“Ed Really Was Not So Much a Politician As an Institution”

Campaigning for Congress.Photo: Owen Franken/Corbis

In 1977, in a highly contentious race, Ed Koch outflanked Mario Cuomo to the right in the 1977 Democratic primary and went on to become mayor of New York. Cuomo went on to defeat Ed Koch in the 1982 Democratic gubernatorial primary and become governor, and the two were forced to work together as friendly competitors. On Friday, Geoffrey Gray spoke to Mario Cuomo about his former antagonist and sometime partner.

How do you describe a person like Ed Koch?
He put an emphasis on all the important feelings. Love. Dislike. But in the end, he was unique in many ways. Unique in the way he thought. Unique in the way he made you laugh. Unique in the way he got even with somebody who did something he didn’t like. I think he believed very much in the concept of forgiveness—forgiveness of Koch.

He seemed to be both sensitive and tough at the same time. How do you explain that?
Very easy. Here’s how you do it. You love yourself more. And you dislike other people more. He was good at both. He was very proud and very critical. He saw no disparities or contradictions there.

In a recently posted interview, he jokingly called you a “prick,” about the infamous signs [“Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo”] that went up in a mayor’s race more than three decades ago.

I think there’s a very simple answer to that. If anyone thinks that I was dumb enough to be part of an attempt to get that thing on television or in the newspapers, they are as ridiculous as that idea is. If you wanted to run, you wouldn’t make a clown of yourself by saying something as stupid as that. We had to pay for something we never did. Why? Because Ed did insist on blaming us for years. He knew—because he was very intelligent—that I wasn’t dumb enough to do something that stupid even if I was mad enough, which I wasn’t. I always thought of that as an Ed Koch thing.

How would you describe the difference in your personalities?
I think the basic difference is that I did not have the same regard for myself as he had for himself. It’s not that I thought of myself as evil in any way, but I found it very difficult to think of myself as particularly special. I don’t have much of a personality. He has a great deal of personality. He could be very funny and very tough. He was very much like the old New York, where there were some real tough guys and some real schmoes, a little bit of everything there.

Koch recently bought a grave plot in Manhattan—to attract more visitors. What kind of person does that?
He was very different from me in a lot of ways; that’s one of them. When it comes to gravestones, he was particularly different from me. First of all, I don’t spend any time talking about it. I did once answer the question “What would you say on your tombstone?” I know what I would say: mario cuomo, 1932–dash, and he tried. That’s it. He was more elaborate about projecting himself. I mean, that’s fine. I have never really disliked Koch. He might have said things in moments I thought were crude, but I never really disliked him.

What’s the one word that comes to mind when you think of him?
Mayor. His life was mayor. He was the mayor. Not being the pretty mayor. Not being the brilliant mayor. Being the mayor. He was not so much a politician as an institution.

See More
The Perfect Mayor of Crazytown
Hizzoner’s Many Roles and Magazine Clippings
The Legacy of the Koch Building Boom
His Love for a Broken City That Loved Him Back
Maer Roshan on His Dinners With Koch
New York’s Last Mayor From Main Street
Koch and the AIDS Crisis: His Greatest Failure
A Life in Pictures
Complete Coverage on Daily Intelligencer

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“Ed Really Was Not So Much a Politician As an Ins […]