For residents of New York City and those who grew up in the metropolitan area, this is an extraordinarily sad time. Ed Koch, a three term Mayor and perhaps the greatest public servant ever, passed away early Friday morning from congestive heart failure. He was 88.
To explain what Koch was to New York would require far more column space than I have. A better question might be, “what wasn’t he to New York”?
Let’s begin with Koch the person. CBS 2 called his style “a combination of charisma, humor, and chutzpah,” and boy, those traits would create some worldview for allies and critics.
As Mayor, New Yorkers saw an exceedingly accessible, infectiously down to earth man of the people. He was a quintessential New Yorker in every way, brash, outspoken, never hesitating to suffer critics gladly, but stopping at nothing to help the common man. For Koch was as sweet as the Big Apple itself. His sense of humor wasn’t in telling jokes as much as finding any opportunity to tell a funny story (Mother Theresa visiting him after his stroke asking for two additional parking spaces).
Koch’s exuberance was evident simply by his methodical way of speaking. His dialect was distinct New York: calm and clear with sentences usually punctuated by “uh’s. The “uh’s” were genuine but proved extraordinarily effective for emphasis. And his voice would boom, no matter the topic. And as a result, the city boomed with him.
And in that sense, Koch’s gift to the city was himself at a time when it was most needed. Having won the Mayoralty when the city was at it’s lowest point financially, two years after the Daily News ran that famous headline of Ford telling the city to “drop dead, “Koch, as Bloomberg said, “lifted us up.” Often times, that meant, giving someone “a good kick in the rear” when they needed one. He said what he was and was what he said. His trademark “how’m I doin” was only the half of his regular guy persona. He never kept an opinion to himself, causing him to quip that he’d “never die of an ulcer. I say what’s on my mind.”
But if Koch could be combative, it was never for antagonist purposes. Malice was usually in response to another person. The most famous of course was when Jesse Jackson called New York City,”Hymietown”). In response, Koch said Jews would be “crazy” to vote for Jackson.” But upon Koch’s’ death, one of those he most tangled with, Al Sharpton, praised Koch, saying he “never patronized.” And when he was challenging, whether to the press or elected officials, folks would often walk away thinking, “isn’t this the most sensible, rational thing I’ve ever heard?”
Koch could be patient but also street smart. As he recounts in one of his autobiographies, “Mayor,” it was he that colleagues, often of the same party but polar opposites on defense issues,
who would call in the middle of the night trying to rationalize their position. And Koch would listen for quite some time and reply with vintage Kochness, “You’re full of s—t, you’re not a Pacifist.”
In office, Koch could easily have been a modern day Truman. He was plain spoken, said where the buck stopped and was a true man of people. He was, unlike so many of today’s politicians, fearless, addressing things head on, often times putting the fat in the middle of the plate himself.
One day a woman needed a ride across a bridge and he made sure she got it. When transit workers were striking on the Brooklyn Bridge, he joined them in solidarity. When chewed out by local officials over the dilapidating condition of a Bronx neighborhood, Koch returned without an entourage to check it out for himself. He resisted urges to fix problems simply through more spending just for the sake of doing so. But using dollars for tangible progress — that was another story. Koch restored more than 200,000 uninhabitable housing units. Fighting crime was also a major priority and so was putting a stop to looting.
Koch’s panorama of good government was evident even through his last days. He was a champion of non-partisan redistricting, and scolded Andrew Cuomo, who for a time advocated for it as strongly as he, for abandoning it.
As Mayor and in life, Koch’s mantra was unfailing commitment to causes dear not just to New Yorkers, but the American people. One of those causes was Israel. Many times, particularly in his later years, this caused friction with his party. A Democrat who served five House terms prior to becoming Mayor, Koch had on-again, off again love affair with party figures, mostly over Israel&national security.
This came to head in 2004. After supporting a Democratic nominee for President every year, “including McGovern,” he points out, he heartily backed Bush’s re-election, even addressing the Republican convention. By 2008, after fulfilling a long-time pledge to back Hillary during primary season, he endorsed Obama. But by mid-2011, he was accusing Obama of throwing Israel “under the bus.” After talking with the administration, he reluctantly backed the President in 2012 but again had criticism as recently as last month for the Hagel nomination. He took the same pattern with Giuliani. He was an early supporter, then openly critical of his administration, yet a supporter til the end because the “city was moving in right direction.”
The greatest tribute to Koch is that, nearly a quarter of a century after he left office, his name recognition was at levels current officeholders only dream of achieving. Koch found ways to serve public after defeat. He wrote a children’s book with his sister, hosted a long-running radio show, served as ”People’s Court”Judge and wrote movie reviews. His passion for the movies was as legendary as Koch himself. One of his causes in the late 80’s was to fight the rising movie prices. At the time, ticket prices in the city were $7.00 (imagine that). But he loved movies and thought people should too without paying an arm and a leg.
It was said of EF Hutton, that “when he speaks people listen.” Koch had such a unique way of expressing himself that he could not help but be heard. But beyond the voice, there was the outreach. His ability to become a part of all people was as enduring as his personality.
Koch forged strong relations with all religious and ethnic groups in the city. He was a regular presence at St. Patrick’s cathedral’s midnight mass because, as he said, “it’s a beautiful thing” (“I’m the Jew in the front pew”) As a result, his alliance and friendship with Cardinal John O’Connor was legendary. One of O’Connor’s successors, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, said late Friday he envisioned Koch asking the Almighty how he did. And he would reply, “you did well, come on in.”
To be sure, Koch was not always successful at bridging all gaps. His loss to David Dinkins in the 1989 primary was largely attributed to unrest within African-American community. Upon leaving office, he expressed regret that they “didn’t see him as a friend.” Indeed, he did appointed Benjamin Ward as the city’s police commissioner.
In closing, pointing out ironies is my shtick, and as many have observed, there are several in the timing of Koch’s passing. I’m not sure anyone has pointed out that many of these coincidences are Jeffersonian in nature. We all know that Jefferson died on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, which he wrote. Not only did Koch’s passing came on the very day a movie opened on his life, and on the 100th anniversary of the opening of Grand Central Station, whose revitalization Koch played a vital role. But it doesn’t stop there. Jefferson wrote his own epitaph, as did Koch. On that stone, it would read, “My father was Jewish. My mother was Jewish. I am Jewish.” Those were the final words of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter murdered in Pakistan, and that date, in another surreal occurrence, fell on February 1, the same day as Koch’s death.
In death, Koch himself ensured that he will forever be a part of New York. He said he wanted to be buried in a “bustling cemetery,” in Manhattan, which is appropriate. For Koch was a bustling Manhattanite (“the thought of going to New Jersey was so distressing”).
The saying is folks say you can’t fight City Hall. But in Ed Koch’s time, there was no reason too because things got done.
Bob Schieffer said he had “what pols today don’t have:guts.And we could use a few more lie Ed Koch.” Few will argue with that.
I had the privilege of meeting the former Mayor once years ago. It was at a Saturday night event. Someone asked him what he was doing the next day and replied, “maybe I’ll go to a movie.” You do that, Mr. Mayor. Because “From Here to Eternity,” you will forever be a man New Yorkers will be proud to call their own.