Koch Reflects on Letters and Life

The former New York City mayor continues to be a keen commentator on urban issues. YOURS TRULY: THE MAYOR

IT's been a tabloid feast in New York in recent months. Six cab drivers shot. Twelve people - many of them black - shot by police. There's just one thing missing: Ed Koch to take the heat. ``If I were mayor they'd be accusing me of murder,'' Mr. Koch says, speaking of the police shootings.

The former New York mayor had his problems with the press. For much of 12 years, they badgered and harassed and - in his view - took cheap shots for political motives. Too many mornings, he rode to work knowing that hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers were sitting in the subway finding out, in the morning paper, what a bum Koch was.

John F. Kennedy seduced reporters. Ronald Reagan wafted past their word processors into the warmer glow of TV. Ed Koch, every inch a New Yorker, went toe to toe. Through daily press conferences he made himself the news, whether the press liked it or not. He became the lightning rod for just about everything that happened in the city.

``I'm glad I'm out of it,'' Koch says, almost convincingly. ``You get scarred and beaten up.''

Koch is far from the City Hall press room now, in an office in a midtown law firm that seems the size of a small city. Aides still hover about, and he's dropped a lot of weight - his own as well as the city's. While his successor, David Dinkins, wrestles with a budget deficit of hundreds of millions, Koch has taken the fun part with him. He does radio commentary, a Sunday TV talk show, and a Friday column for the New York Post. He mouths off on such visceral topics as the subway rider who shot a mugger and disappeared (Koch applauded).

The best part for him is the revenge. While still in office, Koch published two volumes of political memoirs (why leave his story to someone in the press room?). Now he's come out with a collection of his mayoral letters, ``All the Best,'' (see review below). The letters don't shed much light, alas, on the problems of running the city, a touchy topic for Koch ever since the corruption scandals that almost brought him down. But they do say much about the man who ran the city during the boom years of the '80s.

Koch reigned during roughly the same period that Reagan dominated Washington. Even Koch's most ardent supporters would not compare him to a matinee idol. Yet his ungainly quality, combined with his combativeness and chutzpah, made him a perfect symbol for a battered metropolis fighting its way back from bankruptcy.

If Reagan projected the carefree California of a Chevy ad, then Koch was as raucous and unadorned as an Interborough Rapid Transit subway stop.

Israel is the issue that evokes Koch's strongest passion, and he often seems to see himself as a lot like that country: embattled on all sides, unwilling to yield an inch of ground. That is not the worst guide for survival in New York City politics.

He first entered politics as a young Democratic reformer in Greenwich Village. As a city council member, and later a congressman, he espoused such McGovernesque causes as gay rights, abortion, and amnesty for Vietnam War draft evaders.

But Koch was always more community politician than Village Voice ideologue. His political Rubicon, he says, was a protest in Forest Hills, Queens, against a proposed public housing project. Koch sided with the opponents in what was touted - fairly or not - as a paradigm of white backlash, and old Greenwich Village allies saw this as a craven sellout to broaden his political base.

The episode has defined his relations with the liberal wing of the party ever since. To them, he is an opportunist. To himself, he is a ``liberal with sanity,'' a Democrat in the Truman tradition who is willing to challenge the pieties that have separated the party from mainstream voters.

He defends his rejection of racial quotas in a letter to the Daily News included in his book. ``If I apply the same standard to both whites and blacks, am I the racist?'' Regarding his much-publicized statement that Jews would be ``crazy'' to vote for Jesse Jackson because of his positions on Israel, he points out that nobody attacked his parallel: that blacks would be equally crazy to vote for George Bush, because of the Bush-Reagan stance on South Africa.

Koch was undoubtedly saying what a lot of people - whites in particular, of course - were thinking. He contends he was the victim of black leaders who harp on the race issue for their own ends. Yet his bristly iconoclasm always seemed to play to the white vote. Even he now concedes it would have been wiser to speak with a softer voice.

In fairness, Koch could be an equal opportunity offender. He once sided impulsively with the British during a visit to Ireland, and ate crow for his Irish constituents for weeks thereafter. His willingness to speak out did not stop with questions of race, moreover. He took on the municipal unions, for example, and today he says that civil service protects far too many public employees. If he were still in Congress he'd vote against the sacred David-Bacon law, which inflates the cost of public construction by requiring premium wages.

Though in more congenial surroundings now, charm is still not his strong suit. He greets a visitor with a quizzical stare, looking up from his New York Times. No small talk. Just get started. He is not entirely bemused at the easy ride that Dinkins is getting in the press. ``Dinkins can do a whole lot of things I would be denounced for.'' He's still taking jabs at Donald Trump and at the ``dopes'' in the press.

``I am an ordinary person with special talents,'' he says, explaining his ability to hit the public nerve. ``I believe I bleed when everyone else bleeds. I believe my reactions are common-sense reactions.''

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