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Eye on the News

Clark Whelton
Be Not Afraid
A speechwriter remembers Ed Koch
1 February 2013

It was Congressman Ed Koch who persuaded me to become Mayor Ed Koch’s speechwriter.

In November 1977, I was a staff writer for The Village Voice doing legwork on a story about a landlord who had set fires in his own properties, not for insurance but to drive out rent-controlled tenants. As I interviewed the residents, who had repaired their building and were now struggling against eviction, a woman handed me a file of letters and documents from their departing congressman, Ed Koch.

I read the file with special interest. Koch had recently been elected mayor and had just asked me to join his administration. I wasn’t sure what to do. I loved journalism, but I came from a political family—my grandfather had been the mayor of Boston—and I was drawn toward City Hall. As I read through the Koch file, I noticed that the congressman, unlike other public officials whose help had been requested, had given the beleaguered tenants specific advice on how to deal with city bureaucracies and navigate the courts. He had also sent follow-up letters, asking for progress reports. All in all, it was an impressive response, and it helped save the building. I decided to work for Koch.

This was the second time I’d covered a story in which Koch was involved. Five years earlier, he had taken sides in a Forest Hills public-housing controversy, calling for a high-rise development (three 24-story towers) to be scaled down and for community concerns about crime to be addressed. The Manhattan congressman was widely accused of butting into a Queens conflict for his own political advantage (he ran unsuccessfully for mayor the following year). When I interviewed Koch, I found that whatever his ambitions, he understood the complicated issues well. The Forest Hills project was being sold as “scattered-site housing”—a development strategy that calls for the building of low-income housing in higher-income neighborhoods. Koch realized that if a housing development hurts a community more than the community benefits the development, you’re scattering problems, not solutions. He knew that high-rise low-income projects had been disastrous failures across the country. He understood that it was self-defeating to bully and intimidate the very middle-income people who were expected to provide better neighborhoods for scatter-site tenants. Eventually, the Forest Hills project was scaled back and became an asset to the community.

In February 1978, Mayor Koch spoke to a gathering of bank executives in midtown Manhattan. It was his second month in office. The city was on the brink of bankruptcy. I wrote a long speech filled with statistics. He handed out copies, then proceeded to do 20 minutes of mayoral stand-up comedy. He told jokes about washing his own dishes in his City Hall kitchenette. He told jokes about the bad brakes on his Chrysler sedan, which he called the Deathmobile. The bankers were rolling in the aisles. Then he hit them with the real punch line: “Here is my economic development plan.” The room went silent. “I want every one of you to get rich. Because if you get rich, it means the banks are booming. And if the banks are doing well, it means the people of this city are doing well, too.” Standing ovation. I had a lot to learn about speechwriting.

“Only say what you really believe,” he told me later. “You can’t convince anyone if you don’t believe it yourself.”

In 1986, in the wake of the Donald Manes payoff scandal, Koch shook off his fears that no one would believe he was innocent. He took the stage at the Inner Circle Show—an annual New York City event something like the White House Correspondents’ Dinner—even though he was certain to be the target of jokes and jibes about corruption. “Be as tough on me as you can,” the mayor told me as I worked on his musical contribution to the show. “I can take it.” (That contribution was called “Singing in the Arraign.”)

The hard lessons learned by the 19-year-old soldier who won two battle stars with the 104th Division, like the practical lessons learned by District Leader Koch, Councilman Koch, and Congressman Koch, helped make Mayor Koch a success. He saw clearly that without safe streets, affordable housing, good cops, and competent judges, no city could survive. Above all, he believed the sign on his desk: BE NOT AFRAID.

He was not afraid. He was not afraid to follow his conscience. He was not afraid to speak his mind or stand up for the city he loved. And he was not afraid of death. He wrote his own epitaph and selected his own gravestone. His real monument, however, is the magnificent city we see around us today.

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