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As for Koch’s friends, said LoCicero: “We thought he was nuts.”
Koch had turned against members of his own party before, more than once. In 1965, Koch, then a district leader in Greenwich Village, supported liberal Republican John Lindsay for mayor, infuriating the Democratic establishment and risking his fledgling career. In 1993, Koch endorsed Rudy Giuliani. And then in 2004, he stumped for George W. Bush in Florida, saying the Democrats didn’t “have the stomach to fight … international terrorism.”
This also wasn’t the first time Koch had put himself at the center of a hawkish pro-Israel Jewish pressure campaign on a sitting president. In 1977 Koch attacked President Carter over Carter’s call for peace talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, just a month after Carter had endorsed Koch’s first mayoral bid.
Koch’s support for Turner in the 10th District congressional race helped boost Republican efforts to paint Obama as anti-Israel. Turner’s victory became a key point for Republicans arguing that Obama will suffer heavy defections among Jewish voters in November.
But how important Koch’s endorsement was in the outcome of the Turner race isn’t entirely clear.
The Queens race hinged on Israel, but it also hinged on gay marriage. As a member of the New York State Assembly, Weprin had voted to legalize gay marriage in New York. Dov Hikind, a conservative Democratic New York State Assemblyman with sway in the city’s Orthodox community, backed Turner in the congressional race because of Weprin’s gay marriage vote.
Whether Turner’s eventual victory was thanks more to Koch’s intervention or Hikind’s is difficult to say. What’s certain is that the loss of a safe Democratic seat drew Obama’s attention to Koch. Soon after the vote, then-White House chief of staff Bill Daley called Koch for a meeting, telling him to arrive early to a dinner the president was hosting at the New York Public Library’s 42nd Street research branch.
“You look terrific,” Obama told Koch as he entered the room, according to Koch’s account of the meeting. “I know you exercise every day.”
“Not true,” Koch retorted. They proceeded to discuss Koch’s back pain; his 2009 surgery, and a photo of Cardinal John Joseph O’Connor that Koch held during his hospitalization so that if his back pain went away the miracle could count towards O’Connor’s beatification. Daley asked for the photo.
Then, they talked about Israel. Obama argued that he supported Israel; Koch criticized the way in which the president invoked a return to Israel’s 1967 borders in a controversial speech earlier that year.
“I need you,” Koch remembers Obama saying. As Koch recited the line at Bello Restaurant he pointed to his own chest, in case the president’s meaning wasn’t clear. “Your voice is heard outside of New York,” Obama continued. “Let’s stay in touch.”