In the Arena


Ed Koch was a giant of New York. He will not, I think, be remembered for giant breakthroughs in governance. No, he'll be remembered for his gigantic, totally NooYawk personality.

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Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Former New York Mayor Ed Koch exits a morning breakfast where current Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Sept. 6, 2011 in New York City.

It was a time of giants in New York. Mario Cuomo was Governor. Ed Koch was mayor. Neither, I think, will be remembered for giant breakthroughs in governance, although Koch did help bring the city back to solvency. No, they’ll be remembered for their gigantic, totally NooYawk personalities.

I was a political columnist for New York magazine in those days, which put me in both of their paths. My relationship with Cuomo–still happily alive and thriving–was more intimate, “father and son,” his son Andrew once described it, by which I guess he meant that we fought a lot (but always affectionately). Cuomo was exceptionally candid, especially about his own doubts and flaws. We both came from Queens. I loved the guy, even though we disagreed on a lot of issues; still do.

You didn’t get that close to Ed Koch, though. You watched him perform, and what a sight it was…and it never stopped, until Ed did, yesterday. I remember the day that Koch had a stroke–a trivial stroke, it was described (“It wasn’t trivial to me,” he said)–and he was rushed to Lenox Hill Hospital. Not far behind him was City Council President Andrew Stein, who would be next in the line of succession. Stein raced into Koch’s hospital room, then raced downstairs to speak to the waiting press. “The mayor is fine,” Stein said. “He’s just speaking a little more slowly than usual.”

The Mayor heard this on the radio–he was umbilically connected to the all-news stations–and sent his press secretary, George Arzt, down to edit Stein’s pronouncement a bit. “The Council President is correct,” Arzt said. “The mayor was speaking more slowly than usual, but he always speaks more slowly than usual when he’s speaking to Andrew Stein.”

This led me to write that Koch’s problem wasn’t the stroke, but his perpetual malady: Wisenheimer’s Syndrome. How else do you describe a man who, when about to launch a campaign for governor in 1982, described those upstate as simple country folk who would drive “20 miles to buy a gingham dress or a Sears Roebuck suit.” His act didn’t travel beyond the five boroughs…and the city’s unofficial sixth borough: the State of Israel, where he was beloved, too.

Koch was an important political avatar, one of the first Democratic politicians to resist the intellectually flaccid urban liberalism of the period–the notion that criminals were “victims,” that you couldn’t talk about the disintegration of the black family because you were “blaming the victim,” that you couldn’t tell the truth about the racialist hucksters of the period, like Al Sharpton, who to this day hasn’t apologized for the disorder he caused by exploiting phony grievances like Tawana Brawley’s whopper that she was raped and covered in excrement by an upstate district attorney.

But Koch didn’t go the extra mile. He certainly wasn’t a policy wonk. The culture of poverty had its roots in welfare and educational systems that encouraged passivity and irresponsibility; Koch never really had the patience or gumption to challenge them as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan–a giant in style and substance, also roaming the avenues in the 1980s–did. Koch’s attempts to fight crime weren’t nearly as sophisticated as those of Rudy Giuliani, who really cleaned up the city after the brief, disastrous reign of David Dinkins.

He was a lot more fun than Giuliani, though. And relentless. I remember an interview we had at City Hall, where I nailed him on some long forgotten issue–and he just…couldn’t…let…that…rest. So he called my office, and was told I wasn’t there. And then he called my wife, who told him I was at my parents’ house…and then he called my parents, who were thrilled to hear from the Mayor, who brusquely said, “I’ve got to talk to your neurotic son.” And, to my parents’ horror, the Mayor and I proceeded to have a full-blooded, epithet-laden, uh, New York conversation on the phone.

I don’t think Ed Koch was ever happier than when he was arguing–except for when he was going to the movies, or eating Chinese with his pals, or making a mad attempt to dance to the sitar music at the Indian Day Parade. He was from my part of the jungle. I can think of no greater tribute than that the 59th Street Bridge–an iconic New York structure–has been named after Edward Irving Koch. He was an iconic New York structure, too, a joy and a privilege to watch. He will be missed.

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch

REUTERS/Brian Snyder

To check out TIME’s photo gallery tribute to Ed Koch, click here.