Dead at 88 on the day Neil Barsky’s Koch, an entertaining documentary on his life, opens in New York City, former mayor Ed Koch got to watch himself on the big screen visiting his own future grave, for which he had written a fulsome epitaph. It is not “How’d I do?” but something along the lines of how much he loved his city and his country. His definition of love was different from others’. Many gays I know — the ones who in the eighties watched people they loved die of AIDS while the closeted mayor did little to assist them in their plight — have expressed a desire not just to dance on that grave but also to build a dance club. The movie, however, might soften that anger. Barsky makes Koch’s arrogance so plain that you quickly move past it and concede — along with some of the mayor’s most obstinate critics — that he did many remarkable and enduring things.
Barsky begins with the elderly Koch’s account of flying into New York as mayor and thinking, All this is mine. He was unself-conscious about his world-class narcissism, you have to give him that. In some respects, it’s astounding that Koch was such a successful politician. In footage both old and new, he’s seen refusing to engage at any length with people who disagree with him, dismissing them airily in ways that leave them open-mouthed. The problem is not that he substitutes “How’m I doing?” for “How’re you doing?” It’s that he doesn’t give a damn how they answer.
Barsky cuts back and forth between Koch at the end of his life and Koch the rising — and risen — pol. He doesn’t varnish Koch’s shift rightward in 1978 against mayoral opponents like Mario Cuomo. But he does make you sympathize with Koch’s 1978 beard-and-pony show, in which he held hands with Bess Myerson, the first Jewish Miss America, and broadly hinted at a marriage announcement after the election. Flyers reading “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo” had been plastered all over the place, and political consultant David Garth knew his business. You might even admire the way Koch reached out to machine politicians like Meade Esposito and, most notoriously, Donald Manes, setting the stage for the seemingly endless corruption scandals of his third term. The city was in peril, and he knew he had the moxie to command attention.
It wasn’t Koch’s fault that New York was broke, that incoming president Ronald Reagan slashed aid to the poor and flooded the streets with the homeless mentally ill, that a mysterious illness — a “gay plague” — appeared seemingly from nowhere and quickly killed thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers, that a new, smokable form of cocaine had devastatingly addictive properties that would ravage entire communities. The man Barsky shows us isn’t graceful — but he’s not, like his predecessors, an empty suit or a well-meaning nonentity. Even Koch’s most obstinate critic, former Village Voice reporter Wayne Barrett, testifies to the mayor’s unprecedented overhaul of a crumbling and depleted housing stock.
Barsky poses the right questions to Koch but doesn’t bother asking them a second, third, or fourth time. He knows there are places the man won’t — or can’t — go. Bess Myerson was Koch’s good friend, and there was never anything more! Whether he’s gay or not is no one’s damn business! It would have been easier to cave in to pressure from the African-American community — maybe he should have — but he stuck to his principles! Blah blah blah. Koch isn’t about to concede anything. The film opens and closes on the legislative battle over whether to affix the mayor’s name to the Queensboro Bridge — an ironic legacy for a man who seemed almost proud to blow up bridges between blacks and whites, gays and straights.
Whatever your view of its subject, Koch makes for a vital piece of New York history. It’s a canny balancing act. Watching the octogenarian mayor as he’s snubbed by Andrew Cuomo and heckled by bystanders while campaigning for sundry New York pols, you see how much strength — as well as egotism — is required to shrug off the insults and move on. Time isn’t kind to empathy-challenged exhibitionists, who have to spend more and more of it with only themselves for company. Koch’s death is foretold in Koch — and by its end, you want him to go out with a measure of dignity. Did he hang around to read his last reviews? My guess is he wouldn’t have missed them.