I’d met but did not really know Ed Koch, who died this morning at 88. I admired his energy, jocular persona, and (mostly) his emanations (it was more than just an influence) as a politician, especially his decade-long tenure (1978-1989) as mayor of New York.
Koch was a species of liberal that scarcely exists anymore on the national stage: a liberal, as he liked to put it, “with sanity.” 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.