In the Winter 2012 issue of City Journal, I wrote a reappraisal of Ed Koch’s mayoral tenure in New York City. Far too few serious analyses of his considerable impact on the city had been done, partly because of Koch’s nature: He was a character, a media celebrity, and always quick with a quip. Long before Google, Twitter, and cable news, Koch was ubiquitous in New York, dominating newspapers, radio, television, and even Broadway. He didn’t seem to worry that his self-promotion might diminish the dignity of the mayoral office; to Koch, what counted was advancing the city’s interests (and yes, his own).
Koch’s public savvy was a studied effort. Media guru David Garth trained him to speak to TV cameras in such a way that he appeared to be talking directly to voters, rather than just reporters. He supplemented his media skills with a number of unique characteristics: humor, self-described “liberalism with sanity,” outspoken Jewishness, and skill in navigating white-ethnic politics. All of these qualities came together to define Koch and enable him to do what he did.
At a time when New York Democrats were becoming increasingly doctrinaire liberals, Koch’s practical liberalism helped him build a groundbreaking white-ethnic coalition that included Irish, Italian, and Jewish voters. His Borscht Belt humor and his strong pro-Israel stance appealed to the Jewish community, even as his pragmatic policies put him to the right of many liberal Jews. Koch’s political skill led to a somewhat surprising mayoral victory in 1977, an overwhelming reelection in 1981, and another impressive win in 1985. Over three terms in what had been a dangerously dysfunctional city, Koch enacted crucial reforms. He balanced New York’s out-of-control budget, and he did so a year earlier than anticipated. He pushed back against the city’s municipal unions, famously greeting commuters walking over the Brooklyn Bridge during the 1980 transit strike. And he brought modern accounting practices to the city’s outdated financing system.
After leaving office, Koch continued to serve as an ambassador for New York and for himself—reviewing movies, writing newspaper columns, and, of course, frequently appearing on radio and television. He feuded with Bella Abzug, Mario Cuomo, Rudy Giuliani, Al Sharpton, and others, but he never took himself too seriously. More often than not, he wound up burying the hatchet with his rivals.
Ed Koch was a New York original who brought a great deal to the city he loved so dearly, as the city wisely recognized in 2010 by renaming the Queensboro Bridge in his honor. Future generations will think of him as they cross over into his beloved Manhattan—and that’s just the way he would want it.