Ed Koch was mayor of New York City for the entirety of 1978 through 1989. He was the city’s third three-term mayor. The thing about mayors is they don’t actually do all that much, and what they do takes forever to get done, but their personality infects the entire city. “Mr. Koch governs in large part through style, personality and the perception created by his enthusiasm,” wrote the Times in 1986. This is true particularly in a three-term mayor and particularly true in hindsight, of course—but any survivor of the endless Bloomberg era would have to agree.
Koch was in Congress from 1969 to 1977, but even then was never too far from New York City, rarely spending weekends in D.C. He despised John Lindsay, who was mayor from 1966 to 1973, with tiny Abe Beame serving for one term between them. Lindsay, whose legacy has recently been recast into the heroic mode, took all of Koch’s umbrage for the decline of New York City. Beame’s mayorship was a brutal one, slashing and reorganizing city spending to reconfigure the city’s finances from a massive deficit to a surplus, a situation Koch inherited when Beame didn’t even place second in the Democratic primaries for a second term. “John Lindsay mortgaged the city’s future,” Koch later said. “What am I supposed to do—shut up and pretend it never happened? Lindsay fought back, but the damage was done.
Koch, as well as being a hilarious person in general, was also an oddball. After a trip to China, he wanted to populate New York City with bike lanes. In 1984, in the Times, he wrote an emotional appeal in favor of the death penalty. It concluded: “‘The law is a ass,’ Charles Dickens wrote nearly 150 years ago. No, it is not the law, it is the people who created the law who should be so described.” Due to his mouthiness, he was once officially uninvited to visit Greece.
In 1972, Congressman Koch was told by a panhandler that Koch should give him a quarter or he’d be beaten up. Koch hunted down a cop, who complained that the paperwork for arresting the guy would be too much. Koch insisted, the panhandler was arrested, and they all went to the precinct house and then to the court, where the panhandler was fined $50. Fortunately for him, he’d given a fake name, and he slipped away, never paying.
Koch was also perhaps the single most pro-Israel politician of our time. In October of 1977, when he was the Democratic primary candidate for his first term for mayor, he handed President Jimmy Carter a letter—in a staged event, regarding which he’d alerted the media—protesting the very mention of Palestine in peace talks at the United Nations.
In 1981, he called the United Nations ”a pack of fools” and ”hypocrites.”
In 1983, John B. Oakes denounced Koch in the Times, for his “latter-day McCarthyism.” Koch had given a speech which said that any Jew who didn’t fully support the current policies of Israel were essentially anti-Semites. That same year, an invitation to Beirut was withdrawn by the government, because he’d entered Lebanon in an Israeli helicopter, without permission.
Koch was also a warning about the spoilage that happened to a mayoral machine in its third term. As early as 1986, the city was awash in scandal. Although the city government imploded throughout much of his third term, it was most likely through no active fault of Koch’s except inattention. At one time, he met monthly with the head of all city agencies. In early 1988, such a gathering was notable, because it had not occurred in at least five months. His inattentiveness to AIDS was at least part of this third-term removal from the day-to-day running of the city.
But then, he was also criticized for spending $7 million on his reelection campaign, a number that seems laughably small now.
Bizarrely, Koch released a memoir while still in office, in 1984. (More bizarrely, it was made into a Broadway musical. Characters in the musical included Cardinal John O’Connor, Leona Helmsley and New York City hero Sue Simmons.) The memoir came under attack from people such as Bella Abzug, who called him a liar. He also used the book to pit blacks against Jews, one of his favorite tactics.
Among his successes was the actual creation of low-income and middle-class housing, a project that has not met with any success since. And Koch, unlike all the mayors to follow, only became rich late in life. In 1980, his tax returns said that he paid $29,333.75 in taxes on income of $70,753.92.
Ed Koch ran for a fourth term, in 1989, but lost the Democratic primary to David Dinkins by almost 100,000 votes.