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Grading Ed Koch's Obits

A regular roundup of how the obituaries remembered the lives of the week's most prominent dearly departed.

For some politicians, an obit writer needs a bigger thesaurus.

Three-term New York Mayor Ed Koch, who died last Friday (after this feature’s deadline), had scribes straining for words to describe his in-your-face style and career: “Irascible.” “Ebullient.” “Bald and bombastic, pauncy and pugnacious.” And of course, “chutzpah,” the Yiddish noun that made it into virtually every remembrance of Koch, who was 88: The New York Jewish Week uses it to claim that the city’s “Jewish soul” is “best exemplified” by Koch, in a piece headlined simply, “What Chutzpah!”

Koch “revived a city that had defined urban dysfunction,” the Washington Post notes. He “steered the city out of bankruptcy and restored its swagger, a one-man cheerleading squad who personified the witty and feisty New Yorker,” the Los Angeles Times says. But why quote out-of-town newspapers on a guy who sabotaged his chances at higher office by bashing the suburbs in a Playboy interview? (For that matter, would Koch really have thought there was any higher office than mayor of New York City?) Let’s go to to New York.

“Koch was the nasally Noo Yawk-voiced ambassador of a city that remained his true love long after he left City Hall,” the Daily News says. “He said he got ‘the bends’ when outside New York too long,” the Times recalls, noting that he only stayed in Washington two weekends during eight years in Congress before he became mayor. (The Times also says he was “as opinionated as a Flatbush cabby, as loud as the scrums on 42nd Street, as pugnacious as a West Side reform Democrat mother.”) He “left an indelible mark on Staten Island during his three terms in City Hall and beyond,” the Staten Island Advance says. “Poor Ed Koch died in the closet,” the Village Voice’s Michael Musto writes, in a post that’s only a little blunter on the topic of Koch’s sexuality than the other obits are. “New Yorkers loved him and they hated him—but he was always one of them, and the city and region have profited in untold ways from his energy, his wisdom and his success as a reformer,” writes Newsday’s Fred Dolman. “Koch, who breezed through the streets of New York flashing his signature thumbs-up sign, won a national reputation with his feisty style,” the New York Post reports. “‘How'm I doing?’ was his trademark question to constituents, although the answer mattered little to Koch. The mayor always thought he was doing wonderfully.”

All the obits note that Koch—whose political persona as mayor was calculated to appeal to white middle-class voters in the outer boroughs—started out as a liberal reformer when he got into politics campaigning for Adlai Stevenson in 1952. He was “a hard-working, independent liberal able to work with conservatives” in the House, the Times says. For his 1977 mayoral bid,  consultant David Garth “devised a more conservative image for Mr. Koch, a formidable task because the candidate had portrayed himself as a liberal.” Capital New York editor Tom McGeveran sums Koch’s political journey up in a sentimental, but not romanticized, piece about New York under his administration: “Ed Koch might have been the former representative of the Silk Stocking district, a Greenwich Village liberal who once strummed folksy guitar melodies in Washington Square Park, but that was an interlude. He was from the Bronx, as he liked to remind us.”

The tributes all follow an iron law of obituaries: If you’re a colorful enough character, any bad stuff will be tucked down below the descriptions of your charming or quirky ways. The Times is 1,200 words into its 5,600-word write-up before delving into details of corruption scandals that involved “a series of disclosures, indictments and convictions for bribery, extortion, perjury and conspiracy that touched various city agencies” in Koch’s third term, after which he lost the Democratic primary to David Dinkins. The New York Post, read by Koch’s base, barely mentions scandals at all. (But the Post does have a great collection of Koch quotes compiled by the Associated Press.)

Some of the obits, though they chide Koch for contributing to (or at least not helping to alleviate) racial tension in 1980s New York, seem to have their own blind spot on the topic. Take one line, from the Times, crediting what the paper calls “his streetwise gusts of candor — saying what people said over the dinner table in Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn.” That’d be more accurate if it read, “saying what people said over the dinner table in white neighborhoods in Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn.” The Times initially left out the criticism Koch got from AIDS activists for his handling of the crisis in the city, which, New York magazine noted, won the paper some criticism of its own.

Koch, of course, gets the last word. The Times run a 21-minute video interview, shot in 2007, that opens with the former mayor asking, “Do you miss me?” And showing the same timing in death that he did in life, Koch died the same day that Koch, a new documentary by Neil Barsky, opened in theaters.

Shake It Up

Obituary writers the world over can thank Mitt Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom for providing a paragraph or two in their pieces on André Cassagnes, a French electrical technician who invented the Etch A Sketch and died on Jan. 16 at 86. Nearly every story on his death notes Fehrnstrom’s use of Cassagnes’ toy as a metaphor to describe how Romney could ditch the conservative positions he took in last year’s Republican primaries once the general election began: “Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.” The New York Times runs a great illustration of a headline drawn with an Etch A Sketch. But the Times and the Washington Post put Fehrnstrom’s line in their ledes, which might confuse the millions of children and former children who remember the toy for fonder reasons. Someone at the U.K.’s Guardian must have borne a grudge against the device; the paper calls it “the much-loved but infuriating toy that made drawing less an art than a feat of manual dexterity.” The Los Angeles Times, unlike most others, manages to set last year’s election aside and celebrate Cassagnes’ invention without dragging Romney into it.

All Death is Local

The Washington Post notes the death at 77 of Lacy C. Streeter, a former political advisor to ex-D.C. mayor Marion Barry when Barry was on the city’s school board, and to the city’s first elected mayor, Walter E. Washington.

The Philadelphia Inquirer runs a short item remembering Sister Mary Isidore Gilewitch, 99, “a nun who was as capable with a needle as with a hammer and who taught at many local schools” and “was a master of Ukrainian embroidery and used her skill to adorn priests' vestments as well as pillows and scarves.”

The Chicago Tribune recalls Sophia Barradas, a hair salon owner in the city’s Loop neighborhood, who moved to Chicago from Veracruz and worked in a wig factory before teaching herself to cut hair.

Quote of the Week

“It was a very complex relationship. He provided financial support. Did he pay to keep her quiet? I think it was more complex than that.’’ — Strom Thurmond biographer Jack Bass on Essie Mae Washington-Williams, quoted in Columbia, S.C.'s daily The State. Washington-Williams, a retired Los Angeles teacher who died at 87 on Sunday, was the late segregationist senator, former South Carolina governor, and failed presidential candidate’s daughter—a fact he never acknowledged, and which she only made public after he died. Washington-Williams’ African-American mother, Carrie Butler, worked as a maid in Thurmond’s parents’ home in Edgefield, S.C. Thurmond would recommend Washington-Williams to South Carolina State College and provide her money over the years, but was “never particularly warm” toward his daugher, Bass’ co-author, Marilyn Thompson tells The State.  Still, Thompson says, “in her own way, she loved him deeply.”