NY1’s Budd Mishkin continues his series, “One On 1,” with a profile of former Mayor Ed Koch. Is there any New Yorker who needs less of an introduction?
It's been almost 30 years since Ed Koch took office, and 15 years since he left. Some things, however, haven't changed.
“It happens all day long,” he says. “People will yell at me, ÎDon't ask - you're doing fine,’ or, ÎHow am I doing?’"
How's he doing? Busy. He's a lawyer, writer, radio broadcaster, film critic, television pundit on NY1's Inside City Hall “Wise Guys” segment, and children's book author? The book, called “Eddie, Harold’s Little Brother,” is based on Koch's own childhood growing up in the Bronx and Newark, New Jersey.
"This book is for klutzky kids,” he says. “I was a klutzy kid, and this tells them there is always something you can do better than the other kids like me.”
What Ed Koch could always do well was talk, whether you liked what he was saying or not. He did a lot of talking this summer, the lifelong Democrat recruiting volunteers for the Republican National Convention.
"They said they were looking for someone, and everybody said there's someone that everybody can relate to and everybody knows and everybody feels comfortable with, and that's you," he says.
Koch has supported Republicans in the past, like Rudolph Giuliani in the 1993 mayor's race. However, he has never supported a Republican for president. This year he has endorsed George W. Bush.
"I don't agree with him on a single issue of a domestic nature, but I believe he's the only one willing running to stand up to international terrorism,” he says. “I don't believe the Democratic candidate, [John] Kerry, or the Democratic Party has the stomach to do it."
And yet he has already announced that he will support Senator Hillary Clinton if she runs for president in 2008.
A supporter of Bush and Clinton - he's not going to have much company there. But that's Ed Koch - unpredictable.
Direct? Absolutely. But he claims that the Ed Koch you see is not who he is.
"People think that I'm very outgoing, and I'm not,” he says. “I knew when I was mayor and other jobs I've undertaken in public life that to get attention, to get it done, to get people to listen and to support, you've got to be bigger than life!”
Ed Koch will be 80 in December. He works out at a gym every weekday morning before coming to his midtown law office.
"I will never retire,” he says. “I expect to die at this desk. My father died at 87, and that's not bad. I remember my conversations with God — he never talked, it was just me. He listened. When I had my stroke, that terrified me. I thought I'd be paralyzed. I said, ÎListen God, I am not afraid to die. If you want to take me, take me. But don’t take me a slice at a time.’"
He’s survived a stroke and heart attack, and the emotional turmoil of his third term, when his administration was ensnarled by municipal scandals and several city employees were accused of corruption, like then Queens Borough President Donald Manes, who committed suicide.
Koch was not tied directly to the scandals, but they exacted a personal toll.
"I was so overwhelmed, so depressed, I thought I might commit suicide,” he says. “It just was so terrible, the idea that that could happen during my administration, even though I had nothing to do with it."
A call from John Cardinal O'Connor helped Koch to recover.
"He said, ÎEd, I know you're overwhelmed and upset, and I'm telling you that you don't have to feel that way. Everybody knows you're an honest man,’” he says. “So I said, ÎYour Eminence, this call is very important to me.’”
Ed Koch was the first New York City major to run for a fourth term. He lost in a primary election to David Dinkins in 1989.
“People were crying - family, friends - not me,” he says. “I was saying to myself, only in my head, ÎFree at last! Great God almighty, free at last!’ People say if you're such a terrific mayor, and I think I was, how did you lose? And the answer is longevity. People get tired of you.”
Through his 12 years in office, Koch's image was as big as the city he represented. But he actually came upon his catch phrase during his years in Congress.
“I'd go the subways at 7:00 in the morning and stand there and hand out literature, and people would rush by and I would say, ÎI'm Congressman Koch.’ They’d rush by,” he says. “And then serendipitously one moment, I said, ÎI'm Congressman Koch. How am I doing?’ They stopped and talked to me."
Koch was an extremely popular mayor. He walked the city through the 10-day transit strike in 1980. He welcomed leaders from around the world to his New York. He won re-election by vast margins.
But he wasn't popular in every community - not in the black community. Ironic, because as a young attorney, he went to Mississippi in 1964 to defend civil rights workers.
As mayor, Koch was, in his words, "not well received" in the black community. But he says it was not because of his personality, but his policies.
“No mayor, particularly a white mayor, at that moment in time could be well received because we were cutting services because we didn't have any money,” he says. “And the people who rely on services are poor people, and the poorest of the poor were black, and therefore they saw it as an attack upon them rather than a need that would prevent bankruptcy, which would've been far worse. But you can't explain to people when they're in pain that this is good for us and good for you ultimately in the long term."
When Koch reflects on his time in office, he talks about building affordable housing, and creating a non-political merit selection system for judges. He also says he restored fiscal responsibility to the city.
But the mayor also cites an important intangible.
"I gave the people of New York City back their spirit,” he says. “They were so ashamed of being New Yorkers because we were beggars and asking for so much help. I gave them back their spirit, their feistiness."
Need you ask, Ed Koch is still feisty, yes, but appreciative of the life New York's given him.
”All these occasions when it came home to me have the responsibility, also the love and affection that people have in many cases for the mayor, I was very appreciative,” he says. “I said to myself, ÎBoy, I'm a lucky guy!’"
- Budd Mishkin