AIDS/HIV | Deaths | Ed Koch | New York

NYT Revises Ed Koch Obit To Include Details About Aids

KochThe New York Times revised its obituary of former NYC mayor Ed Koch after receiving criticism for excluding any mention of his controversial handling of the AIDs crisis in the 1980s.

Koch died of congestive heart failure yesterday at the age of 88.

The Times added three paragraphs about AIDS and also as a sentence about his sexuality.

The new additions are here:

Mr. Koch was also harshly criticized for what was called his slow, inadequate response to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Hundreds of New Yorkers were desperately ill and dying in a baffling public health emergency. Critics, especially in the gay community, accused him of being a closeted gay man reluctant to confront the crisis for fear of being exposed.

For years, Mr. Koch was upset and defensive about the criticism. In a 1994 interview with Adam Nagourney, a New York Times correspondent and co-author, with Dudley Clendinen, of “Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America,” Mr. Koch said that New York had done more than San Francisco for people with AIDS. “But that never got through to the gay community,” Mr. Koch said. “They were brainwashed that they were getting shortchanged in New York City and in San Francisco they were getting everything. And it wasn’t true, but you could never convince them.”

The scandals and the scourges of crack cocaine, homelessness and AIDS were compounded by a widening rift between Mr. Koch and black New Yorkers. The mayor traced his contentious relationship with black leaders to his first-term decision to close Sydenham Hospital in Harlem, where, he said, the city was paying too much for inadequate care. He would regret the decision.

The full version is here.

Writer and filmmaker Dave France (director and co-writer of the Academy Award-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague) has published a piece about Koch, a film the former mayor himself reviewed for the West Side Spirit.

Before he died, Koch recorded a segment for the Times' The Last Word obit video series. Watch his entry, which he begins by facing the camera asking "do you miss me?", AFTER THE JUMP.

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  1. "Hundreds of New Yorkers were desperately ill and dying in a baffling public health emergency..."

    Hundreds? Try tens of thousands. Why even bother revising it if you're still going to be disingenuous. I get it, he's dead. Everyone wants to remember Koch as the kinda goofy guy who saved New York City. I'll always remember him as the closet case who allowed thousands of gay men die of Aids.

    Posted by: Gigi | Feb 2, 2013 4:25:45 PM

  2. @Gigi: a city mayor and a city's public health department are simply ill equipped to deal with a virus that nobody understands, which was the case for much of the time that Koch was NY's mayor. The first effective treatment, the drug AZT, was not approved for use until March 1987, and Koch's terms as mayor ended in 1989. A test for the virus was not available until 1985. Protease inhibitors were not available until 1997.

    During the 1980s, the first time a U.S. president (then Ronald Reagan) even mentioned AIDS was in October 1987, and research was underfunded for years. In spite of it being transmitted sexually, the Reagan administration by and large opposed any sex education in public schools.

    Posted by: Bill | Feb 2, 2013 5:34:27 PM

  3. @Bill: whether or not AZT was "effective" remains controversial. AZT is toxic enough to kill a buffalo at 20 paces. It was being taken in such high doses in those years that it rapidly destroyed the bone marrow of those taking it so that many, many thousands died of the "treatment"--not of the disease. One cannot help wondering how many would have lived longer if they'd never been given AZT. Dr Sonnabend certainly thought so.

    I saw it with my own eyes: I'm a Registered Nurse - graduated and came to New York in 1987 specifically to work in the epidemic.

    Posted by: DannyEastVillage | Feb 2, 2013 6:01:20 PM

  4. An honest question. What "exactly" was Koch supposed to do about a disease nobody knew much about, that appeared to be spreading through sexual contact and striking gay men disproportionately BUT close bath houses? Why wouldn't the gay community insist they be closed down? I never got that part. Again, could someone explain what this man was supposed to do exactly? Nobody else knew anything.

    Posted by: FakeOutrage | Feb 2, 2013 6:34:03 PM

  5. I think there's a certain amount of survivor's advantage here in terms or rewriting history. AIDS wiped out almost all the libertine activists that wanted a sexual liberation revolution, and Koch really got on their bad side when he closed down the bathhouses, threatened gays with quarantines, mandatory testing and other emergency public health measures. Since the survivors were generally not part of that crowd they have rewritten history to say that Koch did too little when in fact his split with the gay community happened because he wanted to do too much.

    There were fantasists in the gay community at the time that thought that a cure or vaccine was right around the corner and that the only reason it wasn't being produced was due to discrimination, but this turns out not to be true.

    Posted by: anon | Feb 2, 2013 7:23:09 PM

  6. Ambivalent about Koch. After all these years it was still "they" and "them" in reference to gays and lesbians. Never a "we".

    Posted by: We | Feb 2, 2013 7:41:46 PM

  7. I'm confused.

    In what way did he not do enough? Not hold enough press conferences, speak about it, or provide funding?

    I'm just trying to figure out how the mayor of a large and complex city like New York could stop a such a scary, horrifying world wide epidemic that everyone knew very little about at the time...

    Posted by: Andy | Feb 2, 2013 7:50:00 PM

  8. @DannyEastVillage: a documentary I saw on the early years of the epidemic claimed the AZT dosage used was way too high. Regardless, given that nothing else was available, "effective" means that it actually did something to control the infection, not that the side effects weren't serious.

    The point, of course was about Koch - for most of his time as mayor, not only was there no available treatment whatsoever, but not even a test to determine if a patient was infected.

    Posted by: Bill | Feb 2, 2013 8:26:58 PM

  9. I don't want to argue the facts of the mayor's response to the crisis. It just sets a bad precedent when an obituary gets rewritten because someone feels one event has been left out. Where does it stop?

    Posted by: John | Feb 2, 2013 9:05:45 PM

  10. @JOHN -- in other words, an omission that offends many thousand New Yorkers and others should not be fixed when it is pointed out?
    Calling the AIDS crisis "one event" is dismissive, rude, stupid, and homophobic.

    Posted by: Bob | Feb 2, 2013 9:41:45 PM

  11. @ANDY -- if he had spoken up, awareness would have been much greater, more would have taken precautions and remained healthy, and more charity and research funding would have happened earlier

    Posted by: Bob | Feb 2, 2013 9:46:05 PM

  12. One thing that surprises me about the coverage of Koch's death, particularly by people who apparently knew quite a bit about him, is that his being gay was well known by many. Of course I'd heard the rumors but few people talked about the evidence other than he was "a lifelong bachelor." I thought it *might* be true, though I didn't know for sure. But it seems EVERYONE knew and let him get away with the lie.

    Posted by: Caliban | Feb 2, 2013 10:02:04 PM

  13. @Caliban: Koch didn't exactly lie about his sexual orientation. He just told random people who asked that is was none of their business. Is a New Yorker telling people to mind their own business unusual? Only to the extent that the default response is a four-letter word followed by a three-letter world.

    Posted by: Bill | Feb 3, 2013 12:51:18 AM

  14. "Writer and filmmaker Dave France (director and co-writer of the Academy Award-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague) has published a piece about Koch, a film the former mayor himself reviewed for the West Side Spirit."

    That's kind of an awkward sentence. Not trolling. Just constructive criticism. Is the clause after the comma meant to refer to the film mentioned in the parenthetical phrase?

    Posted by: Scot Colford | Feb 3, 2013 1:35:02 AM

  15. @Bob: during the time Koch was mayor, we didn't even know how effective condoms were in preventing HIV infections, and some condom opponents were putting out false information claiming condoms didn't work at all. One "study" claimed that condoms leaked HIV based on letting through test particles 100 million times smaller than a single HIV virus. There was a hypothesis that even a tiny hole posed a serious risk, but in fact HIV likes to stay inside fluids, and a fluid's ability to get through a very small hole is constrained by effects like surface tension. Even if it can get through, viscosity is important as well in determining the rate of flow.

    Given what we knew at the time, telling people to use condoms and not worry would have been irresponsible - we needed to actually measure how effective condoms were in reducing the transmission of HIV. OTOH, saying, "use them but we don't know if they do any good" is not an effective message. So, I don't think it is clear if Koch could have done that much better.

    Posted by: Bill | Feb 3, 2013 2:16:54 AM

  16. In the days when HIV was considered a "gay disease" the epicenters were NY, SF and LA.

    SF had the most "out" LGBT community at the time and hence the most political power.

    SF also had the legacy of Harvey Milk who had been lost just about three years before HIV surfaced.

    SF is also smaller than NYC by a factor of ten and politics more small neighborhood based so it's no wonder then that SF could quickly developed a model for a response tailored to LGBT needs that left NY in catch up mode.

    Posted by: mark | Feb 3, 2013 7:51:32 AM

  17. In 1984, when the disease was raging, New York spent $24,500 on AIDS. The same year, San Francisco, which is one-tenth the size of New York, spent $4.3 million. Nuff said.

    Posted by: Jay | Feb 3, 2013 9:25:01 AM

  18. Let's try and be more honest. At the height of AIDS and before it, the decade of the 1970s into the 80s, substance abuse and self-defeating behavior was widespread among all, especially the gay community, and more specifically gay men. The reason AIDS and HIV came into being is directly related to the large number of gay men with badly weakened immune systems. AIDS should have been treated like any other deadly public health issue, it became politicized and in many ways politics and ideology trumped commonsense. Just as many people got infected, suffered, and died for this reason as those who were affected by inadequate or slow official response.

    The gay community and some of it's 'advocates' are not squeaky clean on this issue.

    Posted by: ratbastard | Feb 3, 2013 11:11:46 AM

  19. I was born in the early 80s and yet i still know "why" there's been such adamant criticism of Koch.

    so, what excuses do some of you folks have for not knowing?

    Posted by: LittleKiwi | Feb 3, 2013 3:57:47 PM

  20. Little Kiwi: plenty of us know exactly WHY Koch is sharply criticized. That does not preclude us from finding the criticism disproportionate and self-serving. For David France to write that:

    "Koch’s failure in AIDS should be recalled as the single-most significant aspect of his public life"

    is, frankly, ridiculous.

    Posted by: Lars | Feb 3, 2013 4:29:34 PM

  21. i'd agree. because his racism should be right up there, too.

    Posted by: LittleKiwi | Feb 3, 2013 4:32:33 PM

  22. Little Kiwi: Exactly! His record on race relations is at least as significant as -- and probably much more than -- anything he did or did not do with regard to AIDS. Old timers here are still bitter about Sydenham Hospital.

    Posted by: Lars | Feb 3, 2013 4:55:07 PM

  23. thing is - i see them as being very much the same thing.

    both were done to appease bigots in the 80s. white heterosexual moneyed men.

    nobody cared/cares if f@gs and "coloreds" were dying or in need of help.

    that's his legacy.

    homeboy is no doubt having a real fierce one-on-one with Roy Cohn right now.

    Posted by: LittleKiwi | Feb 3, 2013 5:10:03 PM

  24. There were so many villains in the 80's, Ronald Reagan being the worst.

    Posted by: Richard | Feb 5, 2013 11:27:48 AM

  25. There were so many villains in the 80's, Ronald Reagan being the worst.

    Posted by: Richard | Feb 5, 2013 11:27:49 AM

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