Accessibility links

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch Still Inspires and Riles


At 82, Ed Koch has lost none of the intelligence and elfin sparkle that made him one of the 20th century's most colorful and, many say, effective New York City mayors. Indeed, nearly two decades after leaving office, Koch remains not only recognizable, but relevant. In Buzz, his 15th book, which has just been published, Koch explains how he's managed that.

"You mustn't be afraid," he says. "Many people, particularly those in public office, are afraid of the press. I was never afraid of the press because I knew more than they did in matters of government, and so I had no hesitation in discussion and debate with them."

Koch adds that, whatever one's profession, one should be an expert on the subject matter one is supposed to be "in control of." He adds that "you must not lie or exaggerate. People lose respect for you after a while when they understand that they can't trust your facts and your figures."

Mayor Koch's reputation for humor and plain speaking (what he calls intellectual honesty) often endeared him to New Yorkers, especially during tough times. He recalls the morning of April 1st, 1980. It was the first day of a mass transit workers' strike. Joining a large crowd of commuters walking to work over the Brooklyn Bridge, Koch wound up calling an angry strike supporter "wacko" (meaning "crazy"). His remark generated enormous publicity, to Koch's delight.

Despite the controversies he has often stirred, and his claims of self-confidence, Koch says that he is also a shy man. Still, he says, he insists on "being himself," whatever the cost.

"I believe I've done that all my life, and I believe people have had confidence in me. So that when I was elected mayor and the city was on the edge of bankruptcy, I said 'If you follow me, I will lead you across the desert and we will prevail!'"

Indeed, Koch enjoyed a remarkably rapid rise to political power. He became a Greenwich Village neighborhood leader in 1963, was elected to New York's city council in 1965, and in 1969, was elected to the first of five terms in the U.S. Congress. He received 78 percent of the vote in his last congressional race, before being elected New York City mayor in 1977.

He was re-elected twice by wide margins, but in 1989, he lost his bid for a 4th term. When asked why he lost, Koch says "People get tired of you. But it was so wonderful when, four years later, people would say 'Oh Mayor, you should run again. You must run again!' And my response was 'No. The people threw me out and now the people must be punished,'" he chuckles.

Today, Koch has his own live radio and television programs, and has appeared often on film and in other media. He also publishes a widely circulated weekly news commentary. A lifelong Democrat, he crossed party lines to endorse President Bush in his 2004 re-election bid, and while he backed Republican Rudy Giuliani in both of his mayoral campaigns, he says he will not endorse him for President in 2008.

"I would be horrified if he became President because he is a mean-spirited guy," he says. "He was a very good mayor — not a great mayor — because he didn't like people. "

And while he has endorsed (New York) Senator Hillary Clinton for President, Koch has also expressed pride that another New Yorker (Michael Bloomberg, the city's current mayor and a self-made billionaire) has a chance to win the presidential election in 2008 as an independent candidate, if he decides to run.

Koch — whose brash public persona symbolized New York for many people around the world — believes it's natural that a city that sets trends in international culture and finance should also produce strong political leaders. And while he loves the city that has nurtured him, his affection is tinged with realism.

"We're not the most beautiful city in the world. That's Paris. We're not even the most interesting city in the world. I think that's London. But," he says, "we are the most electrifying, exciting city in the world. You never know what is going to happen in New York. Every day is a challenge! As Frank Sinatra said, 'if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere!' That is absolutely true!"

It is certainly is true in the case of Ed Koch. His Jewish immigrant parents did not attend high school. But their son went on to lead America's greatest city, and continues to inspire, enrage, instruct, and often amuse New Yorkers well into his ninth decade.

Previous American Profiles

XS
SM
MD
LG