11:10 am Feb. 1, 2013
It's sad that Ed Koch won't be around to enjoy all the publicity surrounding Koch, the celebratory new documentary about his mayoralty that opens in theaters today.
And yet there's something classically Koch about the fact that his last act was to upstage it.
Koch always shrugged at his own mortality. When he suffers a stroke during the depths of his ill-fated third term, as shown in the documentary, Koch emerges from the hospital to tell reporters that the real scare would be losing his speech, "a fate worse than death."
"If they can keep a camera on him in the operating room, he will never die," jokes Wayne Barrett, the former Village Voice columnist.
It almost worked. Koch was still performing for the cameras in 2010, when the film follows him to a few of his anti-gerrymandering endorsements, where he amusedly taunts the hecklers who've come to jeer him.
The film focuses on his 12 years as mayor, narrated mostly by reporters who covered him and a handful of advisers, with a liberal sprinkling of Koch's own opinions on how he was doing at any given time. It's an amazing document; a running annotation of the media's first draft of history.
The film doesn't try overly hard to penetrate Koch's inner circle, or to coax much introspection from Koch himself (he was famously resistant to it, in any case), preferring instead to take his quirky confidence at face value. The War Room, or The Fog of War, this is not.
Instead Koch draws its strengths from some great archival footage showing off the mayor's big personality, particularly in his prime, bantering, arguing, interrupting, and correcting his constituents, reporters, and enemies.
Koch's candidacy in 1977 was helped by Abe Beame's mismangement of a summer blackout, and the footage of the New York Koch inherits,crackles with the electricity of a downed power line.
There's Koch before Congress, arguing for a federal loan to solve the city's fiscal crisis, and there's Koch out on the Brooklyn Bridge, thanking the legions of walking commuters for helping him play hardball in a transit strike. And, after proclaiming at this third inauguration that "it will be just as special on the fourth, fifth, and sixth occcasions," there's Koch trying to manage a disastrous third term, and worrying that the public will remember him as some kind of crook.
One of the few peeks into Koch's psyche comes from a former adviser, who says Koch was very worried someone would interrupt an AIDS forum (hosted by the New York Post, for the record), and accuse him of being gay.
After the forum, Koch complains of a headache and suffers a stroke, making for just one of the many crises in his third term.
Midway through his first campaign, Koch gets a highly conspicuous lady-friend, on the advice of master strategist David Garth (who gets short shrift in this telling) though Koch says at one point they were "never going to be lovers."
Asked directly if he's considered the positive effects of coming out, Koch says he rejects the premise and says something about not wanting a box for sexuality to appear on questionnaires for future candidates.
"I'm not going to let it happen if I can prevent it," he says. "So I have taken the position in response to your basic question, it's none of your fucking business."
The film nods to complaints from gay activists, who still fault Koch for not reacting quicker to the AIDS crisis and for not coming out himself, and from some black leaders, mainly for his willingness to shutter Sydenham Hospital in Harlem.
"Y'all got to be kidding, a bridge named after Ed Koch?" asks Councilman Charles Barron in one of the film's first scenes, during the 2010 debate over renaming the Queensboro Bridge in Koch's honor. "This is not the Ed Koch that the black community knows. It's the Ed Koch that every time we asked for something he said, 'I will not be intimidated.' And then he asked the rest of you, 'How'm I doing?'"
But Koch likes Koch too much to really vilify him in either case, and a fuller treatment can be found in a couple of other recent documentaries: How to Survive a Plague, about the AIDS crisis, and The Central Park Five, which casts Koch as unrepentant for the false convictions in the rape of the Central Park jogger.
The other tension in the film comes from Koch's strained relationship with Mario Cuomo, who one of his advisers calls Koch's "bete noir."
In a clever bit of editing, we first see the Cuomos when Matilda tells a reporter that the hardest part of the primary campaign is getting her kids to bed on time, and Mario saying that one of them was out late posting signs the night before. A few frames later, the film turns its attention to those "Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo" signs that popped up around the city.
Koch admits he faulted the Cuomos for those, and held a longstanding "animus" toward the Cuomos. He tried to put that behind him, at least publicly.
When I spoke to him in 2010, he told me the only thing he held against Andrew Cuomo was that he killed the Liberal Party with his 2002 candidacy. And the film shows Koch endorsing Andrew Cuomo in 2010, when he was leading a push for nonpartisan redistricting. (Cuomo agreed to that reform during the campaign, then ended up signing off on a gerrymandered electoral map as part of a larger deal with the State Senate Republicans.)
But the old tensions flare up later, when Koch calls Cuomo a "schmuck" after he's denied a chance to see the governor-elect at his Cuomo's victory party.
The director's notes for the film say only two people declined to be interviewed about Koch, and one was a former governor.
Koch appears to have loosed a parting shot, in a Times video interview that was recorded back in 2007, but which was embargoed (as all the videos in the Times' "Last Word" series are) until his death.
"That matter has affected our relationship from '77 through this year," Koch says. "We get along and we got along as mayor and governor, but I always held it against him. I also held it against his son, Andy Cuomo. Even though social relationships, when we meet in public are good, underneath, he knows, I know, what I'm really thinking: 'You prick.'"
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