Ed Koch was a member of The Greatest Generation and not just by accident of birth. Sergeant Koch fought his way on foot across Europe in 1944 and '45, winning two battle stars for his service. His tenacity and courage would make him a star as a politician later in life.
Koch came from a cohort of guys whose mettle got tested and character was forged in the crucible of combat in World War II and in that he stands tall like JFK and his PT boat, Bob Dole and the recently deceased Daniel Inouye and their shattered arms and the fighter pilot George H.W. Bush. These were all kids from Everywhere USA, who like so many of their contemporaries went on to create the modern world as we now know it.
Koch had to overcome fierce opposition to become Mayor of New York. Although an incumbent congressman in 1977, he was not part and parcel of the Democratic Party machine; in fact, from his earliest days in politics and first elective office in the City Council he was the anti-establishment candidate surmounting the Tammany Hall pols who didn't care much for blunt talking mavericks.
In that first race for mayor he had to overcome a crowded field in the Democratic primary, which included the then sitting mayor and future Governor Mario Cuomo. He had to get past a run-off with Cuomo and then the general election. My late grandmother, a lifelong New Yorker and passionate liberal Democrat, was a dogged Koch supporter, voting for him in each of those three contests. After my grandmother passed, I had the occasion to tell Mr. Koch of my grandmother's ardor for his leadership. He graciously told me, "she must have been a very fine lady." She was, but more importantly, he was equally fine as a man.
The New York City that Koch inherited in 1978 was not the pristine gleaming upscale and safe metropolis that tourists see today. Crime was devastatingly rampant. The infrastructure was crumbling. The subways were so broken down and graffiti-strewn that its dismal look exceeded in gloom the portrayals of it in movies. The city was also flat broke and then some. Whole sections of the outer boros looked like aerial photos of bombed-out German cities in 1945. Business, jobs and people were fleeing in droves.
In those days I was living in Greenwich Village in a one bedroom apartment in a luxury building for $360 a month, not because I had a good deal but because supply greatly outstripped demand -- so much so that most of my friends were paying $250; I was considered a high-roller. Manhattan wasn't the Mecca it is today for the young, fashionable and upwardly mobile.
Koch took to the streets to buck-up the public. He took on the unions to make government more efficient, he took on the special interests and sacred cows to put the city's finances in order. Among his most cosmetically significant achievements were cleaning up the subways (not to the level they're at today, but rather from the abyss) and rebuilding the South Bronx and other neighborhoods. Before Koch, a drive down the Cross Bronx Expressway treated the hardy motorist to vistas of burnt-out apartment buildings and rubble -- a war zone. Koch changed all that.
All these years later many forget just how popular Ed Koch was in his time. In his 1981 run for reelection he was the candidate of the Democratic and Republican parties, getting 75 percent of the vote. He was the first mayor to open for Saturday Night Live. He was Mr. New York long before the advent of Rudy Giuliani.
Koch's New York had grit to spare, just as he did. Candid and plain-spoken, Koch told it like it was and told you how he saw it, whether you liked it or not. In that way he was like the old time cabbie who would tell you 'we're crossing the park at 66th Street and not at 79th,' or the old time New York waiter in places like the now long-closed Ratner's who told you to have the split pea soup even though you asked for the mushroom barley.
Ed Koch was an American patriot who spent a lifetime serving his country and his city. He wanted to make the world a better place, root out corruption and help people. In this, he was an outstanding success in the City Council, in Congress and in three terms as mayor. He would stand at subway platforms and ask random voters, "How am I doing?" You did just fine, Mr. Mayor.