Pay attention to mayors, and you come to learn something. Given time, they come to personify their cities. Their policies, their obsessions, their quirks, their tone of voice come to seem like a city condensed. And that was especially true of New York City's Ed Koch, who died this morning of congestive heart failure at the age of 88. Like his city, Ed Koch was larger than life. NPR's Joel Rose has this remembrance.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Ed Koch was famous for asking his constituents this question:


MAYOR ED KOCH: Hi! How'm I doing?

ROSE: Koch insisted this was more than just shtick. He told NPR in 1981 that he really wanted to know.


KOCH: Some people have said that's a mark of insecurity. Gee, I have to be patted on the back, how'm I doing. Well, I want you to think about this: Do you know people in public life who are sufficiently secure to ask people to rate them?

ROSE: Insecurity did not seem to be a problem for Koch. When he ran first for mayor, New York was practically falling apart. The city was still reeling from the financial crisis of the mid-1970s and the looting that accompanied a major blackout in the summer of 1977.

JONATHAN SOFFER: The city was being held together by chewing gum. He created a feeling of optimism. He created a feeling that the city could come back.

ROSE: Historian Jonathan Soffer, wrote a biography called "Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York." He says the Democrat managed to balance the city's budget, sometimes at the expense of low-income and minority communities. Soffer says the Koch administration was focused on keeping middle-class families and white-collar jobs from leaving the city.

SOFFER: He was a very, very pro-business mayor, partly because he saw tax dollars for the city government that were badly needed in economic growth. He contributed a tremendous amount to building the city we have today, for better or worse.

ROSE: Edward Irving Koch was born in the Bronx and raised in Newark, New Jersey. After serving in World War II, he settled in New York. He represented the city in Congress for five terms before running for mayor. Koch never married. He refused to answer questions about his personal life, but reporters could always count on him for a quote, or a joke. As he explained to an interviewer from Reason TV in 2011, he saw it as part of the job.


KOCH: You had to get people to follow you. And I'm, I think, a reticent personality, quite private. But I realized that would not do the job, and so I became far more onstage.

ROSE: Koch even landed a cameo appearance as himself in "The Muppets Take Manhattan."


JIM HENSON: (As Kermit) ...I'm looking for a frog who can sing and dance.

KOCH: If he can also balance the budget, I'll hire him.

ROSE: Koch was free with his opinions too, maybe too free, says biographer Jonathan Soffer.

SOFFER: He made a lot of angry with things that he said. You know, his race for governor was doomed after an interview came out that he had done with Playboy, where he complained about the food in Albany and said a lot of unkind things about the State of New York outside of New York City.

ROSE: Koch was known to say unkind things about political rivals, too, and even ordinary New Yorker who disagreed with him; as he told NPR in 1984.


KOCH: Occasionally we're yelling at one another, not in a hostile way, but, you know, in the family way.

ROSE: Koch's mouth finally cost him his job as mayor. His relationship with African American voters - never great to begin with - soured for good when he suggested that Jews would be crazy to vote for Jesse Jackson in 1988. The next year, Koch lost the Democratic primary to David Dinkins - and went on to be the city's first African American mayor. Ed Koch never ran for office again, but he never left the public eye either.


KOCH: Can you imagine there are a lot of people who don't like you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No, actually I can't, John(ph).

ROSE: Koch did a stint behind the bench on the "People's Court," he hosted a popular talk radio show, and he stayed active in politics - endorsing causes and candidates he favored, with little regard for party affiliation. But many New Yorkers will remember Koch as the mayor who helped lead the city back from the brink. Here he is speaking in 2012 when the Queensboro Bridge was renamed in his honor.


KOCH: And I made a commitment to myself, that whatever it would take, that we would endure, so as to hand this city on to future generations. And we did it.

ROSE: Ed Koch will be buried at Trinity Cemetery, overlooking the Hudson River. I don't want to leave Manhattan, he quipped, even when I'm gone. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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