Ed Koch and the Art of Personal Branding
Edward Koch, the three-term mayor of New York City known for his brash personal style and zest for wheeling and dealing in the turbulent political arena of the 1970s and 1980s, died this morning in a hospital bed, reportedly of congestive heart failure. Koch, a documentary film about the former mayor's life and times, opens today in theaters around the country.
His eternal question to the people of New York was "How'm I doing?" Whether asking rhetorically or not, he was able to make constituents believe that he was a man of the people who understood their fears and desires. He used his personal charm and whatever political capital he could get his hands on -- including two record majorities in his second and third bids for the mayor's office -- to restore New York as a world capital.
"Deals are my art form," he said. "Other people paint beautifully on canvas or write wonderful poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals. That's how I get my kicks."
He knew how to sell his personal brand and never apologized for his rough edges. His battles were many. He seemed to relish the fight. "You punch me, I punch back," he once said. "I do not believe it's good for one's self-respect to be a punching bag."
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Some highlights from Koch's inimitable life and career follow.
1963 -- Reformer: Edward Koch, a Jewish native of New Jersey and a practicing lawyer with an office on Wall Street, defeats Carmine DeSapio in a contest to become district representative of Greenwich Village. DeSapio is an entrenched member of the powerful political machine known as Tammany Hall. Koch paints himself as a reform candidate, the first of several political runs in which he will distinguish himself successfully from his opponents.
1977 – 'Liberal with sanity': Koch, who by now has served on the New York City Council and as a U.S. Congressman, runs for mayor in the Democratic primary against incumbent Abe Beame and other challengers. In the summer of 1977, a blackout led to destructive rioting. With the violence still fresh in voters' minds, Koch brands himself successfully as a law-and-order candidate -- "a liberal with sanity" -- and wins the election.
1978 – Brash New Yorker: On Inauguration Day, Koch warns reporters that he will speak his mind in all things, and that while he'll never develop ulcers himself, he "might give other people ulcers." It is this unapologetic self-possession as much as his outspokenness for which he will be noted in the years to come.
1981 -- Man of the people: Koch is reelected with a record-breaking 75 percent of the vote, becoming the first New York mayor in history to win both the Republican and the Democratic nominations.
1984 -- Memoirist: Koch publishes his first autobiography, Mayor, which is turned into a successful Off Broadway musical the following year. He goes on to publish a second memoir, Citizen Koch, in 1992, solidifying himself in the public imagination.
1985 -- Embattled politician: Reelected to a third term with a stunning 78 percent of the vote, Koch and his administration become mired in a corruption scandal that sees Democratic leaders resigning and going to prison. Though the convicted officials were not close associates of Koch, accusations of cronyism and dirty politics tarnish his reputation during his final years in City Hall.
1989 -- Commentator: Koch's final mayoral term ends on the last day of the year. After leaving City Hall, he will go on to have a second career -- in fact many careers -- both in and out of politics. He will speak on television and radio, endorse commercial products, give lectures, write for local newspapers and political websites and more. "It's a lot more fun being a critic than being the one criticized," he told New York magazine.
2007 – Political lion: In a "Last Word" interview with The New York Times, Koch revisits his political career and polishes his legacy. "I gave people back their spirit," he says of his time as mayor, when he rescued the city from bankruptcy. He also discusses the way in which he distinguished himself from other "liberals and reformers" through his support for the death penalty and other policy issues that many saw as belonging to the political right.
January 2013 -- City icon: Neil Barsky's documentary film Koch premieres. A look at Koch's life and personality as well as the lasting impact of his policies, the film receives a mixed review in the Times. The 90-minute film is too short for a man like Koch, writes critic A. O. Scott. He needs "a sprawling epic combining the talents of Sidney Lumet, Woody Allen, Bob Fosse and Spike Lee."
February 2013 -- Showman to the end: Koch passes away, incredibly enough on the very day the documentary bearing his name opens in theaters nationwide. The Times obituary hails him as "the master showman of City Hall."