Left to right: New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, President Jimmy Carter, New York Governor Hugh Carey, and New York City Mayor Ed Koch at the White House on November 2, 1978. Via Flickr.
The rapturous praise for the late New York Mayor Ed Koch tames his legacy, overlooking the fact that in 1988 the Atlantic called him “disgraceful” while the New York Times declared his “relentless … truculence” and “tantrum[s],” embarrassing and “inflammatory.” Beyond the kind sentiment, caricaturing Koch as a feisty lone gunslinger wisecracking his city back to health misses the deeper historical significance of Koch’s attempt to save liberalism from itself, as well as the broader ambivalence Americans have had with political anger.
Ed Koch, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and other practitioners of the politics of patriotic indignation understood, especially in the 1970s, that sometimes anger is the rational response to challenges -- and can certainly pay off politically. They used flashes of anger -- and wit -- to inspire Americans while seeking to preserve a more muscular, patriotic liberalism under assault from the more self-critical, McGovernik, identity-politics-driven New Left.
At the time, many Americans were demoralized by inflation roaring, crime soaring, family breakdown spreading and the specters of Watergate and Vietnam haunting the country. The Big Apple, New York, appeared rotten, one big gritty, grimy, terrifying crime scene slouching toward chaos, oozing toxicity, reeking of decay, teetering toward bankruptcy. As students of the urban scene, as traditional Franklin Roosevelt liberals, and as patriots who fought in World War II and eventually opposed the Vietnam War, both Ed Koch and Pat Moynihan understood that Americans -- and New Yorkers -- craved proud, affirmative, edgy leadership.
Moynihan paved the way as America’s ambassador to the United Nations in 1975. Offended by the Soviet-orchestrated Arab-endorsed General Assembly Resolution 3379 singling out one form of nationalism in that body of nationalisms, Jewish nationalism, meaning Zionism, as racism, six months after the fall of South Vietnam, Moynihan let loose. In his historic speech on November 10, 1975, Moynihan proclaimed that his country “does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act” -- echoing Franklin Roosevelt’s fury at the Japanese “day of infamy” which decimated Pearl Harbor.
Told that he was not being diplomatic enough, advised to “tone down” his defense of democracy and decency, Moynihan asked, “What is this word toning down; when you are faced with an outright lie about the United States and we go in and say this is not true. Now, how do you tone that down? Do you say it is only half untrue? What kind of people are we? What kind of people do they think we are?”
Even in the era of the smiley face and the “Have a Nice Day” mantra, even amid America’s characteristic stability and widespread liberty, there was a surliness to seventies culture. The fall 1975 television season’s top show -- for the sixth consecutive year -- was All in the Family, set in Queens, NY, with the gruff Archie Bunker, while the children’s hit Sesame Street was making Oscar the Grouch a national icon.
In 1976, a year after Resolution 3379, there were more echoes of Moynihan’s approach in the Academy Award–winning movie Network, starring Peter Finch -- and written by the Bronx-born Paddy Chayefsky. Finch, as Howard Beale, the avenging news anchor, commanded his viewers to stand up, open the window, “stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’”
Chayefsky’s slogan captured the 1970s’ Zeitgeist. Many of the 1970s’ most successful politicians understood that many Americans were indeed mad as hell. Big-city Democratic mayors such as Koch, elected in 1977, and Philadelphia’s Frank Rizzo, perfected an aggressive in-your-face leadership style. Calling himself a “liberal with sanity” demonstrated Koch’s prickly independence, and his refusal to allow liberalism to become defined by weakness or appeasement.
Many American WASPs and rationalist American historians have been ambivalent about anger. Americans have long tried repressing this emotion rather than channeling it. The most famous historical analysis of anger stigmatized it. “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” Richard Hofstadter wrote in “The Paranoid Style in American History,” in Harper’s in 1964. He chose the word “paranoid” to evoke “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” Five decades later, left -wingers still scorn conservative anger as bullying, demagogic, and irrational, while right-wingers deem liberal anger socialist, self-righteous, and irrational.
Yet this disdain for anger misses the way good, self-righteous rage has powered the American historical engine. The American Revolution was not just inspired by “Common Sense” appeals; Patrick Henry’s furious cry set the tone when he avowed: “Give me liberty or give me death!” Presidents from Andrew Jackson through Bill Clinton have used the occasional temper tantrum to great effect, with Jackson protecting the nation in 1830 with his famous, edgy toast “Our Union: It must be preserved,” just as Clinton’s “Sister Souljah” moment broadcast his independence from the conventional liberal pieties. And certainly our rights have been expanded, our democracy ennobled, by the shouts of reformers, from Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” to Martin Luther King Jr’s, tempered yet still edgy “I have a dream.” Neither Seneca Falls nor Selma nor Stonewall would have been civil rights milestones without being fueled by fury.
Anger has shaped America foreign policy, too. Part of the American sense of mission, of idealism regarding the world, stemmed from indignation against injustice in the world, not just self-protective or vengeful rage against attacks. Franklin Roosevelt stoked anger against the Nazis and the Japanese during World War II, intelligently, effectively, and righteously. Americans also expressed a perfectly reasonable, justifiable wrath against Soviet oppression during the Cold War.
In the 1970s, many mainstream liberals, such as then-Congressman Koch and then-Ambassador Moynihan, resented what liberalism was becoming. During the 1960s and the fight over Vietnam, Moynihan worried that, as he put it, “the educated elite of the American middle class have come to detest their society.” He and Koch feared the big budget liberalism of the Great Society had lost its way, programmatically, financially, morally and politically. Moynihan sought to restore Americans’ sense of mission by getting Americans angry again at the world’s bad guys -- the totalitarian thugs whose representatives he encountered in the UN. Koch sought to restore New Yorkers’ sense of mission by getting them angry at those who were making America’s flagship metropolis ungovernable, from feather-bedding union heads to criminal-appeasing judges, from gangbangers to limousine liberals.
This epidemic of relativism and self-criticism spawned the “age of nonheroes,” the U.S. News and World Report lamented in July 1975. Moynihan’s and Koch’s politics of patriotic indignation offered a welcome alternative to popular resignation. Their passion made them heroes in this disillusioned age. Their inspired, principled, political response to the blows of the 1960s and 1970s would help shape the 1980s, especially Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America, wherein America’s first Hollywood actor understood that Americans usually wanted Goldwaterism with a smile not a sneer, laced with the occasional, strategic growl -- be it at the Air Traffic controllers for striking or at Mikhail Gorbachev for just not tearing down “that wall” in Berlin.
They were an odd couple -- the cerebral Irishman from Hell’s Kitchen and the tough-talking Bronx Jew. Moynihan went high brow, conquering Harvard and wearing Savile Row suits; Koch went low brow, confronting party bosses and wearing “schlumpy” clothes. Moynihan’s elegance hid a toughness enemies were foolish to overlook; Koch’s gruffness hid an intelligence that made it foolish to underestimate him too. Moynihan detested the retail politics Koch loved – Moynihan never asked “how’m I doing?” Koch usually resented high falutin’ Harvard academics -- his books were anecdote strewn, not footnote-laden. Both particularly enjoyed defeating the loud, brash, feminist liberal Bella Abzug, herself iconic, in their big, defining elections.
Koch and Moynihan were not close but they respected one another. “Ed Koch gave New York City back its morale,” Moynihan would say. “And that is a massive achievement.” Koch would rank Moynihan as “one of our greatest senators,” and with the egoist’s touch of envy for a job by another well done, he would suggest that Moynihan’s “standing up and being responsible for the rescission of the Zionism is racism resolution of the U.N. was an act far more important than anything I have done.” Together, while not quite Ronald Reagan Democrats because both remained Democratic partisans, they helped many New Yorkers in their transition from being loyal Franklin Roosevelt Democrats to Reagan voters.
Even though at one point in the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney accused Barack Obama of being “angry,” President Obama has been more Mr. Spock than Mayor Koch or Ambassador Moynihan. Obama’s restraint served him well in 2008, as he defused traditional racial stereotypes about angry black men. Moreover, when the fiscal crisis hit, he appeared calmer and more mature than the Senate veteran who was decades older than him, John McCain. Yet, these days, with too many guns in the wrong hands, and too many partisan legislators blocking constructive compromise, with the economy still fragile and American morale still low, it might behoove the President to echo Koch, to dish out some Moynihan, and emote, rather than so frequently appearing so remote.
The art of picking the right political fight remains a mystical one, combining gut instinct and crass interests. Both Koch and Moynihan mastered that skill. “Did I make a crisis out of this obscene resolution?” Moynihan would bellow, responding to criticism that he picked a fight in 1975. “Damn right I did!” That kind of affirmative courage helped save New York and redeem America, as it paved the way for the prosperity of the Ed Koch boom in New York, and Ronald Reagan’s patriotic “Morning in America” revival. We could use some more of that healing anger – and political leadership – today, during our own period of national doubt and demoralization.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University. The author of eight books on American history, his latest, Moynihan's Moment: America's Fight Against Zionism as Racism was just published by Oxford University Press.