Ed Koch, Iconic New York Mayor, Dies at 88 - The Jewish Voice
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Ed Koch, Iconic New York Mayor, Dies at 88

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Quintessential New Yorker and iconic mayor, Edward I. Koch
Quintessential New Yorker and iconic mayor, Edward I. Koch
Ed Koch, the three-term mayor who led New York City during the turbulent 1970s and 1980s, died of congestive heart failure Feb. 1. He was 88 and had been in and out of the hospital for several months.

Koch died surrounded by his sister Pat and other relatives. “The mayor died with dignity,” a nurse at New York-Presbyterian Hospital Columbia said. “He didn’t suffer.”

“Earlier today, New York City lost an irrepressible icon, our most charismatic cheerleader and champion, Edward I. Koch,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement. “He was a great mayor, a great man and a great friend. In elected office and as a private citizen, he was our most tireless, fearless and guileless civic crusader. Through his tough, determined leadership and responsible fiscal stewardship, Ed helped lift the city out of its darkest days and set it on course for an incredible comeback. We will miss him dearly, but his good works – and his wit and wisdom – will forever be a part of the city he loved so much. His spirit will live on not only here at City Hall, and not only on the bridge the bears his name, but all across the five boroughs.

“I’m expressing my condolences on behalf of all 8.4 million New Yorkers, and I know so many of them will be keeping Mayor Koch and his family and friends in their thoughts and prayers.”

Bloomberg said that flags at all city buildings will fly at half-staff in Koch’s memory.

Following news of his death, there was an outpouring of sadness from a variety of politicians and average New Yorkers. “Ed Koch was an extraordinary Mayor, irrepressible character, and quintessential New Yorker,” President Obama said in a statement. “He took office at a time when New York was in fiscal crisis, and helped his city achieve economic renewal, expand affordable housing, and extend opportunity to more of its people.”

“New York City would not be the place it is today without Ed Koch’s leadership over three terms at City Hall,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Mr. Mayor was never one to shy away from taking a stand that he believed was right, no matter what the polls said or what was politically correct.”

“He was a proud American Jew who professed his steadfast love for Israel and the United States regardless of party or politics,” said New York Board of Rabbis Executive Vice President Rabbi Joseph Potasnik. “His colorful character, his candid political commentaries, and his weekly movie reviews made him truly an unforgettable and relevant New York figure until the conclusion of his life.”

“This morning we lost a great friend, one who stood not only by the Jewish people and the State of Israel, but also by humanity,” said the Consulate General of Israel.

“He helped rescue New York from a threatened bankruptcy, and led the City’s economic and cultural rebirth with a bold, straight-talking style that endeared him to millions,” said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. “He continued to be a beacon of common sense long after his Mayoral years ended, and this City will miss his wisdom, his trademark zingers and his unflagging engagement with public life.”

Edward Irving Koch was born on December 12, 1924 in the Bronx to a Conservative Jewish family. In 1931, his family moved to Newark, NJ, and to Brooklyn in 1941. He was drafted into the Army in 1943 where he served as an infantryman with the 104th Infantry Division, landing in Cherbourg, France in September 1944. He earned two Battle Stars before being honorably discharged with the rank of Sergeant in 1946.

On his return home, Koch attended City College and then received his law degree from New York University. He began practicing law in Greenwich Village, where his political career began as a member of the Village Independent Democrats, a group of liberal reformers. He defeated powerful Democratic leader Carmine DeSapio, whose roots reached back to the corrupt Tammany Hall political machine, in a race for district leader. Koch was elected to Congress from Manhattan’s 17th congressional district from January 3, 1969 until January 3, 1973, when, after a redistricting, he represented New York’s 18th congressional district until December 31, 1977, when he resigned to become mayor.

Koch’s run for mayor in 1977 saw a crowded field that included Bella Abzug, Mario Cuomo, Percy Sutton, Joel Harnett, and Herman Badillo. Originally thought to be a longshot, Koch won and would go on to serve three terms. Though a lifelong Democrat, Koch was a moderate or, as he liked to put it, “a liberal with sanity.” He was loyal to his party while in office and would only endorse fellow Democrats. After leaving office, however, he crossed party lines several times, most notably by endorsing the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004.

In 1982, he unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic nomination for governor, losing to Cuomo. Despite his enormous popularity (he was reelected in 1981 with 75 percent of the vote and in 1985 with 78 percent), Koch’s final term as mayor was riddled with corruption scandals within his administration. Donald Manes, the Queens Borough President and a friend of Koch’s, attempted suicide – he succeeded two months later – unleashing one of the worst corruption scandals in city history. What followed was a series of disclosures, indictments and convictions for bribery, extortion, perjury and conspiracy that touched various city agencies. While no one directly implicated Koch in any wrongdoing, it nonetheless left a stain on his mayoralty.

In his final run for mayor, Koch lost the Democratic nomination to Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins, who went on to win the general election. When asked several years later if he ever considered running again for mayor, Koch said, “The people threw me out and now the people must be punished!”

Always blunt, Koch had his share of enemies. “You punch me, I punch back,” Koch once said. “I do not believe it’s good for one’s self-respect to be a punching bag.” He was critical of Rudy Giuliani’s style of governing, going so far as to write a book called Giuliani: Nasty Man. Donald Trump, who he called “piggy,” was another foe, as was Al Sharpton early on, although the two eventually became friends. He lambasted Jesse Jackson in 1984, saying Jews would be “crazy” to vote for him following his anti-Semitic remarks in which he referred to Jews as “Hymies” and New York as “Hymietown,” as well as his call for a Palestinian homeland in Israel.

Koch’s colorful, in-your-face personality made him the consummate New Yorker. Paunchy and balding, he looked more like Frank Perdue than Frank Sinatra. But what he lacked in physical attractiveness, he more than made up for with his winning personality. When asked who should play him if a movie was made about his life, he jokingly said Paul Newman.

His catch phrase was, “How’m I doing?” He wrote his autobiography, Mayor, in 1984 while still in office, and went on to write more than a dozen other books, including several murder mysteries and a children’s book. He was a natural at comedy when he hosted Saturday Night Live in 1983. He also appeared in numerous movies as himself, including The Muppets Take Manhattan, Woody Allen’s segment of New York Stories, and The First Wives Club. In 1997, he took over as judge on The People’s Court for two years, following the retirement of Judge Joseph Wapner.

As open as he was about most any topic, Koch was reluctant to discuss his personal life. The never married Koch was constantly surrounded by accusations that he was gay. When confronted about his sexuality, Koch once said, “What do I care? I’m 73 years old. I find it fascinating that people are interested in my sex life at age 73. It’s rather complimentary! But as I say in my book, my answer to questions on this subject is simply ‘[expletive] off.’ There have to be some private matters left.”

In his second autobiography, Citizen Koch, Koch addressed his bachelorhood: “I assumed I would marry, as a younger man, but I never found myself in a relationship where it felt comfortable to do so, and with each passing year the chances of that happening seemed more and more remote. I was always consumed by my work.” He further wrote, “From a personal point of view, it would have been nice to have someone to come home to. It would have been even nicer to have children. While I don’t regret that I never married, I do admit there have been a great many times that I could have used the support, or the company, a good marriage would have offered.”

The AIDS crisis came about during Koch’s tenure, yet he was accused by many gay activists of reacting too slowly to the epidemic. “[H]e regretted that for the rest of his life,” said journalist Charles Kaiser. “But I never saw any evidence that his failure to act was because he was uncomfortable with homosexuality. When Larry Kramer founded ACT UP and accused Koch of killing most of his friends, the mayor wanted to meet with him, but he was dissuaded by his staff from doing so. ‘I wish I hadn’t listened to my staff,’ Koch told me many years later.”

In recent years, Koch was a vocal supporter of same-sex marriage.

On March 23, 2011, the New York City Council voted to rename the Queensboro Bridge as the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge in honor of the former mayor.

As passionate as he was about politics, Koch also had a passion for food. In his book Ed Koch on Everything, he gave tips for entertaining. “I often serve steak as my main course,” he wrote. “You should purchase those at the Florence Meat Market located on Jones St. near West 4th. Ask for Tony.” He concludes with, “But the real secret to a successful dinner no matter who’s cooking – eleven bottles of wine for eight people.”

Koch died the same day the new documentary about his life opened theatrically. Directed by Neil Barsky, the film – simply called Koch – chronicled Koch’s often turbulent time in office and the events that shaped his mayoralty.

In his later years, Koch had a number of health problems. He was scheduled to campaign for President Obama in Florida in September but backed out, citing he was too weak to travel. In 1987, he suffered a stroke while in office but fully recovered. In 1999, he had a heart attack, and in 2009, he underwent quadruple bypass surgery. In his final years, he walked with a cane, had a pacemaker, and suffered from spinal stenosis and congestive heart failure. He still kept busy, however, showing up to his law office every day, writing movie reviews, doing a radio show, and appearing as one of NY1’s “Wise Guys” on Inside City Hall with former Senator Al D’Amato and former Governor Eliot Spitzer.

In August, I met with Koch for an exclusive interview with The Jewish Voice. I had interviewed him once before and am honored to have done of the last interviews he ever gave. He was very frail but still sharp and feisty. Being one of the world’s most famous Jewish New Yorkers, there was one pivotal question I had to ask him – what is the best Chinese restaurant in town? “I like the Peking duck at 28 Mott Street,” he said. “The one thing that amazed me once, I went to a kosher [Chinese] restaurant, taken by some people who were kosher, and they said, ‘Oh, you’re going to love this stuff.’ They did the impossible – they dried out a duck! It’s not possible, I thought, to eliminate the tasty fat content. They did!”

Finally, he spoke profoundly of his Jewish faith, and eloquently said, “I believe in God, I believe in the hereafter, I believe in reward and punishment, and I expect to be rewarded.”

Koch’s funeral was held on Monday, Feb. 4 at Temple Emanu-El on the Upper East Side, following a program Koch laid out. A who’s-who of political heavyweights were in attendance, including both Gov. Cuomos, former governors Eliot Spitzer and George Pataki, former Sen. Al D’Amato, Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, former mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani, and former Public Advocate Christine Quinn. Mayor Bloomberg and Bill Clinton both eulogized Koch.

He was buried in Manhattan’s non-denominational Trinity Cemetery in Washington Heights. Hating the idea of not being able to spend eternity in the city he loved, in April 2008 he bought his burial plot, stating, “I don’t want to leave Manhattan, even when I’m gone. This is my home. The thought of having to go to New Jersey was so distressing to me.” For the inscription on his memorial stone, Koch requested that the marker will bear the Star of David and the words from the Hebrew prayer ShemaYisrael, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” It also is inscribed with the last words of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl before he was murdered by terrorists in 2002: “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.” Koch explained that he had been moved that Pearl chose to affirm his faith and heritage in his last moments. Ironically, Koch died on the 11th anniversary of Pearl’s death.

As Koch’s funeral came to an end, his coffin was escorted out of the synagogue to the strains of “New York, New York” playing on the organ, which was welcomed with a mixture of laughter and loud applause. A fitting sendoff for a man who embodied all things great about New York.

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