on the 47th trip of his ferocious campaign to win back the House. A lecture, even from his friend James Carville, was the last thing he needed.
And here were Carville and pollster Stan Greenberg telling him he had to make each of his handpicked candidates shift from attack mode and strike a conciliatory note in their final campaign ads.
"James. No James, YOU LISTEN," Emanuel barked into a cell phone, about to release a string of profane invectives more intense than usual. "Can you listen for one [expletive] minute? I'm working these campaigns all the time. The campaigns all have different textures."
His wiry body tensed, his voice breaking with stress. Emanuel shouted, "If you don't like what you see, I highly recommend you pick up the phone and do it yourself."
The moment captured Rahm in full, a portrait in power of a brutally effective taskmaster.
During the past year, the Tribune had exclusive access to the strategy sessions, private fundraisers and other moments that shaped this victory. The newspaper agreed not to print any of the details until after the election. Now that the votes have been counted, the story of how Emanuel helped end an era of Republican rule can be told.
He did it, in large measure, by remaking the Democratic Party in his own image.
Democrats had never raised enough money. Emanuel, a savvy fundraiser who shaped those skills under Richard M. Daley and Bill Clinton, yelled at colleagues and threatened his candidates into generating an unprecedented amount of campaign cash.
Democrats had a history of appeasing party constituencies. Emanuel tore up the old litmus tests on abortion and other issues. With techniques that would make a Big Ten football coach blush, he recruited candidates who could mount tough challenges in some of the reddest patches of America.
Democrats had blanched at hardball. Emanuel, jokingly called "Rahmbo" even by his mother, muscled weaker Democrats out of races in favor of stronger ones, and ridiculed the chairman of his own party.
In January 2005, when Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi asked Emanuel to head the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or DCCC, experts predicted that the party would take perhaps three seats. On Tuesday, it picked up at least 28, changing the course of the Bush presidency.
In a world where congressmen refer to each other as "my distinguished colleague," Emanuel, 46, is sometimes unable to get through a single sentence without several obscenities. His politics are centrist, but his style is extremist. The top of his right middle finger was severed when he was a teenager, adding to his aura of toughnessespecially when he extends that middle finger, which he does with some regularity.
For all his forcefulness, Emanuel was not responsible for the political climate, either the failing war or the sex and corruption scandals racking the Republican Party. But with creative recruiting, unremitting fundraising and a national message, he positioned the Democrats to exploit that collapse.
In doing so, Emanuel had to be familiar with roughly 50 individual racesthe candidates, the interest groups, the voting blocs. It resembled a game of three-dimensional chess, in that what happened in one district could affect dozens of others.
From the outset, there could be only one measure of success: the number of seats the Democrats won. Bill Paxon, a former New York congressman who held Emanuel's job for the Republicans when they seized the House in 1994, explained the unforgiving math.
"Unlike a lot of things in government where there is compromise, there is only one resultyou either win or you loseand you are judged on that," Paxon said. "You can look at fundraising, candidate recruitment and other things, but they are meaningless. The only thing that matters is if you win or lose."
This is the story of how Rahm and the Democrats won.