The Ed Koch show
“I never doubted that I would be a good mayor,” said Ed Koch, with a self-satisfied smile. “I never did.”
It was Tuesday night, and the documentary “Koch,” written and directed by my old friend Neil Barsky, was having its premiere at the Museum of Modern Art. In his late 80s, the former New York mayor looked his age in the film, but he was still very sharp and quite funny — and as needy as he'd always been for public attention and approval. As Ed Koch matter-of-factly uttered those words, early in the movie, the audience, full of former staff aides, political loyalists and New York movers and shakers, chuckled knowingly. Throughout his political life, Koch's ego had never been far from the surface. It says here that his egotism is part of what made him a great mayor.
Koch had planned to be in the audience Tuesday night. He had cooperated fully with Barsky and had given a few interviews in the run-up to the premiere. He was clearly looking forward to basking in the spotlight again. But earlier that day he had been admitted to the hospital. By Friday, he was dead. Is it tasteless to say he couldn't have planned a better promotional campaign? Probably. But Koch himself would have laughed at the joke. Which was another thing about him: He was probably the last mayor of New York to have a sense of humor.
Like Koch, Barsky was born in the Bronx. A former Wall Street Journal reporter and hedge fund manager, he was in college when Koch was first elected mayor. About 10 years ago, he told me, he had driven around the South Bronx, an area he hadn't ventured into in decades. He was stunned to see, as he put it, that “I couldn't find any of the old burned-out buildings” that he recalled from the 1970s. “They had all been replaced with real housing.”
Affordable housing was a big part of Koch's legacy, Barsky realized; indeed, under Koch, the city spent $5 billion on housing, more than the next 50 American cities combined. The memory of that tour of the South Bronx stuck with him. When Barsky closed his hedge fund to become a filmmaker, Koch was an obvious subject.
Which is not to say the film is a big wet kiss. Yes, it gives plenty of credit where it is due: Koch's sound financial management brought the city back from the brink of bankruptcy. He helped New York regain its confidence. He took on the transit union. He began the process that led to the renewal of Times Square and other areas of the city. He reduced the rampant crime that had created such a climate of fear in New York.
But Barsky is also cleareyed about his foibles. Koch's lack of empathy. His contentious and at times ugly relationship with the black community. His slowness to react to the AIDS crisis. Barsky tackles the rumors that Koch was a closeted gay man, asking him point-blank about his sexuality. “None of your business,” replied Koch, in somewhat more pungent language. (Many gay activists are convinced that Koch didn't do more during the AIDS crisis because he was uncomfortable with his own sexuality. But the totality of Koch's record — he was a leader in pushing for gay rights — suggests otherwise, at least to me.)
What was most striking about “Koch,” however, was the extent to which, for Hizzoner, it was always about, well, Ed Koch. He needlessly picks fights, calling people “schmucks” and “idiots” when they disagreed with him. He takes actions designed to win him praise in the media. One of his former aides recalls him saying, after reading the paper, that nothing of note had happened that day. What he meant was that he wasn't mentioned. “How'm I doin'?” wasn't just a trademark phrase; it was an expression of a deep psychological need. On the other hand, if that is what drove him to spend $5 billion on new housing, who can complain?
A few days after the “Koch” premiere, I went to see “Fiorello!,” a 1959 musical about another great New York mayor, Fiorello H. LaGuardia, which is having a short run at City Center. LaGuardia was also an egotist, who loved “the people” more than he did people, who reformed city government yet who also had a profound need to be at the center of every orbit he entered.
Indeed, the same can largely be said of our current mayor, Michael Bloomberg, whose view of himself as a Great Man doing a Great Job is so ingrained that, according to The New York Times, he has tried to recruit someone he thinks has sufficient stature to succeed him.
New York's three greatest mayors were also three of its great egotists. It's no accident.
Joe Nocera is a columnist for The New York Times.