Mayor Ed Koch passes away at 88

A rare modern politician whose legendary status didn’t just exist between his own ears, New York City Mayor Ed Koch has passed away from congestive heart failure early this morning.  Koch was 88 years old, and a ubiquitous figure on the national stage for decades:

Former Mayor Ed Koch, the combative, acid-tongued politician who rescued the city from near-financial ruin during a three-term City Hall run in which he embodied New York chutzpah for the rest of the world, died Friday. He was 88.

Koch died at 2 a.m., spokesman George Arzt said. The funeral will be Monday at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan. …

The larger-than-life Koch, who breezed through the streets of New York flashing his signature thumbs-up sign, won a national reputation with his feisty style. “How’m I doing?” was his trademark question to constituents, although the answer mattered little to Koch. The mayor always thought he was doing wonderfully.

Bald and bombastic, paunchy and pretentious, the city’s 105th mayor was quick with a friendly quip and equally fast with a cutting remark for his political enemies.

Koch made headlines when he crossed party lines to support George W. Bush at the 2004 Republican convention.  That was the first national convention I attended, and I participated in a group interview of Koch on the folding-table Blogger Row.  This portion of the transcript will give readers a pretty good idea of what that experience was like:

Q: Do you think there’s a need to form a third party today?

A: I’m a Democrat. I was born a Democrat, and I’m going to die a Democrat. I’ve voted overwhelmingly for Democrats. I’ve crossed party lines before. Never for a Republican president. I did for mayor — I voted for Lindsay, I voted for Giuliani … You know, I’m 80 years old. I don’t want anything from anybody. I’m never running for anything again. I dont want to be mayor again. I love being a partner in my law firm. … I want to do what’s right for the people of the United States.

Q: All the Democrats say —

A: Who cares?

Q: You don’t care?

A: I will tell you this … I got four letters. That’s all. I got four letters [protesting his endorsement of Bush] and when I answered them, I said I served in public life for 23 years. Councilman, Congressman, and Mayor. I think I know a lot about public affairs. I spent my life doing it. Don’t I have the same right as you have to make a decision as to whom I will support? Now we don’t agree. I doubt that I will be able to convince you, I know you won’t agree with me, but can’t you respect my decision? And I got a letter back saying, “Yes.” This was from someone who had written me a miserable, rotten letter. … [Laughter] I’ve got nothing to lose.

Part of Koch’s charm was in how direct and blunt he could be.  He seemed to relish speaking his mind while more cautious politicians tried to find ways to say two diametrically opposed arguments at the same time, or nothing at all.  Even when I disagreed with Koch — which was often — it was impossible not to respect him, and impossible to miss the unmistakable joy he felt at being who he was.

RIP, Mayor Koch.  Our prayers are with you, your family, friends, and admirers.