Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch died on Friday. I’ve avoided writing about this, because I most definitely was not a fan, and I just didn’t have the stomach to write a long, angry blog post pissing on the man’s freshly dug grave.
But the grotesquely sentimentalized portrayals of Koch that have been clogging the internets this weekend — typified by this New York Times quasi-hagiography — have put me off my feed, and I felt like I should say something.
I grew up in New York metropolitan area and I lived in New York City for many years. I followed New York City politics even before I moved there. Ed Koch, to me, symbolized a lot of the things that were wrong with New York. Prominent among them were the man’s often shrill racism, which seemed to get even worse over the years, and the way he supported neoliberal economic policies that turned the city into a wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street and the real estate developers.
Once upon a time in New York, labor there was mighty institution, and the city functioned as a great quasi-social democracy. But a shock doctrine-type fiscal crisis in the 1970s changed all that, labor’s power was crushed, and the city’s strong social safety net began to be ripped to shreds. This is a story well-told in historian Joshua Freeman’s excellent book Working Class New York. Ed Koch, of course, did not single-handedly engineer these changes, but he surely aided and abetted them.
But Ed Koch’s most devastating failure was being AWOL during the epic tragedy that was the AIDS crisis. The Nation’s Richard Kim has written a brilliant piece that ties Koch’s failure to his (presumed) status as a closeted gay man. By all means read the whole thing, but here are two of the key grafs:
Reading Randy Shilts’s account in And the Band Played On, it’s impossible not to conclude that Koch’s personal paranoia came to determine his policy response to AIDS. According to Shilts, Koch “warmly embraced requests that cost the city nothing,” but routinely rejected any requests—for housing for people with AIDS, for a health center in Greenwich Village, for hospice space—that came with a price tag. Koch, Shilts writes, wanted to avoid the perception that gays would get “special treatment” in his administration. The result is that “for the next two years, AIDS policy in New York would be little more than a laundry list of unmet challenges, unheeded pleas, and programs not undertaken.” “All the ingredients for a successful battle against the epidemic existed in New York City” concludes Shilts, “except for one: leadership.”
Ed Koch might not have been in a position to accelerate antiretroviral drug development or slow the transmission of HIV on a national scale, but he definitely could have made the lives of thousands of people with AIDS in New York City a whole lot more humane, which might also have extended some of those lives until an effective treatment was available. That he has blood on his hands seems likely. That he is guilty of the curious combination of paranoia, myopia, self-interest and callousness that so often attaches to closeted public officials seems undeniable. Would the fight against AIDS been helped had Ed Koch come out of the closet? Possibly. But it definitely would have been better had he just been straight.
God bless his surely weary soul. I won’t.
I am sorry to say that I am with him there.