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Goodbye Chicago, hello Tokyo!

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee meets Wednesday to ponder Rahm Emanuel’s nomination as ambassador. Will he get the chance to work his charm in Japan?

Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura visited Chicago in 2018 and met with then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Here, Yoshimura shows off his new Cubs jersey.
Rahm Emanuel is no stranger to cozying up to Japanese officials. In June 2018, when he was still mayor, he met with Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura, who visited Chicago, threw out the first pitch at a Cubs game and had a jersey to show for it. Osaka and Chicago are sister cities. Like Rahm, Yoshimura also gave up his mayoral post in 2019.
Associated Press

Being a contrarian, I do not share the general consensus that Lori Lightfoot has accomplished nothing as mayor beyond grimly presiding over one disaster after another. In my view, that just isn’t true. For instance, she managed the neat trick of making Rahm Emanuel look good by comparison.

Think about it. The Riverwalk was Mayor Rahm’s baby. A glittering new facet to the city. Like Rich Daley with Millennium Park, Rahm reminds us that a single landmark bauble can almost outshine a garish jacket woven of blunders.

And at least you could talk with the man. Yes, that isn’t a quality that resonates with most Chicagoans. But it meant something to us inky wretches. Rahm was trying to accomplish stuff, and it gave the media a warm glow to be let in on the plan. The reason I can confidently credit Rahm with the Riverwalk is because, when he showed up and I asked him what he wanted to do in office, the first words out of his mouth were about improving the riverfront.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve gone over to Team Rahm. Yes, I am rooting for his nomination as U.S. ambassador to Japan to be advanced Wednesday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — and not just because that would plant him about as far from Chicago as he can get without leaving the earth’s magnetic field. A certain generational sympathy is also at work. It’s hard to be a man in your early 60s trying to carve out a new career.

Or so I imagine; I’ve managed to cling to my own job with singular, barnacle-like tenacity for a third of a century. But I take a morbid interest in noting where those whose fingers are pried from their professional ledges manage to land. Usually, it isn’t pretty. Usually, there’s a splat.

There was something almost poignant in seeing Rahm try out as a TV pundit. The shadowy figure usually glimpsed between the folds of a red velvet curtain in some hall of power, murmuring advice into the ear of the prince, now miked up and brightly lit on the Action News Center set. It made me think of the time I glimpsed a neighbor, who had lost his job as a Walgreens executive and was working as a crossing guard a block from our homes. To see him in a crosswalk, wielding that handheld stop sign, seized my heart, half horrified at his reduced status, half admiring that he would gird his loins and do what he had to do.

I think that guy lasted a day.

Rahm should be good for a couple of years in Japan. Certainly off the beaten track. Quite far from the Oval Office. Yet Japan does matter, despite being sunk in recession for the past 30 years. With China arising with a snarl, unquestionably the world dominating economic superpower that back in the 1980s everybody expected Japan to soon become, there’s an argument that Japan will be crucial again, as a counterweight. Its nationalists are certainly all aquiver, ahistorical self-regard being another global pandemic. They forget how poorly nationalism turned out for Japan the last time.

So one assumes Rahm’s marching orders will involve encouraging Japan to stand firm as a bulwark against China, yet not get so worked up that they invade Manchuria. All the while slurping noodles and kampaiing sake cups and greasing the skids for business. He’ll do fine.

If he’s confirmed. Will he be? I assume the fix is in; Rahm is famous for never playing a game he isn’t certain to win. The real question is whether this is a step up or a step down. Ambassadorships are typically the cherry on the cake at the end of a long career of party fundraising and hackdom. Or, for people like Carol Moseley-Braun, a pitying honor/exile. Her being dispatched to New Zealand (New Zealand!) was the transitional phase between failed senator and failed pecan farmer.

For Rahm, I imagine it’ll be a three-year interregnum. He’ll resign when Trump is re-elected, and begin his next forward straining, Sammy Glick, salmon-fighting-upriver-to-spawn effort. What will that be? Maybe he’ll try to re-claim his old job after Lightfoot’s single term ... nah, never; been there, done that. Ex-congressman, ex-White House chief of staff, ex-mayor. With guys like Rahm, there’s always room for a new feather in his cap.