"Have you ever lived in the suburbs? It's sterile. It's nothing. It's wasting your life."—New York Mayor Ed Koch, in a 1982 interview with Playboy, dismissing the possibility of living in Albany, quoted in “Ed Koch Quotes: Memorable Lines From Former NYC Mayor, Dead At 88,” The Huffington Post, February 2, 2013
That quote, as much as anything else, probably ensured that Ed Koch would lose to Mario Cuomo—whom he had defeated five years before in the Democratic primary for Mayor of New York—when the two had a rematch in running for governor. Cuomo would go on to win three terms as governor, and might have made the Presidency, too, if he had put his mind to it early enough; Koch was content to retain the title he would use in his 1984 memoir: Mayor.
The governor’s office could have been Koch’s. By 1982, he had built a credible record stabilizing New York City’s finances; his advocacy of the death penalty (a stance I find repugnant) at that time had strong appeal across the state, and even among many city voters; and his willingness to confront his party’s more liberal wing might have appealed to crossover voters. (We didn’t know it then, but even more substantial accomplishments—the regeneration of Times Square and the addition of desperately needed affordable-housing units—were in the offing.)
Then, upstate voters heard about the gaffe in today’s “Bonus Quote of the Day.” Just another downstate, maybe even Manhattan-centric, pol, they (correctly) believed.
If one of his predecessors at Gracie Mansion, John Lindsay, was the politician as leading man—blessed with good looks, wit, charm, and charisma to spare—then Koch was a character actor who, through a dogged determination not to escape his origins or be anything other than what he was, proved far more enduring.
He wrote an entire book called Rudy Guiliani: Nasty Man, but he was not free of the vice himself. A politician who calls those who disagrees with him “schmucks” might be excused as having no impulse control. But a man who brags, in print, with all the time in the world to consider what he’s about to express, that he made a woman cry—a claim Koch made about City Council President Carol Bellamy in Mayor—has quite a bit of vindictiveness.
Yet, through his three terms in office and beyond, when he functioned as an all-purpose commentator, film reviewer, gadfly, and God knows what else, Koch was irrepressible and larger than life, leaving everyone with a story about him. Much of that stemmed from the simple fact, as Joe Nocera noted in his New York Times column this weekend, that Koch was “probably the last mayor of New York to have a sense of humor.”
A female friend of mine in publishing, for instance, watched him several years ago just before a book event as he adjusted his collar and tie. After a lost glance in the mirror, he turned around and winked at her. “Looking good!” he said. My friend giggled at the notion that a politician widely assumed to be gay could actually be flirting with her.
My own recollection of Koch was less personal, but equally amusing in its way. I caught him at the pregame ceremony for the dedication of my alma mater’s brand-new football complex, Wien Stadium, a structure replacing the rickety old wooden structure in which six decades of Columbia University fans had cheered on—or groaned about—or football teams.
Now, Koch was credibly reputed to have zero interest in sports. (He did throw a ticker-tape parade for the Bronx Bombers after their 1978 World Series victory because of its “wonderful, energizing effect on the people of this great city," but a more reliable indicator of his affection for baseball and other sports was that he left the Yankees’ home opener after only two innings.)
None of that mattered as Koch addressed the crowd at Baker Field that autumn afternoon in 1984. Columbia had beaten Harvard before. His voice rising in that familiar high pitch, he made a link that was not necessarily logical: Think what the team could do now in this new stadium, he told the crowd. Then, lest anyone be in doubt: “We’re going to beat the hell out of them!”
Did I mention that Columbia was in the midst of a 44-game losing streak--the second-longest in major college football history--when he made that prediction? Do I have to tell you that we lost that afternoon, too?
So what? Koch had given the crowd its only memorable moment of the day. At a point when nobody—least of all ourselves—believed, he gave reason for hope. He accomplished this even more dramatically in the late Seventies and throughout the Eighties, with the city he couldn’t imagine being away from.
(Photo of Ed Koch with former Congresswoman Bella Abzug and Jimmy Carter—a President he continued to loathe until his death—taken by White House photographer Karl H. Schumacher, February 3, 1978, now part of the National Archives and Records Administration.)