Now that the tributes to Ed Koch have abated, it behooves us to recall one of the less praiseworthy aspects of the former mayor’s character – his abject hypocrisy on race relations, particularly as they manifested themselves in his incessant criticism of Rudy Giuliani.
Giuliani was elected in 1993 to restore order and sheer livability to a city left adrift by Koch and made all the worse by Koch’s hopelessly overmatched successor, David Dinkins. (It may be difficult to recall more than two decades later, but Koch’s stock had plummeted to such depths in1989 that he lost the Democratic primary that year to the ineffectual Dinkins by a solid margin.)
Like Koch before him, Giuliani faced fierce resistance to his policies from the city’s self-styled community activists and black leaders. Giuliani, however, was far more successful than Koch in turning back decades of liberal fiscal and welfare experimentation that nearly bankrupted the city, as well as liberal social and law enforcement policies that left citizens cowering in fear behind bolted doors.
Koch certainly was an improvement over his two immediate predecessors, the liberal Democrat Abe Beame and the even more liberal Republican John Lindsay, but when Koch assumed office in 1978 the city’s economic house was already on its way to being put in order thanks to the efforts of politicians like Governor Hugh Carey and bankers like Felix Rohatyn.
Koch’s outsize personality, and his very public repudiation of the liberal pieties he himself had so slavishly subscribed to for decades, made him a popular figure in the city for the first two of his three terms in office. But he never got a handle on a skyrocketing crime rate and the entrenched municipal corruption.
That Giuliani managed to tame a city long characterized by many as “ungovernable” had to have bothered a man with Koch’s healthy self-regard. In short order Giuliani was being hailed as the best mayor the city had seen since La Guardia – and Koch was aligning himself with some very strange political bedfellows, most notably the Rev. Al Sharpton. (The Village Voice trumpeted Koch as the man “who made Al Sharpton kosher.”)
Koch became a chronic – some would say compulsive – critic of Giuliani. His criticism grew so predictable and mindless that the very title of a collection of his newspaper columns on the mayor – “Giuliani, Nasty Man” – had about it the whiff of parody.
With his new pal Sharpton in tow, Koch took particular delight in skewering Giuliani over his handling of racial issues. Koch no doubt hoped New Yorkers would forget just what a racial tinderbox the city had been during his own mayoralty.
The Harlem pastor Calvin Butts, for example, had labeled Koch “an instigator of the climate of racial fear in this city,” while CUNY professor Marshall Berman charged that Koch “has been remarkably adept at polarizing blacks and Jews.”
Koch reached a nadir in his campaign against Giuliani in October 1995. The UN was marking its fiftieth anniversary and Yasir Arafat was being feted all around town as a man of peace. When Giuliani learned that Arafat had been invited to a Lincoln Center concert to be performed by the New York Philharmonic, he dispatched aides to tell Arafat and his entourage to make themselves disappear from the premises.
Koch wasted no time in holding a joint press conference with David Dinkins (of whom Koch had once written, “I thought the city would be destroyed if we had to live through a second Dinkins term”) to denounce Giuliani.
“Mayor Giuliani,” Koch told reporters, “has behavioral problems dealing with other people.”
Giuliani took the criticism in stride, telling a UJA-Federation fundraising breakfast shortly after the controversy that he was “proud of that decision. I’d make it again, and the day I’d stop making it is the day I’d resign as mayor…. When I write my memoirs, this is one of the things that I probably will be proudest of.”
On that day Giuliani showed himself to be the kind of fearless politician Ed Koch once took such pride in being.