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The Changeling

Ed Koch may not have caused a change in Obama’s Israel policy, but he’s forced the administration to shift its message to Democratic Jewish voters

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Former New York Mayor Ed Koch. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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.

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Charles R says:

Hey Jules you troll…slide back under your rock.

PS: I love Ed Koch more than ever for calling out the anti-Zionist in chief.

Marty Janner says:

Mayor Koch, by his very nature is quite unique! He thrives on creating a lot of noise, often appealing to singly focused individuals.

On the other hand, the President must be focused on multiple issues.Grant you, He may not have clearly delineated some of them,however the stance of our government is, and always been a positive, when it comes to Israel! We, as American Jews, must understand this!

For Zlota says:

Some of us, as American Jews, have been following politics for the last few years, at least, and have been freaking out over the, uh, clearly delineated stances focused on single issues.

I like Koch, he understands this.

HannaH says:

If Obama is a friend we surely need no enemies. I believe this president has made the world so much more dangerous G-d help us

Oh yes, the Democratic Party line: “As he enters the final year of his term of office, the president remains as devoted to Israel as his predecessor…” Looking at this quote, we would have to conclude that Sugarman really believes that President George W. Bush was, like Obama, also stone cold to the Jewish State, which would certainly come as a surprise to many. For November 2012, President Obama again needs Jewish campaign donations and Jewish votes. But, he is certainly no friend of Israel, except to the extent that he has to be because of his need for support from American Jews and because Israel is decidedly popular both with the American people and in both Houses of Congress. As Ben Rhodes then explained, Obama’s June 4, 2009 Cairo speech revealed how President Obama personally approaches the matters at issue between Israel and its neighbors (see line-by-line Israel analysis at wwww.allenzhertz.com). Israel may well need God’s special help if Obama is in office past January 2013. According to his own pronouncements, President Obama is philo-Muslim which inter alia means that he certainly privileges the Muslim World over the Jewish State. And, was it not recently revealed that Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan is the foreign leader that Obama speaks to most recently? When it comes to the topic of Obama, there is a unique political rule that we are not permitted to say 2 + 2 = 4. To suggest that President Obama is “devoted to Israel” is at best dissimulation and at worst an outright lie.

mh8169 says:

With regard to BHO and his view on Israel vis-a-vis Mr. Koch, I see the POTUS as trying to pretend that the leopard has no spots. All he is doing is moving himself to position to gather Jewish votes. As one Jewish voter, he will not get mine. Further, my entire family feels the same. The POTUS is a dismal illustration of a great American leader. I never thought we could have a worst president than Mr. Carter. I clearly was very wrong.

Ellis Jayus says:

Oh, yes, the world is more dangerous…Osama bin Laden lurks over us from his watery grave. Several major secondary Al-Qaidites wield great power from their vaporized forms, CIA reports that there are only 2 viable leaders left in the whole movement. Don’t forget that dude Qaddafi whose buried bones are being resurrected to spook as we speak. In the words of John McEnroe, “You can’t be serious!” HannaH, it seems you are referring to the wrong president in your comment. Wasn’t it the previous fellow who made the world more dangerous…Iraq (still looking for those WMDs), Afghanistan ((We’ll do what the ruthless Russians could not)? We’ve already had one cowboy in the White House. If you want another one, this time without scruples, vote for Newt. If you want a pragmatist, vote for Romney. If you want an INTELLIGENT pragmatist, keep the smart guy in office.

Ellis Jayus says:

Forgot to mention, we will be voting for the President of the United State of AMERICA, not the US of israel. Many of us loyal supporters of Israel DO understand that, while our true homeland may be the #1 test of who we vote for Prez, it is not the ONLY thing. So what else is important to all of you? Stock Market is up 4500 points since Obama’s inaugaration…the rich are getting richer…taxes are lower…unemployment is on its way down…there is a movement across party lines to make college more affordable, the housing crunch is easing. Now, if we can get the banks to use some of the TARP money they have been holding, we could really bust out! So, aside from your perception of how the President is treating Israel, what’s your beef/

Obama may have changed his tune due to Koch’s influence on the next elections. Let’s not lose the point though, it is about getting elected again. Once the election is over, neither Koch, nor any other will have any power, and the true colors will show again

JamesPhiladelphia says:

There are 25million unemployed, there are 10 million homes under foreclosure. Obama and his economic advisors have been unwilling to fight for jobs creation. Obama yes blames the Bush administration, yes he blames Congress that really is no friend of the middle class.

Obama has to understand that the buck stops at his office, and that he is personally responsible for three years of doing little to nothing to fight for jobs for the American people. His nice speeches are only window dressing.

Obama is the Jobless President. He has to go.

Respectfully.
JamesPhiladelphia.

The article contradicts itself. If Israel is the main concern of Koch, why was he bought so easily with Obama’s flattery? Obviously, Koch’s main concern and interest is Koch himself and what people in power do for him, not for Israel.

philip mann says:

James;

Ten bucks says that Baruch Obama is re-elected . The Republicans, in their seething rage,can`t even tie their shoes without making a tourniquet. He has this one before it`s even been started.

for Zlota says:

Let me see if I understand the new messaging: everything in the country and the rest of the world is great, so if you’re Jewish and don’t vote for Obama you’re UNAMERICAN?

Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.

Ed Koch has consistently demonstrated him self to be a legend in his own mind. His influence is greatly exaggerated. The Democrats lost the Wiener seat, but it almost certainly was not on account of Ed Koch. I am an American born Jew, the son of Holocaust survivors. I find his stand that the Israeli government is entitled to every single g**d***ed thing it wants to be profoundly offensive, to be of little help to the long term situation in Israel OR the United States.

bullvant says:

anybody who votes for a candidate because a particular politician endorses them, shouldn’t vote period.

JamesPhiladelphia says:

Philip

Where do I collect the ten bucks? I agree with you about the republicans, they are no friends of the middle class.

Baruch. Baruch …Adonai.

Lou Adams says:

“However myopic or misguided his vision has become”–and here I thought the far left Jews were having trouble seeing what is right in front of their faces. I love American, born and bred, but I have read and seen enough pictures of my people being slaughtered over the last 2000 years, I will never, ever ever vote for a guy who puts my people at risk.
If other Jews still don’t get it, how sad for them and how sad for US.

george says:

I hope most of the shmucks who voted for Obama have realized that this man is no friend of Israel. And just as importantly, he’s a transparent socialist who wants to transform this Capitalist economy into a European-style socialist one.

Obama is an AMERICAN president (with birth certificate to prove it too!) and I support him.

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The Changeling

Ed Koch may not have caused a change in Obama’s Israel policy, but he’s forced the administration to shift its message to Democratic Jewish voters

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