Here is the Times’ obit for Ed Koch. It includes a passage on how Koch’s record has been judged:
” . . . historians and political experts generally give Mr. Koch mixed-to-good reviews.”
Well, OK. I would myself say mixed-to-excellent but for the Times mixed-to-good will have to do. As long as you acknowledge that the positive side of the ledger is reserved for the things that were of the greatest importance. Koch was flawed as are we all. But he did the right things on the things that mattered the most, and that counts for a lot.
I served in the budget office in New York City in Ed Koch’s first term. I know the knocks against Koch, especially as he got into later terms in office, and some of them are true. But I will always hold him in the highest regard for doing what he had to do, which was to fix the fiscal mess he inherited.
Doing what must be done sounds like it ought to be easy but in politics it is anything but. Politicians are ever inventive at not doing what must be done. New York City was fortunate that this odd and unusual man was elected, since he did what less odd and unusual elected officials are loath to do: the necessary. T’was ever thus, and so it remains to this day–witness both Dems and Rs in DC.
The Times‘ obit includes a very interesting video interview with Koch from 2007 in which the former mayor, while of course rambunctious as ever, gives a reflective self-assessment of his years as Mayor. One section starting at 11:15 jumped out at me, given my time in the budget office.
I’m not a financial genius. Not at all. But I know you don’t spend money you don’t have.
So far that sounds right. You expect him to go on to tell a conventional narrative about how the budget people told him there was no money, how he backed them up and did the right thing, etc. etc. Right? Not exactly. Koch fills in the details adding a twist, one which is important in judging how he comported himself in treacherous political and fiscal terrain.
I’m told by the budget people we have no money. . . I believe my people, and so when the labor people come in and they want to negotiate and they want a raise, I said “Don’t be fucking foolish. There’s no money here, no food in the cabinet, nothin’ in the refrigerator. There’s not going to be any increase”. . .
But your labor people know more about your budget, and how much is there, than you do. And the labor people said, “Mayor, you’re wrong. You got money! You got money! And we want it!” (laughs) So I go to the budget people and I say “Listen. Did you tell me the truth when you said there was no money?” And they’re looking very sheepish. And I know they didn’t tell me the truth and I say “Listen to me. This is the last time I will tell you. If you ever lie to me again, you’re fired. And I want you to know: you think I will give away things you wouldn’t give away. I don’t give away. I’m here to protect the city. But I gotta to know what the truth is, what the facts are, if I’m gonna do it. You understand?”
That must have been both a good and bad conversation from the point of view of the budget director. Bad: he’s caught, called on the carpet and his job has been threatened. Good: the Mayor holds himself out as a different kind of politician, someone who can handle the truth. A scary conversation too . . . politicians got the city into the mess and their natural inclination would be to keep doing it. Can this guy Koch be trusted to do the right thing?
It turned out that Koch was up for the challenge. IMHO he gets an A for this, most critical, part of his mayoralty. Things got frayed as time went on to be sure. If there is an argument for term limits, Koch’s three terms make it quite effectively. Political arteries harden, obligations become barnacles encrusting the ship of state, favors necessary to break logjams morph back into reliable systems of corruption. Ah yes, but we’ll always have Manhattan, 1979.
He had many lives before and after his terms in office, especially after it, when he simply refused to leave the limelight. Not many can say, as Wikipedia says of Koch, they they have been a “lawyer, politician, political commentator, movie critic and television reality show judge”. Actor, too. Fortunately, he was good at most, and entertaining at all. I’ll miss him.
Jonathan Soffer’s book Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City, is the most recent assessment of his terms in office, including the good and the bad. I wrote about the fiscal crisis a few years back here. Koch (the documentary film) opens today in New York, just a few hours after his death.