NEW YORK – Confronted by an irate constituent, an event which occurs reasonably often in the life of a New York mayor – any New York mayor – Edward Irving Koch had, of course, 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 shtick, his showmanship, his hubris. But that misses the key point about Ed Koch.
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:
“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 (there were those who put the emphasis on the “I”), talking to me was being mayor.”
Well, not just talking to me, of course. But talking. Endlessly. Relentlessly. To everyone and anyone and, of course, especially to journalists who would amplify his message. I still remember the first time I ever saw Ed Koch talking to a TV crew. At first, he spoke to the TV reporter. Then, slowly, his eyes turned away from the reporter and toward the camera and finally straight into the lens. He was speaking directly to all the New Yorkers watching on the other end without even a pretense that the journalist was doing anything more than holding the microphone.
I later learned that David Garth, his legendary 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 at just the moment when a shot of spiritual renewal was needed to mend New York’s badly 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, perhaps even too much, he himself would acknowledge.
The results were entertaining, and legendary. And, as with Reagan, the full story was often more complex than the memorable moment.
The 1980 transit strike is remembered for Koch’s stand on the Brooklyn Bridge. But while Reagan’s stand against the air traffic controllers changed the direction of labor relations, the transit workers in New York actually 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 L. 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.
New York is such a different city today that it is hard sometimes to remember what it was like in the 1970s. It is a city that is so resilient that neither the attacks of 9/11 nor the Great Recession deterred the city’s boom for long.
But in the ’70s, 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 that particularly New York style, of course. He could be polarizing and an insufferable egoist. But then this was New York and somehow 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.”
Koch governed through the worst years of the AIDS epidemic and there were those in the gay communities who felt he could have helped by coming out. But that, of course, 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 very 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.