Ed Koch had a love for New York City and a lust for life. He was brutally honest, not afraid to be wrong, and as colorful as a spokesman for New York should be. We should all hope to have the energy in our 40s that he had in his 80s. While we cannot replace him, we should all strive to love the City as much as he did, and work every day to make it a better place.
I was born into the early 1980s, and missed the rancor from progressives over his slow reaction to the AIDS crisis and his combative relationship with the black community. There is no doubt that I would have joined in that criticism. But his place in history is secure as the mayor who led this City when it was on the ropes in the late 1970s. As a Congressman he supported civil rights and opposed the Vietnam War. As mayor he was way ahead of his time on gay rights, built an enormous amount of affordable housing, and for all of New York’s warts, cheer-leaded relentlessly for it. He clearly loved his job and his city. He also loved politics, and thought it mattered. That’s why he stayed involved in the most minute local political battles deep into his 80s.
I liked that he was real. Political consultant George Arzt recalled his wonder meeting Koch for the first time.
“I got into the car and said I couldn’t believe how a kid who grew up in Williamsburg was now sitting next to the mayor,” Arzt said.
“Oh shut, up,” he said Koch told him. “Everybody comes from somewhere.”
After he left office he began writing movie reviews, which he continued writing until his hospitalization. They were ludicrous barometers of whether or not I’d want to see the movie (and frequently gave the plots away), but I loved them all the same (as well as the witty commentary from his wingman, Henry Stern).
He was deservedly criticized for his neo-conservative foreign policy, but it bears mentioning that he strongly supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and also called for ending the War in Afghanistan several years ago.
There are good tributes to him here and here. I did not know him personally, but I met him several times. He never hesitated to dish out advice. I wrote him every now and then. We corresponded over the death penalty (disagreed), campaign finance reform (strongly agreed), and the wisdom of City Council member items (still thinking about it).
I love that he wrote his own epitaph, after his last stroke. Here’s what it said:
“He was fiercely proud of his Jewish faith. He fiercely defended the City of New York, and he fiercely loved its people. Above all, he loved his country, the United States of America, in whose armed forces he served in World War II.”
“That’s it,” he remarked. “It takes up the whole stone.”
For people who care about our city, our country, our world, one of the biggest struggles is shaking people out of their apathy. There’s also the matter of winning- winning elections, passing legislation, raising awareness. Part of what made Ed Koch so successful is that he really loved New York City and wore it on his heart, and in a democracy, that’s worth something. We will make progress in this country not just on the strength of good ideas, but by showing this country that we love it.