Way back in the nineteenth century, when polite Boston was the hub of the universe--or of Yankee culture anyway--and Chicago was the center of industry, New York was five sleepy boroughs, hardly on speaking terms with each other.

     Then came the dawn of the twentieth century; the Wall Street giant awoke, and the mighty city rose up fed by millions of Southern and Eastern Europeans, who crossed the Atlantic to seek new lives. These hardy immigrants were soon joined by groups of African-Americans who migrated north around the time of World War I to find work and freedom.

     And from this rich mix grew up a distinct people, New Yorkers: ambitious, sharp, skeptical, raucous--and maybe a little cynical too.


Mayor - Edward I. Koch

     The politics of the city often reflected this odd culture. One modern historian, Vincent Cannato, called New York "ungovernable." A mayor, John Lindsay, began his term in 1965 as a popular fusion official and eight years later went out of office reviled. By his death in December 2000, he was a lonely and forgotten figure.

     This swing of fortune is not unusual among New York mayors and is often aided by snow storms, transit strikes, wayward police, an occasional riot--and other factors, natural and unnatural, too numerous to mention.

     It is therefore not surprising that only three of the city's 108 mayors have been elected to three terms--and none, so far, has graduated to higher office.

     Fiorello La Guardia, the first mayor to win three terms, saw the city through the Depression and World War II. The Little Flower battled organized crime--not always successfully--and read the kids the funnies over Sunday radio during a crippling newspaper strike. La Guardia's record for longevity was tied by Robert Wagner, a former chairman of the city planning commission, who governed New York City for twelve years by committee. A riot? A financial scandal? The affable Mayor Wagner had the solution: appoint a blue ribbon panel to investigate and make recommendations (none of which were probably implemented).

     The last figure to turn this electoral hat trick was Edward I. Koch--the personable and hard campaigning son of Jewish-Polish immigrants whose trademark question to his contentious constituents was, "How am I doing?"


Giuliani and Sharon

     Mayor Koch got his start as an idealistic young lawyer who campaigned for Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s and became known as a dedicated community activist in Greenwich Village. After Koch blocked the comeback of Carmine De Sapio, a Tammany Hall boss who was as respected by old timers as he was distrusted by reformers, the then young lawyer was on his way.

     Ed Koch served several terms in Congress where he was known as a critic of the Soviet Union's repression of Jews and an early opponent of the Vietnam War which he believed was draining the country's resources. Koch was viewed as a moderate Democrat who sometimes battled the more liberal members of his own party, such as the late Bella Abzug, whom he defeated in a bruising primary for mayor.

     When asked why Bella had not carried her own precinct in a later race, Koch replied, "Her neighbors know her." The combative Congressperson never forgave him.

     In his three terms (1977-1989), Mayor Koch restored fiscal integrity to a city that had been on the brink of bankruptcy and implemented a merit selection of judges who in the past had often been political appointees.

    Whatever his travails, Ed Koch always maintained a healthy--that is, ironic--New York sense of humor. When campaigning, he would tell voters that if they agreed with him on eight of twelve issues, they should vote for him; if they agreed on all twelve, they should see a psychiatrist.

     Mayor Koch was denied a fourth term, losing in a primary to David Dinkins, the city's first African-American mayor.  Dinkins, in turn, was defeated by a crime busting federal prosecutor named Rudolph W. Giuliani who was swept into office by a backlash from the brutal murder of an Orthodox Jewish student by Brooklyn hoodlums.

     Since leaving office in 1989, Koch, now in his eighties, has kept busy, practicing law, writing movie and restaurant reviews, and acting as a political commentator. He also has written several books, including a sequel to his best selling autobiography, Mayor, which had been published after his first term, and more recently, Giuliani: Nasty Man. The latter is a collection of newspaper columns that offered advice--with accompanying commentary and anecdotes--to Rudy Giuliani who served as mayor from 1993 to 2001.

     After Mr. Giuliani threw his hat into the presidential ring, Koch's provocative book was reissued with updated material and a new introduction. (Barricade Book, 2007) The thrust of Koch's book is that Giuliani is a first rate administrator who too often governs with the sharp edge of the crime busting federal prosecutor he formerly was.

     Here, in an exclusive interview with American Legends conducted by telephone from his office in New York City, former mayor Ed Koch recalls a sometime friend and rival named Rudy Giuliani.


AL: Over the years you have tangled with some formidable opponents: the late Bella Abzug, the Reverend Al Sharpton, and Rudy Giuliani. How would you compare them?

 

EK: They were all very different. Bella was very tough, very smart, very committed to her cause. She actually became probably the most beloved figure in the women's movement for civil rights. Al Sharpton is maligned by a lot of people, but I happen to like him. He is a bona fide black leader, and by leader I mean someone who can say, "I need people to mobilize and to picket," and 5,000 people will come out. Very few people can rely on getting people out like that simply because they trust him. With respect to Rudy, he's very smart, nice to talk to, adroit, but I think ruthless.

 

AL:

Can you give an example of this ruthlessness?

 

EK:

I have a good example in my book, Giuliani: Nasty Man. When Rudy was mayor he refused to meet with two important black leaders, Carl McCall, the then state comptroller, and Virginia Fields, the Manhattan borough president. This went on for over a year. I had occasion to ask him, "Rudy, why won't you meet with them?" And, he said: "I don't agree with them." I told him: "Rudy, you only meet with people you agree with? That's crazy." This episode was part of his insensitivity, his inability to respect others.

 

AL: You have described Giuliani as "a first rate administrator."

 
EK: He was a good mayor, not a great mayor because a great mayor has to respect people.

 

AL:

As President, would Rudy Giuliani be perceived as too pro-Israel?

 

EK:

There's no question Rudy Giuliani is supportive of Israel. People who don't like Israel would say he's too pro-Israel. The people who are supportive of Israel, and that's a majority of the American public, would say that what he's doing is exactly in the interest of the United States.

 

AL:

Recently, Giuliani was quoted as calling President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran "deranged."

 

EK:

What has that got to do with being too pro-Israel? I mean, aren't there people who think there is something wrong with Ahmadinejad? I don't consider that to be a pro-Israel statement. It's an evaluation of a guy who, by his comments, gives people great pause about whether or not he has all of his senses.

 

AL: In your book, you write about the time Rudy ordered Chairman Yasser Arafat off the stage at a Lincoln Center event.

 
EK:

I thought he was wrong about that, and I said so at the time. But that's Rudy. You can say that about anything he does. He goes overboard. That particular affair was hosted by both the city and the United Nations, and Arafat had been invited by the United Nations. To me it was a breach of etiquette and totally uncalled for.
 

 

AL: How about Rudy's prosecution of organized crime?

 

EK:

I can't cross the t's and dot the i's, but I think he has a good reputation with respect to that. When he was mayor, he eliminated organized crime from the Fulton Fish market.

 

AL:

Where were you when 9/11 hit?

 

EK:

I was in my office, about a quarter to nine in the morning, I think, and my secretary came in and said there was a radio report that a small plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. I turned on the television set, and there we could see everything as it unfolded, and I knew, obviously based on the reports we were getting, that an act of war had been committed against us.

 

AL: You have written favorably in your book of Rudy's handling of the crisis.

 

EK:

What I have said about it is that nobody could have done it better. On 9/11 Rudy did it as well as it could have been done. When Mark Green [a consumer advocate] said he could have done it better, I said publicly that Mark Green was foolish to say that. I think that others, including Mark Green, would have done it as well. That's the function of being a mayor: to lead. Now, some people can't, others can, and Rudy certainly did it when it came to 9/11.

 

AL:

What do you consider your administration's greatest achievements?

 

EK:

I did four things that most people give me credit for. One is that I restored fiscal stability to the city of New York. It was going into bankruptcy. I prevented that. We wouldn't be the colossus we are again today, if I hadn't done what I did nearly thirty years ago. Second, as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said publicly, I gave the people back their morale. I made them feel once again proud to be New Yorkers. They had been very upset with Abe Beame, who preceded me, and the idea that we were beggars, and so forth, and I made them feel better about themselves. Third, I created a unique housing program, using city money, that built 250,000 housing units, and, lastly, I took the politics out of the selection of criminal judges by creating a totally merit based judicial selection system. What is interesting is that Rudy destroyed that and went back to the old system of political obligation in choosing judges. I had supported him for mayor in 1993, and a year later I broke with him over that issue.

 

AL:

New York City has had many talented mayors; yet none has been elected to higher office. John Lindsay failed to get the Democratic nomination in 1972. Before that Bob Wagner (1910-1991) was mentioned as a potential vice president candidate but was never chosen. Is there a jinx?

 

EK:

I never aspired to being president, if that is the high office you are referring to. I always considered the job of being mayor of New York City the greatest job in the world. I loved it.

 

AL:

What is the difference between being mayor and being president?

 

EK:

I think it's totally different. The mayor delivers services, and the mayor is readily available to be attacked verbally. I used to say, "If you want to picket the president, you have to go to Washington. It cost about four hundred dollars roundtrip. If you want to picket the governor in Albany, it's about two hundred dollars roundtrip. If you want to picket me, it's three dollars. Come on down." And they did. The people feel you are their right hand and you can do things. They don't feel that way about the president. He's the most powerful person in the world, but you don't have a direct connection with him.

 

AL:

Whom would you advise Rudy Giuliani to pick as a running mate if he gets the Republican nomination?

 

EK:

I don't have the slightest idea. I am not for Rudy, as I have tried to convey. I don't think he will be the Republican nominee. I think that the reason he's very high now-- and there's no question about it--is that people in the Republican party don't know his views on abortion, gun control, gay rights. He has good views, but not for Republican fundamentalists. I believe that when they find out, he will not be the Republican candidate.

 

(Among the books consulted as background material for this interview were: Alfred Connable and Edward Silverfarb, Tigers of Tammany, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967; Edward I. Koch, Giuliani: Nasty Man, Barricade Books, 2007 ed., and Mayor, Warner Books ed., 1985)

 

 


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