Monday, February 4, 2013

Four Losses: Koch, Kerry, Clinton, and McCain

Four Losses: Koch, Kerry, Clinton, and McCain

Ed Koch, the former Mayor of New York, passed away last Friday, taking with him a life well lived, rich with accomplishments and failures. 

Koch will be eulogized today.  He was funny, egocentric, imperious, commanding, smart, inventive, and completely devoted to his city.  In one final real estate transaction, he bought a plot in the Trinity Church graveyard, the last active cemetery in Manhattan, where he will hang out with a couple of former Mayors, a large number of Astors, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John James Audubon. One imagines that they will have plenty to talk about--if he lets any of them get a word in edgewise. 

A lot of coverage has focused on how he brought the City back from the brink of financial ruin, and he did, but he also gave it a bit of its swagger back.  He understood that it was a jewel; raucous and cruel at times, noisy, expensive, demanding, crowded, but composed of exquisite facets that just needed a little buffing up.  On Koch’s watch the Central Park Conservancy was created, transforming what had been a symbol of decay into a great playground.  Koch pioneered other public private partnerships and business improvement districts, he fought with unions, he built public housing, he increased funding for schools, he did hundreds of large and small things, some good, some bad, but always moving forward, always with an eye to bettering his home.

He was a three-term Mayor, winning re-election by huge margins.  His third term was not successful, his appeal wore down, there were scandals, and he was turned out in the Democratic primary by David Dinkins, well-meaning but ineffectual.   After he lost, he said "The people have spoken...and they must be punished."  No false modesty in our Ed.

The post Mayoral Ed Koch continued the circus.  He was a “People’s Court” Judge, and an author, and a film critic, and a lawyer.  He had a radio talk show, reviewed restaurants, wrote columns, and generally did anything and everything to keep his ego from retiring.  He enraged many Democrats when he crossed party lines to endorse Republicans,  including George W. Bush in 2004.

But the man had juice.  He had passion; the right kind of passion, not just a love of self (although there was certainly that in abundance) but for the sprawling, tempestuous place he called home. And, when he died, that place filled with countless generous remembrances from both former allies and opponents.  Pretty impressive for a man who left office in December of 1989. 

It is one of those odd quirks of fate that Koch died as the Senate was concluding a round of hearings; outgoing Secretary of State Clinton on Benghazi, the nomination of John Kerry to replace her, and that of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense.  I can’t think of anything more timely to demonstrate just how much the times, and the culture, have changed some people over the last two decades.

Hillary Clinton lost a bitter battle with Mr. Obama for the Democratic nomination in 2008, then put aside her disappointment and accepted his offer of the post of Secretary of State.  She has served her country well, and goes out with one of the highest approval ratings of any national politician, admired even by many Republicans.  The Benghazi hearings were a chance for the national GOP to muddy her up before she becomes the early favorite for 2016.  Suffice to say, she’s still a favorite, if she wants it.

Kerry lost a close election to George W. Bush in 2004.  He was an imperfect candidate with an imperfect message, and by the time Karl Rove and his friends were finished Swift-boating him, he came up short.  It must have hurt, but he gathered himself and returned to the Senate to play a constructive role.  He became a leading voice on foreign policy, eventually becoming Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee in 2009.  His hearing was approximately four hours, and the full Senate voted 94-3 to confirm him.

If John Kerry was given a warm welcome by his colleagues, even those who disagreed with him, they must have saved up all their venom for Chuck Hagel, who squirmed and stammered through more than seven hours of blistering cross-examination. 

Hagel was, frankly, poor.  He seemed ill-prepared at times and apparently astonished that his former chums would tear into him in so personal a way.  It was a terrible misjudgment, particularly since the entire Republican establishment and media had been firing artillery at him for weeks.  Perhaps he thought that in the chamber that he had served, Senatorial courtesy would carry him through.  He was wrong.  His future is uncertain; a few Republican Senators are making some noise about a filibuster, but he probably has enough votes to (barely) win confirmation.

So, why?  Hagel served as a Republican Senator from Nebraska as late as 2009, and Presidents usually get some deference on Cabinet picks. Part of it was un-slaked bloodlust after they had to be nice to Kerry and they were unable to lay a glove on Hillary during the Benghazi hearings. But, more than anything else,  Hagel was the place where the GOP decided to take its stand against Mr. Obama and his policies; if you can’t smack the President, there’s nothing like an Obama piƱata.

Chuck Hagel became the whipping boy for a party locked into a neo-con vision of the world that counts the Iraq war (and Afghanistan) as signal accomplishments, even if most of the country disagrees.  That is understandable.  Less understandable is that the tip of that cat-o-nine-tails is Senator John McCain, loser to Mr. Obama in 2008, and a man apparently so marinated in his own bitterness that he has not only lost his perspective, but in danger of losing his place in history.

Watch, if you can stand it, an excerpt of the hearings, with Mr. McCain conducting a sneering, snarling, hectoring cross examination of the man who was Co-Chair of his 2000 Presidential campaign.  It is ugly in the extreme, both for what it might say about Mr. Hagel’s capabilities for the job, and what it does say about Senator McCain. 

Is this what contemporary politics is all about?  Must everything be grim combat? 

I hope not.  Read a few Koch stories, especially those told by the many he annoyed over the years, and you can hear the amused exasperation and admiration.  Ed Koch might have been a pushy, bombastic, aggravating man who loved a microphone, but he didn’t burn too many bridges.

Better yet, think about a fifth loser, Bob Dole, the former Senator from Kansas.  Dole retired to write books, to practice law, to work on world hunger with his friend, former Senator George McGovern (a sixth “loser” who then spent the rest of his life in public service) and to raise funds and advocate for veterans.

Dole had a long friendship with the late Senator Daniel Inouye, Democrat of Hawaii, also a decorated (and seriously wounded) World War II vet.  They had met while rehabilitating at an Army hospital--both men had largely lost the use of their right arms.  Inouye died last December, and Dole, although seriously ill for years, and largely confined to a wheelchair, insisted on coming to the memorial as Inouye lay in state.  Harry Reid describes it in his eulogy to Inouye.  Dole had called Reid asking if he could go over to the Rotunda with him.  As they approached,  Dole said. “Danny’s not going to see me in a wheelchair.”  And he walked, with difficulty, but he walked, the rest of the way, and reaching the casket, saluted his old friend with his left hand. 

Pretty old fashioned, wouldn’t you say?  But some things, like friendship, service, and class, never truly go out of style.  They just get forgotten occasionally.