Remembering Mayor Koch
Paul Moses February 2, 2013 - 12:47pm
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).