News & Politics

Nixon Wins, But Nat Hentoff Has a Beef with Ed Koch

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Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
November 16, 1972, Vol. XVII, No. 46

Next year in Fear City
by Nat Hentoff

This was going to be the first of a non-consecutive series of probes into the reasons for and the consequences of the Nixon victory, with particular emphasis on the role of the press and television.

Like, as Nixon was saying on television Tuesday night, “And now that the election is over,” my wife finished his sentence for him: “You’re all under arrest.”

Watergate and all of its ramifications were not significant issues during the election in large part because of press failure to really dig into that story — the Washington Post and CBS News excepted.

But first, I have a couple of letters to answer, and one of them leads into another nearly hidden issue of the campaign.

In last week’s Voice, Michael Harrington presented a grievance. He has a legitimate point, but curiously he misread the column of mine which provoked the complaint.

Mike charges I wrote that on the basis of his letter of resignation as co-chairman of the Socialist Party, he “must be supporting Bella Abzug.” He goes on to say that I thereby made his endorsement for him.

What I actually wrote was: “I don’t know whom Mike is supporting in the 20th C.D., but it is clear to me on the basis of his analysis, with which I agree, that the labor forces against Bella are engaged in narrowing the base for an effective coalition rather than broadening it. And their thinking is quite similar to that of the leadership in the Socialist Party majority.”

Had I known — and indeed I should have found out — that Mike was nonetheless supporting Priscilla Ryan, I would have started that section this way: “Although he fails to follow the logic of his own argument and is opposing Bella, it is nonetheless clear to me…”

Mike says I should have discovered whom he was for because, as “an avid New York Times reader,” I would have seen his signature on an ad supporting Priscilla Ryan for the Democratic nomination. Well, let me confess that there are 10 to 20 days in any given year when I miss a lot in the Times. Either because I’ve been traveling and have to catch up with a good many issue of the paper or because, as was the case with that ad, I’m involved in a long piece. I hope Mike is not implying that I knew about the ad and ignored it to cast doubt on the direction of his fealty.

But his basic point is sound. Even though Mike is one of the hardest people I know to reach on the phone, I should have called. Any reporter with any experience can get anyone’s phone number, one way or another, sooner or later. I once did have his home phone number but no longer do, so perhaps Mike will send me his number in the event another occasion rises when we differ as to where his logic leads.

Another letter in last week’s Voice by Congressman Ed Koch is another matter. I was one of the 1400 people in the 18th C.D. who voted for Rebecca Finch, congressional candidate of the Socialist Workers Party. I did this out of no conviction in the reality of the SWP program but rather as a protest against Koch’s having knocked two other minority parties off the ballot. His position on Forest Hills was not part of my reason because I balanced that against his excellent work in Congress on civil liberties issues. But I vehemently oppose denying voters as wide a variety of choices as is possible.

In view, however, of Ed Koch’s slippery letter, I see I have other reasons to oppose him in the future, most imminently in his campaign for mayor. I note with no surprise that, according to the Daily News, supporters of Koch for the mayoralty opened “an informal campaign office” for that purpose on Lexington Avenue the day after the elections.

Koch writes that he had made his position on Canarsie known to me. Yes, he did, the day after the column to which he objects appeared on the stands. Until then, there was no indication in the public prints or on television what position, if any, Koch had with regard to Canarsie. He was hardly alone in playing it safe and silent. Except for those politicians who had become instant converts to their version of “community control,” there were exceedingly few profiles of political courage visible.

What Koch told me that Thursday night at the NYU Catholic Center (where there was a debate between 18th C.D. congressional candidates) had to do with his public silence about Canarsie up to that point. Certain Black people in Brooklyn, he said, had advised him to keep silent because his public involvement would appear to be exploitative politicking. I told him that Black people I knew who were involved in the Canarsie dispute had told me they were eager to have the support of any white politician, particularly someone like Koch whose Forest Hills stand had indicated that he might have some credibility with the white parents involved in the school boycott.

But it turns out Koch wouldn’t have supported the Black parents and the Black kids anyway. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Jack Newfield says Koch told him on election day that the short-term answer to the Canarsie problem was to disperse the 31 Black kids throughout that school district. These days I suppose that might be considered by some to be a moderate, non-extremist position. At least Koch didn’t suggest that 31 security guards be assigned to keep tabs on each of the kids.

In his letter, Koch attempts to make another point, and he does this out of ignorance or malice. Charging me with holding to a “stiff ideological mold of thinking,” Koch writes that unlike Hentoff, he is opposed to “total community control.”

I have written extensively about community control and have talked about it at campuses and community centers throughout the country. I have always underscored my conviction that constitutionally, total community control is impossible. It’s just plain illegal. In terms of schools, for instance, no community district, however wide-ranging its powers, has the right to violate anyone’s civil rights and civil liberties. It doesn’t matter whether Blacks or whites or Puerto Ricans or Chicanos are in power.

In the Ocean Hill-Brownsville battle, I felt that although the due process issue in the transfer of the UFT teachers from that district had been grossly distorted by the union (c.f. the New York Civil Liberties pamphlet, “The Burden of Blame”), nonetheless the community board should have bent over backwards to give them full hearings. Eventually, Reverend Oliver agreed to do just that, with a full ladder of appeal procedures, but by then the conflagration had spread to include many other issues.

As Koch says, you can’t have it both ways. Civil liberties and civil rights are for everyone. Currently, in District 1, I think the removed principals should have full adversary hearings, as should Luis Fuentes to that he can be enabled to defend himself against all those charges of alleged anti-Semitism that have been publicly brought against him by purportedly responsible organizations — in a manner that fiercely assumes his guilt — before any such hearings have been held.

In Canarsie, there is simply no question that the Chancellor and the Board of Education have the power, decentralization notwithstanding, to move to integrate schools. The civil rights of those 31 kids and their parents were being violated. Interestingly, one politician — Jesse Levine, Liberal Party candidate for Congress in the 11th C.D. in Brooklyn and Queens — did make himself visible on this issue and asked the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York to investigate the plausible violation of the civil rights of the 31 Black children in Canarsie…

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]

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