Their dalliance occurred with Koch and Gore passing like ships in the limelight, as Gore was just beginning his leftward migration and Koch was drifting rightward from a political career begun as a loudmouth liberal reformer in Greenwich Village. There would probably never have been another moment when the two men would have wound up in each other’s arms.
But they were cast together by circumstances where each tried to take advantage of the other for their narrow needs of the moment. Koch was nearing the end of his third term as mayor, in which he had overseen a civic comeback from the economic crisis of the 1970s. But the city had increasingly tired of his stridency and the corruption that had boiled over during his tenure without touching him personally. Gore was just trying to keep his presidential campaign going.
Gore had taken a late flyer on the presidential race, hoping to take advantage of the South-friendly 1988 primary schedule. It had been engineered by Southern Democrats in the hope of tugging the party back toward the center, after the 1984 debacle when liberal nominee Walter Mondale lost 49 states to incumbent Ronald Reagan.
But the campaign hadn’t gone quite as Gore hoped. He eschewed competition in the Iowa caucuses, where he was going to get trounced anyway, and attracted little support in other early Northern contests. He had a moderately good showing in the big wave of Super Tuesday Southern primaries, picking up six Southern-ish states, and was still standing when the field winnowed down to preacher-agitator Jesse Jackson, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis and himself. Yet even though he had left some other formidable candidates in the dust, there was no place further for Gore to go. He was a lackluster third in the Wisconsin primary and headed off to New York for his last stand.
As often happens when candidates see the race starting to slip away, Gore started to get increasingly strident in his attacks on his two rivals. He unveiled the story of the Massachusetts prison furlough program that begat the notorious general-election Willie Horton ads, used to devastating effect by George H.W. Bush against Dukakis. Gore also hit at Jackson over his coziness with Arab interests and lack of support for Israel.
The New York scene where Gore arrived in April 1988 had its own peculiarly heated-up politics of race, wealth, factionalism and religious and ethnic rivalries, famously portrayed at the time by the novelist Tom Wolfe in The Bonfire of the Vanities. Koch was notorious for his pugnacity in that admixture and noticed some intersection of his useful enemies with those of Gore, who after leaving Good Ole Boy country was working hard to cultivate a Blue Collar Guy persona. You gotta problem with that?
Probably drawn by Gore’s attacks on Jackson, Koch endorsed Gore in the week before the primary. But what had seemed like a nice pickup for Gore started to seem increasingly uncomfortable as it unfolded. Gore certainly wasn’t ready for Koch to declare that Jews would be “crazy” to vote for Jackson as his campaign increasingly became an exercise for a longer game.
But still, they campaigned together. The Sunday before the election, they did the ethnic tour of the city. Up to the Bronx they went for rally in a Puerto Rican neighborhood, then down to the Battery — albeit not riding in a hole in the ground. Then off to Little Italy and to a Jewish enclave on the Lower East Side for a little pickup basketball.
All along the way, Koch was dragging Gore to places to be fed yet another ethnic food — arroz con pollo, knishes, cannoli, kosher pickles. Perhaps the Koch plan was to keep Gore’s mouth stuffed so he couldn’t interrupt Koch’s time with the media.
“Al Gore is from Tennessee,” Koch told traveling reporters. “Now, when you meet a Jew in Tennessee, you have to go a whole two weeks before you meet another one. But Al Gore is a friend of Israel.”
And on and on it went — and it was mostly about Koch.
Two days later, the voters had their say. Even before the votes were all cast, Tennessee’s governor, Ned McWherter, was telling people back in Nashville that although everyone was proud of what Gore had achieved, it was probably time for him to come home. When the count was over, all but 10 percent of New York voters told him the same thing.
The following year, they also said it to Koch, who lost in the Democratic primary to David Dinkins in a bid for a fourth term.
RIP, Ed Koch.