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Dolman: Remembering Ed Koch as a mayor who convinced New York to be great again

The coffin holding bearing the body of former

The coffin holding bearing the body of former New York City Mayor Ed Koch is carried from Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan on Monday by an NYPD contingent after his funeral. (Feb. 4, 2013) Credit: Craig Ruttle

As the honor guard bore Ed Koch’s casket out of Temple Emanu-El onto Fifth Avenue this morning, the organist broke into “New York, New York” and the assembled mourners—several thousand strong—broke into sustained applause.

It was a moving moment, the perfect gesture for a man who was irascible, irreverent, impossible, vindictive, passionate, egotistical, witty, wise—and above all joyful—throughout his many decades in public life.

New York is a state of mind, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in his eulogy for Koch, “and no mayor has ever embodied the spirit of New York City like he did.” 

Well … maybe Fiorello LaGuardia did, but let’s not quibble. Both were great mayors, and both were sui generis. 

Yet while LaGuardia shepherded New York through the Great Depression and World War II, it fell to Koch to initiate the street-by-street rescue of a city of millions that had been caving in on itself—painfully and calamitously—for years.

The city was just coming out of bankruptcy when Koch was elected in 1977. 

It had been run for all intents and purposes by public employee unions and corrupt, crumbling political machines. Its affordable housing stock was turning to ashes, and its Fortune 500 companies were racing for the exits. Crime had begun a long, disastrous ascent that wouldn’t peak until the ‘90s. The place had become one big psychodrama. 

Into this craziness came Koch—who brought with him some lessons in leadership: 

No. 1. You don’t always have to be right. You don’t even have to be rational all the time. But you do have to understand the people you want to lead—not from what you’ve read, not from what the political strategists on your staff have told you, but intuitively, and with every fiber of your being.

No. 2. You have to know where you want to lead people once you have their attention. Koch fought the political machines. His government aimed to move the city out of its squalor first, not reward the faithful in the political clubhouses. He built hundreds of thousands of units of new housing. And he was especially proud of his program to select judges not by their political connections but through merit. 

Through sheer ebullience and chutzpah, he convinced New Yorkers first and then the world that the city might—just might—be great again. For that, the five boroughs of New York, along with Nassau and Suffolk and Westchester and Albany, owe him an eternal debt of gratitude.

Ed Koch was a great politician, a great leader, a great New Yorker, and quite an entertainer. His life has enriched us all. I think even Fiorello would have approved.