Colorful Characters

RIP, Ed Koch

02.01.13 3:03 PM ET

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John Avlon and Ben Smith mark the passing of a New York City legend. Smith:

Koch, New York City’s dominant political figure of the 1980s and the architect of what remains its governing political coalition, stayed politically relevant through his long political twilight, courted aggressively by figures including Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama for his role as a proxy for pro-Israel Democrats willing, but not eager, to cross party lines.

Koch’s later years of quips, movie reviews, and presidential politics remain secondary to his central legacy, which is in New York’s City Hall. Tall and gangly with a domed, bald head and a knowing smile, Koch was New York’s mayor and its mascot from 1978 to 1989. Through three terms, he repeated one question like a mantra: “How ’m I doing?” At first, the answer was clear to observers who had watched the city slide toward bankruptcy: exceptionally well. Koch managed New York back from the brink, drove hard bargains with municipal unions, cut jobs where he had to and reduced taxes where he could. He presided over a boom in Manhattan, and spent his new revenues on renewing the south Bronx.

In Koch’s semi-retirement, from the comfort of a Greenwich Village apartment, he remained a political player and sometime kingmaker, always quick with a memorable quote for reporters on deadline. In Ric Burns’s epic New York City documentary, Koch played the role of joyful-eyed elder statesman, which somehow did not conflict with his syndicated turn judging The People’s Court, a cameo in The Muppets Take Manhattan, or his occasional mystery novels and reviews and regular film reviews. He was a man in full who was alternately flattered and hostile to enduring questions about his sexuality, even into old age: “I find it fascinating that people are interested in my sex life at age 73. It's rather complimentary! But as I say in my book, my answer to questions on this subject is simply ‘Fuck off.’ There have to be some private matters left.”

For all his flinty wit and occasional impulse to antagonize, Ed Koch was, in the end, almost impossible to dislike. In this, he reflected his city.