Joseph Berger's long tribute to the late, legendary former New York City mayor Ed Koch made the front of the New York Times Sunday Metro section -- "So, How'd He Do?"
But Berger stained Koch's memory by citing the irresponsible, inflammatory voices of Rev. Calvin Butts and Al Sharpton and bizarrely suggesting Koch's rhetoric played a part in racist assaults against blacks: "Despite his condemnation of the mob beatings, it was hard to tamp down a sense among blacks that his public rhetoric -- in the 1988 presidential campaign, for example, he said Jews would be 'crazy' to vote for Jesse Jackson because of his 'Hymietown' slur about New York and his support for a Palestinian homeland -- may have helped foster an atmosphere in which some young whites felt emboldened to commit such assaults."
Ed Koch, the blunt-spoken and theatrical three-term mayor of New York City, who became a national emblem for the way New Yorkers talk and behave, often asked straphangers at subway stops to assess his record with a “How’m I doin’?”
With his death on Friday at 88, it seemed only fitting to ask that question once more -- in retrospect.
There is no doubt that Mr. Koch restored the spirit of the city after years of urban decay that had crystallized in the city’s near bankruptcy, and that reached a nadir of sorts in 1977 with the Son of Sam killings, a blackout and riots. Mr. Koch, a Democrat, took office in January 1978 and, with his moxie, was able to quickly create a sense among New Yorkers that someone was fighting to turn the city around.
“The city needed hope, it needed a champion, it needed a voice,” said Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy at New York University. “Ed Koch became that voice.”
Even the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, the pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, who tangled frequently with Mr. Koch over what he felt was the mayor’s insensitivity to African-Americans, said Mr. Koch was the right mayor for his time.
“If you’ve got to have a mayor for New York City, you need a guy like Ed Koch because he’s a rough-and-tumble kind of guy who speaks up and fights back,” he said.
Berger doesn't convey how radical Butts really is. Here he is, talking about Republicans in the Contract With America days of 1995: "Yes Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, you are the enemy. Yes Clarence Thomas, you poor confused fellow, you are the enemy, and we are determined to turn you around, and if we don't, you are leading our country to a racial confrontation that we will all be the poorer for."
Berger hammered Koch on race, bizarrely suggesting he bore some responsibility for white-on-black "hate crimes."
On the ledger’s deficit side, experts say Mr. Koch needlessly antagonized African-American New Yorkers and allowed his reputation for let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may integrity to be tarnished by corruption scandals that started in the Parking Violations Bureau and raised questions about his alliances with political bosses. Together, those failures might have cost him a fourth term.
From the beginning, Mr. Koch frequently found himself at loggerheads with black ministers and politicians. The Sydenham closing stirred enormous resentment in Harlem. So did Mr. Koch’s abrasive style, which led him to call antipoverty organizers who were abusing the system “poverty pimps.” He might also have realized that more than a few of his white supporters appreciated such tough talk.
Mr. Koch also suffered because of racially charged episodes that sprang up on his watch: the 1984 shooting death of a 66-year-old black woman, Eleanor Bumpurs, by a white police officer during an eviction; the 1986 beating of three black men by a white gang in Howard Beach, Queens; the shooting death of Yusuf K. Hawkins by white youths weeks before the 1989 election.
Despite his condemnation of the mob beatings, it was hard to tamp down a sense among blacks that his public rhetoric -- in the 1988 presidential campaign, for example, he said Jews would be “crazy” to vote for Jesse Jackson because of his “Hymietown” slur about New York and his support for a Palestinian homeland -- may have helped foster an atmosphere in which some young whites felt emboldened to commit such assaults.
Also offensive is the idea that Koch needed to get in the good graces of the racially inflammatory Sharpton and Butts "to redeem himself" racially. Sharpton in particular has no place in a story on racial redemption. In 1995 he led a protest against a Harlem store, Freddy's Fashion Mart, owned by a Jewish tenant who was trying to evict a black-owned record store. Sharpton claimed "We will not stand by and allow them to move this brother so that some white interloper can expand his business." Months later a protestor entered Freddy's with a gun and set it on fire, killing seven people.
Yet Berger set Sharpton up as the arbiter of racial civility.
Still, Mr. Koch seemed to redeem himself in his post-mayoralty. The Rev. Al Sharpton Jr. became a friend, and Mr. Butts, who once said Mr. Koch was “worse than a racist, he was an opportunist,” said last week: “I never got the impression that he was a racist. He had his prejudices like everybody else and he allowed his temper and his I-know-what’s-best-for-everybody attitude to get in the way of sound judgment.”