NYC’s most enduring character, closeted Mayor Ed, sings his swan song
There’s an old line that politics is for people too ugly to make it in the movies. If that’s true, Ed Koch was a born politician: He had a face like a turkey buzzard and looked, when walking down the street, like an unmade bed. Before the era of pretty-boy politics, Koch was the everyman, nattering away with that Bronx whine, cackling his call-line “How’m I doin’?” like a motion-sensor door to anyone who passed. He was the “Give ’em Hell, Harry” of the 1970s New York governmachine, talkin’ tough and being proudly abrasive.
Only not everybody was charmed. The blacks hated him, and eventually, the gays. He was a craven opportunist in the most detestable way: The way that pits segments of society against each other so he could swoop in and seem like the Great Problem Solver … even though, as likely as not, he helped create the problems.
He’s been ripe for a documentary even before he died earlier this year at 88, an old-school politico who could still teach the new breed a thing or two about tactics (his war stories alone should be worthy of Sun Tzu).
Koch, Neil Barsky’s documentary about the quintessential Noo Yawk character, profiles Da Mayor, who combined theatrics, social liberalism and fiscal conservatism with a can-do, Machiavellian “what’s achievable” attitude — and maybe invented the modern political scene.
Koch was always aware that he was playing “a role” — that of the hard-scrabble chief executive of the Big Apple — and he didn’t always play it right, but with conviction. “I give as good as I get” was his strategic philosophy. Of course, it served him well until it didn’t anymore.
What he demonstrated, though, was tremendous political will, even though it occasioned strange bedfellows (his arch-nemeses, the Cuomos, eventually became useful allies). Koch was always, until the end, dodgy about his sexuality. In his 1977 campaign, his consultant faked a lavender love affair with popular former Miss America Bess Meyerson to fool voters into not believing the rumors. (Koch himself later admitted it was all a ruse. “We were never going to be married, and we were never going to be lovers,” Koch said in an interview conducted for the film.)
Koch sometimes comes off as a bit scattershot, with Barsky favoring a more-or-less chronological history rather than profiling Koch from the standpoint of themes or characteristics. It only suggests how Ed went from being a celebrity (he even had a best-selling memoir called simply Mayor) to celebrated as an elder statesman of New York politics. But love him or hate him, Koch lingers on the political palate like a bitter almond or a sour-apple candy: Pungent, memorable, remarkable … and ultimately hard to resist.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 17, 2013.