New York's former mayor Ed Koch will be buried today, but not before he gets lionized one last time. Certain to be mentioned will be his trademark phrase "How'm I doing?"
In New York's memory, he is doing just fine.
While Koch's tumultuous tenure as the Big Apple's mayor from 1978 to 1989 can be debated, one thing that stands out to me was his frankness, his bluntness -- what some might call abrasiveness -- and his willingness to take questions from the public and the press.
His penchant for explaining himself, even if people weren't asking, stands in stark contrast to political campaigns of today in which politicians avoid the press, their public audiences are handpicked and their practiced responses are crafted to be so bland and evasive they barely qualify as answers.
In the 10 years that I covered Ed Koch, I cannot remember his ever saying, "No comment." He must have invoked it at some point, but I cannot recall the moment.
What I remember is a politician who spoke constantly to crowds and to journalists. He stood on street corners and asked citizens, "How'm I doing?" He had a call-in radio show and went almost monthly to community meetings, and both were as unscripted as an argument with a Brooklyn cabbie.
Koch's brash street talk -- another Kochism that made New Yorkers grin was "I don't get ulcers, I give 'em" -- was greeted with cheers for most of his first two terms as he rallied the city from the threat of bankruptcy and an urban landscape smeared with graffiti.
By his third term, despite the city's comeback, New Yorkers tired of his shtick and a wave of corruption scandals. Koch had a new mantra for his critics. If they kicked him out of office, he would tell them, "I will get a better job, but you won't get a better mayor."
With the downturn in his popularity, the steps of City Hall were a daily circus of protesters, critics and political rivals. And Koch would wade through these groups on his way in or out of City Hall. He never used a back door, as best I could tell.
Today, with security necessarily heightened in New York City and elsewhere, no protester can come within several hundred yards of City Hall's front door.
Koch rarely avoided the press. Rather, reporters would at times plead with his aides to keep the mayor quiet for a while.
Koch's press office scheduled at least one, usually two, sometimes three press availabilities each day. And then there were the "radiators." His spokesman would hustle down the marble hallway from the mayor's office to Room 9, the press room, to announce, "The mayor's doing a radiator."
Reporters would pile out like a fire drill and find Koch waiting for them next to a large round radiator in the entryway of City Hall where he would expound on something he felt needed telling, and then field questions on anything from local politics to foreign affairs.
One sarcastic reporter once asked Koch what was his favorite color. Without hesitating, Koch answered, "Blue." There could be as many as four or five radiators in a day when Koch was feeling talkative.
In addition, Koch would invite reporters into his office almost weekly. About 15 or more reporters would file in to find Koch lounging in a brown leather chair. The reporters fanned out around the room finding seats where they could, sometimes on the floor. I often sat at Koch's desk during these sessions. What major elected official would allow the press such liberties these days?
Ed Koch Didn't Dodge Questions
Like most New Yorkers, Koch took things personally. On a Sunday when I learned that a shipment of computers that Koch had arranged to be donated to a Bronx school had been stolen, my call to City Hall for comment was returned within minutes by the mayor, not one of his spokespeople. "They stole my computers," he bellowed over the phone.
He was passionate about his enemies and reveled in his feuds. He saw little advantage in diplomacy and his criticism could make even New Yorkers wince, calling one female politician a "horror show." Critics would be curtly dismissed with one word descriptions of their intellects.
Koch in his retirement famously feuded with Rudy Giuliani, another former New York mayor. I called Koch after Giuliani lost badly in Florida's 2008 presidential primary to ask Koch why New York mayors could never advance to higher office. Before I got the question out, Koch gleefully announced that the Florida vote "will drive a stake through his heart. The beast is dead."
I can't imagine Mitt Romney or John Kerry talking like that.
Koch himself failed to win higher office when he ran for governor in 1982. In talking about it years later, Koch laughingly told me that he had believed his polls and his press coverage. With a chuckle, he said, "I thought I could do anything."
For a while, Koch's in-your-face bluster -- and his successes -- made New Yorkers feel the same way.