I have been in politics since 1956 when I volunteered to be a street campaigner and spokesperson for Adlai Stevenson who was running for president against Dwight Eisenhower. I spent many lunch hours campaigning on the historic steps of the Subtreasury building, located at the corner of Wall and Nassau Streets. In the summer and fall, hundreds of people who worked at the New York Stock Exchange on Broad Street would sit on the steps between Noon and 2:00 p.m. and eat their lunches.
That experience started my political career which ultimately embraced 23 years in public service. My years of public service included two years in the City Council, nine years in the U.S. Congress, and 12 years as mayor of New York City. I enjoyed serving in each of those capacities. Every day brought new challenges, sometimes ending in victory and other times in defeat.
My good friend and political mentor, David Garth, summed up these experiences common to all who serve in government by saying, “Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you.”
President Barack Obama illustrates the accuracy of that description. Currently, his approval ratings are falling, and the bear is eating him for lunch. However, we all should remember the halcyon days of not so long ago when he could do no wrong. The press, pundits, and the Sunday morning talking heads are a fickle lot. One week they are for you and the next week the entire press cadre, like marionettes on a string, move in an opposite direction. Suddenly he is seen as incompetent, unfeeling or, even worse, a villain of the story occupying their attention, which is now the gulf oil spill. Petroleum gushing from the ocean floor is shown daily on television. Now when the President plays golf for recreation, it is seen as an insult to the people suffering the effects of the BP oil spill. How ridiculous. Today he can do no right.
George W. Bush was our hero when he arrived at Ground Zero to view the World Trade Center site after 9/11. I was on the West Side Highway when he addressed a crowd of hundreds who had been invited to greet him. Those assembled included public officials, people who worked in the area, volunteers helping in various ways, and the clergy led by Edward Cardinal Egan. I will never forget how the crowd reacted when President Bush appeared, jumped up on a pile of debris, was held steady by a retired firefighter, and began to address us. Everyone, including the Cardinal, began to chant, “USA, USA.” It was thrilling. What it meant without a doubt was that we were united. No one cared whether Bush was a Republican or a Democrat.
We wanted our president to know that we were willing to do whatever it would take to protect the greatest country in the world. It reminded me of our nation’s reaction to the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack. We vowed to remember that sneak attack, pick ourselves up from the floor and kick the butt of the Japanese empire, regardless of how long it might take. And we did.
Then came Hurricane Katrina, Bush’s ridiculous flyover of New Orleans, and his later comment, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” And the bear voraciously ate President Bush.
Similarly, President Obama’s solid victory over Senator John McCain and his inspirational speeches before and after his election, fed our desires for a new beginning that would embrace racial reconciliation and a change in government direction that would show far greater concern for the needs of the middle class and the poor. President Obama’s poll numbers were very high at the time. Indeed, despite a year of adversity, they still are sound, ranging from a low of 45 to a high of 50.
And then came British Petroleum (BP) and the gulf oil debacle. Once again, the bear has arrived. He is still tearing up the terrain, and his appetite is enormous.
But I have good news for President Obama. I have been out of office for 20 years, since December 31, 1989. Immediately upon leaving office, I decided to stay in touch with deputy mayors, commissioners, and their deputies who served during the 12 years of my mayoralty. About 200 or so get together every December for a reunion. I also have lunch with those same individuals, inviting about a half-dozen of them to join me every six weeks or so. Those lunches have been ongoing now for the last two decades.
While discussing political issues at the most recent lunch about two weeks ago, everyone indicated that they were disappointed to some extent with the President’s performance to date. Being Democrats, they had all voted for him in the last election. When I asked, “If the election were held tomorrow, who would vote for President Obama,” every one of them raised their hand to convey they would vote for him again.
In closing, let me impart some age-old advice: Illegitimi non carborundum (Don’t let the bastards grind you down.) Also, continue to be yourself. Nobody, except screen or stage actors, is ever sufficiently convincing when attempting to be someone else. The people always know when a public official is trying to con them.
I’d like to close with the phrase that we should all be shouting in the presence of every president, “USA, USA.” He belongs to all of us. God bless President Barack Obama, and may God bless America.
It was announced this morning that General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, had insulted President Obama, National Security Adviser Jim Jones, and Special Representative to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke. McChrystal’s remarks were made during a Rolling Stone interview. My advice: Do what President Lincoln did in a similar situation. He fired Major General George McClellan. And do what President Truman did. He fired General Douglas MacArthur. In the USA, the military serves the civilian government, not the other way.
Let me know your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Honorable Edward Irving Koch served New York City as its 105th Mayor from 1978 to 1989.