Human Events Blog

Ed Koch: A liberal mugged by reality

Ed Koch: A liberal mugged by reality

Like a lot of big city politicians, New York’s former three-term Mayor Ed Koch attended a lot of religious services of different faiths. As he put it in 1985, “I have said to people that in the last eight years , I have been in more churches as mayor than I attended synagogues in the last 60 years. It’s gotten so that I can tell when they’ve shortened the service leading to the Mass.”

Supporters would ask, Koch recalled, “when are you converting?”

“That’s a high compliment you pay me,” went his standard reply, “but not in this world. Maybe the next.”

When the news broke Friday morning that Edward I. Koch died at age 88, that was one of a treasury of “Kochisms” this reporter recalled about the Democrat who was as about as larger-than-life as the city over which he reigned from 1977-89. His wisecracks (some of them politically incorrect by today’s standards), get-it-done philosophy, and tendency to do the unexpected made Ed Koch one of the most fascinating politicians in the 1970s and ’80s.

“I am a proud Jew—regrettably not sufficiently observant,” Koch once said of his own faith. The same could be said of lifelong Democrat Koch’s adherence to the Democratic Party of today—only the New Yorker did not regret being “not sufficiently observant” to its increasingly liberal principles.

In many ways, he was the embodiment of Irving Kristol’s celebrated definition of a “neo-conservative” as “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” As a Manhattan attorney, the young Koch was active in reform causes, took on civil rights cases in the South, participated in protests against the Vietnam War. This burnished his liberal credentials enough so that the left of his party supported Koch in his winning bids to be Democratic county leader of Manhattan (unseating the legendary boss Carmine DeSapio), city councilman, and, in 1968, U.S. Representative.

Even before he was mayor, Koch began to question some basic liberal tenets. Before Ron Paul and fellow small-l libertarians made the issue a signature of theirs, Democratic Rep. Koch and Republican Rep. Barry Goldwater, Jr. (Calif.) were the two lawmakers most involved in the cause of privacy and protection of Social Security numbers. Once a backer of decriminalizing marijuana, Koch later wrote: “I now have doubts that the decriminalization of marijuana was wise; indeed, it may have led to the extension of drug usage.”

Liberals care about “some utopia down the road”

On public housing, Rep. Koch publicly disagreed with then-Mayor John Lindsay’s administration in 1971 when it sought to put three buildings 24 stories tall in the Forest Hills neighborhood in Queens in which “a vast majority of the population of that project was likely to be welfare families.”

Of a backer of the project, Koch later wrote, “He didn’t care about the poor guy who spends his whole life getting his family to Forest Hills in order to get out of a section in Brooklyn which was falling apart or a slum in the Bronx … What he cares about is some utopia down the road. That’s what the reformer and liberals are talking about. They don’t care what’s happening to individuals at the moment in a whole host of substantive areas.”

His stand on Forest Hills (which was outside his congressional district) cost Koch financial backing from the left. He always believed that a key reason for his defeat in his first mayoral bid in 1973 was that “the ‘exotics’ [his term for the left] wouldn’t give me anything because they said I was against housing for poor people.”

So it really should have been no surprise to the left when Mayor Koch slashed city spending on programs they cherished or clashed with public sector unions on benefits. He had been questioning “sacred cows” on the left for years.

In 1969, after “law and order” candidate Mario Procaccino won a five-way Democratic primary for mayor, Rep. Koch bolted to support then-Mayor Lindsay’s winning bid for re-election on the Liberal Party ticket. As mayor eight years later, Koch surveyed the crime situation and remarked: “Procaccino was right, we need more law and order.” Procaccino, who recounted this story for Human Events with delight in 1990, coined the phrase “limousine liberals” for wealthy leftists—a phrase Koch loved to use.

This reporter’s last interview with Koch was in 2009, when he defended the position of the Obama administration to keep 9/11 mastermind Kalid Sheik Muhammad and his co-conspirators in the Manhattan Corrections Center pending trial. Surprisingly, Koch said the Center was a “very secure institution” that can be depended upon to hold the prisoners. Later that same day, former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey told Human Events, “All that shows is that if you ask the wrong question, you’re sure to get the wrong answer. Of course it’s secure. They’re not going to escape. The question is not whether they are going to escape. The question is whether, not only that particular facility but the city at large, will then become the focus for mischief in the form of murder by adherents of Kalid Sheik Muhammad.”

As always, Ed Koch could be depended upon to do or say something unexpected—and create controversy. I wish I had spent more time with him and hope our paths will cross in the next world—and then I will lean whether he converted.

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