Ed Koch and the demise of American leadership

America has lost a great leader. The former New York City mayor's legacy can teach us about the meaning of public service. Photo: Associated Press

FLORIDA, February 2, 2013 — Yesterday, America lost one of the greatest leaders it has seen in modern times.

Ed Koch was more than a politician. During his time as three-term mayor of New York City and after he left office in 1989, he managed to turn himself into a sort of legend. By giving honest, though often witty and hard-edged, opinions on the issues of the day, he managed to remain relevant as the era of detailed news reports morphed into a free-for-all of sound-bite journalism.

Beyond this, however, Koch managed the Big Apple’s finances during its most troublesome period. From the late 1970s until the early ‘90s, New York was often stereotyped as a den of corruption and violence. This image was deeply rooted in reality. Nonetheless, Koch was able to inspire a feeling of optimism in the minds of many New Yorkers who had seen their city suffer too much for far too long.

While New York never did completely rebound during his mayoralty, Koch set the framework for what it would become during Rudy Giuliani’s tenure. That required making a series of severe budget cuts, confronting less than civic minded union personnel, and dealing with public servants who had come to serve themselves only. His reforms were not glamorous, but they were what New York desperately needed.

Today, America has a serious lack of leaders who can hold a candle to Koch’s accomplishments. He was among a distinct wave of politicians who rose to power amid economic and cultural shifts that left countless cities in the dust. That wave includes names such as Dianne Feinstein, Dick Greco, George Voinovich, Pete Wilson and William Donald Schaefer, who unfortunately passed away almost two years ago.

Leaders (and let us stress the word leader as opposed to politician) of Koch’s magnitude are almost nowhere to be found now. What a shame that is for all of us, regardless of location or party membership.

I had the privilege of interviewing Koch on two occasions. The first was over the summer, and the second was just last month. He always responded to my questions in a matter-of-fact, though not necessarily abrupt, fashion. His blunt way of answering questions appealed to me as a journalist, but some found him abrasive. He was the personification of the old-school New York attitude which has inspired an ocean of literature and cinema.

Koch was and always will be the quintessential New Yorker. Those of us who are not from the Big Apple can never truly comprehend the Koch mindset. As a Floridian, however, I meet no shortage of New Yorkers who think the world of him. A reputation like this must be earned, and all evidence seems to indicate that Koch deserves the praise he is so frequently afforded.

During his mayoral years, Koch would ask constituents how they thought he was doing. Considering his career in public office, the answer speaks for itself loud and clear.   

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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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