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Koch Recalls Highs, Lows of N.Y. Politics

November 24, 1989|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Time tends to compress the hundreds of news conferences, thousands of public appearances, the emergencies, the dreaded phone calls in the middle of the night when a cop has just been killed.

But an inescapable fact remains: A student entering first grade when Edward I. Koch first was elected mayor in 1978 could have started college by the time Koch leaves City Hall in January.

On Jan. 1, David N. Dinkins, who defeated Koch in the Democratic primary, takes the oath of office. Koch's departure caps a political career that led him from being a Democratic district leader to serving in the House of Representatives to being elected New York's chief executive.

It was a career marked by dizzying heights and depressive lows, and one that made him one of America's most recognizable politicians--certainly its best known mayor.

"I have served 25 years of my life in public service . . . and I have enjoyed every single one of those positions," Koch said in a valedictory interview.

But would he run again?

"I am tired of taking the crap that you have to take in public office. I think that lots of good people won't go into public office anymore," he said. "If you are in there, you take it. But to go back in and take it--ridiculous!

"I never want to hold public office again," he added.

Koch won office in the dark days of New York's horrendous fiscal crisis and eventually was hailed for tough budgets, management and buoyant optimism that not only restored the city's solvency, but also went a long way toward restoring its spirit. Those achievements brought him a period of national acclaim, the cover of Time magazine and even some talk that he should run for President. "How am I doing?" became his trademark as he sought both opinions and praise from New Yorkers.

But later, as the city struggled against crack, AIDS, homelessness, poverty and corruption, his popularity ebbed. Some voters found his abruptness and brashness more irritating than refreshing. During the 1988 Democratic presidential primary, his rhetoric got him into serious trouble. "Hey, everybody, it's me and Al Gore," he yelled from a subway stop as he campaigned for the Tennessee senator, who ended up losing by a wide margin.

It was during that campaign that he also said, in words that came back to haunt him, that a Jew would have to "be crazy" to vote for Jesse Jackson. Koch later apologized, but Jackson helped mobilize the black vote that played a prominent part in defeating Koch in this year's mayoral primary. Signs exist, however, that history already is treating Koch kindly. He leaves office with polls once again giving him positive job-approval ratings.

Koch himself remembers different high points and low points.

The best time? New York's huge, emotional, ticker-tape welcome in 1981 for the returning U.S. hostages held by Iran--a parade, Koch revealed in the interview, that he had to pressure then-Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. for permission to hold.

" . . . Haig called me . . . threatening not to let the hostages come," Koch said. "My response: We have our hostage. His name is Barry Rosen and he lives in New York City. If my parade only has one hostage, we are going to have that parade. Then they capitulated and the hostages came."

The toughest moments? Attending the funerals of almost 50 police officers killed in the line of duty.

"They are overwhelming," the mayor said. "It's hard to explain why, but you feel as though the cop that died is a member of your immediate family. I don't normally cry at funerals . . . . I did it at the death of my mother and father and at every police officer killed in the line of duty. I really can't explain it, except in a less than articulate way, I think I say to myself, 'If they can kill him, they can kill me.' "

"You know the mayor of the city of New York is the most wonderful job in the world and it is the most oppressive job in the world," Koch, 64, said as he relaxed in a dark leather chair in his memento-filled office.

"It's wonderful because it gives you the opportunity to leave a positive mark for the future . . . and to seek a place in that pantheon of good mayors, as close to former Mayor Fiorello (H.) La Guardia (Koch's hero) as you can get.

"The oppression, every day, it is like Sisyphus carrying around this boulder, climbing, climbing up the mountain. And every day you think you are getting to the top and the boulder falls and you have got to go down to the bottom of the mountain again . . . . You are on duty seven days a week."

Koch's departure underscores the fact that a lucrative life can follow a career in municipal government. When he leaves office, he will hold no less than six jobs--prompting a New York reporter to wisecrack in print that he should incorporate himself as "Koch Industries."

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