If Fiorello LaGuardia embodied New York for those we now call the Greatest Generation, it was a member of that generation, Ed Koch, who personified the city for the generations that came after. His death Friday from congestive heart failure is a loss felt by just about everyone who loves New York City.
The city that Koch took charge of in January 1978 was still in its fiscal tailspin, and had experienced widespread looting and rioting the summer before when a blackout cut power for more than a day. Had anyone then painted a picture of the city of the present, with its dramatically lower crime rate, redeveloped neighborhoods and confident global profile, it would have been dismissed as a foolish fantasy.
But the city did not turn into the penal colony portrayed in the Kurt Russell movie "Escape from New York." And while many people, and forces, deserve credit for the change in fortunes, it was Ed Koch who changed the story, and restored New York's faith in its future.
I worked for the mayor from 1980 to 1983, joining his press office as an assistant press secretary just two weeks before the transit strike. By the time I left my post as press secretary in the summer of 1983, the city had balanced its budget and was beginning to address the legacy of decades of neglected maintenance of its vital infrastructure.
Much of the press about Koch, then and now, has concentrated on his public image, with a generous helping of descriptors such as "feisty" and "combative." And certainly a lot of his effectiveness as a politician came from his ability to get his positions across through the media. But what this misses is how dedicated he was to the actual day-to-day governing of the city.
In the three and a half years I worked for him, I must have sat though a large number of the substantive meetings he had. And what impressed me above all was that nearly all the time, the question he was trying to answer was: What was the best choice for the entire city?
This is not to say that he didn't care about his political career, but he had sufficient confidence in himself, and in democracy, to feel that if he found the right answer to that question often enough, his career would take care if itself. And he was right. Of course, he didn't always find the right answer, and at times political expediency shaped the course of policy more than he would have liked. But in the years I worked for him, I never saw him less than passionate about the city he led.
He came across as a man with a big ego, but he was eager to surround himself with the best commissioners and deputy mayors he could find, and displayed no fear of being overshadowed (as if). As a boss he was certainly demanding, and if you messed up, he let you know it. If you messed up badly, you were gone. But he also was capable of a thoughtfulness about others that is seldom discussed in assessments of him.
One of the duties of press office members was to be with the mayor at any public appearance, no matter when or where. Sometimes this meant getting up in the middle of the night to meet the mayor at a hospital where he was visiting a police officer or firefighter who had been hurt in the line of duty. One night, a call came for me at 2 a.m. that the mayor was on his way to a hospital in Queens to see a cop who'd been shot. A police car came to my house in Brooklyn and took me to the hospital. The mayor met with the doctors, talked to the press about the officer (who survived), and, in the midst of all that, made it his business to find me a ride back to my home. It was a small, but to me very meaningful, example of the sort of person he was.
So while we remember Ed Koch the cheerleader for New York, I want also to remember the man who sweated the details -- both for the city he loved and for those who worked with him. Rest in peace, Ed.
Evan Cornog is dean of the School of Communication at Hofstra University.