This is the grave of Ed Koch.
Almost all of the time, I either already know more about these people than 99% of you or I can find out enough to do so. Not with Koch. I know many of you are New Yorkers and many of you followed Koch’s career over the decades. So I know many of you also have stories. Rather than write a comprehensive post on someone who you all have more knowledge of than I do, let me just make a couple of points and open it up to comments.
First, was there ever anything good about Ed Koch at all? Look, I find New York City politics bizarre, because the city should be governed significantly to the left of where it almost always is governed. I guess DeBlasio is an attempt to fix this, but he’s pretty mediocre overall. The idea of New York electing a fascist like Giuliani twice is incomprehensible. Bloomberg I sort of get. Dinkins seems like who should usually run the city. Koch, again, was mostly way to the right of where I see the New York base population. Maybe that’s on me. But while he started out in his career fairly progressive, including as a Eugene McCarthy supported in 1968, that changed by 1973 when he turned against John Lindsay’s public housing plans and supported the racist homeowners in Queens and opposed it. He was in Congress at this time and on some issues, could be quite progressive, to the point that it is believed the dictatorship of Uruguay considered assassinating him for his constant criticism. And look, that’s great, I’m glad he took that leadership role. But on domestic issues, especially on race and economics, Koch always feels really disappointing to me.
In 1977, Koch became New York’s mayor. He was the law and order candidate and won running to the right against far better humans such as Bella Abzug. Little would change about that stance. He drastically helped militarize the police, supported the death penalty, and was very anti-homeless. During the AIDS crisis, he shutdown the bathhouses, which, well, was a mixed and complicated thing to do. Koch went all in against Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential run and used his Jewish identity to do so, reminding Jewish voters that Jackson was supposedly an anti-Semite. By many accounts, he was a complete asshole to many, many people, an extremely vindictive, if charismatic man, who had quite the streak of cruelty. He was basically awful on union issues as well. He was as cronyistic as any of his predecessors, despite claims of innocence.
In the aftermath of Koch’s mayoral years, which ended after he lost to Dinkins in 1989, which itself was fueled by his borderline racist attacks against Jackson that angered black voters as well as the rise of racist police violence and the shuttering of black-dominated hospitals, Koch became a celebrity. He wrote a play that ended up on Broadway. He was the judge on The People’s Court for a couple of years. He was on TV and in movies all the time, playing himself of course. By this time, Koch was a DINO at best. He endorsed Giuliani, Bloomberg, Al D’Amato, Peter King, George Pataki, and George W. Bush. He occasionally worked for Democrats, especially Bill Bradley’s 2000 presidential campaign. But he was basically a Republican. He did turn against Giuliani eventually and wrote a book about how awful he was, which was true of course, but does not excuse his prior endorsement. Being the ultimate pro-Israel hack in American politics, by the end of his life, Koch was accusing Barack Obama of being anti-Israel, though he still supported him in 2012 after a chat with the president, which I imagined annoyed Obama. He wrote in Newsmax in favor of right-wing Israeli policies. He was a huge fan of the Iraq War. And then when the Catholic Church had its pedophile priest scandals go public, he went to the media to accuse the world of anti-Catholicism, even though he was Jewish!
Koch never married and was long believed to be gay. Now, I don’t really care about these things one way or the other; I am pretty decidedly uninterested in salacious rumors about these things. I only even bother mentioning it because Larry Kramer, in accusing Koch of not doing enough about the AIDS crisis, publicly accused him of being in the closet.
Anyway, Koch died in 2013, at the age of 88. When he died, Larry Kramer remarked, “Ding dong, the wicked witch is dead.” Shortly before, Kramer had written:
“What is this evil man up to as he approaches his death? We must never forget that this man was an active participant in helping us to die, in murdering us. Call it what you will, that is what Edward Koch was, a murderer of his very own people. There is no way to avoid knowing that now. The facts have long since been there staring us in the face. If we don’t see them, then we are as complicit as he.”
And look, there’s no question that Koch did some pretty bad things. I don’t see how he has a positive legacy on any issue unless you are a pretty hardcore Zionist.
I am curious as to what you all think of this grave. I know Koch was not exactly a subtle man, but I thought this aggressiveness pretty offputting and also extremely out of character for Jewish graves, which tend to be quite simple. We get it Ed, you loved Israel. It’s just very rare for any grave, no matter the politician, to be this politically upfront. The Daniel Pearl story is incredibly sad and it just seems really grotesque and utterly classless for me for Koch to quote that on his own tombstone.
Ed Koch is buried at Trinity Church Cemetery, Manhattan, New York. This is the uptown graveyard, not the one where Hamilton is buried downtown.
If you would like this series to visit other larger than life mayors of American cities, you can donate here to cover the required expenses, not that it happens much these days, but hey, whatever. Tom Bradley is in Los Angeles and Richard Daley is in Chicago. Previous posts in this series are archived here.