Sunday, March 23, 2008

On Gesture Politics

As promised, a quick look at Ed Koch and his new book, The Koch Papers: My Fight Against Anti-Semitism. I can't recommend this book as highly, because I haven't read it, though I think it would give you a couple of interesting insights into US policy towards Israel in the 1970s and 1980s.

The book's most interesting tidbit, at least according to the talk between Koch and his editor, Rafael Medoff, at the Princeton Club on Wednesday, is that his source for the news that James Baker had uttered the phrase "F*** the Jews. They didn't vote for us anyway" was Jack Kemp, say the authors. And Koch is plenty exercised that neither Baker, nor his boss, George Bush the First, were not more upfront about what happened.*

Koch was in a mood to settle scores. He was graceful about Bush Senior, who allowed Koch to reprint a letter about the affair that does not reflect completely well on him. He described Woody Allen's refusal to let him reprint a letter, where Allen acknowledges that anti-Semitism might have a following in France, as "despicable" (you can read an exchange between the two here). Not the sleeping with the step daughter bit, which took place a year or two after Koch appeared in one of his films. Just so it's clear.

We also got Koch's thoughts on the Jeremiah Wright flap. You've probably read all about the thoughtful and well-reasoned speech from Obama on his relationship with Wright, and the how relations between African-Americans and Whites have to be viewed through decades of history. As part of it, Obama compared, and didn't quite make equivalent, the thoughts of Wright on America (short version: given America's lousy foreign policy and race record I say God Damn America) and his white grandmother's fear of black teenagers on the street.

As far as Koch is concerned, the more important equivalency is between Obama's grandmother and Jesse Jackson, who voiced similar sentiments in the 1980s, and thus blessed fear of young black males during the 80s. Which gives you an idea of Koch's worldview - public consciousness as shaped by a few well-placed leaders.

As far as Koch was concerned, Obama's point, that both Wright's and his grandmother's views (and Jackson's, for that matter) are the product of the difficult co-existence to which America's races have settled down in the years since civil rights, are irrelevant. This is gesture politics as the means and the end. Koch, for instance, talks of his work in allowing men convicted of possession felonies under the Rockefeller drugs laws to overlook them in job applications, and of the damage that the laws have wreaked on families and communities affected by drugs. But he's only really interested in explaining how him and Al Sharpton bonded over the process.

Koch is not just the product of New York City politics, since as his book recounts, he spent a fair amount of time strutting his stuff on the national stage. But the quotable, affable, less-than-managerial Koch was ideally suited to staying on top in City politics. Bloomberg, of course, is pretty much the opposite, while Giuliani, who had an almost pathological addiction to public gestures, no matter how destructive, nonetheless decided to highlight his managerial competence in his mayoral, and later a national, campaigns.

Is Koch history, or a decent guide to what the city's democrats might throw up if left unmolested? I don''t know. But can't you see something of the Koch playbook, minus the sharp one-liners, in Marty Markowitz' inelegant mugging? I'm just sayin'.

*This sentence originally erroneously ascribed the remark to Kemp, rather than named Kemp as Koch's source. Apologies to Kemp, and the authors.


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