"Don't speak ill of the dead," my mother said, or words to that effect (maybe "everyone's entitled to a positive view in death'), so perhaps it's no surprise that over the course of today, Ed Koch went from New York's fairly contentious ex-Mayor to a loveable curmudgeon who just loved his old home town.
I don't want to speak ill, but I do think we shouldn't completely leave reality behind. When Rudy Giuliani ran for Mayor in 1989, he very clearly positioned himself as the alternative to the New York That We Just Had... and then he promptly lost to David Dinkins... who had just defeated Koch in his bid for a fourth term in the primaries.
Giuliani turned around and ran nearly the exact same campaign in 1993, defeating Dinkins; and that time, many Democrats - especially the political Clubs in Harlem which produced Dinkins - felt Giuliani's approach was racial code. It was, kind of... but mostly Giuliani was still running against the New York of Ed Koch, with Dinkins playing the Koch stand-in. And again, New Yorkers liked the appeal of that message.
New York City in the eighties was the time of Ed Koch; and though we may tell this story differently now, at the time New York was a tough, gritty town with plenty of problems, and knowing the right people, in and out of government, could smooth out a some of them. That's what Ed Koch gave us, and by 1988, it was not a New York that people necessarily liked.
Koch was in many ways part of the last gasp of a generation of postwar white male politicians who helped build and maintain the urban Democratic political machines of many major cities, especially North and East. Like William Donald Schaeffer in Baltimore, he was a "confirmed bachelor" who seemed to do little more than eat, breathe and sleep political machinations. They, and other men of their age presided over the late seventies and early eighties rot in city governments that tended to end in scandal, often over patronage. And gradually, the cities they led, and the machines they built, moved to let women and minorities (and eventually, Republicans, in some cases) in to the machines, or the machines broke (and perhaps the ultimate ironic proof of the problem is Boston, where for all the liberal broadmindedness, minorities cannot wrest the Mayoralty from the Irish and Italians).
Koch's scandals, by the late eighties were numerous. There was Donald Manes, the Democratic leader of Queens, involved in an enormous kickback and bribery scandal out of the Parking Violations Bureau. Then there was Bess Myerson, the former Miss America, appointed ot Koch's City Arts Commission, who bribed a judge in a personal matter by hiring the woman's daughter to work in a patronage, do-nothing job. Let's not start on OTB. This is the New York of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, the New York that coddled and crowned Donald Trump, the New York of the eighties-era banking zillionaires, real life Dynasty types whose crass consumerism crashed in 1987.
Ed Koch was Manhattan triumphant; he came out of Greenwich Village and made it all the way up the East Side. AIDS? Homelessness? Crime? Don't be a downer. Don't ask questions. Half of what Koch is being credited with - the balancing of New York's books - was both required by the Financial Control Board he didn't control and solved by the tax money that rolled in with the stock and bond boom. The other half, the part where he's credited with bringing New York "back from the brink" didn't even happen under him; to the extent that New York has reduced crime and "cleaned up"... well, that's how we got Giuliani, and what he gave us: a safer, less gritty, less edgy, and arguably less interesting city. And we, us real deep down urban types may pine for that gritty edginess... but we don't really want Ed Koch's New York back, not really. Remember Westway? We just wish you didn't have to trade a sense of safety to get back cheaper rents and a livelier arts scene. And how upper middle class are those aspirations, really?
I met Ed Koch once, at this thing I was working on back when I did phramaceutical marketing. This was in his ex-Mayor phase, where he could be had for a small fee and a nice lunch to speak, where he tende to sell himself as... well, you know, that lovable old curmudgeon who just loved NYC to bits. I got him a little riled by quizzing him on why he would favor ending rent controls and stabilization. But hey... how often does one get the chance to ask? I remember being struck by how tall he was, how he really did come off larger than life in person. And that he was a pretty tough customer.
Like I said, I don't come to decimate Koch... just to keep it real. My adopted hometown, the city I love, the Manhattan that still glitters and gleams... I love the town that produced Ed Koch and appreciate the big personality it takes to be that town's Mayor. Ed Koch, for better and worse, helped make New York what it was and what it is, and I can't imagine one without the other, either. It's a shame to see the Ed Show end, but let's not add to the Disney-fication of New York by pretending he was Uncle Walt. He deserves better than that.