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Remembering Mayor Koch

The death of former New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch reminded me of the jovial relationship he had with the late Cardinal John O'Connor. Although they differed on such issues as abortion and gay rights, they were able to get along famously and even to co-author a book examining some of their areas of disagreement. As I wrote in Commonweal in 2004, Koch, who was Jewish, once told me of when he asked a Catholic law partner why OConnor would not let prochoice Catholics speak at St. Patrick's Cathedral but always invited him. Youre invincibly ignorant and therefore youre excused, his partner said. He hastened to tell the story to O'Connor, who roared with laughter, he said.Koch's sense of humor served him well, even in the toughest times. As a reporter at New York Newsday, I covered the City Hall beat during a corruption scandal that broke in 1986 at the start of his third term. The city's prosecutors and the press, both caught somewhat flat-footed by the extent of the corruption, responded by piling on. Koch fenced with the press corps everyday - often several times a day. We used to say he was "unavoidable for comment." He still had the ability to disarm a question by making everyone in the room laugh at it. A later mayor, Rudy Giuliani, might call a question stupid or idiotic. Koch's approach was more effective; it was much worse, as a reporter, to have the other reporters join in the laughter.Koch loved to mix it up with reporters. Once, I was in Budapest with him, covering his "vacation" in the dead of winter in eastern Europe. He set up a press conference and specified that he'd take no questions from the American reporters - he wanted to respond to the Hungarian press. Koch once famously told schoolchildren from the Soviet Union that their government was "the pits," and was no doubt ready to rumble. The local press, steeped in communist rigidity and perhaps Old World politeness, proved unable to ask anything but the most flowery, inoffensive questions imaginable. I'll never forget the look on Koch's face; he was crestfallen.

Although his relationship with the New York press became quite adversarial as the corruption scandal engulfed his third term, it was still in some ways friendly. I think it would be unlikely to find that in today's political world. There was plenty of spin coming from the mayor's office, of course, but not the obliteration of facts we see today in politics. One time, I was reporting out a tip that Koch threatened to put homeless shelters in Queens unless an official there backed him on some other vote. Ushered into the mayor's private office, I nervously asked him about that. He looked up at the ceiling, took a deep breath, then looked me in the eye. "No comment!" he said emphatically, exhaling, with a twinkle in his eyes. We both knew that if he, Ed Koch, had nothing to say in rebuttal, the tip had to be true. Nowadays, officials seem much more willing to look reporters in the eye and lie - if the reporter can even get through the PR bollards to ask the question.With hindsight, I have a better sense of the challenges Koch faced than I did when I covered him in City Hall. Fiorello La Guardia, a favorite of Koch, had drawn an outsized portion of New Deal dollars into New York because of his longtime support for progressive social programs and his reputation for honest administration of government. Over time, those dollars vanished, and by the late 1970s, the federal government was abandoning cities (Ford to City: Drop Dead). The budget, which by law had to be balanced, couldn't sustain the level of services. And following the city's near-bankruptcy, the fiscal gimmickry used to the sustain the system had to be avoided.Koch created a new culture of fiscal responsibility in the city that officials of the state and federal governments would have done well to emulate. He somehow managed out of the rubble of his third term to create a program that built thousands of units of affordable housing - and not euphemistically "affordable," as is often the case for such efforts today. The bulk of this housing was built after he left office, so he didn't get much credit for it. But by filling vacant lots with solid, attractive buildings, I think it contributed in a significant way to the crime reductions of the 1990s.Koch could have helped himself by showing less scorn for the homeless, the mentally frail and spokespersons for the black community and more skepticism for political bosses and real estate developers. He harped on the death penalty. But I have to say that he was fun to be with, even under contentious circumstances, that he gave the job everything he had, that he restored the New York spirit and that he did about as well as could be hoped in some very tough times. May he rest in peace.

About the Author

Paul Moses, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015).



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I found it startling that after three terms as Mayor Koch was suddenly out of favor with the democratic party. As you were so close to it , Paul, do you know the reason. I felt he offended the power brokers and that it was an example of how the person elected is not , many times, the most powerful.

My wife and I were visiting friends in New York in 2000. They took us to a nice restaurant in Manhattan. As we were leaving I saw this tall balding man, wildly gesticulating and clearing enjoying himself. It was Ed Koch. Though I am from Seattle, I took the liberty to walk over and introduce myself and told him he had been a great mayor. He beamed, clearly happy that someone from Seattle would know him years after leaving office. I closed by telling him: " You're doin' fine!"

Here another piece about Koch. Like Paul's, it's excellent.

One of the video clips about Koch that zipped by on last night's news had a picture of Al Sharpton, then one of Koch's serious sparring partners, now a TV commentator on ???MSNBC? The World Turns!

Looking back on New York's history, we've had some tough times and some truly awful mayors. On the whole, we were lucky to have Ed Koch here to give the job his best shot, and then some, during a difficult time. May he indeed rest in peace.

Bill, I think Koch's run as mayor ended because he alienated black voters and lost much of the liberal support he'd started out with. The Democratic leaders still backed him, except for in Manhattan. He was also tarnished by the corruption scandal. As Wayne Barrett noted in the piece Gene Palumbo linked to, he carried some responsibility for that even though he was not personally involved in the wrongdoing. Despite that scandal, Koch was such an enormous figure on the city's stage that few political pundits foresaw that David Dinkins would defeat him in the 1989 Democratic primary for mayor. Just about everyone was surprised - even Dinkins, I've been told. Everyone expected a general-election battle between Koch and Rudy Giuliani, who had uncovered the corruption in city government as the U.S. attorney in Manhattan.Peg, your mention of Al Sharpton reminds me that when the young Reverend Al was starting out, Koch used to call him "Al Charlatan." Sharpton seems to have done quite well since then.It's significant that even a critic as steadfast as the noted investigative reporter Wayne Barrett gives Koch a thumbs-up. As Susan Gannon writes, New York has had some terrible mayors in its history. Koch is a plus, and I suspect that as time passes, historians will give him an increasing share of the credit for the city's rebound.

My husband never forgave Koch for calling the transit workers "greedy" during the 1980 transit strike, and that he told the public don't let "these bastards" stop you from getting to work. The transit workers were all voters and taxpayers like everyone else; Koch shouldn't have called them names.The workers hadn't had a raise in 6 years, lost more than a weeks' pay because of the strike and were then fined another day's pay for day of the strike because of the Taylor Law.Koch's name-calling made my husband more committed to the union than ever; so I guess there was an upside to it. funeral, now in progress at Temple Emanu-El, will be followed by his burial at Trinity Church. His tombstone, with the quotation from Daniel Pearl, is pictured in the article.

His funeral was classic. One person told the story of a letter Koch recieved from a woman who criticized him. He wrote back that she was entitled to her opinion as he was entitled to his and that his opinion was that she is a fool. At he end of the ceremony as the police pall bearers carried his casket down the center aisle, I heard some laughter. What? The organ was playing a slow version of "New York, New York" that got louder as they neared the back of the synagogue. Tears came. I lived ourside of New York in Hastings-on-Hudson when Koch was mayor.

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