NEW YORK — Confronted by an irate constituent, which occurs reasonably often in the life of a New York mayor — any New York mayor — Edward Irving Koch had an answer. I will get a better job, he would reply, but you won’t get a better mayor.
The story is often offered as emblematic of the Koch bravura, illustrative of his showmanship, his hubris. But that misses the key point about Ed Koch, 88, who died Friday at a Manhattan hospital of congestive heart failure.
The Bronx-born Koch’s bravura wasn’t something he did. It is who he was. He didn’t put on a show. He WAS the show.
In my years as a New York political reporter, I had a ringside seat to the Koch phenomenon. To quote myself (something Ed Koch taught me how to do) from a review of one of Koch’s books years ago:
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“There was a time in my life when I had occasion to spend hours every day with Edward I. Koch. He was a first-term mayor. I was City Hall bureau chief of the city’s largest newspaper. There were days when he spent so much time talking to me — and to my journalistic colleagues in the famous Room 9 — that I wondered where he found the time to be mayor. Then I came to understand that for Edward I. Koch … talking to me was being mayor.”
Well, not just talking to me. But talking. Endlessly. Relentlessly. To everyone and anyone and especially to journalists who would amplify his message. I remember the first time I saw Ed Koch talking to a TV crew. At first he spoke to the TV reporter. Then, slowly, his eyes turned from the reporter and toward the camera and finally straight into the lens. He was speaking directly to all the New Yorkers without even a pretense that the journalist was doing anything more than holding the microphone.
I later learned that David Garth, his media adviser, taught him to do that.
Koch’s catch phrase — “How’m I doing” — wasn’t a question. It was a demand to engage with his presence as embodiment of the city. He came along just when a shot of spiritual renewal was needed to mend New York’s bruised self-confidence.
Koch’s years as mayor overlapped with another leader who understood that communication wasn’t just how you explained governing: communication was governing. Ronald Reagan and his team understood that memorable images and moments could trump more complex details. Koch was less calculating than Reagan about fashioning those moments. He worked from his gut.
The results were entertaining, and legendary.
The 1980 transit strike is remembered for Koch’s stand on the Brooklyn Bridge. But the transit workers in New York ended up winning a pretty expensive deal the city probably could have gotten without the confrontation.
Koch is sometimes described as pulling the city back from bankruptcy. Actually, Gov. Hugh Carey did that before Koch took office. What Koch did was restore spirit to the city, not a small thing after a very dire time.
It is hard sometimes to remember what New York City was like in the 1970s, when the talk was of crime and racial strife, of burning neighborhoods and empty municipal coffers.
Koch’s purpose was to be cheerleader-in-chief, a cheerleader in a particularly New York style. He could be polarizing and an insufferable egoist. But this was New York and he had such passion for his work, this work of talking about his city, that most New Yorkers couldn’t help but appreciate him, until they finally got fed up with him and turned him out after three terms.
But up close, there was a sadness his acquaintances and friends could feel. Koch never married or acknowledged a long-term partner. He always slapped aside questions about his private life.
“I’m well aware of the occasional speculation regarding my sexual orientation,” he once wrote, “but it doesn’t matter to me whether people think I’m straight or gay.”
He governed through the worst years of the AIDS epidemic and there were those in the gay communities who said he could have helped by coming out. But that was based on a premise he never acknowledged. “Those who seek to ‘out’ people who may or may not be gay can be described as comparable to the Jew catchers of Nazi Germany,” he said.
This can seem a little antique from the vantage of New York in 2013, where one of the candidates for mayor of New York is married to another woman and another, a male, is married to a woman who says she was a lesbian.
But Koch was very much a man of his time and very much his own man. He maintained his refusal to discuss his personal life to the end. He was close to his sister and her kids and grandkids. He had lunch every weekend with a circle of staff members from his administration. I joined them for their weekly lunch not long ago; without a break, they managed to flit between present-day politics and reminiscences of past grudges and battles. Koch reveled in it all.
Just weeks before he died, a journalist asked Koch when in his life he had been happiest. “At City Hall,” he replied, “conducting the affairs of the city and providing services to more than 7 million New Yorkers.”
And always, always talking about it.