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
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT