February 02, 2013

Two Ed Koch stories

Two moments from my life. One in which I learned something from Ed Koch, and one in which I learned something about Ed Koch.

Lesson #1 - Shut Up

I was listening to a radio interview with Koch in 1980, shortly after he'd given up his ill-fated bike lane experiment.  The show's host smelled blood, and led with the obvious question - what were you thinking?  In three sentences, Koch fielded it cleanly, took full responsibility, and apologized.  And then he stopped talking.  The host, who'd obviously been hoping for a bit more, tried to prod him with a general follow up question.  Koch came right back with one sentence:  I was wrong, it's time to fix the mistake now.  The host, who'd probably budgeted 20 minutes for a conversation that had taken two, tried again.  And Koch just said look, I said I was wrong, I said I was sorry, and we're fixing it.  And he stopped again.

I thought of this a few years later when I heard of a conversation Isaac Babel had with Yagoda when the latter was Chief of the NKVD:
Babel asked what seems in light of subsequent events to have been an incredibly impertinent question, ''Tell me, how should someone act if he falls into your men's paws?'' 
Yagoda quickly replied: ''Deny everything, whatever the charges, just say no and keep saying no. If one denies everything, we are powerless.''
This did Babel little good, as they tortured a confession out of him and murdered him at Lubyanka, but modern journalists are generally not allowed to attach electrodes to your genitalia without permission.  (He outlived Yagoda, in any case.)

The lesson remains:  if they're going to hang you, make them get their own damn rope.

Lesson #2 - Know How You're Doing

"How'm I doing?" was not a random rhetorical device with Koch.  He wanted to know, all the time.

In 1984 I was working in a bookstore in Harvard Square when the lobby started to fill up with serious, burly-looking guys in suits.  After they had secured the area, Koch shimmered in, much taller and thicker than I'd pictured him.  As he approached my station at the information desk I wondered why a man of his importance would drop in - to pick up a copy of Julius Caesar's memoirs, perhaps, or to ask our advice on recently published political science tracts?  Perhaps he was thinking of running for national office and would like to see a copy of Richard Pipes' latest offering, which was not selling all that well despite the author's signature on the title pages.  And, I was looking forward to a bit of chitchat with the legendarily affable Mayor.

Four words.  "How's my book selling?"  We got the number for him, and he didn't stick around for small talk.  We weren't registered to vote in New York, after all.

"How'm I doing?" was the phrase that started his political career.  Before he started saying it, people didn't pay attention to him.  After he started saying it, people did.  There was more to it than that, however.  One reporter recalls:
Koch's catch phrase...wasn't a question. It was a demand to engage with his presence as embodiment of the city. 
I was moved to hear of his epitaph, and happy to hear that he was happy with his final resting place.  He was never my mayor (made a special point of that to me), but he lived life on his own terms, did some good, and died happy.  We should all be so lucky.


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