A Liberal With Sanity
Editor’s note: RIP Ed Koch.
I knew at the end of the film when they follow me home that it’s hard for me to walk and I don’t look terrific from the back. I could have said I don’t want it. I didn’t do that. I knew exactly what [Mr. Barsky] was doing and it wasn’t something that I liked. I said nothing.
When, in 2010, the Queensboro Bridge was officially renamed the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, the City Council debate focused, at least for a few minutes, on the former mayor’s status as a New Yorker. The moment is recalled in Koch, Neil Barsky’s documentary. “Ed Koch is the consummate New Yorker,” declares council member Lewis Fidler in footage of the debate. “He tells it like it is, he calls it the way he sees it, and he knows a wacko when he sees one, as well.”
Here the camera pulls out and back to Charles Barron, who stands up from his seat near the front of the room, turning to look at his colleagues. “Y’all got to be kidding,” he says. “This is not the Ed Koch the black community knows. It’s the Ed Koch that every time he asked for something, he said, I will not be intimidated and then he asked the rest of you, ‘How’m I doing?’” Here he gestures back at the room, concluding, “It was a tale of two cities. Ed Koch was our nemesis.”
Here, in two minutes, Koch lays out the essential dilemma of Ed Koch. As much as he inspired, he also offended, as his three terms as mayor—the film’s focus—were defined as much by controversies as by achievements. Repeatedly, he’s identified with the city and just as often, reproved for his decisions and his disposition. “Here was a guy who really represented the rough and tumble of New York,” observes Calvin Butts, “and he was just haunted and damned by one hell of a personality.”
Screening on 29 January at Stranger Than Fiction, Koch cuts back and forth between then and now. At 86, he maintains an active public life (stumping for Assembly people, opining on current events, even writing about movies) as well as a healthy self-regard. Now and back in the day, he is at once exceedingly public and intensely private, depending on the question before him. He brings the camera crew into his apartment, where e shows off his bottle of pills and notes he’s survived a number of maladies, including a stroke, a heart attack, and bypass surgery (“It ain’t bad for one guy,” he nods).
The film includes scene after scene from the ‘80s, showing Koch in midstride on the street, shaking hands, cajoling constituents. Today, Koch is helped down stairs by an aide, but as good at campaigning as ever, asking workers about their families, encouraging them to keep up the struggle. In the ‘80s, he hosted Saturday Night Live, and listened patiently to Eddie Murphy’s lengthy list of “what’s wrong with this city.” At around the same time, the film indicates, his administration was cracking down on porn and other mightily visible “decadence” in Times Square, even as he was criticized fro becoming a “pro-business mayor.” He explained it then as a strategic positioning, liberal on social issues while economically conservative. “He described himself as a liberal with sanity,” recalls journalist Sam Roberts.
Looking back on his career, Koch offers some insights and his own versions of apologies. “I made a mistake, a terrible mistake, which was very costly in terms of support, he says of closing down Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital in 1980. “And I’m sorry I did it. I should have given in to the same terror that the three mayors before me had given in and then there would have been no problem.” He laughs here, leaving open the question of how sorry he might be or what he might be sorry about, exactly.
Neither is he inclined to open up about a question that has followed him throughout his public life. The film features a section in which Ethan Geto observes that Koch generated “enormous frustration” over his rumored closeted-ness, coupled with feeble responses to AIDS (“We gave out over a million condoms in gay bars, we closed bathhouses,” Koch asserts, as if this is all they could do), but also early on signed anti-gay-discrimination legislation. Following, the filmmaker asks Koch essentially to come out, at which point, Koch says he disagrees with the premise that a public figure’s coming out is good in and of itself. “I’ve always taken the position, ” he says, “It’s none of your fucking business.”
This from a man who has made it his business to perform very publicly, to understand and embrace the drama of politics, as a means to effect change and also to wield power. Success, he says, is a function of “being bigger than life. It’s theatrics.” And so it is that Koch is using the film as another platform for his ongoing life performance, even as the film tells a story apart from his own version, a story that includes corruption (including his fights with Mario Cuomo, to whom he lost a gubernatorial contest and whose son Andrew he supported for governor (in a primary, he says, you have “feelings of anger, like a civil war, but it’s over”); his egregious handling of Yusef Hawkins’ murder in Bensonhurst, and the political aftermath; and his third term corruption scandals, including those associated with Parking Violations Bureau, exposed by Donald Manes’ initial suicide attempt and then his suicide, both in 1986).
If the list of such stories seems daunting, the “personality”, as Butts terms it, remains even more remarkable. He unfailingly works the camera: at a family gathering for Yom Kippur, he explains his position on the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy, ostensibly because he’s just come from giving a speech on the topic. Yes, he agrees, “They have a right and we have a right to protest and I protest.” That protest, he says, is based on the fact that 19 Muslims committed murder on 9/11. “That doesn’t mean that all of them are murderers,” he adds, “but a significant number of them support those murders.”
If the reasoning is suspect, the show is perpetual and repetitive. In assembling the pieces of his career and his thinking about it, the film offers another angle on that show. Asked whether he might run for mayor again, Ed Koch recalls the line he’s used before. “The people threw me out and now the people must be punished.” He laughs, “And people love that one. I still say it occasionally.”