R.I.P. Ed Koch (1924-2013)
The author and Ed Koch, the 105th mayor of New York City, who died last night of congestive heart failure.
As Capitol Hill sinks further into the murk of half-truths and party-line politics, we need men and women who mean what they say, sometimes at the expense of their jobs. Former NYC mayor Ed Koch, the corrosive, fast-talkng politician who literally hauled New York's ass out of the gutter in the mid-70s recession during his three-terms as mayor, was a man like that.
Koch died this morning at 2 AM of congestive heart failure at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, the same hospital he was born in. He was 88 years old.
Nine months ago while late-drinking with a friend we found ourselves wondering what "The Boy Mayor of New York City" was up to in 2012. We did some light research, and discovered that in addition to holding a desk at a business and litigation firm called Bryan Cave LLP, Koch was moonlighting as a film critic, with a regularly syndicated column in the Huffington Post and an online film-review show called Mayor at the Movies. Even in his late 80s, he went out to the movies every weekend. So when I first approached Koch about a piece for VICE, I wanted to talk about film.
A week later I was in his 39th-floor office in midtown chatting casually about Escape From New York, Death Wish, and the other apocalyptic cinema that defined Koch-era New York.
Like any semiconscious human, I'm conflicted about Koch: Here was a man with an inability to stay away from scandal. His three terms as mayor were marked by racial tension, high crime rates, and destructive high-level racketeering, which culminated in 1986 when Queens Borough President Donald Manes stabbed himself in the heart before indictment on corruption charges.
Koch was a product of 70s New York "machine politics." By the end of his third term, the system of corrupt county leaders he'd put in place were openly profiting off stakes in public institutions. He also had a famous inclination to run his mouth, which didn't help much. When Reverend Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1988, Koch said Jewish voters would be "crazy" to vote for him, alienating black (and Jewish) supporters and smothering his career as mayor. Ironically, his greatest legacy is the democratic transformation of New York City housing. When Reagan cut federal housing programs, Koch put capital funds into public housing construction, starting a tradition that every mayor since has copied.
When I met Ed, he gave me his card and scrawled his personal number on it. I asked him, "So you mean I've got a direct line to the mayor?" "Yes, you do," he said to me, smiling.
This morning, as I lay in bed before heading into the office, I asked myself Koch's famous question: How am I doing? When I met with Koch nine months ago, he was the same fast-talking lunatic he's always been. Sitting back in his chair smiling like a weird wrinkly muppet, he told me stories I couldn't believe, like the time he recommended the MTA fight graffiti with wild wolves in the early 80s. It was literally impossible to hate this man, despite his sometimes awful policy and lack of tact. Maybe it takes his death for us to realize what we've lost—the last American politician who didn't give a shit about how he came across. "You punch me, I'll punch back," he once said. "I do not believe it's good for one's self-respect to be a punching bag."
Flags on all New York City buildings are flying at half-mast today, out of respect.
Read Ben's interview with Ed - "Ed Koch Loves Movies"
Follow Ben on Twitter @b_shap