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Remembering Ed Koch

Bill Ritter's daily take on the news.
February 1, 2013 6:26:34 PM PST
It's not one of the better known tales about Ed Koch, but it is, perhaps other than his death today at the age 88, a pretty good indicator that he was as human as the rest of us.

Koch, in his third term as Mayor of New York, went into a deep depression and even considered suicide, after a series of corruption scandals hit the political machines in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Koch wasn't linked in any way to the crimes, but the taint was enough to send him into an emotional tailspin - especially after the Queens Borough President, Don Manes, killed himself in 1986 because of his legal problems. It was a pathetic coda to the Koch Administration's headline triumph: Saving New York from bankruptcy and financial collapse.

One day, as Koch recounted to The New York Times six years ago, he was laying in bed on a Sunday, unable to get up because the depression was so deep. (He said he couldn't talk about it at the time or go to a psychiatrist because it would have "looked bad" to have New Yorkers thinking their Mayor was a "crazy man." Are we more enlightened today? I wonder.)

Anyway, the phone rings, and it's Cardinal John O'Connor.

"Ed, I know you're depressed, and you shouldn't be," Koch recounted O'Connor saying. "Everybody knows you're an honest man. Everybody."

Koch said he thanked O'Connor (he called him "your eminence"; O'Connor called him "Ed"), and later insisted it helped snap him out of his emotional dump. No Rabbi called to commiserate with him, Koch told O'Connor. But you did.

I love this story because it shows the human and real side of Koch, and it shows his penchant for saying things that most other politicians would never even get close to.

We're all thinking of Ed Koch today. We knew we would be, after they rushed him into the intensive care unit yesterday afternoon, after they brought him back to the hospital on Monday, just two days after he had been released. He had been in and out of the hospital since September, this tall, lanky man who loved New York as if he had birthed it.

He'll be buried at Trinity Cemetery in Washington Heights, an arrangement he made in 2008. "I don't want to leave Manhattan, even when I'm gone," he said at the time, about the only graveyard in Manhattan still accepting new burials. "This is my home. The thought of having to go to New Jersey was so distressing to me."

I mean, c'mon, what other politician would say that? Only Ed Koch. There have been no shortage of tributes to Koch today - from all sorts of people. Some of them loved the man, others disagreed with him most of the time. But all respected his tenacity and his love for New York, and his record of saving the city from bankruptcy, of taking politics out of judicial appointments (he later criticized Rudy Giuliani for bringing politics back to the process), for balancing the city's budget for the first time in nearly 2 decades, for building affordable housing, and for (late-in-the-game) fighting AIDS.

On that last point he has been highly criticized by gay activists for not speaking out and leading the charge earlier against AIDS during his tenure as Mayor. Koch's sexuality has always been a source of much speculation by others, and much holding-his-cards-close by Koch himself. "It's not anyone's f------ business," he would say.

Was Koch judged more harshly than an avowed heterosexual? It's an interesting debate point.

Regardless, when he's buried next week, I'll be thinking how Koch himself said he wanted us to remember about him: A proud Jew who loved the people of New York and did his best to make life better.

At a big birthday bash years ago for Al Sharpton, Koch took the microphone, scanned the crowd, waited a bit before he talked and said, "Do you miss me?"

Yes we do, Mr. Mayor. Yes we do.

We'll look back at Koch's career and life, tonight at 11. We'll also have the breaking news of the night, plus Meteorologist Lee Goldberg's weekend AccuWeather forecast, and Rob Power's with the night's sports. I hope you can Liz Cho (in for Sade) tonight at 11, right after 20/20.

BILL RITTER

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