Why Ed Koch Never Became President

Richard Reeves
Syndicated Columnist
Richard Reeves, senior lecturer at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, is an author and syndicated columnist whose column has appeared in more than 100 newspapers…
Richard Reeves

I was standing in line for a movie years ago on Lexington Avenue in New York, when an unmistakable voice came from near the front of the line. “Hey, Dick! Hey, Dick! It’s Ed Koch!” Who else? He kept on speaking at the top of his voice — he did not have a bottom — over a couple of dozen people, asking me or telling me about some problem at City Hall or maybe complaining about the newspaper, The New York Times, of which I was then City Hall bureau chief.

I was hoping a trap door would open under him, or me, but the girl with me was impressed — “The mayor knows you?” And the rest of the folks in line got a tutorial in the politics of New York, city and state.

He was an original, as you must already know. I briefly flirted with the idea that this man could become president of the United States. The first Jewish president and the loudest. He blew his chance, if he really ever had one, in 1982 when he decided to run for governor. He had a lot going for him; a lot of people loved the guy and his style. He also had the right number of enemies — other politicians whom he sometimes reduced to sputtering.

He had come to power as a real New York liberal, a four-term congressman living alone in a $475-a-month rent-controlled one-bedroom in Greenwich Village. He was winning that 1982 Democratic primary election rather handily over a Queens lawyer named Mario Cuomo — even as someone was passing out cards in Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island that read: “Vote for Cuomo not the Homo.”

It’s a tough town, New York. Upstate, obviously more conservative, was just as tough. Koch lost it in a Playboy interview when he was asked about all that territory from the Bronx north to the Canadian border. The interviewer asked him whether he had problems up there in the suburbs and snow country.

Koch told the interviewer that living in the suburbs was “wasting your life.” When asked whether sitting in a subway to get around the city was also a waste of time, he replied:

“As opposed to wasting time in a car? Or out in the country, wasting time in a pickup truck when you have to drive 20 miles to buy a gingham dress or a Sears Roebuck suit? This rural America thing — I’m telling you, it’s a joke.”

That did it. The “gingham” line. Koch clobbered Cuomo in the city, ran even in the near suburbs, but lost by 30 percentage points upstate. That killed my fantasy scenario: Any New York governor is at least a plausible candidate for vice president, and then ….

Koch was no lefty. He had a deep, populist conservative streak. He was a Ronald Reagan fan, and he endorsed George W. Bush in 2000 — that just might have appealed to Middle America. He was a law-and-order guy who had no use for “elitist” Democrats.

In an interview in Syracuse years after his gubernatorial run, Koch said he shouldn’t have used the “gingham” line. He thought people would take it as a joke. He then added he would never live in a place like Syracuse — or in Albany, the state capital. “New York City,” he said. “In New York City, you don’t know from one day to another who you’re going to meet, what’s going to happen, and I love that.”

And most New Yorkers liked him. He had a bad third term and sounded like a cranky Republican in later years — but was a pretty good mayor in a time of fiscal crisis. We will never see his like again.


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