Edward Irving Koch, a quintessential New York Jew who was a passionate defender of Jewish causes and was the city’s most famous political figure for four decades, died early Friday morning at New York-Presbyterian Hospital at Columbia University. He was 88 and had been in and out of hospitals in recent weeks with respiratory and other problems. The cause of death was congestive heart failure.
When he first ran for mayor, Koch, then a Manhattan congressman, defeated another Jewish mayor, Abraham Beame, in the Democratic primary in 1977 and was re-elected twice. During his tenure he pulled the city from the brink of bankruptcy and presided over troubling times that included a transit strike, the rise of the AIDS and crack epidemics, racial strife and corruption scandals in his administration that were never directly tied to him.
His common-man appeal led to his catchphrase, “How’m I doin?” and after being defeated by Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins in 1989, he maintained a public profile perhaps higher than many incumbent officials. He wrote memoirs about his career, hosted radio shows, presided over “The People’s Court” on TV, wrote columns and answered calls at his law office from just about any reporter on just about any topic.
While giving interviews, the words “no comment” or “off the record” seemed never part of his vernacular as he loved to be quoted. He professed a long memory when it comes to political debts and grudges, and when making political endorsements, as he did in every major race (and often, minor ones) his pick often seemed based more on his relationship with the candidates than on issues.
Though a Democrat, he endorsed Republicans such as Al D’Amato (his close friend) for Senate, George Pataki for governor and George W. Bush for president. In 2011, he supported a Republican, Bob Turner, in a special election for Congress as a way to send a message about Democrat President Barack Obama’s Israel policy, which he found wanting. Shortly afterward, he surprised many by endorsing Obama for re-election, citing a strongly pro-Israel speech delivered at the United Nations. (He said Obama had learned his lesson and changed his tune on Israel in a United Nations address.)
While in office, he spoke out stridently in defense of Israel and visited several times. On one visit he was struck in the head with a rock during a visit to Jerusalem’s Old City, presumably tossed by an Arab. He was also outspoken on behalf of the cause of Soviet Jewry.
Mr. Koch never married but was very close to the family of his sister, Pat Thaler Koch, whom he said would inherit his considerable unspent wealth upon his passing. In a children’s book written with his sister, “Eddie Shapes Up,” the duo told the tale of how the future mayor failed in his attempts to be included in pickup baseball games, but used his skills as an orator to become a de facto sandlot announcer, paving the way for his career as a public speaker.
Mr. Koch is to be buried at Washington Heights’ Trinity Cemetery in Manhattan because, the Bronx native said, he could not bear to leave his adoptive borough, where he spent the vast majority of his life, keeping his rent-controlled apartment in Greenwich Village even when he lived in Gracie Mansion. Koch also said openly that he wanted New Yorkers to be able to visit his grave and that this cemetery is near a subway stop.
His tombstone, put in place before his burial, contains a quote from Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl that reads “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish,” words spoken, as the epitaph notes, before he was “beheaded by a Muslim terrorist.”
Prior to serving in Congress from 1969-1977, Mr. Koch was a member of the City Council. He was also a combat veteran of World War II. Last year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg renamed the Queensborough Bridge in his honor.
EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story stated incorrectly that Koch opposed the presence of a Palestinian mission in New York. In fact, Koch criticized efforts to close Palestinian offices in New York and Washington, saying the Palestine Liberation Organization had not committed terrorist acts in the United States.