If you're tired of charisma and the clubhouse, why not try competence? That was Edward Koch's theme when, as a little-known congressman from Greenwich Village, he won his first term as mayor of New York in 1977. Now, as city officials are indicted or resign, as the Queens borough president commits suicide and the Bronx Democratic leader is indicted, the focus is on the mayor. Few seem to doubt his honesty. But he also is thought not to have lived up to his 1977 promise. With two best-selling books, he has shown more charisma than anyone thought likely. But he has done too much business with the clubhouse and has proved less than competent in preventing wrongdoing by city officials.
That assessment should be set in perspective. Mr. Koch easily won a third term last year, against serious opposition, because of genuine achievements. He got the city government out of debt and, after cutbacks, raised the level of services. He encouraged impressive economic growth. New York City, which lost 1 million residents in the decade before he took office, is now gaining population. Manhattan has bloomed with new office buildings and gentrification, and growth has spread to the outer boroughs as well. Mr. Koch undeniably raised the morale of the city. He has imposed his own agenda and usually his own views on a contentious, often raucous political community. He lost his race for governor in 1982 partly because so many voters wanted to keep him as mayor. But with New York's economic revival have evidently come problems. The city budget is not so straitened, and entrepreneurs are making glittering fortunes. Vast streams of money are directed or controlled -- through regulatory decisions and contracting out of services -- by dozens of mayoral appointees in city government. And that is where the corruption mentioned in the indictments has occurred. It may be said in the mayor's behalf that the appointees charged with corruption were foisted on him by the the late Queens borough president Donald Manes and Bronx Democratic leader Stanley Friedman, independent elected and party officials whose support he needed to keep the gears of government moving.
True, perhaps, but Mr. Koch can be faulted for not having moved aggressively enough to make sure that his appointees were honest. A mayor of New York must always be on notice that officials through whose hands vast sums flow will be tempted to take some for themselves. Mr. Koch has boasted in "Mayor" of his skepticism and his abrasiveness toward his appointees. In retrospect he was not skeptical and abrasive enough.
Nothing has implicated the mayor himself in any corrupt act, nor are all the appointees who have recently resigned tainted. But a mayor of whom the voters had high hopes has fallen short of their and his own expectations.