Former Mayor Ed Koch died today. He was 88 years old and while he had been out of office since 1989, he was still a vivid presence in New York City, about which he recently said “At age 88, I wake up every morning and say to myself, ‘Well, I’m still in New York. Thank you, God.'”
Now, that is a sentiment that I can get behind. Whatever else you can say about Ed Koch, you can’t say he couldn’t give good soundbites. The former mayor was incredibly quotable, famously saying things like “If you agree with me on nine out of 12 issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on 12 out of 12 issues, see a psychiatrist” or “Have you ever lived in the suburbs? … It’s sterile. It’s nothing. It’s wasting your life, and people do not wish to waste their lives once they’ve seen New York! … This rural American thing — I’m telling you, it’s a joke.”
Perhaps the thing that Koch was best known for saying—”How’m I doing?”—is a good jumping off point to talk about the man himself. Mayor Bloomberg called him, “an irrepressible icon, our most charismatic cheerleader and champion.” The New York Times remembers Koch as “the master showman of City Hall” and a man with “tenacity, zest and combativeness that personified his city of golden dreams.” Sounds great, right? I mean, his three terms must have been a glorious and golden era for New York, right? Oh, wait. The Times continues on to say that Koch’s tenure “was overwhelmed by corruption scandals in his administration and by racial divisions that his critics contended he sometimes made worse.” Well, yeah. I mean if you care about things like racial discord, then, sure, Koch wasn’t perfect. And if you care about things like the fact that the economic divide in this city between the wealthy and the poor widened enormously during Koch’s tenure, due in no small part to his cuts in social welfare expenditures, then maybe you’re not the biggest Koch fan either. Or maybe you care about things like the fact that Koch was notoriously insensitive to the AIDS epidemic and its tragic effect on the people of New York and so can’t gather many fond memories of a mayor who had an opportunity to act courageously on an important social issue, but instead didn’t really act at all.