Politics is America’s last cottage industry, and each of its artisans works alone and for no one except himself. Mario Cuomo joined Edward I. Koch and Jesse Jackson together recently in an uneasy and transient comradeship in the cause of Michael Dukakis. Dukakis’s name was, by rough count, mentioned barely fifteen times, most often as a vague abstraction, in a press conference that ran close to three quarters of an hour.
But then,if a candidate for public office is anxious for warm praise, he had better come to do the job himself, otherwise he will be forgotten on a stage where every actor has too pressing business of his own to bother with another’s.
Koch and Jackson met with the governor for a protracted private colloquy before being served to the journalists, and one of those in attendance reported that the “Eds” and “Jesses” had flowed most amiably along.
Then each arranged the public face of his particular preference and carried it to the cameras. Even when their enterprises do not conflict they remain disparate. Koch’s ambition is to be liked, a talent he seems lately to have mislaid. Jackson’s is to be respected. Cuomo, being between ambitions, is free to let loose the particular exhilaration he brings to rituals of conciliation and absolution.
So here was this bishop and these two technically penitent trespassers, and the sense was inescapable that if the choir had commenced intoning the prayer to the Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world, Koch and Jackson would each be hoping that He would leave a few sins around for him to commit.
Koch did his utmost to counterfeit affection, and Jackson could hardly emit the fragment of a homily without the mayor capping it with some variety of an “Amen,” such as a “well done” or “I couldn’t add a word to that sentence.” Jackson worked just as hard on the bearing requisite for the tribune of outcasts still to be appeased. At one juncture, Cuomo suggested a handshake, and Jackson grasped Koch’s extended palm and dropped it like a burning coal while concentrating in one brief glance the look he must now and then have focused upon a government auditor.
He bore the mayor no ill will, he explained; and if he ever had, he was delighted to intimate, it would have dissolved in the gratification of having carried the mayor’s city over the mayor’s strenuous objections in the spring presidential primary. The ceremonies of political harmony are familiar enough for their displays of insincere good will, but Mario Cuomo had contrived the singular triumph of a show of insincere hostility.
Michael Dukakis had been the formal occasion for this feast of cold cuts, and if Cuomo’s two most distinguished guests had been too distracted by their own concerns to take much notice of Dukakis, the oversight made little difference. No two public figures are less suited as a campaign tandem than this pair; each one’s constituents are, if not entirely alienated, at least lastingly disjoined. Both are outsiders disinclined to think of their success as remotely dependent upon any other candidate’s.
Koch was there to leave Jackson’s votaries with enough of a tender of friendship to sedate some of them into tolerance. Jackson was there to make it plain that he had not sold out. He hasn’t. When next they meet, it will be in combat, because Jackson has no intention of leaving the field, and the most likely event on his schedule is another primary scrimmage with the mayor.
Jackson’s performance was a formidable show of the skills he brings to carrying on without need for comrades. His generosity spreads wider and wider; the day before it swept the fears and pains of white Yonkers within its embrace, and one observer began to wonder how Jackson could have borne this nonsense if it had not offered so glittering a chance to pretend how little he liked Ed Koch and how much he loved all the rest of mankind.
September 29, 1988