“Good morning,” Ed Koch booms to the knot of reporters that soon surrounds him and then begins without preamble: “I don’t make predictions. I hope Al Gore does well; I put my trust in God. I don’t know whether God is watching or not.”
But if God is not watching New York, He is the only one who isn’t.
It is 1988, and a few weeks earlier Jesse Jackson had won the Michigan primary. The panjandrums of the Democratic Party are in full panic. Who is going to stop Jackson? Michael Dukakis, whose campaign seems to be flabby and floundering, appears unable to do the job.
A Great White Hope is needed. Al Gore steps forward.
“I am dismayed by Jackson’s embrace of Yasser Arafat,” Gore tells Jewish leaders in New York City. “I categorically deny (Jackson’s) notion that there’s a moral equivalence between Israel and the PLO. In a Gore administration, no one will have reason to doubt America’s commitment to the survival and security of Israel.”
This goes over very well in New York City. And afterward, Gore, a Southern Baptist whose favorite Shakespeare play is “The Merchant of Venice,” joins the Jewish leaders at a kosher deli for lunch. The Gore campaign announces that Gore has “pulled off the gloves to challenge front-runner Jesse Jackson.”
The next day, April 1, Ed Koch says Jews “would have to be crazy to vote for Jackson.” The stage is set. Koch endorses Gore, the man who has the guts to kick Jesse Jackson in his tuchus.
Now, on the day before the New York primary, Koch goes to 77th and Lex to show Gore how it’s done, to show him how you win New York.
“I had a stroke,” Koch, 63, says apropos of nothing, “and Mother Teresa prayed for me. And I’m Jewish! This is my lucky corner, you know. I’ve run 24 times, congressman and city council, mayor. And I come here at 7 a.m. and stand here until 8 p.m. on Election Day. I had a stroke, but I walk. I dance. I talk.” He does a sprightly little walk, back and forth, pumping his elbows. “See? No paralysis.”
The words gush forth from his mouth in a torrent. Thus far, he has not been asked a single question by reporters. But somehow question-and-response seem unnecessary for Koch, who is willing to provide not only the answers but also the questions.
“I am most vociferous in my criticism of Jesse Jackson,” Koch goes on, “but none of my attacks have been disputed. Some people don’t want the truth. You criticize a black, and you’re called a racist.” He shrugs. Go figure.
During an uncharacteristic pause, I wedge in a question. Hasn’t the New York primary been divisive and hate-filled? I ask for a book I am doing (and from which this column is taken).
Koch screws up his face. “Oh, please,” he says. “Puh-leeze. I don’t see that at all.”
“Lemme tell you,” Koch continues. “Al Gore has the potential for greatness that Jack Kennedy had.”
Al Gore? Who’s he? Where’s he? Oh, you mean the silent guy in the suit over there looking like the second wheel on a unicycle? The guy running for president but unable to get a word in edgewise because the mayor of New York will not shut up? Yeah, that guy.
“Dukakis is ... acceptable,” Koch says through pursed lips, again in response to no question. “Acceptable. But he ...” Koch points to Gore. “He has the potential for greatness.”
The “he,” Gore, brightens at the mention of his name and takes a half-step forward like an actor who has been waiting in the wings and has finally heard his cue.
“He took me to deli on the Lower East Side,” Gore begins. “And we had pickles. Different kinds of pickles. They were called, uh ... uh ...”
“Sours and half-sours,” Koch says and then winks at the reporters as if to say: Goyim. What can you do?
“Right, right,” Gore says. “I liked the half-sours better than the sours.”
This being New York, where anything can happen and does on a daily basis, McGeorge Bundy, one of John Kennedy’s best and brightest, and now a professor of history at New York University, innocently walks by on his way down into the subway.
Koch grabs him and demands a vote for Gore.
“I’m from Massachusetts,” Bundy says, apologetically. In other words, he’s for Dukakis.
Koch turns his back on him. “So? We can lose one vote,” he says.
They will end up losing more than one. Dukakis will take New York by 51 percent, Jackson will get 37 percent (winning New York City in the process), and Gore will get 10 percent. But in the preceding week, Gore secretly has been calling Jesse Jackson at night and apologizing for Koch. Jackson is mollified. Gore has shown respect.
Koch is unrepentant. “You cannot show me a single sentence that wasn’t legitimate and truthful,” he tells reporters. And then he has a rare moment of introspection.
“Maybe I would package it better,” he says.
Ed Koch died Friday at age 88. His funeral was held Monday. Some are trying to have the corner at 77th and Lexington named for him. Famous political leaders said fine things about him.
Understandably, but uncharacteristically, Ed Koch was silent.
Roger Simon is editor of Politico.