Friday, February 1, 2013
Ed Koch, 1924-2013
I don't think there was ever a man who more loved being a New Yorker -- not Peter Stuyvesant, not Alexander Hamilton, not DeWitt Clinton, not Walt Whitman, not O. Henry, not John McGraw, not Babe Ruth, not Jimmy Walker, not Fiorello LaGuardia, not Nelson Rockefeller, not Dion DiMucci, not Paul Simon, not Lou Reed, not Joey Ramone, not Billy Joel, not Mario Cuomo, not Donald Trump, not Regis Philbin, not Rudy Giuliani, not Joe Torre, not Jay-Z -- not even legendary disc jockey Bruce "Cousin Brucie" Morrow.
He knew enough to know that saying, "He was a New Yorker" didn't mean all good stuff. He'd want us to tell it like it is, and to tell it like it was -- even if telling how we think it was, how it appeared to have been to us, meant disagreeing with him.
In 1994, I was listening to his talk show on radio station WABC 770, and he said something that's stuck with me: "If you agree with me on 9 out of 12 issues, that's good. If you agree with me on 12 out of 12, that's bad. It means you're not thinking for yourself."
Born in The Bronx on December 12, 1924, his family moved to Newark, New Jersey when he was a boy. At the time, if you were a Jewish kid, going from New York City to New Jersey, even to hardscrabble Newark, was "moving to the country." Well, it does have big parks, Branch Brook and Weequahic.
He graduated from South Side High School, which also produced another controversial longtime Mayor, Newark's Sharpe James. It also produced Home Depot cofounder Bernard Marcus and, after the South Side went from a Jewish neighborhood to a black one, singers Madeline Bell and Cissy Houston, the latter being the leader of the Sweet Inspirations and Whitney's mom. In 1972, the school was renamed Malcolm X Shabazz High School. I don't know what Koch thought about his alma mater being renamed for Malcolm X, but the school's teams, officially still the Bulldogs, are often still called "the Sunnysiders" by the Newark-based Star-Ledger.
Koch served in combat in the U.S. Army during World War II, and went to college and law school on the G.I. Bill. In 1963, running as a reformer, Koch ran for Democratic Party leader in a district that included Greenwich Village, and defeated Carmine DeSapio, the last big leader of New York City's Tammany Hall political organization, ending Tammany's longtime stranglehold on Democratic politics in both the City of New York and the State of New York. In 1968, he got elected to Congress.
In 1977, the City needed help. There was no money to pay for anything. Crime was rampant, and the police didn't have the manpower or the resources to properly fight it. (The shock isn't that it took over a year from the first killing to catch the Son of Sam, it's that they got him at all, and it took a lucky break.) The Subway system was a mess (although that was under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and the MTA is a State agency, not a City agency, something a lot of people still don't realize). The City's business climate was bad. Everybody, from Wall Street to 42nd Street, from Riverdale to Coney Island, felt as if they were under siege. And Abe Beame, elected in 1973 as a financial whiz who could bail the City out, seemed unable to do anything, a good man in way over his head (and that's not just a reference to him being only 5-foot-2).
The 1977 Mayoral election was a fantastic story, and was detailed in Jonathan Mahler's book Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning -- as was the Son of Sam case, the Yankees' turbulent Pennant race, and the City's pop culture scene, including disco, punk rock, art, and the struggles of women, racial minorities and gays.
There were 7 candidates on the Democratic side. In addition to Koch and the Brooklynite Beame, they were: Mario Cuomo, the crusading Queens lawyer who was then Secretary of State for the State under Governor Hugh Carey; Bella Abzug, a Bronx lawyer who'd become the first woman elected to Congress from the City; Percy Sutton, who had been Malcolm X's lawyer and was elected in Manhattan to become the first black Borough President in the City; Herman Badillo, a Bronx lawyer who was the first Hispanic elected to Congress from the City and the first Puerto Rican elected to Congress from anywhere; and Joel Hartnett, a Brooklyn advertising executive (the only non-lawyer in the race aside from former accountant Beame) who chaired a "watchdog group" that had accused the Beame Administration of corruption.
Sutton and Badillo pretty much split the minority vote in early polling, meaning that neither blacks nor Hispanics were going to decide the race unless there was a runoff. They and Hartnett never really had a chance.
The rest all went after the City's liberal vote, and all had reason to think they could get it: Beame because he'd been seen working hard, if not well, on their behalf; Koch because he'd been anti-war, pro-civil rights, and on President Richard Nixon's infamous Enemies List; Cuomo because he'd made his name fighting for fair housing and because he was the only candidate who seemed able to appear to the "Outer Boroughs" (The Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island); and Abzug because she was even more anti-war than Koch (the Vietnam War was over but the memory was still fresh), had proposed the first gay-rights bill ever brought before Congress, and because she was sure, as the biggest feminist ever elected to Congress, she could get the women's vote. (With 3 Jewish candidates in the race -- Beame, Koch and Abzug -- that vote figured to be pretty much split.)
But on July 13, there was a blackout, and the resulting riot put the City's crime and racial problems front and center. And Koch, figuring he'd already made his case that "Abe Beame is an incompetent Mayor," figured out that Beame should no longer be the target: The arch-liberals Cuomo and Abzug should be.
Without really mentioning them by name, he got tough. He realized that he could be all things to all people. The race was full of brains, but only Koch's brain seemed to figure out that this election would not be won with brains. He knew it would be won in people's hearts.
And if those hearts were cold in the middle of the biggest heat wave New York City had seen in recent memory, so be it. He knew that the winner of the election would need the votes of the Archie Bunkers, as well as those of the Mike Stivics. And he was not afraid to be the one candidate in the race to call for bringing back the death penalty (which isn't the call of the Mayor at all, but a lot of people were glad he was saying it), or the one candidate in the race to suggest that, if elected, he would crack down on the City's welfare fraud. Translation: I'm not just the middle-class candidate, I'm the white man's candidate. Or, as the great columnist Jimmy Breslin put it in the Daily News: “Koch got the job as mayor because he promised whites that he could keep the blacks under control."
Once he began suggesting that, he was able to bring liberal-but-scared Jews away from Beame and Abzug, and angry Italians and Catholics away from Cuomo, whom they might have supported simply because he was the only Italian in the race, and, with Badillo a fringe candidate, the only Catholic who had a chance.
When the primary was held on September 8, it was very close. Less than 30,000 votes separated 1st place from 4th: Koch got just under 20 percent of the vote, Cuomo nearly 19, Beame 18, and Bella 16 1/2. Since the winner did not get 40 percent, a runoff between the top 2 would be held 10 days later, and it was between Koch and Cuomo. Beame, one of the City's leading politicians for a long time, saw his career come to a sad end.
The runoff got ugly. Koch's appeals to working-class and middle-class whites were seen as terribly cynical. And someone in the Cuomo camp (it's still not clear who) dropped a public suggestion that Koch was gay. Signs appeared a Cuomo events saying "VOTE FOR CUOMO NOT THE HOMO." Koch blunted this by appearing at events with Bess Myerson, who in 1945 became the first New Yorker and the first Jewish woman to be named Miss America, and later became a game show panelist and chaired the City's Commission on Consumer Affairs. Signs saying "BESS FOR FIRST LADY" began appearing.
Looking back, years later, Koch said most of the voters didn't care whether or not he was gay. In perhaps no other city, not even San Francisco, could that statement have been made. He never married (not Bess nor anyone else), but he never came out, either, and did once publicly deny that he was gay.
The race was decided when Badillo went to see Cuomo, and heard Cuomo talk for an hour, basically saying nothing; then went to see Koch, and heard Koch tell him that Hispanics would be represented in his administration. Koch was smart enough to know that it was no longer enough to appeal to angry whites: He knew that now, with Sutton and Badillo no longer running, whoever won the minority vote would win the election. Cuomo knew that, too, but he wasn't practical enough to get enough of those votes. Beame also threw the last of the old machine vote Koch's way, and even Governor Carey, who seemed to be supportive of Cuomo, endorsed Koch.
Koch won the runoff with 55 percent of the vote. Cuomo still ended up getting the Liberal Party nomination, but when the general election was held, Koch got just under 50 percent, Cuomo 41, and State Senator Roy Goodman, the Republican nominee, and radio talk-show host Barry Farber, nominated by the Conservative Party, got just 4 percent each.
Cuomo's career, of course, was not finished, or even seriously damaged. In 1978, when Carey ran for re-election, he ran with Cuomo as Lieutenant Governor. In 1982, Koch opposed him in the primary for Governor, but made ill-advised comments about the State's rural areas. Cuomo easily won the primary and then won a close-fought general election against Republican investment banker Lew Lehrman.
Mario Cuomo would serve 3 terms, and his son Andrew is now Governor. Mario once said that New York is the only City in the country where the Mayor wants to be Governor, and the Governor wants to be Mayor. But who's kidding who? Ed Koch never wanted to be Governor. He just liked the attention.
After losing the primary, Koch told his supporters gathered in the hotel ballroom, "It's not the end of the world." Dead silence. Then he gave a big grin and said, "And I'm still the Mayor!" Big cheers.
He was still the Mayor because no one could lay a glove on him. In 1980, the City's transit workers went on strike. Knowing that a strike that began the day John Lindsay became Mayor, January 1, 1966, pretty much poisoned the political atmosphere and made Lindsay a lame duck literally from day one, Koch decided that he had to be seen as a strong Mayor. So he told New Yorkers to walk to work. And, much like that other outsized New York boss of that time, George Steinbrenner, he wasn't asking anyone to do anything he wouldn't do: He led a group of commuters in walking over the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall. Every day, as long as the strike went on, he would walk from City Hall to the Bridge and shake hands with people and thank them for going to work in spite of the strike. The strike lasted 11 days, and the union caved in.
He was still the Mayor because he was King Schmooze. He cultivated relationships with all ethnic groups in the City. No one would have expected the Mayor of New York to make public speeches on behalf of the state of Israel, but Ed Koch not only saw that as a duty, he saw it as a pleasure. He became friends with the City's Archbishops, first Terence Cooke and then John O'Connor, writing a book with the latter: Hizzoner and His Eminence: A Candid Exchange. He loved meeting New Yorkers, and asking them his catchphrase: "How'm I doin'?"
He was still the Mayor because he was the City's most ebullient spokesman -- ever, more than even LaGuardia before him or Giuliani after him. Conservatives now joke about Senator Chuck Schumer never meeting a TV camera he didn't like, but Koch was on another level. He loved the spotlight, partly out of ego, partly out of wanting New York to shine in it. Three times, he played himself on Saturday Night Live. In Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II, David Margulies played a Mayor whose name was only mentioned as "Lenny," but everyone knew it was a sendup of Koch.
He was still the Mayor because he didn't seem to mind when people lampooned him. He didn't mind when, uh, people, uh, mocked his, uh, speaking style. He didn't mind when people used "How'm I doin'?" He didn't mind when people called him a publicity hound. How could he mind when they said that? He knew it was the truth.
And he was still the Mayor because he could still be all things to all people. Conservatives loved him because he was anti-crime, pro-police, anti-welfare and pro-Israel. Liberals loved him because, in spite of his talk of crime and welfare, he did seem to be looking out for minorities, and women, and gays, and because he was pro-Israel (which, again, had little to do with how Jews living in the City lived, but it was still a major concern of theirs).
In 1981, he ran for a second term, and in 1985 for a third. Each time, he got the nominations of both the Democratic and the Republican Party. New York State has a weird four-party system. In 1944, anti-Tammany Democrats were not happy with a party with Communist ties being the only existing alternative, so they founded the Liberal Party. In 1962, conservative author and magazine publisher William F. Buckley Jr. was unhappy with the softness of the State's Republican Party, and founded the Conservative Party, and ran on its ticket for Mayor in 1965 (even though he openly stated he not only didn't want to be Mayor, but didn't even want to live in the City).
Koch's biggest challengers were from the ideologues; he got 75 percent of the vote against "Unity Party" candidate Frank Barbaro in 1981, and 78 percent against City Council President Carol Bellamy in 1985. (Bellamy still got closer to winning than Abzug ever did, and later was appointed by President Bill Clinton to become the first former Peace Corps worker to be the agency's Director.)
Now, you may be asking, "But, Mike, this is a sports-themed blog. What did Koch have to do with sports?"
Not much. In spite of being quite tall, and undeniably tough (as I said, he was a World War II combat veteran), he was never an athlete. In 2004, together with his sister, Pat Koch Thaler, he wrote a children's book: Eddie, Harold's Little Brother. It told the story of his own childhood, when he tried unsuccessfully to emulate his older brother's baseball talents, before realizing that he should instead focus on what he was already good at, which was telling stories and speaking in public.
But he was a big booster of New York teams. When the Mets celebrated their 25th Anniversary in 1986, he closed out their anniversary video by saying they were a classic New York institution. When they subsequently won the World Series, he threw them a ticker-tape parade up lower Broadway. He had also done so for the Yankees in 1978 (as Mayor Beame had when they won it the year before).
In January 1987, as the Giants prepared to play in the Super Bowl for the first time, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, Koch was asked if he'd threw them a ticker-tape parade. He said no, citing the fact that, not only had the Giants moved to New Jersey in 1976, but that they seemed to want it both ways: Embracing and yet denying their New York identity: "This foreign team, they used to have on their helmets, 'ny.' They took it off!" (My use of the lower-case "ny," as opposed to a capital "NY," is on purpose, since that's what the Giants used at the time, and what they now use again.) So what should the Giants do for a parade? "Let them parade in front of the oil drums in Moonachie." (That town, adjoining East Rutherford, is famous for Manny's of Moonachie, a bar favored by Giants fans.
When asked where he was going to be on Super Bowl Sunday, New Jersey Governor Tom Kean said, "I'm going to be in Pasadena." When asked where he was going to be that day, Koch said, "I'm, uh, going to be in Poland." Poland? I can't remember why he was going there, especially since it was still run by a Communist government and Koch was an ardent anti-Communist. He did say, "I'm going to, uh, see if I can, uh, listen to the game on the underground radio." (The Giants beat the Denver Broncos, 39-20, and paraded around the Meadowlands parking lot. Mayor Dinkins didn't give them a parade the next time, either, although Mayor Bloomberg has now done so twice.)
Like Robert Wagner Jr. before him, and Mike Bloomberg after him (and he had to change the law to even run for a 3rd term, as term limits were enacted after Koch left office), Koch should have quit after 2 terms. But he did win a 3rd term, and it was a disaster. Although he'd helped get business booming in the City, from stocks to banks to tourism, crime remained out of control, and soon it was all over City Hall and the Borough Halls, too.
There was a big scandal in the Parking Violations Bureau, which led to the indictment of big Koch allies. One was his old friend (but never girlfriend) Bess Myerson (who ended up not having to go to prison). Another was Bronx party boss Stanley Friedman. Another was Brooklyn party boss Meade Esposito. Another was Queens Borough President Donald Manes. Twice in early 1986, Manes attempted suicide, and the second time he succeeded. Although no one could prove Koch had any direct involvement, his image as a reformer and a patron of honest government was shattered.
Things got worse in 1988. When the New York Primary came around in the Presidential election, instead of endorsing Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts (then the front-runner) or the Rev. Jesse Jackson (then 2nd in delegates following his 3rd-place run in 1984), Koch endorsed Senator Al Gore of Tennessee (then 3rd).
Koch thought Dukakis too soft on crime (a charge that would end up helping to torpedo his chances in the general election), but he really hit Jackson hard: Reminding everyone of Jackson's supposed anti-Semitism, including his calling New York "Hymietown," during the 1984 campaign, Koch said, "Jews would be crazy to vote for Jackson." Gore acted as though he didn't want the endorsement, and Dukakis won the Primary. Gore then dropped out, and this, along with a ceiling of votes that Jackson simply couldn't climb over, cinched (if not yet clinched) the nomination for Dukakis.
Minority voters had had enough of Koch, and in 1989, when Koch ran for a 4th term, they turned to Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins, who edged him in a very bitter race, before winning a very close vote in the general election against the Republican nominee, former U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani.
On New Year's Eve 1989, Koch's last full day in office, Breslin launched another broadside: “Thus far there have been 20,000 murders while Ed Koch has been mayor. This is the one most ghastly figure in the history of American cities and shows clearly that Koch has been a hideous figure, a man who laughs in the morgue.”
Koch sometimes forgave, but he never forgot. In 1993, after crime and racial strife got worse, he stuck it to Dinkins by supporting Giuliani, and effectively threw him the Jewish vote, and Giuliani won the race by as slim a margin as he'd lost it 4 years earlier.
And yet, by 1999, with Giuliani in his 2nd term, the two men were estranged enough that Koch wrote a book about him, titled Giuliani: Nasty Man. In 2001, in the wake of 9/11, the two came together to help the City heal. Together, they campaigned for business tycoon Mike Bloomberg's election as Mayor. But in 2007, as Giuliani began his disastrous campaign for President, Koch blasted him as "a control freak."
Koch and Giuliani, like LaGuardia before them, understood something that Dinkins -- and Beame, and Lindsay -- didn't understand: To be Mayor of New York, you need to be able to show yourself as a nice guy, but you've also got to be a son of a bitch sometimes.
Bloomberg, finally leaving office at the end of this year, understands it. What Mayor Moneybags doesn't understand, but Koch and Giuliani did, is that you also have to make it look like you love New York City for what it is, not just for what it can do for you. Sure, Koch had a massive ego, as does Giuliani. But both of them, whatever else you can say about them, love New York City. I don't really believe Bloomberg does.
Koch stayed active for as long as he could. He replaced Judge Joseph Wapner on The People's Court. As I said at the beginning of this post, for several years he had a talk show on WABC. He wrote several books, including 2 memoirs, Mayor and Citizen Koch. In spite of his age -- he was born the same year as my Grandma from Queens, and she wanted nothing to do with computers -- he embraced the Internet, and hosted an online show where he was a movie critic, Mayor at the Movies. He had previously written a book titled Ed Koch on Everything: Movies, Politics, Personalities, Food, and Other Stuff.
He supported Republican Al D'Amato for Senate, and Republican George W. Bush for President. In the 2008 Presidential election, in the Democratic Primary, he endorsed Hillary Clinton, but when Barack Obama won the nomination, Koch supported him, saying he agreed with him on nearly every domestic policy, and that the thought of Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin becoming President "would scare me." He broke with Obama over Israel in 2010, but changed his mind in 2012, saying that Obama's position had changed enough to win his endorsement. A few days ago, shortly before going into the hospital for the last time, Koch addressed the mass shootings that have been happening lately, and used his last public political statement to say he supports banning guns, a statement he would never have made as Mayor in the 1980s.
He'd been in and out of New York Presbyterian Hospital with heart trouble in recent years. In 2011, Bloomberg convinced the Triborough Bridge & Tunnel Authority to rename the Triborough Bridge the Ed Koch Triborough Bridge. He died overnight, at the age of 88.
My mother, usually a fan of his, said that when she traveled outside the Tri-State Area, she would still turn on the 11:00 news, and when the broadcast would end, she would feel that she was missing something: "No Koch."
I have no qualms about posting a picture with him standing in front of the skyline as it was while he was Mayor, including the now-gone World Trade Center. That was the City then, and if I told him that someone objected to the Twin Towers being in the photo, he'd probably have said, "Tell 'em to get over it. They were there then, and, uh, if I had my way, uh, they'd still be there. It does the people lost that day no good to object to the picture."
The man was an icon. Sure, he took some weird stands. He was far from perfect. But it was impossible to stay mad at the guy.
Rest in, uh, peace, you old mensch.