Skip to main content

Koch a friend and force to the end

By Charles Kaiser, Special to CNN
February 2, 2013 -- Updated 1830 GMT (0230 HKT)
Ed Koch speaks at the renaming of the Queensboro Bridge in his honor in May 2011. The brash former New York mayor died Friday, February 1, of congestive heart failure at 88, his spokesman said. Ed Koch speaks at the renaming of the Queensboro Bridge in his honor in May 2011. The brash former New York mayor died Friday, February 1, of congestive heart failure at 88, his spokesman said.
HIDE CAPTION
Ed Koch through the years
Ed Koch through the years
Ed Koch through the years
Ed Koch through the years
Ed Koch through the years
Ed Koch through the years
Ed Koch through the years
Ed Koch through the years
Ed Koch through the years
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Charles Kaiser: Ed Koch, who died Friday, hadn't been NYC mayor in years; was still a force
  • He says Koch embodied NYC in the 20th century, pulled it back from the brink of collapse
  • He says Koch had a long, strong record on gay rights, was a good manager, a selfless friend
  • Kaiser: Koch stayed relevant; had the ear of every important Democrat, including Obama

Editor's note: Charles Kaiser is the author of "1968 In America" and "The Gay Metropolis," a former reporter for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and a former press critic for Newsweek.

(CNN) -- He revered friendship; he loved food, and Israel, and gay people, and he adored New York City. He also loved himself.

When Edward Irving Koch died early Friday morning in a New York hospital at age 88, it had been almost a quarter of a century since he had left office. But he never faded away. He stayed relevant until his last breath, and he had kept the ear of every important Democrat, from Barack Obama to the lowliest city councilman.

As much as his hero, Fiorello LaGuardia -- and more than any other politician -- he embodied New York City in the 20th century.

Charles Kaiser
Charles Kaiser

Eighteen months ago, after he supported a Republican in a special election for Congress to express his unhappiness over Obama's position on Israel, the president summoned him to a meeting -- and Koch responded by immediately endorsing the president for re-election after they had met.

I first met Koch in 1977 when I was a young political reporter for The New York Times, and I covered him for two years after he went to City Hall in 1978. A couple of years later, I wrote a negative review of a biography that was critical of him, and that cemented our friendship. This led to many meals at Gracie Mansion and at my apartment.

When he took office, the city was a violent place, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and he and New York Gov. Hugh Carey did more than anyone else to revive it. "In terms of beating the drums and keeping people awake and having people hope that the city would make it, no one was more important," Felix Rohatyn told me. Rohatyn is the investment banker who played a crucial role in fashioning the solutions that brought the city back from the brink..

Koch liked to say, "I'm just a simple Jewish boy from the Bronx," and he never forgot where he came from. As a teenager Koch worked as a waiter, and the first time he came to dinner at my apartment, he was shocked when he saw how much I was cutting off the strawberries I was serving him for dessert. "You're wasting a lot!" he said.

Unlike so many other politicians who never discussed sexual orientation in public, Koch had the longest and strongest pro-gay rights record of any public official of his generation, dating all the way back to 1962, when he first called for the repeal of the New York state law prohibiting sodomy.

Almost his first official action as mayor was to sign an executive order banning discrimination against gay employees of New York City, an act that dismayed almost every reporter who was covering him, except me.

Tweeters loved Koch's 'New York-iness'

When the AIDS crisis struck at the beginning of his second term, he reacted much too slowly, and he told me he regretted that for the rest of his life. But I never saw any evidence that his failure to act was because he was uncomfortable with homosexuality. When Larry Kramer founded ACT UP and accused Koch of killing most of his friends, the mayor wanted to meet with him, but he was dissuaded by his staff from doing so. "I wish I hadn't listened to my staff," Koch told me many years later.

Although he had never managed anything larger than a congressman's office when he became mayor, he turned out to be a superb manager. At the beginning of his administration, he ignored the recommendation of his search committee and picked Robert McGuire, a former federal prosecutor, to be his first police commissioner. It was an inspired choice, and McGuire did a brilliant job, but first he had to convince Koch he was up to the challenge.

Mayor Ed Koch: I created the foundation
Writer: Koch was New York
Remembering Ed Koch

"We had a great interview," McGuire recalled. "And he called me that night and said, I really want to give you the job, but you've never managed anything."

McGuire replied, "Ed, you worry about me running the police department. You're going to be running the city of New York and you don't have a clue of what you're going to be doing!"

"I never thought of it that way," Koch replied, and then he gave McGuire the job.

"We never had a disagreement in six years," said McGuire. "As a human being he was a great boss. You have to trust a guy, and you have to let them do their job. Then you have to back them up when they get into deep water, and Ed did all that. And whenever I told Koch that someone had asked me for a political favor, he said, 'Tell them to forget it!'"

One afternoon, many years after he had left City Hall and long after I was reporting on him, I received a frantic phone call from a family friend. Her son had been scheduled to drive her to the airport that morning, and he hadn't shown up. "I'm sure he's in his apartment, but the police won't break down his door," she said.

I hung up and called Koch to explain the situation. He immediately called the office of William Bratton, who was then the police commissioner. Twenty minutes later, the police broke into the apartment of my friend's son, and discovered he had overdosed on heroine. He was in a coma for a week, but then he had a full recovery.

Koch never asked for any thanks.

Most of the time Koch was a natural dealing with the press. When I was writing a profile of Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau for the Times, I went to City Hall to interview Koch about him, because they had been close political allies for many years.

"People say Morgenthau is a great friend but a terrible enemy," I said to the mayor.

"So am I," said Koch. "And I've given you your kicker!" -- meaning the last sentence of my story.

And so he had.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Charles Kaiser.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT