The best Rahm Emanuel story is not the one about the decomposing two-and-a-half-foot fish he sent to a pollster who displeased him. It is not about the time - the many times - that he hung up on political contributors in a Chicago mayor's race, saying he was embarrassed to accept their $5,000 checks because they were $25,000 kind of guys. No, the definitive Rahm Emanuel story takes place in Little Rock, Ark., in the heady days after Bill Clinton was first elected President. It was there that Emanuel, then Clinton's chief fund-raiser, repaired with George Stephanopoulos, Mandy Grunwald and other aides to Doe's, the campaign hangout. Revenge was heavy in the air as the group discussed the enemies - Democrats, Republicans, members of the press - who wronged them during the 1992 campaign. Clifford Jackson, the ex-friend of the President and peddler of the Clinton draft-dodging stories, was high on the list. So was William Donald Schaefer, then the Governor of Maryland and a Democrat who endorsed George Bush. Nathan Landow, the fund-raiser who backed the candidacy of Paul Tsongas, made it, too. Suddenly Emanuel grabbed his steak knife and, as those who were there remember it, shouted out the name of another enemy, lifted the knife, then brought it down with full force into the table. ''Dead!'' he screamed. The group immediately joined in the cathartic release: ''Nat Landow! Dead! Cliff Jackson! Dead! Bill Schaefer! Dead!''
When Rahm was a boy, his mother forced him to take ballet lessons, and he threw himself into it with the same intensity he would later bring to politics, winning a scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet. Friends jokingly theorize that his toughness is actually an outgrowth of being a ballet dancer: With that sort of thing on your resume, you had better be ready to fight if you hope to survive in Chicago politics. "The guy had been a ballet dancer in college," says Bruce Reed, "yet grown men lived in mortal fear of what he might do to them if they couldn't get the answer he wanted."