My Penpal, Mayor Koch
Jude Wanniski
April 23, 1997


Memo To: Website browsers, fans, clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: My Penpal, Mayor Koch

[Following is a lengthy exchange that begins with a letter to me from former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who writes in response to a letter I penned to the New York Post in defense of Robert Novak, who Koch criticized in a Post essay for Novak's positive assessment of Louis Farrakhan.]

Dear Mr. Wanniski:

I have seen your letter to the editor of the New York Post responding to my column about Minister Farrakhan. I found your reference to his venomous statements directed at Jews over the years as "small lie[s],H ridiculous. It would be redundant to repeat those "small lie[s]," but I will cite his references to Judaism as both a "gutter religion" and a "dirty religion" small to you, but huge to me.

Your referencing the fact that Robert Novak "was born a Jew 66 years ago," reminded me that Cortes's mistress, Malinche, was a Maya.

All the best.

Sincerely, Ed Koch

Dear Mayor.... It's been a long time since we conversed, one phone call when you were a congressman and I was associate editor at The Wall Street Journal, working for Bob Bartley way back when. I was a great admirer of yours and still enjoy your pieces in the NYPost. You don't know as much about Farrakhan as you should, though. I've spent countless hours since the Million Man March trying to understand the man. It's the reporter in me, I guess, which could not understand how an anti-Semitic bigot could deliver such a magnificent speech and persuade a million black men to travel to D.C. at their own expense, to stand in the sun all day long listening to speeches about why they should obey the commandments of God. I did not see a political Hitler. I saw a religious man, not filled with hatred, but with anger at a white community that really does not listen to the real needs and wants of the black community.

It doesn't matter how many times he explains the context of "dirty religion," the tabloids continue to run the same quotes. Nobody ever checks. Even in your column, you can see more of a context, when he talks about those Jews who use Judaism as a shield, to protect what is not a religious conviction, but a political agenda. I know it's hard for you to believe, because the ADL has spent so much time and energy demonizing him for the last 14 years since he endorsed Jesse Jackson's candidacy. Jack Kemp and I have tried and failed to persuade Abe Foxman to sit down with the man, who has been offering reconciliation with the Jewish community for many years. He told my conference in Boca Raton at the end of February that he knows American Jews of all white folks were the ones who helped blacks earlier in the century, when blacks were "political children." But at the end of the 20th century, the relationship has to change, and Jewish leaders have to treat black leaders like adults, not children, to be bought off with welfare checks and patted on the head, as long as they vote right. Farrakhan is no threat to the Jewish community. In many speeches I've watched on videotape, speaking to all black audiences, he talks philosophically about the great religions, and how they all flow from the law of Abraham. He knows the Old Testament and the New by heart, and quotes from both whenever he speaks, or in even the briefest of phone calls or personal meetings.

Did you see him on "Fox Sunday Morning: two weeks ago, with Tony Snow? He was on for a half hour, and Snow said it is not true that he ever spoke of Judaism as a "gutter religion," and asked Farrakhan to explain "dirty religion," which he did as I explained above. Judaism and Christianity are the twin pillars of Islam, and he reveres them. He criticizes those Jews who scarcely follow any of the 10 commandments, let alone attend services, yet hide behind Judaism in making political deals at the expense of a black population that has been through its own holocaust these past 400 years.

What I am saying, Mayor, is that there is more to this story than meets the eye, and you would do well to give me and Novak and some others a chance to not only bring about reconciliation, but do so in a way that helps solve the more basic divisions between blacks and whites. We have had a breakthrough, as Mayor Ed Rendell of Philadelphia invited Farrakhan to a rally in Philadelphia on Monday morning, to try to diffuse a smouldering racial problem that began with an incident three weeks ago ~ when a crowd of white youths beat up some black teenagers. Please call me if you would like to discuss this in more detail. Meanwhile I send along a piece from today's Philadelphia Inquirer, which describes Mayor Rendell's reasoning. My telephone number in Morristown N.J. is [201] 267-4640. You can also check my website:, for continuing discussions on politics, economics and racial problems.

A breakthrough, the first time a white community has called upon Farrakhan to help solve a race problem. From today's Phila Inquirer....

Page One Thursday, April 10, 1997
Rendell: Deal Worth Political Risk
By Howard Goodman and Chris Mondics INQUIRER STAFF WRITERS

Ed Rendell is a practical man. Given a real-world problem say, the possibility of a riot in racially charged Grays Ferry he'll look for a real-world answer. And if that means dealing with one of America's most controversial figures Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam so be it. "Being mayor is a very pragmatic job," Rendell said yesterday, "and particularly being mayor of an American city in the 1990s."

"You do the best you can to try and survive to position yourself to grow, and make compromises all the time, and try and accomplish what is good for the city." So it was that Rendell, who is Jewish, made a bargain with Farrakhan, whose message of black uplift and self-sufficiency has been delivered with the tincture of anti-Semitism. At Rendell's suggestion, Farrakhan canceled the Nation of Islam's participation in a march set to occur in Grays Ferry on Monday. In exchange, Farrakhan will appear at a city-arranged, ecumenical anti-racism rally Monday at an as yet undetermined site far from the edgy neighborhood.

Rendell said he, too, would speak at the rally, decrying racism in all forms. City Council President John Street, a probable speaker, said "all people of good will" were welcome.

There were few signs that Rendell would suffer much political damage for striking a deal with Farrakhan or sharing a stage with him despite the notoriety of the Muslim minister.

"In the short term, some people will be angry," said Neil Oxman, Rendell's longtime media adviser. "But I don't think there will be any long-term effect."

"It's always risky to deal with a controversial figure," said David Glancey, a former chairman of Philadelphia's Democratic Party. "But Ed is the mayor of a city which is racially and ethnically diverse. It's almost like the separation of church and state: You have to leave some of your identity at the door."

"I think he made absolutely the right choice."

The alternative, as Glancey and others put it, was intolerable: the spectacle of thousands of outsiders pouring into the troubled neighborhood.

With the mostly black marchers parading into mostly white territory, the potential for violence was rife, despite the planned deployment of 1,200 police officers, city officials believed.

The black eye to the city two weeks before the Presidents' Summit highlights national attention on Philadelphia could have hurt for years, officials said.

"The damage to Grays Ferry and Philadelphia would have been just enormous," Rendell said in an interview yesterday. "Even if [ the decision ] causes me some grief and political problems, I think it is an easy choice."

The deal's announcement Tuesday did trigger a torrent of outrage from some local Jewish leaders, who lashed out at Rendell for sanctioning a platform for a man who reportedly once called Judaism a" gutter religion."

Yesterday, Rendell dismissed those criticisms as short-sighted and parochial "for not understanding that the greater good of Philadelphia was what motivated not only me but all of Philadelphia."

"I think the outcry from some of the so-called Jewish leaders is ridiculous," the mayor said on Mary Mason's radio show on WHAT-AM, which has a large black Philadelphia audience.

David L. Cohen, Rendell's closest adviser and his former chief of staff, said he doubted there would be many political problems. On the contrary, "My own view is that, politically, this is a net plus for the mayor."

Leaders of organizations including the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League who criticized Rendell for "legitimizing" Farrakhan, are out of step with the general public, Cohen contended.

"You've got the leadership of some organizations who live and die in such a narrow world, where unfortunately, they're incapable of focusing on a broader picture," Cohen said. "Most are my friends, and Ed's friends. But they live or die for the chance to discredit and distance themselves from Louis Farrakhan. That's the prism through which they look at everything."

Cohen said "the vast majority of people understand what the mayor did. They understand what he did was right. I think in the long run, it makes him end up being more popular."

Oxman said that Rendell's being seen with Farrakhan might be a negative in the unlikely event he ran for president in, say, 2004. An opponent might broadcast an unflattering video. But that's far-fetched, he said.

Nor would the current flap affect a run for governor after Rendell's mayoralty ends, Oxman said.

Last year, Rendell took similar flak for supporting Farrakharis Million Man March, saying he applauded the call for personal responsibility while rejecting the anti-Semitism attributed to Farrakhan.

"He has said some things that could be reasonably construed as anti-Semitic," Rendell said. But Rendell contended there were powerful reasons to overlook those remarks and work with Farrakhan in an effort to avoid racial violence.

Over the weekend, Rendell watched a videotape of a recent Farrakhan address: "A fine speech," said the mayor.

Rendell added he wouldn't hesitate to respond to Farrakhan if the minister makes bigoted remarks at Monday's rally.

"If he makes statements of that vein, I wouldn't do anything inside the venue, but as soon as it was over I would make a strong statement of how strongly and sincerely I disagreed with it. But I believe he is coming in an attempt to heal."

Cohen said he and Rendell talked about the political consequences of approaching Farrakhan barely at all for "less than five minutes" when the idea was first broached Friday.

"It was sort of a confirmatory discussion," Cohen said, "that regardless of the politics, this was the right thing for the city, and therefore, this is what we were going to do."

Philadelphia Online The Philadelphia Inquirer, Page One Copyright Thursday, April 10, 1997

[In response to this memo to Koch, he wrote a second long op-ed for the New York Post in which he announced that Wanniski was his "pen-pal." He also conceded that Farrakhan did have some good things to say in holding black men to a higher standard. Alas, he also announced that I was dismissive of Farrakhan's hatreds, and wished that I would hold him to a higher standard. My response to Koch follows.]

Dear Mayor Koch, penpal: Don't be surprised if you one day find that Farrakhan is not the man you think he is. If you were to call Mayor Rendell of Philadelphia, he would tell you that Farrakhan is a good man, not an evil man, not bigoted, not anti-Semitic. The Phila. Inquirer yesterday reports that Rendell says his mail is running 50-to-1 in support of his bringing Farrakhan in as a racial healer. I listed to Farrakhan's 85-minute talk and found it to be even better than the Million Man March speech. Did you actually listen to the MMM speech? Or did you take parts selected for you by someone else?

When Farrakhan says he will apologize for anything he has said that is wrong, he means it. If you can find things he has said which you would like him to apologize for, get the full context of the remark before you decide it is something that is wrong. The things he has said that sound most anti-Semitic are things that in context I believe you would not disagree with. You might complain that he should not say things that inflame people, even if they may be true, but that is another matter. Farrakhan is the first black leader who tells the white community what is on the minds of black people, blacks who have become conditioned over the centuries to keep their innermost thoughts to themselves. Otherwise, they lose their jobs or their heads.

If we finally have a black leader who can collect a million men together in one place, and listen to a speech that may have some quirky passages in it ~ those you chose to select then it makes sense to at least listen to what the man has to say, rather than making fun of him. I remember listening to you on WCBS making the argument that black people would have an easier time in life if they learned to speak English properly, to say "ask" instead of "ax." I thought to myself then that Ed Koch wasn't trying very hard to understand the problems of the black community. If you had, a black man would not have beaten you. How many black men have you discussed black/white thinking with while you were mayor? Do you have a really close black friend in politics, who would confide in you? Or did you think you knew what the black community wanted because you assumed they were telling you what was on their minds? I tend to believe that when black folks talked to Mayor Koch, they would tell him what they thought he wanted to hear, or he might not give them what they wanted at the moment.

A few years back, I asked Charlie Rangel to stop me instantly whenever he heard me make a remark that struck him as racist. I thought I never would. In the years since, Charlie has caught me dozens of times, with a "gotcha." And I always see what he means once I give it a moment's thought. It's hard to have someone tell you the truth about yourself, especially if they are right. I'd like to continue this Mayor, but why don't you first do yourself a favor and call Ed Rendell, and get a tape of the Farrakhan speech, to hear for yourself.