A shooting Ed Koch never got over

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Terry Golway

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As New York bids farewell to Ed Koch, there will be more re-telling of old stories about this colorful, cantankerous, hilarious, and combative figure from a time that seems so very distant and yet was only yesterday, for some of us, anyway.

The Ed Koch who emerges from the endless and deserved tributes was the Ed Koch most New Yorkers felt they knew—the needy Koch, the Borscht Belt Koch, the loud Koch, the abrasive Koch.

You probably haven’t heard or seen much about the sensitive Koch, perhaps because he did a pretty good job of hiding that quality. I caught a glimpse of that side of the former mayor a dozen years ago, when I was writing a book about his friend John Cardinal O’Connor, the late Catholic archbishop of New York. Many people have noted that Koch had little patience for introspection. That sounds right, but nobody should conclude that the man was incapable of expressing deeply held emotion. He could—he just didn’t do it that often.

As I spoke with Koch about his memories of O’Connor, who had died a few months earlier in the spring of 2000, the conversation drifted to the cardinal’s special relationship with Police Officer Steven McDonald, who was shot and paralyzed from the neck down in 1986.

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Koch took the story of the cardinal and the cop a step backward, to the night when he received a phone call that an officer had been shot and had been taken to Bellevue Hospital. “They called me and I went down there [to the hospital],” Koch said in an even tone. He talked about seeing the officer’s family gathered together in a waiting room, praying. The doctors took the mayor aside. “They told me he was going to die.”

Forty-three police officers had been killed in the line of duty since Koch became mayor of January 1, 1978. He was in office no more than 48 hours when Police Officer Ronald Stapleton was cut down in the line of duty on January 3. By 1986, Ed Koch was a veteran of awful scenes in hospital waiting rooms.

But he clearly never got used to it. And as he told the story of Steven McDonald, he burst into tears. “It was awful, just awful,” he said, attempting to compose himself, without success. I was astonished and near tears myself. Gone was the Ed Koch with whom we were so familiar. In his place was this other Ed Koch, who wept unabashedly over a memory that was nearly 15 years old.

Koch recalled again the sight of the McDonald family gathered in prayer. His voice cracked, and he struggled again to hold it together as he recalled calling his friend Cardinal O’Connor from the waiting room. “Your Eminence,” he said, “I’ve never called you before under these circumstances and I don’t want to disturb your rest, but there’s an enormous tragedy here. And I think if you came over, you could provide comfort to this family because …”

And here Koch stopped again. His cheeks were soaked. He was back in the hospital, back in the waiting room. He was back on the phone. He struggled with the words as if saying them for the first time. “Because this young cop is going to die.”

Reliving that moment sapped Koch of his energy, and for moments, or minutes, we sat in his office in silence. Koch wiped his eyes, and signaled that he was ready for another question. Before long, he was back to being the Ed Koch you’ve read about in the obits.

The young cop did not die, but he has been in a wheelchair ever since.

And Koch still wept for him, all those years later.