Ask a five-year-old who the President is, and, since she has not yet suffered much the indignities of the American educational system, she will most likely answer "Barack Obama." Moreover, if you ask who will be President next year and the year after and the year after that--and into thescarcely imaginable future--she may well say "Barack Obama." To this child, the very concept of "President" may always, for better or worse, be "Barack Obama." Why wouldn't it be? What other reference point does she have? And so it was for me and my generation of New Yorkers, for whom the mayor was and would always be Edward I. Koch, who died early this morning at the age of 88.
Obviously, the toughest job in American politics is President, but New York City Mayor must be a close second. After all, New York's population (approximately eight million) is larger than that of 38 of 50 states. The city is the financial and cultural capital of the nation (oh, Los Angeles, you wish!), and with its wide-ranging ethnic and socio-economic diversity, the city is a fair microcosm of America as a whole. Second toughest job? Heck, New York Mayors deal with the same tsuris as American Presidents, but they get nowhere near the perks: No Secret Service. No Air Force One. No droit du seigneur with their choice of Nebraska farmgirls. (Oh, you KNOW it's true!) You need to be a special kind of crazy to occupy Gracie Mansion.
Koch, with his tradmark greeting of "How'm I doing?," certainly had his idiosyncrasies. How many New York mayors inspire Broadway musicals? Okay, two (Koch and Fiorello LaGuardia)--which should give you some idea of how wacky the position really is! I once flipped through a book of the "wit and wisdom of Ed Koch" (the title of which was not--unlike a similarly titled book about George W. Bush--meant ironically). Once, during a debate, after his opponent delivered a lengthy opening statement, Koch looked up and said, "Y'know what? You're right." A wise man knows how not to waste time.
I admit, my impression of Koch lacks sophistication. He served as mayor from 1978 through the end of 1989, spanning the bulk of my childhood, most of which was spent in blissful ignorance of matters political. I'm sure folks like MOS could provide a more nuanced view of Hizzoner's strengths and weaknesses. His tenure was not without its share of problems and controversies. Crime, racial unrest, the crack epidemic--all part of the background noise of life in New York City in the late 70's and 80's. Still, that was my childhood, so forgive me my nostalgia.
In American elections, we hear frequently that voters yearn for candidates who have character. In New York City, though, the electorate demands a mayor who IS a character. In that respect, Ed Koch exemplified the position. He cast a new mold for New York's chief executive. Everyone since has only tried, with greater or lesser degrees of success, to fill it.
NOTE: This post has been corrected to reflect the correct dates of Koch's mayoralty. He was NOT, in fact, mayor during the 1820's.