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Penny Pritzker's Path from Family Tragedy to Business Success

How the Obama Commerce Secretary’s early family tragedies shaped her path to business and political success:

Earlier this year her youngest brother, J.B., told Chicago magazine of his mother’s battles with alcohol and how the children were often left to fend for themselves. As the oldest, Penny says, she stepped in to take care of her brothers, especially J.B., who was only 7 when their dad died. “I tried to be positive and hold us together as a family,” she says. But she remains protective of her mother’s legacy. For all her troubles, Sue was a mother who instilled in her daughter the confidence to take risks. “She believed I could do everything,” Penny says.

PUBLISHED: June 4, 2014
LENGTH: 14 minutes (3700 words)

My State of Emergency

Reflections on life, death, and Obamacare inside Oakland’s main trauma ward.

Working in the Highland ER means knowing the backstory of a part of Oakland that most of my friends and neighbors will never see. In my car, stopped at a red light, I find myself unconsciously filling in the bios and medical histories of passing pedestrians. A cane, a limp, a cough, a tremor: A city’s problems, often anonymous and impossibly abstract, gain context in the faces and lives of my patients. Urban violence is personified by the 19-year-old boy, shot square in the chest during a drive-by, whom I pronounce dead in the trauma bay. Domestic violence takes the form of a woman coming in for the fourth time this year, now with a dislocated shoulder and a broken wrist. The sexually trafficked 15-year-old, the homeless alcoholic, the diabetic with schizophrenia—the list goes on, and the tapestry of societal malaise is woven tighter and tighter.

PUBLISHED: June 4, 2014
LENGTH: 9 minutes (2440 words)

The Color of His Presidency

On race and Obama's presidency:

This has been Obama’s M.O.: focus on “the more important things.” He’s had to deal explicitly with race in a few excruciating instances, like the 2009 “beer summit” with the black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, a friend of Obama’s, and James Crowley, the police sergeant responsible for Gates’s controversial arrest. (Obama’s response to the incident was telling: He positioned himself not as an ally of Gates but as a mediator between the two, as equally capable of relating to the white man’s perspective as the black man’s.) After the Zimmerman shooting, he observed that if he had had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin. In almost every instance when his blackness has come to the center of public events, however, he has refused to impute racism to his critics.

This has not made an impression upon the critics. In fact, many conservatives believe he accuses them of racism all the time, even when he is doing the opposite. When asked recently if racism explained his sagging approval ratings, Obama replied, “There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black president. Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black president.” Conservatives exploded in indignation, quoting the first sentence without mentioning the second. Here was yet another case of Obama playing the race card, his most cruel and most unanswerable weapon.

PUBLISHED: April 6, 2014
LENGTH: 23 minutes (5946 words)

The Girls Next Door

In 2012, President Barack Obama said the fight against human trafficking was "one of the great human rights causes of our time." So why are so many Colorado children still being exploited?

Lipstick kisses stain the corners of the mirror. Open tubes of mascara, a rainbow of eye shadows, and a warm curling iron cover the counter of the pink bathroom. T-shirts, skirts, and heels are scattered on the couch and spread along the floor of the basement. Sixteen-year-old Susie discards an entire pile of tops before settling on a cropped T-shirt, jeans, and wedges. Her naturally curly black hair is stick straight, her nails are freshly manicured, and her youthful olive skin needs no makeup. She hums along to some current mid-’90s radio hits—Mariah Carey, Tupac, Biggie—and helps a friend apply yet another layer of eyeliner, while the giggles and chatter of two other girls, ages 15 and 16, fill whatever space is left in the cramped room.

PUBLISHED: April 1, 2014
LENGTH: 26 minutes (6675 words)

Sinkhole of Bureaucracy

In an old Pennsylvania limestone mine in the town of Boyers, 600 federal employees are still processing paperwork by hand. A look at why the Office of Personnel Management has failed to digitize:

During the past 30 years, administrations have spent more than $100 million trying to automate the old-fashioned process in the mine and make it run at the speed of computers.

They couldn’t.

So now the mine continues to run at the speed of human fingers and feet. That failure imposes costs on federal retirees, who have to wait months for their full benefit checks. And it has imposed costs on the taxpayer: The Obama administration has now made the mine run faster, but mainly by paying for more fingers and feet.

The staff working in the mine has increased by at least 200 people in the past five years. And the cost of processing each claim has increased from $82 to $108, as total spending on the retirement system reached $55.8 million.

PUBLISHED: March 22, 2014
LENGTH: 12 minutes (3085 words)

Rahm Emanuel: Mayor America

Has the mayor of Chicago reinvented the city’s notorious political machine—and does he covet the White House?

When Rahm Emanuel became mayor of Chicago in 2011, he proclaimed: “I will not be a patient mayor.” It was an understatement. The former chief of staff to Barack Obama returned home with a near-legendary reputation for his take-no-prisoners style of operating. That is how he acquired the nickname “Rahmbo”. He once famously mailed a dead fish to a pollster with whom he had fallen out. There are few significant Washington figures who have not felt the lash of his tongue. In Emanuel’s lexicon, the word “f***” is almost an endearment. Emanuel, 54, lost half a middle finger in a kitchen accident when he was a teenager. It was an amputation that – in Obama’s unforgettable phrase – rendered him “practically mute”.
PUBLISHED: Feb. 14, 2014
LENGTH: 16 minutes (4200 words)

The Passion of Dan Choi

A profile of Dan Choi, a gay Iraq combat veteran who became a media star after his public push to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." Since the victory, Choi has found it difficult to figure out what to do next:

In late August, I was on my way to interview Dan at his apartment when he messaged me that a big protest was shaping up at the White House. President Barack Obama had just announced that he would ask Congress for authorization to use force in Syria. I raced to meet him at the north entrance, but all I found were tourists snapping photos and Dan circling around on his bike. He hung out for a while, texting a friend to ask for an update. She didn’t respond. After 20 minutes of scouring his contacts for people who might have more information, he looked up from his phone and gave me a sideways grin. He was being a good sport, but he looked crestfallen. I sensed—or maybe I just imagined it—he was asking himself the same question I had been: Who is Dan Choi without “don’t ask, don’t tell”?

PUBLISHED: Dec. 2, 2013
LENGTH: 28 minutes (7175 words)

Locked in the Cabinet

Inside the lonely life of an Obama Cabinet member:

“We are completely marginalized … until the shit hits the fan,” says one former Cabinet deputy secretary, summing up the view of many officials I interviewed. “If your question is: Did the president rely a lot on his Cabinet as a group of advisers? No, he didn’t,” says former Obama Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Little wonder, then, that Obama has called the group together only rarely, for what by most accounts are not much more than ritualistic team-building exercises: According to CBS News White House reporter Mark Knoller, the Cabinet met 19 times in Obama’s first term and four times in the first 10 months of his second term. That’s once every three months or so—about as long as you can drive around before you’re supposed to change your oil.

PUBLISHED: Nov. 14, 2013
LENGTH: 29 minutes (7308 words)

The Lonely Guy

Todd Purdum argues that President Obama’s isolation from the rest of Washington, D.C., has made him less effective as a politician over the last five years:

Obama is far from the first president—or the first suddenly world-famous figure—to keep his own counsel or to rely on the tightest possible circle of longtime advisers and old, close friends. More than 20 years ago, when Mario Cuomo was seen as the Democratic Party’s best hope for taking the White House, one knowledgeable New Yorker assured me that Cuomo would never run, because he could never bring himself to trust the number of people required to undertake an effective campaign. In February 2007, the week Obama declared his candidacy, his confidante Valerie Jarrett told me that she had warned him at a backyard barbecue in Chicago the previous fall, when his book tour for The Audacity of Hope was morphing into a presidential campaign, “You’ll never make any new friends.” Obama has since worked overtime to prove the prescience of Jarrett’s view.

PUBLISHED: Nov. 10, 2013
LENGTH: 12 minutes (3042 words)