02/07/2013 04:08 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2013

Ed Koch Lives

Fortunately for those of us who have served in elective office, the judgement of history goes beyond the sum of our official acts. American democracy provides perspective and often forgiveness as to our votes and pronouncements. And the wider arena of post-official public leadership can change perceptions.

No one took advantage of those opportunities better than Ed Koch. This isn't the time or place to judge the specifics of his tenure in the Congress or as mayor. Even those who most strenuously criticize his time in office now recognize that there were things bigger and more important about his public life. And those are what will be missed, for he is, sadly, irreplaceable.

He was authentic in an age when authenticity can be dangerous. Don't believe for a second that he was impulsive or hot-headed. Ed made a conscious decision to be an uncomfortable voice, probing and disturbing civic life. His unique gift was that he eventually found a way to do that while remaining an engaging and likable man.

He was loyal to persons, to ideas and to values. A secular Jew, he understood what he owed to his Jewish upbringing and the communitarian values that informed his daily life. A progressive Democrat, he stood apart when he believed that the movement had lost its moral compass. What seemed like a shift to the right to some was to him fidelity to the core of progressive politics. A fierce combatant, he often, not always, found ways to make peace with his adversary.

He cared, and was unafraid to be seen as caring. His city, his friends, his community benefited from the example of a man who wore his heart upon his sleeve, an unfashionable reminder of what we value in our friends and families.

Jimmy Carter once said that he had the best job on the face of the earth: former president of the United States. Ed Koch took up the job of former mayor of New York and became our conscience, our family, our symbol of what is worthwhile in New York, America and the world. He exceeded himself, and long after his official policies and decisions fade into irrelevance, he will be seen as the man who was voted out of office only to make himself the embodiment of public virtue and human decency.

In a society of electronic transience, where pixels and megabytes are the currency of human interaction; in an age where money alone can drive the destinies of politicians or the nation; in a culture that prizes incivility and faction, let Ed remain in our heads and hearts as the reminder of how a human being can choose to live, and prosper, and leave behind a world better for his presence, and us poorer for his loss.