Former Mayor Ed Koch died today. He was 88 years old and while he had been out of office since 1989, he was still a vivid presence in New York City, about which he recently said "At age 88, I wake up every morning and say to myself, 'Well, I'm still in New York. Thank you, God.'"
Now, that is a sentiment that I can get behind. Whatever else you can say about Ed Koch, you can't say he couldn't give good soundbites. The former mayor was incredibly quotable, famously saying things like "If you agree with me on nine out of 12 issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on 12 out of 12 issues, see a psychiatrist" or "Have you ever lived in the suburbs? ... It's sterile. It's nothing. It's wasting your life, and people do not wish to waste their lives once they've seen New York! ... This rural American thing — I'm telling you, it's a joke."
Perhaps the thing that Koch was best known for saying—"How'm I doing?"—is a good jumping off point to talk about the man himself. Mayor Bloomberg called him, "an irrepressible icon, our most charismatic cheerleader and champion.” The New York Times remembers Koch as "the master showman of City Hall" and a man with "tenacity, zest and combativeness that personified his city of golden dreams." Sounds great, right? I mean, his three terms must have been a glorious and golden era for New York, right? Oh, wait. The Times continues on to say that Koch's tenure "was overwhelmed by corruption scandals in his administration and by racial divisions that his critics contended he sometimes made worse." Well, yeah. I mean if you care about things like racial discord, then, sure, Koch wasn't perfect. And if you care about things like the fact that the economic divide in this city between the wealthy and the poor widened enormously during Koch's tenure, due in no small part to his cuts in social welfare expenditures, then maybe you're not the biggest Koch fan either. Or maybe you care about things like the fact that Koch was notoriously insensitive to the AIDS epidemic and its tragic effect on the people of New York and so can't gather many fond memories of a mayor who had an opportunity to act courageously on an important social issue, but instead didn't really act at all.
But maybe you don't care about any of those things. I mean, Koch hasn't been in office for well over two decades and has become better known as the "charismatic cheerleader" that Bloomberg remembers. It's telling that in a city that seems to be ever-changing, New York has only had four mayors in the last 35 years. With such long tenures, of course our mayors become icons—they are as much fixtures in this city as our buildings. However, just because someone is an icon and can give good soundbites, it hardly means that they are worthy of the posthumous circle jerk that accompanies the death of almost every political or public figure.
I am not trying to single Ed Koch out as the only politician who is perhaps unworthy of the adulation heaped upon him after his death. It is an all too common occurrence that makes sense in the way that it made sense to me this morning when I sat in my son's 3rd grade classroom and listened to his teacher advising the students how best to respond to each other's work, which was on display for students and parents alike. "Don't say anything negative," Ms. Milledge recommended. "The work is already done. The time for fixing things has passed. Please only point out the positive things so that we can all feel good about the job we did." This is lovely advice for 3rd-graders, who are usually a bunch of critical assholes. And it is probably not such bad advice for writers, who are also a bunch of critical assholes. The time to be ultra-critical of Ed Koch's—or any dead politician's—failures has passed. His work is already done. But it is a reminder that it is our responsibility, as members of society, to be critical of our politicians as they serve us. It is a reminder not to fall under the sway of a snappy soundbite from a man who failed this city's minorities and under-privileged residents. It reminds me of something my father said when Richard Nixon died and article after article was printed about the good things Nixon had accomplished during his time in office. I asked my father why there wasn't more of a focus on Cambodia or Kent State or even more than a glancing look at Watergate. My father told me, "In public, we mourn the best qualities of the man that was. But in private, we can spit on his grave as much as we want."
Personally, I have no interest in spitting on Ed Koch's grave. He was no Richard Nixon. But he was a very flawed mayor who isn't wholly redeemable just because he wrote funny movie reviews in his later years. The one thing that makes Koch slightly acceptable—to me anyway—is that he was also the "author" of several mystery books that my father gave me as joke gifts in my Christmas stockings. In adventures like "Murder on 34th Street" and "Murder at City Hall", I visited the fictional world of five-term Mayor Ed Koch as he solved murders that the NYPD was ill-equipped to deal with, so they asked him for help. These books can currently be purchased online for about a penny. So, act fast. Because now that Koch is gone, you just know the price might double. Or even triple. So, you know, act NOW.
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