How's He Doing: Ed Koch Stays in Spotlight Despite Health Woes

(Photo: Emily Epstein)

Photo: Emily Anne Epstein

Editor’s Note: Ed Koch, former mayor of New York City, has died. The New York Observer’s interview last week with the three-term mayor was among the last granted by Koch. It’s accompanied by photography that captured the over-sized spirit of a mayor who is credited with delivering New York from some of its darkest days.

Edward Koch, the outspoken 88-year-old ex-mayor, is in the hospital for the third time in the past five months, but he’s also in the place where he’s happiest—back in the spotlight. A new documentary, Koch, which tells the tale of his three terms in City Hall and his life after politics, arrives in theaters on Feb. 1.

Late last week, before swelling flared up in his ankles and fluid was found in his lungs again, Mr. Koch could be found in his Midtown office, surrounded by pictures from his days in city government, photos of his sister’s grandchildren—the closest thing the longtime bachelor has to a brood of his own—and other memorabilia. Though he has spent the past decade staying engaged in the political conversation by penning the occasional editorial, offering up endorsements and making regular appearances on NY1, Mr. Koch seemed well aware that health might soon force him to step back from the main stage. But on this day, he was as voluble as ever.

On hizzoner’s desk is a pile of “get well soon” letters, including one on official stationery from Congressman Charlie Rangel. In the event one of his next trips to the hospital ends up being a final journey, Mr. Koch has already purchased a headstone in Washington Heights. Though the epitaph, which he wrote for himself, notes he “was fiercely proud of his Jewish faith,” Mr. Koch will be buried at the Protestant Trinity Church. He says he did this to be sure he was on his beloved isle of Manhattan and, as he puts it in the documentary, to be in the center of a “bustling” cemetery.

(Emily Anne Epstein)

(Emily Anne Epstein)

Like the grave site, the film is also something of a capstone for Mr. Koch. He knows the movie may help define him for future generations, and he said he hopes it manages to capture what he sees as the key elements of his legacy, mainly that he played a crucial role in New York’s transformation from the crime-ridden, gritty ’70s and ’80s to the Disneyfication and gentrification of the past 20-odd years.

“I’m proud of what I did,” Mr. Koch explained. “I also believe that Giuliani, and particularly Mike Bloomberg, have made tremendous contributions to the city. I look upon what I did as laying the groundwork and the foundation on which they could build, and without what I did, they couldn’t have done what they did.”

Mr. Koch is also proud of bringing a more meritocratic approach to City Hall after years of patronage and favor-trading.

“If you can love the city that you live in and want to make it, as I did, once again the international capital of the world after it had fallen off the shelf, you can make people respect politicians,” he said. “It’s a good word; it’s not a dirty word.

“Regrettably,” he added, “there are too many people in office who have no conscience and who don’t serve the people and who have sold out. I think that one of my legacies is that I served for 12 years and I never sold out.”

While the documentary makes a convincing case for Mr. Koch’s role as a key player in the revitalization of New York, it also captures some of the controversial elements of his time in office and is clear-eyed about the financially troubled, racially divided city he governed.

(Emily Anne Epstein)

(Emily Anne Epstein)

“It’s my first film, but I know that great films are about great stories and great characters,” Koch director Neil Barsky explained. “The story of New York City in the ’80s; arson, grafitti, crack, AIDS. It’s a world that’s gone and … how did we move beyond that? That’s a great story, and Ed Koch is a great character.”

Despite Mr. Koch’s long love affair with the media, he has always drawn a clear line between his public and private lives. The former mayor has never been married and has long refused to discuss his personal life, despite persistent rumors that he is gay. This chatter reached a crescendo during the AIDS crisis, when activists accused Mr. Koch of avoiding dealing with the disease because of the stigma of homosexuality.

Mr. Barsky wasn’t able to break through the wall Mr. Koch has built around his private world, but he did manage to film the ex-mayor during a variety of intimate moments.

Mr. Koch, a prodigious film critic himself, who sends his reviews to readers via email blasts, cites one of the final scenes of the movie—a shot of him walking down a long hallway and into his house by himself—as proof that he participated in the film without holding back.

“I knew, when they were at the end of the film following me back to my apartment, that it was intended to show loneliness,” he said. “I’m 88, and I’m struggling to walk. It’s one of those pathetic scenes, and I could have said no, but it wouldn’t have been fair. [Mr. Barsky] thought it was important, and I was not going to prevent him.”

Mr. Koch also addressed criticisms of his time in office in the film. Though he admits the anger directed at him—including accusations of racial bias—was “painful,” Mr. Koch clearly relished even his encounters with enemies. A number of archival clips offer a reminder of his gleefully pugilistic political style.

“Who’s better?” Mr. Barsky asked. “Who was better in ’77 and who was better in 2007? That’s sort of a lost art, street politics.”

Mr. Koch said this scrappy approach helped him cope with the tense, tribal and divisive climate of 1980s New York. “I realized that 75 percent of all the attacks are simply theatrics, drama—fun in a way,” he said. “And it reduced the pain.”

Mr. Koch commends Mayor Bloomberg especially for easing the sharply divided political climate that has long persisted in the city. “I believe that Bloomberg deserves the credit for having reduced the tensions,” he said. “There are no racial tensions in town any more. It’s marvelous.”

As for the rumors surrounding his sex life, the film does not gloss over them, but Mr. Koch maintained his refusal to discuss personal issues.

“How you discuss your private life is your private affair,” he told The Observer. “I’ve made clear my position. I think asking anyone running for political office a whole host of questions on the environment, so forth, that’s legitimate. Adding the question, ‘Are you straight or gay?’ is illegitimate. When you respond saying. ‘No, I’m not gay,’ or ‘I’m straight,’ or whatever … you give license to people to add that question to their questionnaire.”

This issue has new relevance this year, what with openly gay Council Speaker Christine Quinn becoming one of the leading contenders in the mayor’s race. Asked whether Ms. Quinn’s prominence is evidence that times have changed, he said there was still a long way to go.

“There are only 20 states out of 50 that have laws that say you can’t discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation,” Mr. Koch pointed out. “So, you can’t say, and I don’t think that she would say, that there’s no problem for people.”

(Emily Anne Epstein)

(Emily Anne Epstein)

Still, Ms. Quinn has his endorsement. He thinks she’s the best-qualified candidate to continue the city’s renaissance.

“I’m extremely nervous,” he said. “I was delighted to see that she was so way ahead in the most recent poll compared with the others. But those are early polls—they mean very little. Anything can happen.”

Though he declined to delve into the specifics of his disagreements with Ms. Quinn’s opponents, Mr. Koch noted that he was especially concerned about how the various hopefuls would handle local unions.

“I worry whether any of the candidates, including mine, will be strong enough to stand up to the municipal unions that are so strong, so murderously strong,” Mr. Koch said. “Basically, the reason I am for Christine is I believe she is the one who has the desire, the philosophical bent to stand up to the unions to a far greater extent than the others.”

And Mr. Koch’s endorsements still carry weight with a specific segment of the public, especially when unexpected (see, for example, George W Bush, 2004, and Bob Turner, 2011).

Mr. Koch has also weighed in on elections outside the five boroughs, and he wants to make his opinion on the next presidential election clear as well. Mr. Barsky’s documentary captures Mr. Koch’s evolving relationship with New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who’s widely seen as a potential 2016 presidential contender. Although Mr. Koch had a heated political rivalry with Mr. Cuomo’s father, Mario Cuomo, he gave the younger Mr. Cuomo his endorsement in 2006 and 2010.

(Emily Anne Epstein)

(Emily Anne Epstein)

Near the end of Mr. Barsky’s documentary, we see Mr. Koch dub Mr. Cuomo a “schmuck” upon his ascent to the governor’s mansion, because he didn’t make time to see the former mayor at his election-night party. The sting seems to have worn off: Mr. Koch said Mr. Cuomo has done a “marvelous job” in Albany and would certainly have his support if he runs for re-election.

However, if Mr. Cuomo makes a White House bid, Mr. Koch’s backing is not a sure thing. He’s already promoting a Hillary Clinton administration.

“If she would run, I would support her without question,” Mr. Koch said, grinning and pointing to an autographed photo of him standing next to Ms. Clinton on the night she was elected to the Senate in 2000. “That picture appeared in Time magazine,” he recalled. “As she goes up the stairs and I’m right behind her, she says, ‘Stick close to me, I want you in the picture.’ And I’m in the picture.”

Thanks to Mr. Barsky, hizzoner is in the picture yet again. Let’s hope he remains there for years to come.