It takes real skill to pick the right fight in politics. Doing so is a high-risk enterprise, since many spats descend into bombast or bitterness that blackens the names of both combatants. The politician who takes the exchange too seriously can come across as nasty and unpleasant. For others, endless squabbling can limit their ability to compromise or achieve great things. Ed Koch, who died 10 years ago this month, showed us how to do it.
Koch loved to do battle. Over the course of a 45-year career as congressman, mayor of New York, and columnist, he engaged in significant disagreements, tiffs, spats, and outright hostilities with some of New York's and America's most famous people and politicians.
A decade after his passing, a brief examination of Koch's most famous feuds offers valuable insights into the ways American politics has changed—and hasn't changed—since his heyday. The fights also reflect well on his judgment, since, in the 10 years since his death, many of those who faced his wrath have suffered significant reputational declines.
Looking back on Koch's battles and the verve with which he conducted them is a rueful reminder of what New York politics was like before our current age of sensitivity and snowflakery set in. An inveterate feistiness led Koch to engage in tussles over ideas, made flesh in his conflicts with some very large personalities who stood in opposition to him. He was a dominating figure at a time when Democrats could more openly debate issues among themselves without seeking to shut down opponents who challenged progressive orthodoxy. And he was unapologetic about his defense of his own people, even as he was the mayor of America's greatest city.
When Koch died in February 2013, he asked that the words of the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl be put on his tombstone: "My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish." This might have surprised many people who thought of him both as an entirely ethnic and an entirely unreligious figure, but Koch's Jewishness was a key factor in determining many of his primary targets—people who did things or said things that were either offensive to Jews or damaging to Israel or both.
Despite his feuding, Koch had a fairly sunny disposition. He was quick-witted and forward-thinking. He hyped New York relentlessly. And he had a huge ego. The joke was that his middle initial "I" (for Irving) represented his favorite pronoun. Often, a big ego can make you thin-skinned. Not Koch. He issued his zingers with glee and recognized that his opponents, if able, would zing back, and that it was all a part of the game.
Koch first attained national prominence with his 1977 run for mayor. It was a terrible time for New York. The city had just been through a near-bankruptcy. Subways were covered in graffiti. Street crime was rampant. The great blackout in the summer of that year led to $1 billion lost to looting. As he ran for office, the Son of Sam serial killer was on the prowl. In that environment, the mayoral position was a tough job, but it was also an opportunity to help remake a great American city. Multiple heavyweights sought the Democratic nomination for mayor that year, and six candidates got between 10 and 20 percent of the vote in a closely contested Democratic primary. One was Abe Beame, the sitting mayor, who was little more than an accountant out of his depth. Beame finished third in the race, the first Democrat incumbent to lose a primary challenge since 1917.
Another contestant was Bella Abzug, the abrasive radical leftist with outrageous hats and more outrageous positions. She and Koch had served together in the House of Representatives, and she was one of Koch's first notable enemies. Both were Jewish, but Koch expressed his Jewishness in the form of staunch support for Israel, whereas Abzug saw progressivism (she had led several Stalinist front groups) as the manifestation of her Jewishness. In 1976, Abzug signed a congressional letter opposing the sale of U.S. jets to Israel. Koch pounced, putting both his supportive letter as well as Abzug's opposing one in the Congressional Record. He also bragged in his autobiography that he had his congressional office mail both to "every Jewish group I knew." In doing so, Koch was hurting a political rival and a critic of Israel, a double bonus for him. Bella was irate. "What are you trying to do, destroy me?" she asked him. The answer was yes. After losing the 1976 Democratic primary for Senate to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, she finished fourth against Koch in the mayoral race—and never again held elective office.
Koch did not like Abzug before the race, but he developed his deep distaste for Mario Cuomo as a result of it. Koch was single and widely rumored to be gay. The Cuomo operation exploited this rumor, though in an off-kilter way, when signs reading "Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo" popped up in town. To this day, no one really knows how many people actually saw the signs and no one has taken either credit or blame for printing them. But that same summer, the Village Voice reported that someone in the Cuomo campaign had been assigned to investigate the question of Koch's sexuality. The Voice quoted Michael Dowd, Cuomo's campaign manager: "You hear rumors all the time [but] there's one that was so pervasive—that I heard from so many different people—that I began to think it might be true. Am I trying to find out if it is? Yeah." Cuomo disavowed both the signs and the investigations, saying, "I want to beat Ed Koch. But not for any reason like that."
Koch finished first in the primary, and then went into a runoff with Cuomo. Koch won that and then defeated Cuomo a third time (Cuomo ran in the general election on the Liberal Party ticket). City Hall was his.
The Cuomo–Koch relationship became important again in Koch's second term, when both men vied to replace Hugh Carey as the state's governor in 1982. Koch never found his footing in the race, largely because of his city-centric view of the Empire State—which he made known in self-destructive comments about life outside of the five boroughs. He called suburban living "sterile," "nothing," and "wasting your life." And he said rural living was "a joke" and described it as "wasting time in a pickup truck... to drive 20 miles to buy a gingham dress or a Sears Roebuck suit." He even denigrated the post he sought—"a terrible position"—and the city in which he would have to take up residence: "It requires living in Albany, which is small-town life at its worst." Unsurprisingly, Cuomo beat him.
"You have to understand," Koch said after his loss. "I didn't want to be governor. Everybody knows that. It was—what's the word I'm looking for—hubris on my part." That said, the defeat did not improve his view of Cuomo, even though they now had to work together. To get things done, Koch restrained himself. "We get along and we got along as mayor and governor, but I always held it against him," Koch later said. "I also held it against his son, Andy Cuomo. Even though social relationships when we meet in public are good, underneath, he knows I know what I'm really thinking: 'You prick!'" There was no dysfunctionality of the sort that emerged decades later when Andrew was in the governor's mansion and Bill de Blasio was mayor. With lunatic intensity, Cuomo decided he wanted to destroy de Blasio and was relentless in making the mayor as miserable as possible—thus proving Koch's descriptor entirely accurate.
Almost as bitter was his feud with Jimmy Carter, in which Koch's Jewishness again played a role. Even though Koch was largely aligned with Carter on domestic policy, they strongly disagreed on Israel, and Koch was not shy about pointing out their differences. Carter was particularly irked when Koch referred to five senior Carter-administration officials—Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, UN Ambassador Donald McHenry, former UN Ambassador Andrew Young, and Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Harold Saunders—as an anti-Israel "gang of five." As Koch later recalled, "If I had not just been to China (where the Gang of Four was big news), I might not have used that phrase. But I thought it was a good phrase, and it certainly stunned them." He was right. As Carter wrote in his diary about the incident, "Koch is almost acting like a fanatic this last couple of days." Carter's ire was not limited to his diary scribblings. At a fundraiser in 1980, Carter grabbed Koch and said to him, "You have done me more damage than any man in America."
Koch did endorse Carter in 1980 and even campaigned for him. They were, after all, both Democrats. But it was a typical half-hearted Koch endorsement. Even while stumping for Carter, he warned that Carter should "rot in hell" if he did not honor promises he made to Koch to be more supportive of Israel in his second term. (Given Carter's increasing hostility to the Jewish state in subsequent years, Carter should consider himself lucky that he did not win that second term and subject himself to Koch's curse.) And Koch was also courteous to Carter's opponent Ronald Reagan when Reagan visited New York. "I am not here to defend Ronald Reagan," he said. "But I'll tell you, I like him. He's a man of character." His tone angered Carter and other Democrats but served Koch well when Reagan won the election and became the president whose time in the White House overlapped the most with Koch's three terms. "I never voted for him," Koch said. "But I loved him."
Another key Koch antagonist was a future president. Donald Trump initially made his name by championing projects in New York City that he claimed only he could build because of his ability to cut through red tape. The key example of this was the renovation of the Wollman skating rink in Central Park, which Trump did manage to finish quickly and under budget after years of failed efforts by others. But Trump alienated Koch by asking that the skating rink be named after him. As Koch later recalled, "I was thinking to myself, 'What arrogance. First the convention center and now the skating rink. I'm surprised he doesn't want Central Park renamed for him.'"
Trump and Koch also clashed on a tax break for Trump Tower and a planned "Television City" 150-story West Side skyscraper that never materialized. Trump once observed that "Koch has achieved something quite miraculous. He's presided over an administration that is both pervasively corrupt and totally incompetent." When Trump called Koch "a moron," Koch countered by reciting compliments Trump had previously given him, and asking, "Will the real Donald Trump please stand up?" In another exchange, Trump told the New York Times, "The city under Ed Koch is a disaster." Koch responded: "If Donald Trump is squealing like a stuck pig, I must have done something right." Later, Koch observed that "Donald Trump is one of the least likable people I have met during the 12 years that I served as mayor." Finally, forecasting what he would have thought had he lived to see the Trump presidency, Koch wrote, "It is incomprehensible to me that for some people he has become a folk hero."
Koch's Jewishness was not a part of the feud with Trump, but it was central to his feud with Jesse Jackson. In 1988, there was a bitter contest in the New York Democratic presidential-nominee primary. Michael Dukakis was leading, and would win the party nomination, but both Tennessee Senator Al Gore and the racial firebrand Jesse Jackson were still in the race. Koch backed Gore, who was staunchly pro-Israel at the time, and set his sights on Jackson, who in 1984 had used the word "Hymietown" to refer to New York. Koch attacked Jackson relentlessly in the campaign, hitting his pro-Palestinian views, calling Jackson a liar, and, most famously, saying that Jews "would have to be crazy to vote for Jackson." This statement angered both blacks and Jews, and Koch later admitted that he had gone too far, saying, "My attacks on Jesse Jackson have backfired." Gore would also apologize to Jackson for Koch's behavior. Backfire or not, Koch was right again.
Dukakis won the state primary, with Jackson finishing second and Gore a distant third. On Election Night, Jackson supporters chanted "Koch is a crook," referring to corruption scandals that were plaguing Koch in his third term. Jackson and Koch mended fences that August at a session hosted by Cuomo. Jackson said that he "did not seek to extract from the mayor an apology.... The April campaign is behind me." But he would get a measure of revenge the next year when David Dinkins defeated Koch in the 1989 Democratic primary, ending Koch's electoral career after three terms and 12 years in City Hall.
Koch's time in office may have ended, but he was not done with feuding. In 1993, Dinkins was succeeded by Rudy Giuliani after one term, and Koch had endorsed Giuliani. The two men had a lot in common; Koch said their policies were similar, about 80 percent in agreement. But something went very wrong between them from the get-go; presumably Giuliani did not have time for Koch, who could be egotistical and a chore to be around. Koch fired back publicly. "He's a good mayor," Koch said. "But his personality prevents him from becoming a great mayor. He's mean. He's vindictive. He doesn't always tell the truth." At one point, Giuliani said of Koch that "he's dying for a corruption scandal in my administration so that he doesn't end up with the most corrupt administration in the last half of the 20th century."
Things worsened when Giuliani sought a Senate seat in 2000 and Koch released a collection of columns about his nemesis in a book titled Giuliani, Nasty Man. In the end, Giuliani ended up not running, putatively for health reasons, but Koch continued to take his shots at him, praising his own book's "wonderful title."
Koch's feuds are worth revisiting for a number of reasons. While we certainly do not need more name-calling these days, Koch's willingness to engage with opponents on substantive matters hearkens back to an era more open to free debate. Too often people who disagree with someone on the left stay silent for fear of being canceled. While Koch was courageous enough to take on sacred cows, a Koch today would be so burdened by demands for apologies that he would never survive in Democratic politics.
As for those opponents, time has vindicated Koch's judgment. The reputation of the Cuomos, especially Andrew, has plummeted in recent years. Trump's reputation continues to decline in the wake of his infamous anti-Semite's feast at Mar-A-Lago. Carter's presidency continues to be seen as a failure, and Jackson largely disappeared from public view after Barack Obama rose to the presidency. Abzug has also faded from historical memory.
The oddest battle of Koch's life was the one with Giuliani, but again, time has made his judgment of Giuliani's character more apposite. Perhaps no political figure in American history has seen a deeper decline in his personal standing than Giuliani, the hero of 9/11 and Time's Man of the Year for 2001—with the possible exception of Charles Lindbergh, who never actually sought political office. Koch could not have known that would happen to his target. The point here is that he did not punch down. The people he took on were powerful and risky to engage with.
There have been significant progressive efforts to diminish Koch's posthumous reputation. The New York Times ran a 5,000-word piece asserting that he was gay and implicitly criticizing him for not coming out of the closet while alive. The piece also twice made the point that leftists were questioning whether Koch's name should continue to adorn the 59th Street Bridge. But the passage of time will likely add to, rather than diminish, Koch's reputation. He was, at his best, a happy warrior, and remembering him as such makes him look even better now.