Edward I. Koch died on Feb. 1, 2013, the day Neil Barsky’s documentary Koch premiered beyond the festival circuit. Talk about timing. The mayor, whose iconic presence is embedded in the political landscape and cultural firmament of the Big Apple, lived long enough to see and bask a bit in the early screenings and Q&A opportunities. Besides his life in politics (both as an elected official — U.S. Congressman from 1969 to 1977 and then a three-term mayor from 1978 to 1989 — and as a political commentator and would-be kingmaker, whose endorsements were actively sought by state and national candidates of each major party), Koch was also a film critic.
That’s right, Koch was a film critic, which makes me want to use his trademark line.
“How’m I doing?”
Ed Koch might have been the toughest nut to crack as a subject and even more so as a man. Coming away from the documentary, it could be argued that he was the most private and complex public figure the modern age has ever known.
He embodied everything, seemingly every single trait we associate with The City — the brash and blunt plain-speak, the heart-on-his sleeve love for the five boroughs and their people, the willingness to fight and survive no matter the costs or the odds — and he did so for all the world to see. He took his critical lumps, gave his fair share and somehow appeared able to outlive and/or outlast his detractors.
Koch charts his days as a Congressman preparing for his first mayoral run and offers a glimpse of the toughening of his political skin. New York and its citizens find themselves reeling from blackouts and rampant crime (living in fear during the Summer of Sam) and there’s Koch riding the subways, walking the streets, glad-handing his way into the consciousness of each and every voter he encounters. Facing off against his nemesis Mario Cuomo (soon-to-be a legendary political persona in his own right as governor), the initial rumors regarding his sexual orientation surface. Although he shrewdly deflects attention without ever making a direct statement, Koch takes on the first of several grudges that he would bear throughout his career.
Yet, in that moment, we also come to appreciate a lifelong lesson he embraced as well. It was in this instance that Koch began to realize the importance of the performance aspect (putting on a good show) of politics, but sometimes it was obvious that he let his performances spin a bit out of control, which could lead to negative responses to that trademark line of his.
“How’m I doing?”
It is a great question in that it can disarm and Koch definitely used it to knock people off their game a bit, but it also begs for critical response. Which makes you wonder, why on earth would a politician dare to ask this kind of question?
The film provides an answer of sorts. Barsky takes us on this journey, but he finds ways to lock us into each and every step along the way, which is quite a feat considering we know the outcome. The effect, though, a crafty one at that, is to keep us focused on the immediate issue and situation rather than the long view.
But as mayor, what makes Koch “The Mayor” is his legacy. When he arrived on the scene, Times Square was a tawdry cesspool of decaying buildings and X-rated movie houses. Crime thrived in the murk and the mire. Homelessness reached epidemic levels.
The idea of proclaiming “Mayor Koch to the rescue” over-simplifies what happened. Long fights ensued over the plans. Constituencies rose up against him, groups and interests that should have, and in other situations could have, been allies sought to sabotage his vision. Seeing him, decades later driving through the city past the new Times Square with its business-minded focus and the tax revenue from those developments that has covered (and likely continues to) social programs and housing initiatives, is to marvel at the resilience that it takes to dig in your heels despite overwhelming resistance.
And maybe it is this quality above all others that defines what it means to be an icon in the political sphere. It is not just being remembered. It is about the work and dedication that creates an impact worth remembering in the first place. There’s a generation of politicians roaming the earth right now, like the dinosaurs on their way out, that understand this lesson, but it makes me wonder if the generation to follow will appreciate the Koch model.
It is highly unlikely that they will ever care to ask how we think they’re doing. (NR) Grade: A
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