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Ed Driscoll

RIP Mayor Ed Koch, 88

February 1st, 2013 - 9:57 am

“Koch was a species of liberal that scarcely exists anymore on the national stage: a liberal, as he liked to put it, ‘with sanity,’” Roger Kimball writes:

The sanity acted as a prophylactic against the sort of racialist identity politics that  helped make the mayoralty of David Dinkins, Koch’s successor, such a conspicuous disaster. It also underwrote his relative independence as a political actor. Thus Koch, in 2004, crossed party lines to endorse George W. Bush, not so much because he agreed with all of Dubya’s platform but because he understood that that United States was under threat from a mortal, if also amorphous, enemy, and Koch was an unembarrassed patriot.

“How’m I doing?”  Koch used to beam as he paraded about the streets of  New York. Koch loved the bustling chaos of New York and he loved New Yorkers. He really was a man of the people, gobbling up Chinese food, his warm-hearted but no-nonsense presence a palpable feature  of  the city’s daily life. Not for Koch the Cloistered Imperial Nannydom that swaddles the repellent billionaire Michael Bloomberg, surrounded by armed bodyguards as he prosecutes from afar his war against salt, sugar, tobacco, guns and other pleasures of the plebs.

As I say, I never really knew Ed Koch, but I admired him from afar.  He was, I think, the second best mayor New York has had within the compass of my recollection. (Prize for first place must go to Rudy Guiliani, not only for his masterly handling of the crisis following 9/11 but also for his successful battle against crime and general squalor.) Koch was a character: lovable and irascible by turns. He came to office at a difficult moment. I’m not sure that it can be said that he turned the city around after the assaults of the 1960s and  dégringolade of the mid-1970s. But he certainly helped buck up the populace. One of my favorite anecdotes: When one of the main bridges into Manhattan was closed for a protracted period, a reporter acidly asked Hizzoner what he intended to do about it. “Tell my driver to take another route,” was his sensible reply.

City Journal’s Tevi Troy had a lengthy profile of Koch last year; he also dubbed him “The Last Sane Liberal.” To help understand Koch’s impact in New York, it helps to remember just what a basket case the city he inherited was:

New York in the seventies was plagued with a fiscal collapse, racial tensions, high crime, blackouts, and a terrifying serial killer, David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz. The city was also saddled with a mayor, Abe Beame, who didn’t seem up to the task of governing, which led Koch to consider running against him. The New York Times wrote in Beame’s obituary that “the four years of his mayoralty were among the most troubled in city history.” As Koch recalled, Beame was “in over his head,” so much so that he used to ask comptroller Harrison Goldin after important developments, “Would you explain to me what happened?” One night, Jonathan Mahler relates in his book Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning, the hapless Beame was alerted to the good news that homicide detectives had captured Berkowitz. Beame rushed down to police headquarters to share in the NYPD’s glory—only to mistake the killer for a plainclothes detective and shake his manacled hand before the cameras. Beame’s press secretary, Sidney Frigand, referred to the incident as “the photo op from hell.”

Koch had thrown his hat into the mayoral ring once before, in 1973, but quickly pulled back. In 1977, the timing was far better. Unsurprisingly, other politicians saw Beame’s weakness as well; in addition to Beame and Koch, the Democratic primary included Abzug and Mario Cuomo, the establishment choice. At one point, New York governor Hugh Carey and former mayor Robert Wagner asked Koch to step aside in favor of Cuomo. Koch’s defiant reply: “You’re looking at the guy who is going to win.”

Koch’s political savvy and seemingly limitless energy allowed him to finish in the winner’s circle in the first round of the bruising primary and then to defeat Cuomo in a runoff. The effects of the runoff were felt in New York politics for decades, as Koch held Cuomo responsible for an ugly antigay slogan, referring to rumors about Koch’s sexual orientation, that bubbled up among Cuomo supporters. The acrimony between the two men continued through the rest of their political careers.

In January 1978, Koch became mayor of New York, but that prize was of questionable value in such a troubled city. Koch remembered how slim his prospects of success were when I spoke with him last year: “Everyone I knew said, ‘It’s hopeless, and you are going to be the guy responsible for taking us into bankruptcy.’ ” Undeterred, he went about addressing New York’s problems with his characteristic bluntness and humor.

Read the whole thing. And then check out Richard Brookhiser’s take at NRO for a glimpse of the downside of Koch’s liberal worldview.

All-in-all though, as Moe Lane writes, “Godspeed, Hizzoner.  Take a couple of days before you start planning your primary challenge to St. Peter, all right?”

Update: Ed Koch’s tombstone quotes the final words of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter slain by jihadis in 2002: “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.” Both men died on February 1st.

Click over to Twitchy for a photo, and further thoughts.

More: “Matt Drudge remembers Ed Koch’s NYC: ‘When soda was flowing and disco was pumping.’”

Heh. I tend to think Koch’s mayorship as being more in the ’80s than the Saturday Night Fever era; Whit Stillman’s 1998 film The Last Days of Disco captures the atmosphere of that early ’80s era particularly well.

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