I am now in my 88th year, having celebrated my 87th birthday last December. I occasionally sit at my desk and experience a reverie, my mind thinking back to past events over my lifetime.
There are also nights when I lie in bed in the wee hours of the morning, unable to sleep solidly through the night as I once was able to do. I’m told the inability to sleep soundly through the night comes with the passage of time and aging. Recently, as I lay awake, I wondered which pithy statements, if any, that I made through the years will survive my death.
Our great U.S. Senator Pat Moynihan left us with many and the epigram most quoted was uttered near the end of his life – “defining deviancy down.” Yes, so true, and so sad a comment on our society. When we are unable to deal with a societal problem, we often stop looking for a solution and find reasons to simply accept the lapse as part of life.
The comments that come to mind that I believe might survive me are the following:
In 1969, after being the unexpected victor in a congressional race – the 17th silk stocking district – in a district held by Republicans for 31 years before I defeated one of their most distinguished candidates, Whitney North Seymour, Jr., at the moment of victory, I recall saying, “Nobody expected a guy with two names – Ed Koch – to beat a guy with four names.” But more important than that flip remark was my coming up with the phrase that is still associated with me, 43 years later, “How’m I doin’?” That came about when I went back each week to the subways and bus stops in my Manhattan district, campaigning throughout the year, handing out congressional statements that I had delivered on the House floor the previous week, I would introduce myself to my constituents saying, “I’m Ed Koch, your congressman. How’m I doin’?”
This direct question always got their attention and they would stop and chat with me and tell me, both good and bad. Now, decades later, not a week goes by without a passerby on the street saying to me with a smile, “How’m I doin’?” with me responding, “You’re doing terrific; how about me?” Some have yelled from across the street, “Don’t ask, you’re doin’ fine.” Some journalists have written that the phrase is unusual and caught the public’s attention because so few public officials ever ask to be evaluated, thus opening themselves up to criticism.
While I was Mayor, I often said to my critics – and there were many in my 12 years as Mayor – “If all those I have alienated were to get together, you could throw me out, and if you do, I’ll get a better job, but you won’t get a better Mayor.” What I was trying to convey was that I was not afraid of being cast out if, in doing my job as I thought it should be done to best protect the city and its people, I would lose an election. I knew I would survive in the private sector.
Then, when all the alienated people did get together in 1989 and did throw me out, with many deciding later they had made a mistake, asking me to run again, I replied, “No, the people threw me out, and now the people must be punished.” Occasionally, someone in jest will still say, “Mayor, we’ve been punished.”
When I think of these comments of mine, I also think of a conversation that I had with my sister Pat Thaler’s granddaughter, Perri, and her comment to me when she was 4 years old (she is now 12). She and I were driving from her parents'' home to grandma’s. At one point, I said to her, “Perri, I love you very much.” She replied, “Uncle Ed, I love you too.” I asked, “Perri, do you know what love is?” She replied, “Yes, I do.” I asked, “What is it?” She immediately replied, “Love is hugs and kisses.” And so it is. Her insightful comment is far more important than any of mine.