During a fundraiser earlier this month in New York, President Barack Obama gave an improbable shout-out: “To one of the finest mayors the city has ever seen,” he said to approximately 100 well-heeled and well-fed supporters at Daniel, Chef Daniel Boulud’s eponymous four-star restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. What made the salute both “special”—as Obama put it—and unexpected was not that the nation’s first African-American commander-in-chief had playfully appropriated urban slang to address an octogenarian, but that the octogenarian in question was Ed Koch.
Only six months before, Koch’s displeasure with the president had become a national news story. On July 25, 2011, the former mayor offered his official endorsement of Republican Bob Turner for Anthony Weiner’s vacated seat in the House of Representatives following the latter’s unceremonious resignation. Despite the fact that Democrats outnumber Republicans there nearly 3 to 1 and have held the office for more than a century, Turner won the 9th District of New York in a landslide. “I didn’t know Bob Turner,” Koch would later confess. “It pissed me off that [Obama] made a demand on Israel that it go back to the peace table and accept the pre-’67 borders.” How else could a self-professed liberal have offered his support of a Tea Party member whose campaign platform included such progressive policies as cutting federal spending by 35 percent, opposing same-sex marriage, and advocating intelligent design? Koch explained: “I perceived [Obama’s] stance on Israel to be hostile. I decided we would send a message.”
The message was received. On Sept. 21, 2011, hours after delivering a speech to the United Nations general assembly in which he denounced the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood and temporarily restored the faith of Israeli loyalists across the country, Obama brokered a détente of his own with one of the Jewish state’s staunchest defenders. Their conversation, held at the New York Public Library, was frank. “He said that my voice was heard outside of New York and that he needed me,” noted the former mayor from his Manhattan office. During their talk, Obama expressed his distress that the Jewish community had grown unhappy with him. “He was surprised because he thought he was doing what they wanted,” said Koch. “I said ‘No, you’re not.’ ” Less than a week after their kibitz, Koch committed to campaign on the president’s behalf in 2012. For a man whose trademark question “How’m I doin’?” has long since fossilized, it appears that flattery—steady and effusive—heals all wounds.
It’s easy to dismiss Obama’s overtures as lip service to one of the nation’s most recognizably Jewish politicians—the political equivalent of visiting your doddering grandfather in Boca. Still, Koch’s influence is irrefutable. Just last week, Beit Morasha, the Jerusalem-based educational center, honored him for his “public service, leadership and commitment to the State of Israel and the Jewish People” during a separate dinner event at Guastavino’s, a banquet hall under the 59th Street bridge that—essentially like Koch himself—has been declared a New York City landmark. The former mayor has proven he will defend Israel against any threat, real or imagined, even if it means cutting off the schnoz of the Democratic Party to spite its face. In the deep winter of his political career, it may be the only issue on which his famously nasal voice still resonates.
On an unseasonably warm afternoon this fall, I met Koch at his law firm, Bryan Cave, in midtown Manhattan. (My father is a partner there.) The walls of the former mayor’s corner office were lined with photographs and plaques, their frames practically touching. Above his computer hung a signed picture of President George W. Bush as well as a letter by William F. Buckley typed on stationery from the National Review: “Just an idle note to tell you that I’ve had hours of pleasure and edification reading your lyrical bulletins. You make me feel absolutely useless if I contrast my own nugatory work with your spicy and learned columns. I’ve been ill, but I will recover and descend on you, and we’ll have a good, nostalgic meal.” Below that, in a considerably smaller frame, sat a photo of Barack Obama. An oversized, silver menorah stood on the radiator along the near window.
If Koch’s office doubled as a museum of contemporary political history, then its featured exhibit was Ed Koch, meticulously preserved in all of his ’80s splendor. The former mayor sat motionless behind his desk, a big, chestnut-colored number adorned with family photos, a bottle of Purell hand sanitizer, and a copy of The Little Red Book of New York Wisdom by Former Mayor Ed Koch. He wore a dark gray suit with a two-toned shirt and a set of black suspenders. From the neck down, it almost looked as though he had never left office. From the neck up was a different story. More than 20 years past the normal age of retirement, Koch continues to work five days a week, and all the extra hours on the clock have begun to take their toll. His face looked gaunt, his eyes puffy. Tiny constellations of liver spots now dot his forehead and cheeks. While he insists there have been no residual effects from his assorted heart failures, his speech has grown slower and more deliberate. “I have a balance problem,” he said. “I’ve never fallen, thank God. Breaking a hip is a major fear. But I rarely miss a day of work.”
Of the nearly two dozen titles in the “Ed Koch library,” a term he uses (fondly) for the collection of books that have been written by and about Ed Koch, only 1999’s I’m Not Done Yet! co-authored with Daniel Paisner, attempts to chart his post-mayoral career. The book’s subtitle, Keeping at It, Remaining Relevant, and Having the Time of My Life, serves as a kind of mission statement for Koch. Since leaving office in 1989, he has served as, among other professions, an adjunct professor at New York University, a television judge on The People’s Court, a children’s book author, a political commentator, and a radio host. Then, of course, there’s his ample body of film criticism—much of it archived at the appropriately titled website The Mayor at the Movies. Many of these reviews seem to dance on the edge of self-parody. Take, for example, his thoughts on Terrence Malick’s Oscar-nominated Tree of Life:
What’s the movie about? Got me … The story of the cosmos is better told at the Rose Planetarium in the Museum of Natural History. It didn’t do well with me, although I have to be truthful about it. The audience at the end of the show applauded. I thought to myself, am I the little Japanese boy who said ‘but the king is naked?’ The emperor of Japan. Naked! I thought it was a put-on or a put-down of the audience, but maybe I’m alone. Go see it. You might like it. I didn’t, and I’m giving it a minus.
You can remove Ed Koch from office, but you can’t remove the office from Ed Koch. “People like me because I’m a lot tougher than the major critics,” he said. “I don’t pretend to be an expert.”
When it comes to city politics—a subject about which he’s every bit the expert—Koch has a tendency to eulogize himself. He explains that his legacy will be one of saving New York from bankruptcy, balancing its budget, and restoring its sense of pride. Almost in the same breath, he will insist that he doesn’t care what people write about in his obituary.
The animosities and rivalries that mark a politician’s career have, for the most part, dissolved. Andrew Cuomo? “Strangely enough, we have a very good relationship,” he said of the man he endorsed for both attorney general and governor of New York. “There was a time when we didn’t.” (Cuomo, as many recall, just happened to be running his father’s 1977 mayoral campaign when “Vote Cuomo, not the homo” signs began popping up in select neighborhoods around the city.) Rudy Giuliani? “I happen to like Giuliani, even though I wrote a book about him called Giuliani: Nasty Man.” Ultimately, the former mayor saved his most effusive praise for Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “I think he’s doing a marvelous job,” he gushed. “He’s been very generous to me. He urged the city council to name the Queensboro Bridge the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, and I’m very grateful.”
On some of the city’s more pressing political issues, the former mayor appears markedly mellow. Although he sympathizes with the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Koch is quick to dismiss the long-term viability of their demonstration. One can hardly fault him his skepticism. Having weathered the Tompkins Square Park riot of 1988, the former mayor is not easily fazed by scores of people camping out in a public park. For better or worse, New York is a more orderly city than it was 30 years go, and Koch would know: He was, according to many observers, one of the principle architects of its rebirth.
Over the past decade, however, a single issue has all but hijacked his politics. Perhaps it was only inevitable then that our conversation turned to the subject of Israel. Koch insists that his views on the Jewish state have remained largely unchanged over the course of his career. While this may be true, it’s difficult to ignore a certain reordering of priorities and heightening of hyperbole. In 2004, he supported the re-election of George W. Bush, a decision as grounded in Koch’s support of the Bush Doctrine as it was in his affinity for the president’s commitment to Israel’s safety. This past December, in one of his weekly email blasts—streams-of-consciousness that Koch claims reach upward of 10,000 readers—the former mayor unloaded on New York Times columnist Tom Friedman for suggesting that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s standing ovation from a joint session of Congress was “bought and paid for by the Israeli lobby.” “Coming from an alleged supporter of Israel, a Jew himself, this canard is especially offensive,” Koch wrote. “This infamous statement will be joined with the Protocols of Zion, one a libel, the other a forgery—because of the status of its author—and used around the world by those who hate the Jews and Israel.”
Koch’s support for Turner may prove even more destructive to the aims of his political party if, in fact, he can still call it his own. As he enters the final year of his term of office, the president remains as devoted to Israel as his predecessor while the gridlock in Congress has grown that much more intractable.
However myopic or misguided his vision has become, the former mayor has emerged as the indisputable victor of his recent face-off with Obama, albeit for different reasons than he might like to admit. Koch hasn’t fundamentally altered the president’s Israeli policy, but he has changed the tenor of his message to the Jewish base. And with the former mayor likely to campaign for the president in Florida, the message has become the medium. “I served in World War II,” Koch told me, “and it was clear to me early on that if Israel had been alive, every Jew able to leave Nazi Germany would have been saved. I also believe that it is possible for anti-Semitism to reach heights comparable to those in Nazi Germany.”
Koch rejects the notion that he’s grown more religious as he’s gotten older. He has also revealed, in conversations with other journalists, that the final words of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl will be engraved on his tombstone: “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.”
On Jan. 25, Beit Morasha inaugurated the Edward I. Koch Center for Public Policy and Jewish Ethics. “I’ve spoken to many Jewish organizations,” Koch told the Jewish Week, “But as best I can recall, I’ve never been honored by one before.” He was long overdue.