Koch Counsels the Aging, Stays Young by Getting Even

I’m Not Done Yet! Keeping at It, Remaining Relevant, and Having the Time of My Life , by Edward I. Koch, with Daniel Paisner. William Morrow & Company, 196 pages, $23.

Back in the old days-back before City Hall Park was surrounded by an iron fence, back when average New Yorkers were allowed to congregate on the marble steps and even to venture into the building-there was the Bird Man. Every reporter, cop, City Council flunky and Mayoral assistant knew him. The Bird Man would take his place at City Hall’s steps sometime in the afternoon, warble a selection of bird calls, then leave. No one tried to arrest him. No one had him committed. Cops, reporters, flunkies and assistants would pass by, nod or even stop to chat.

This was back when Edward I. Koch was Mayor of the City of New York, those 12 years from 1978 to 1990 when a Bird Man warbling outside of City Hall didn’t seem at all unusual. Virtually every day there were demonstrations, press conferences, rallies, even performances in front of the building. City Hall wasn’t just a place reserved for the occasional Yankees victory rally (ticket-holders only) or small, pre-approved demonstrations (by judge’s order or permit). It was a running vaudeville show, complete with clowns and showmen. Most importantly, it was a place where New Yorkers could congregate, air their grievances, horn in on an ambitious City Council member’s press conference, meet with a reporter, even take in an earful of East Harlem salsa or East Flatbush steel drums.

City Hall was a noisy place, and loudest of all was the irrepressible mayor, Ed Koch.

Rudy Giuliani, you are no Ed Koch. (I say this with all due respect for the sitting Mayor, who has accomplished great things in this city.)

When Mr. Koch captured 50 percent of the vote in the Nov. 8, 1977, election over Mario Cuomo’s 42 percent, he was ecstatic about the possibilities of being Mayor. New York journalists Arthur Browne, Dan Collins and Michael Goodwin, authors of the unauthorized biography, I, Koch (1985), quote Mr. Koch’s old law partner, Allen Schwartz, on the new Mayor-elect’s first thoughts: “Ed Koch wanted to bring New York City back. He wanted to make it like it was. Like one person was going to make it all different. He was not going to follow the paths of his predecessors. His perception was that they took the easy way out, the shortcuts. He would not. He was going to take on everyone who had to be dealt with, from the labor leaders to the financial community to the real estate community. His appointments were going to be the best. He was going to deal with the problems, all the problems.”

Twelve years later, when the people threw him out of office, as he likes to put it, Mr. Koch had given it all he had. He had revived the spirits of the sagging city, shone a light on its vast possibilities, reformed its judicial selection process and launched a massive rebuilding program in the South Bronx (“bigger than the pyramids,” he used to say), but never cracked the entrenched interests that had left the city wounded and sore.

It took Rudy Giuliani, two mayors later, to accomplish much of that. In the process, we lost an open, accessible government. Even the Bird Man is gone.

But we still have Ed Koch.

Since leaving office, he has averaged nine jobs at a time-a dozen seems to be his limit. And, as he points out repeatedly in his aptly titled new book, he’s “not done yet!”

Thank goodness. Many of the jobs he has held since he was defeated 10 years ago by David Dinkins are in media: radio show host, newspaper columnist, author. (He has published 12 books in one decade.) He uses his bully pulpit to pound away at the man who succeeded, where Mr. Koch had failed, in fulfilling his lofty, nouveau -mayor goals.

I’m Not Done Yet! is an impractical guide-ludicrous, at times-to growing old. How to stay relevant! How to plan for your future! How to deal with money, health problems, diet, exercise, social life, in your post-working years! And hold down a dozen jobs! (“You know, it’s funny, but I’ve never fully imagined how my career will slow down, or when.”)

But there’s only one Ed Koch. Not many of us are going to need advice on how to bounce back after losing a nationally syndicated television gig as the sitting judge on The People’s Court -not to mention the $1 million-a-year salary that went with it. Not many of us can call on the best doctors in the city, upon the skip of a heartbeat, and get a small army of cops, firefighters and paramedics to respond to a morning-rush-hour 911 call.

Worried about where to go each day, when you no longer have a steady, fulfilling job? Not many of us can turn to old buddies at age 65 and parlay 20-plus years in politics into a well-paying, non-working partnership, complete with office and assistant, in a Manhattan law firm.

Mr. Koch offers advice: Don’t give up! Seek out opportunities! Be open to new ideas! It will keep you young.

So true, Mr. Koch. But isn’t there something else that keeps you going? (Mr. Koch turned 75 on Dec. 12.)

In I, Koch , that unauthorized biography, Harrison (Jay) Goldin, the former city comptroller, remembered Mr. Koch telling him, during a long car ride in China, “stories about slights he had suffered and relishing how that, as Mayor, he was finding opportunities to retaliate against these people one by one. It was a very long ride, and he kept saying how this one had done that, and how he had managed to get back. Finally, he looked at me and said, ‘But of course, you understand that the most important thing in life is getting even.'”

But of course! That’s the secret! So why, in I’m Not Done Yet! , doesn’t he just come out and say so?

Sure enough, it’s there, in the tales he tells about the Rev. Al Sharpton, whom Mr. Koch once had arrested at City Hall but who recently has become his unlikely ally. (Mr. Koch makes sure to remind Mr. Sharpton how indebted he should be to Mr. Koch for legitimizing him.) It’s there in Mr. Koch’s contempt for “one of the most acclaimed lawyers in the city” who goaded him into taking on Mayor Giuliani, but was too wimpy to speak out himself (“I said to myself, ‘You prick!'”). It’s there in his tales about Mr. Giuliani, and in his (correct) analysis of the Mayor’s closed government. He airs again, after untold number of words in his columns (which he turned into book No. 11, Giuliani, Nasty Man , also aptly titled), his complaints about Mr. Giuliani’s decision to remove from City Hall’s public Blue Room the official portraits of Edward I. Koch and David Dinkins. And it’s there in the story of how a police officer at Mr. Giuliani’s City Hall later denied Mr. Koch access to the Blue Room (where as Mayor he had once conducted hundreds of news conferences) without an official escort from the Mayor’s repressive press office. “I mention these related stories,” Mr. Koch writes, “because they take us back to the underlying theme of this book: remaining relevant.”

Right.

There are moments of poignancy: Mr. Koch’s description of his own father, goaded into early retirement and feeling lost and lonely until Mr. Koch, then a member of Congress, helped him get a job in the fur summer storage vault at Bloomingdale’s.

Mr. Koch also comes as close as he ever has to revealing his sexuality: He writes his own obituary and confesses his sadness at growing old with no companion and no heirs to whom he can leave his (now vast) fortune. “Let me be brutally frank,” he writes. “It’s a lonely thing, to grow old alone. It’s a lonely thing to take your dinners alone, more often than not.” And later: “I’m well aware of the occasional speculation regarding my sexual orientation, but it doesn’t matter to me whether people think I’m straight or gay. Those who seek to ‘out’ people who may or may not be gay can be described as comparable to the Jew catchers of Nazi Germany. The point I mean to make here is that I’m alone.”

But Ed Koch has Ed Koch, a fascinating life companion, fueled by revenge, and protected by a blanket of self-absorption.

Warble on, Mr. Koch!