His style was brash and it was all New York! Edward Irving Koch is being laid to rest today. He died Friday at age 88 of congestive heart failure. Koch, a three-term mayor from 1978 to 1989, was a friend to the media, always good for a quote.
Rich Lamb covered Koch’s entire run as mayor for WCBS-AM. Although Koch was ill for the past several months, getting shuttled in and out of the hospital, Lamb was not fully prepared to learn of his passing.
“The phone went off at 6:15 [a.m.], and the first thing I heard was my own obit that I recorded yesterday because we decided we’d better have something ready to go,” Lamb tells FishbowlNY.
The situation appeared grave when Koch was transferred to the ICU at New York Presbyterian-Columbia Hospital.
Before Lamb could wipe the sleepy dust from his eyes, there was a live report awaiting him on WCBS at 6:20.
“As I began to speak on the air I choked up and it really surprised me,” Lamb admits.
While Lamb wasn’t a buddy to the longtime mayor, he built a 35-year professional relationship. But he’ll be missed equally by the “common man.”
“This guy has been around so long and he’s such a part of New York,” Lamb says. “I knew he was sick but I guess I never expected Ed Koch not to be there.”
And well into his 80s, Koch was there, as vibrant as the man asking, “How’m I Doin’?” during campaigns. Later in life, he hosted a weekly call-in show on Bloomberg Radio/WBBR. Mitch Lebe, was chosen as co-host, acting as “traffic cop” between breaks.
“His memory was so sharp. He had such a quick grasp of facts and information from the past that he was able to talk to callers with knowledge. ” Lebe tells FishbowlNY.
Lebe would see Koch’s physical condition weakening, but it never affected his on-air product.
“He knew what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it,” Lebe says.
Especially “saying” it in a verbal exchange with a caller would bring out the best in Koch.
“He enjoyed the joust with people on the phone,” Lebe recalls.
Lebe covered the City Hall beat for WNBC-AM and WYNY during the Koch administrations.
“When he lost his bid for the fourth term in a primary that David Dinkins won, I think he actually in a way was a little relieved,” Lebe believes. “The third term was a very difficult time for him with scandals, although he was never touched personally by the scandals.”
As his popularity rose, Koch grabbed the gavel for the nationally syndicated The People’s Court from 1997 to 1999.
Last year, the quintessential New Yorker, got a rare living honor, having the Queensboro Bridge named for him. So drivers can always see his name as they go back and forth across that East River span. It’s the memories and, oh those, famous lines, though, that will be remembered most about the legendary public official.
The lifelong Democrat, who began his political aspirations as “just a plain liberal,” later would shift more to the right, endorsing Mayor Rudy Giuliani and President George W. Bush.
“He really was a reporters’ dream,” Lamb says. “The quotes were great; the wit was sharp and fast.”
Lamb cites one example of the “Best of Koch” from the Iranian hostage crisis of 1980. He was asked a question at a City Hall press conference about a municipal topic he had no control over.
“His response was, ‘I am not the Mayor-tollah.’ Lamb recalls. “How do you think of something like that?’ How does a mind conceive of putting that word together?”
Former WNBC anchor Sue Simmons, who spoke to FishbowlNY at the Black Media Legends luncheon Friday, reflected on a moment from the early 1980s when Hizzoner visited Live at Five.
“When the Heimlich maneuver first came into people’s awareness he came on the show,” Simmons tells FishbowlNY. “Dr. Frank Field [and I| did this interview with the mayor about it, because the night before he almost choked to death in a restaurant and somebody Heimlich’ed him.”
Then Dr. Field encouraged Simmons to give Koch a mock version of the life-saving technique.
“Well, I had never given a Heimlich to anybody,” Simmons remembers. “So we stood up. I couldn’t get my arms around him, and all of sudden he said, ‘Hey, I’m dying already!’”
Koch’s passing has led to so many positive thoughts, but Lamb says his legacy was cemented at the beginning.
“He came into office when the city was really down in the dumps,” Lamb says. “The financial crisis was at its peak, and he had to figure out with Governor Carey how to resolve it.
“… He saw the realities of what it would take to turn New York around, and he had the courage to do it.”
Lebe says it’s not hard to be fond of one Gracie Mansion’s great residents.
“Most of all, it was just his enthusiasm for life, his enthusiasm for the job of mayor, the greatest job that anybody could ever have.”
As Lamb recalls it, “He was such an amazing cheerleader for New York.”
Photo credit #1: CBS/Landov
Photo credit #2: www.pbs.org
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