The Atlantic on Ed Koch's 'Disgraceful' Appeals to Racial Resentment

The magazine blasted the late New York mayor for his handling of tensions during his decade-long reign at City Hall.

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Blame it on Rudy Giuliani. The blustery Big Apple boss became America's mayor, and since then the New York mayor has been a figure for national fetishization. Witness, for example, the November cover story, an interview with current Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But with the passing of Ed Koch, who died Friday morning at 88, it's remarkable to see how differently City Hall was viewed not so long ago.

Koch was always a larger-than-life figure in the city, and since leaving office, his repute spread nationwide, helped by his stint as a judge on People's Court, his outspoken national political commentary (he bashed President Obama for being too chilly to Israel, then endorsed him, then blasted him again), and his movie criticism, including an extensive archive of film reviews in this space.

Even when The Atlantic tackled New York-related issues -- James Q. Wilson and George Kelling's landmark article "Broken Windows" was published in the March 1982 issues -- Koch himself was absent. One notable exception is William Schneider's 1988 election preview, looking at the landscape around the country. In a section on New York, Schneider had unflattering words for hizzoner:

Edward Koch has been elected and re-elected mayor of New York by appealing to racial resentment. Mario Cuomo also has gotten elected and re-elected, and so has Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, although neither has made an explicit appeal to racial resentment. All three of these white-ethnic Democrats -- a Jew, an Italian Catholic, and an Irish Catholic -- have defied the trends. They have managed to hold on to the support of white middle-class voters who have otherwise been drifting away from the Democratic Party. Have they all done it the same way, or in different ways? ....

Mayor Koch is much more of a controversialist. According to [journalist Ken] Auletta, "Koch personalizes things to a great extent. He is a hater" That is one reason why Koch got into trouble with corruption, Auletta believes. "He was so geared up to fighting his enemies, whom he identified as reform liberal Democrats, that he assumed, 'Anyone who is an enemy of my enemy must be my friend.'"

Koch's behavior in this year's New York Democratic presidential primary was widely criticized as disgraceful. In his attacks on Jesse Jackson he deliberately stirred up tensions between blacks and Jews. More precisely, as the Manhattan borough president, David Dinkins, put it to The New York Times, Koch "exacerbated tensions that already existed." The racial politics of the New York primary suggested that New York was not far from becoming another Illinois. But there was one big difference: Democrats in New York responded negatively to Koch's confrontationalism. His candidate, Senator Albert Gore, Jr., was trounced in the primary. New Yorkers gave a decisive victory to Dukakis, who stayed as far away from racial politics as possible.

The racial tensions of the Koch era gave rise to the emblematic novel of New York in the 1980s: Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities. Nicholas Lemann reviewed the book at length for The Atlantic in 1987, tying it to contemporary New York. Koch, however, doesn't so much as make a cameo.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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