Political Animal


February 03, 2013 9:07 PM Must-read of the day: The Nation’s Richard Kim on Ed Koch and the cost of the closet

By Kathleen Geier

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.

Kim concludes:

God bless his surely weary soul. I won’t.

I am sorry to say that I am with him there.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • Nancy Cadet on February 03, 2013 10:42 PM:

    I agree with all of the above; I lived through the Koch mayoralty and it's aftermath In NYC. And I'm glad to be in Paris for this month, missing the sickening praise for the racist, closeted and union busting Ed Koch.

  • rbkenter on February 03, 2013 11:15 PM:

    Say what you will about Ed Koch's racial,AIDS and economic policies but spare me the epithet "closeted." I lived in NYC during the 70s and a close friend of mine was Ed Koch's "date" for many occasions. She knew him very well. Her report was that Koch was totally asexual. He was uninterested in men. He was uninterested in women. He was coy in his responses to questions about his sexuality because he did not want to say "I am totally uninterested in sex." The joke in NY was that Koch's campaign slogan should have been "He's never f**ked anybody; he won't f**k you."

  • Savvy New Yorker on February 03, 2013 11:50 PM:

    if you're wondering what the ny times and many others left out of the koch obits, check out this piece from a gay paper -- Ed Koch: 12 Years as Mayor, A Lifetime in the Closet
    http://gaycitynews.com/ed-koch-12-years-as-mayor-a-lifetime-in-the-closet/ or this shorter link

  • 4jkb4ia on February 04, 2013 12:17 AM:

    I never lived in New York, but the impression I got from the Times obituary is that Ed Koch deserved to be memorialized as an absolute character and that he is part of a politics and a New York that are fading away. He represented white urban ethnics as a swing vote in a way that political observers would talk about the white Catholic vote today.

    I am not crazy about whispering that someone must be gay just because they don't seem to have a romantic life. That was true of Souter, also.

  • 4jkb4ia on February 04, 2013 12:21 AM:

    And for that matter for Elena Kagan, which really had nothing to do with anything however much Sully wanted to think it did.

  • bad Jim on February 04, 2013 2:20 AM:

    The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.

  • Jack Lindahl on February 04, 2013 10:04 AM:

    Gay or not, who cares? My problem with Ed Koch's tenure as mayor was his abysmal record on infrastructure maintenance. Yes, there was a money problem in those days, but there's no excuse for sitting around and watching the city's bridges, subways, and roads crumble.

    And, irony of ironies, they renamed the 59th St. Bridge after him! No one should ever put a politician's name on anything. This ridiculous renaming of a historic structure goes beyond mere silliness to shamelessness.

  • wvmcl on February 04, 2013 11:06 AM:

    We Washingtonians can easily accept that Koch may have been asexual rather than gay. The phenomenon is quite common among all-in careerists in the capital. Some obvious names that spring to mind - J. Edgar Hoover, Ralph Nader, Janet Reno. Anyone who has worked long in the Washington bureaucracy has known many others that are not household names but who became powerful figures in their agencies.

  • rrk1 on February 04, 2013 11:49 AM:

    Koch became the face of a white backlash to the demands for better schools and city facilities in their neighborhoods made by blacks after the civil rights fights of the 60s and the riots after King was murdered. The outer boroughs, actually inner suburbs, middle-class, white, Jewish and Roman Catholic, were always more conservative than Manhattan, and Koch became their guy. He was white, Jewish, a boy from the Bronx, with a big mouth and inflated image of himself.

    I have no problem believing Koch was asexual, or at least he was by the time he became mayor. His early years in Greenwich Village certainly brought him into contact with the gay community as it was in the 50s and 60s. He was there for Stonewall in 1969 after which closet doors began to open very quickly. His mayoralty coincided with the emergence of AIDS in the early eighties, and as he didn't really care about people of color, he didn't care about, or saw them as a political liability, all his gay neighbors in the gay Mecca where he continued to maintain a small flat despite his official residence at Gracie Mansion.

    The suffering and death from AIDS in the eighties was profound, and neither the marginally Democratic mayor or the very Republican president (Reagan) did anything to help. Reagan never acknowledged there was such a thing as AIDS, and shunned his namesake son who did acknowledge the epidemic.

    The sentimentality of Koch's obits is stomach churning. He may have been a quintessential New Yorker of his time, and since, but he, like Bill Buckley who also got treated far too well in his obits, was no hero. Just a self-possessed mouth.