Just recently I had lunch with former Mayor Ed Koch, and I have to say it was a very pleasurable experience.
Some politicians just have “It.” Charisma, personality, charm, the ability to connect with people. Koch has always been one of them.
For 25 years, Koch and I have always had a traditional Newsmaker/Journalistic relationship. I’ve known him as the city’s personable and witty three term mayor, but this time over lunch was different. He was again literally standing as tall as he did when he was mayor. He’s a man in his 80’s, who has had heart problems, but on this day Koch was in his prime. Every weekend, he dines for the most part, with former members of his administration, and it was remarkable to watch Koch hold court without missing a beat. In all these years, I had never seen the private Ed Koch. But this time I did.
It amazing what you may not know about public officials. In his apartment, I looked over at his bookcase, and there were several horse sculptures. Koch explained to me he collects horse sculptures from all around the world, and in his words, the best deal was a pair of sculptured horses he bought while in China.
It’s either you have the “magic” or you don’t.
Some of us may forget the charisma Koch brought to the job, “Mr. How am I doing,” but on this Saturday, the charm was on full display. From the excitement at the restaurant when Koch called himself to make the reservation to the way we were treated as a lunch party. I watched in amazement as people had the mayor pose with them for photos, some 20 years after he was in office.
A quick point on other mayors.
Rudy Giuliani was tough as nails in public, but the exact opposite at least with me in private. Rudy and I would go at it during his daily press briefings, but the truth is I always liked him. That doesn’t mean for one second, that I wasn’t going to do my job. Mayor David Dinkins for his part was always a gentleman in public and a gentleman in private. In fact, he is still the same today.
When I think of Dinkins, what comes to mind are three legendary, larger than life officials.
All three had the magic ability to connect like no one else. South Africa President Nelson Mandela, former President Bill Clinton, and Former California Speaker Willie Brown.
It there was ever an official that had “the magic touch,” it’s the man I interviewed at the mayor’s residence, Gracie Mansion during the Dinkins years, and that is none other than Nelson Mandela.
It’s unique and interesting because Mandela didn’t have the focus groups, or the opportunity to first test his message. Mandela had spent the last 25 years in prison.
It was the honor of a lifetime, to interview Mandela during his first historic trip to America and as far as politicians go, he was as polished as polished gets! Maybe it was because he was real, speaking from the heart, and believed with great passion in what he was fighting for.
I will never forget that perfect olive brown skin, and the perfect cadence of Mr. Mandela’s voice. In fact,20 years later it’s still hard for me to believe our encounter.
In radio at the time, we sat up all the equipment in a room with State Department Agents everywhere. A few minutes later, the door knob turned, and in walked none other than Nelson Mandela.
I will never forget the lesson Mr. Mandela taught me about adversity.
We were waiting for a minute or two to go on the air live, and making small talk I said Mr. Mandela,
“Can I ask you a question”
His response: “Yes Young Man.”
I said in total disbelief: “Mr. Mandela, you just spent 25 years in prison, and you are not angry, you are smiling?
Mandela gently laughed, and said: “To be angry would be giving in to the people that locked me up. My critics.”
I’m often asked what’s my best interview ever? Well there’s the answer, Nelson Mandela.
There are some officials that just have it. Some have no presence at all, and because of it their careers never prosper. Then there are those that look like they were born for politics. Born to be on the stage. President Obama *during the campaign* is definitely one, and also the last Democrat before Obama to hold the oval office.
Most people that have met Bill Clinton will tell you he has the ability to talk to you, and make you feel like you are the only person in the entire world.
It is true Clinton has an affinity with African Americans, and as president, he once kept me out of Secret Service custody. At a diner in Queens, I crossed over a line the Secret Service had set up. In under to interview the then-president LIVE, I would have to cross the line. I did, and the Secret Service was livid. It was only after Clinton was finished and walking away that the president declared “leave him alone, that they backed off.
I met Clinton through Mayor Dinkins and also one of the most prominent African Americans I would ever have the opportunity to encounter, California Speaker Willie Brown. Also the former mayor of San Francisco.
In the dictionary next to: “having the magic touch” as far as politicians go, there should be photos of Clinton, Koch, Mandela, and Willie Brown.
Brown’s reputation preceded him. He was flamboyant, always immaculately dressed, and knew how to raise political dollars.
I met Brown on a day and a half trip Dinkins made to California for a fund-raiser Brown held for him.
The confidence from Brown was oozing, and he knew how to work it. He was so smooth that when Republicans finally took control of the California legislature, Brown still was able to remain speaker. Talk about pulling a rabbit out of a hat. This guy actually had some republicans that supported him. So even, when Republicans finally won, they still lost.
Another official that you just knew was going on to bigger places, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. At the time back in the 1990’s, several buses in Israel had been hit by suicide bombers, and Giuliani as he should have, went to Israel to show support. Giuliani held a breakfast with Netanyahu, who at the time was not elected, and it was clear that this guy had the touch. You just knew it.
I later found out Netanyahu had attended college in America and hired American Republican political consultant Arthur Finkelstein to run his campaign. It also doesn’t surprise me or come as a shock that Netanyahu is back in office again as Prime Minister.
In 1985 when I started in the business, Mario Cuomo was an icon in the democratic party who had the magic touch.
His ability to deliver a speech was outstanding. I’ll always remember one time he appeared on my colleague Gil Noble’s show, “Like it is” and so did I. Afterwards Cuomo wasn’t too happy with me in the restroom after we had to grade him on the show. But hey, I do give him credit for telling me to my face man to man. We will find out over the next few years if the younger Cuomo has the touch.
The final person that comes to mind who it was clear no one was going to stop him is the Rev. Al Sharpton. I have never met someone as quick on their feet as Sharpton. Even his critics in private, admit that. He’s also as witty as they come.
Hey if you’ve got the magic touch, you got it.
It was so nice seeing Mayor Koch again.