Banter With the Beast

01.11.13

Ed Koch at 88: New York’s Still-Outspoken Ex-Mayor Holds No Grudges

Hizzoner is old now, and says he doesn’t have the energy to carry a grudge. But he still has the cojones to speak his mind: Thomas Freidman is a ‘pompous ass.’ Chuck Schumer is a lot of talk. Giuliani’s ‘a little crazy.’ Lloyd Grove takes it all in.

Even before he was an old man—a condition that tends to loosen the tongues of even the most circumspect of diplomats—Edward Irving Koch had a mouth on him.

Now that he is 88, New York’s former three-term mayor—the star of Koch, a rollicking, warts-and-all documentary premiering this weekend at the New York Jewish Film Festival—has nothing holding him back.

“I think he’s a pompous ass,” Koch tells me about New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

“If I were running against Chuck Schumer,” he says about New York’s publicity-un-shy senior senator, “I would take every one of his Sunday press releases—and there are 52 for as many years as he’s been there—and I would ask, ‘How many of the things he said he was proposing became law?’ I doubt many.”

Koch is downright dismissive of Schumer’s junior colleague, Kirsten Gillibrand, an upstate congresswoman when she was appointed in 2009 to the Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton.

“Wouldn’t you be?” Koch demands. “I called her the luckiest woman in the world. And I like her.”

But concerning a certain former vice president, “I don’t happen to like Al Gore,” Koch confides. He had supported the then Tennessee senator for president during the 1988 New York Democratic primary, when Koch remarked that, “Jews would have to be crazy to vote for Jesse Jackson,” one of Gore’s opponents. “I spoke for Gore on television. When he came into town he had 4 percent of the vote; when he left, he had 7. Behind my back, he apologized for my behavior to Jesse Jackson, which I didn’t think was very nice.”

Video screenshot

Remembering Ed Koch: a short video tribute to New York City's mayor.

Koch claims to consider Rudy Giuliani “a good mayor” and “a very charming guy” (never mind that he once published a book titled Giuliani: Nasty Man), but he can’t resist adding: “He alienated an enormous number of people, because it was ‘my way or the highway.’ If you listen to Giuliani, it’s like nobody did anything to improve the city except him. I’m not part of the history. Bloomberg’s not part of the history. It’s like, he did it. He’s the only one. That’s why he’s a little crazy.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, meanwhile, is sometimes a real “schmuck.”

As Koch unloads on all and sundry, he is breezy, even cheerful—a frail, bald-pated but nattily dressed figure ensconced behind a paper-strewn desk in his 37th floor, memento-festooned corner office at the Bryan Cave law firm. Hizzoner wants the world to know he’s not bitter. Far from it!

“There’s enormous energy required to carry grudges—enormous energy!” he says. “And I’m getting too old to expend my energy that way, ’cause I think every person has a limited amount of energy. So I have given up all grudges.”

“My brain is good, but my body is deteriorating. I probably have another two or three years. Or I can pass tomorrow, but it doesn't make a difference to me.”

Take, for instance, his longtime grudge against Andrew Cuomo, who was all of 19 when he was managing his father Mario’s primary campaign against Koch in the 1977 mayor’s race, and the city was suddenly papered with posters playing on rumors about the bachelor Koch’s sexual orientation. “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo,” the anonymous posters urged.

Koch—and most everyone else, for that matter—suspected his Democratic rival and especially young Andrew of the dirty deed. Koch’s political strategist, David Garth, combated the rumors by having his candidate endlessly smooch and hold hands for the cameras with Bess Myerson, the former Miss America and television personality whom the mayor later appointed the city’s commissioner of cultural affairs.

“I always blamed both Mario and Andrew for putting it up or having the placard put up,” Koch says. “Andrew came to see me when he was running for attorney general ... He said ‘I had nothing to do with it.’ Well, it’s difficult to accept, but I accept it. He said it, I accept it. I don’t have proof to the contrary.”

Koch—who lost the 1982 gubernatorial primary to Mario, largely because he couldn’t control his tongue and insulted entire regions of the Empire State as “sterile”—magnanimously endorsed Mario’s son for governor in 2010 at a full-dress press conference. There’s a scene in the movie in which Koch shows up at the Sixth Avenue Sheraton for the election-night victory party, only to be told that the governor-elect isn’t receiving visitors.

“And I say ‘What a schmuck!’ ” Koch tells me. “I meant it. Personally, you have to understand, it’s not easy for me—easier then than now—to do long walks. These hotels are long walks. So for me to have decided to pay my respects and be told he’s not letting anybody come in, I was affronted.”

The movie, capably directed by hedge-fund manager turned filmmaker Neil Barsky, is hardly a hagiography; some of it is pretty tough, focusing on Koch’s egomania, opportunism, and craving for the spotlight—“How am I doin’?” he famously asked anybody and everybody—and chronicling his 12 years in office that began with dynamism and bright promise and ultimately lost steam amid scandal and emotional depression.

“I liked it. I’ve seen it twice, and I liked it even better the second time,” says Koch, who, when not fulfilling his law firm–partnership duties, writes a weekly column, hosts a Friday-night radio show, occasionally lectures, and has reviewed movies online and for Shalom TV.

“It’s not a movie simply about me; it’s a movie about New York City at a particular moment in time,” he says. “When I came in, the city was on the edge of bankruptcy. I’m proud of what I did. I built the foundation that mayors after me built upon—particularly Bloomberg. But the foundation was essential because if it hadn’t occurred, we would have been another Detroit.”

Koch was “heartbroken,” he says, and even suffered a minor stroke, after it transpired in the middle of his third term that several of his close political allies were involved in graft, extortion and bribery. His friend, Queens Borough President Donald Manes, was implicated and pursued by Giuliani, then the U.S. attorney, and ended up committing suicide in a particularly grisly fashion, plunging a kitchen knife into his own heart.

“It put me into a state of depression,” Koch tells me. “I came out of it when John Cardinal O’Connor called me. We were very good friends. He said, ‘Ed, I know you’re depressed. You don’t have to be. Everybody knows you’re an honest man.’ I said, ‘Your Eminence, you don’t know how much this means to me.’ And he said, ‘Oh no, it’s nothing.’ And I said, ‘No, Your Eminence, the Lubavitcher Rebbe didn’t call me, you called me, and I’m very grateful.’ From that point on, I got better.”

Koch, who has always been blessedly bashful about his sex life, arguing quite reasonably that “it’s nobody’s fucking business,” regularly clashed with gay activists even as he enacted regulations and laws to protect homosexuals from discrimination in private and public employment and housing. During the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, the Koch administration distributed a million free condoms and shut down gay bath houses that didn’t require their use.

“So nobody can accuse me of running away from gays because I was afraid they’d think I was gay,” Koch says, though that never helped his standing with AIDS activist Larry Kramer, whose play The Normal Heart assails Koch for alleged apathy. “What’s interesting is Kramer lives in my apartment building,” Koch says. “The first time I met him, I didn’t know who he was. He had a marvelous-looking dog. An Irish Wheaten. And I said, ‘That’s a marvelous-looking dog.’ He looks at me, and then I realize it’s Larry Kramer. He says to the dog, ‘Molly, don’t talk to that man!’ I think to myself, ‘This is a crazy!’”

Koch continues: “In his play, the character that’s supposed to be Kramer says he tried to get his gay friends who were dying to stop having sex—any sex—and that Koch, who was so popular, if he told them not to have sex, they would stop having sex. I say to myself, this guy is a meshuggeneh. You’re going to tell people in the prime of life they should stop having sex? I told them to have safer sex using a condom. Kramer blames me for their continuing to have sex. What are you gonna do with such a person?”

A combat-toughened survivor of World War II—“I shot at people, they shot at me,” Koch says of his 18 months in northern France and the Rhineland—Koch was certainly steeled for the rough-and-tumble of New York politics. Given his well-deserved reputation for immodesty, it’s notable that Koch didn’t highlight his wartime service during his campaigns for Congress (to which he was elected five times) or for mayor. “I don’t think most veterans do that,” he says. “Some do, but most veterans that I know don’t talk about their experiences except to other veterans. It’s kind of painful … I was a kid. I was drafted into the Army when I was 19 and came out at age 22. Most people that I knew didn’t think they’d come home alive. I didn’t think I would either, so I was happy when I did.”

Leaving nothing to chance, Koch has spent $20,000 on a gravesite, and another $25,000 on an elaborate marble tombstone, inscribed with the Sh’ma, the Jewish prayer, in the nondenominational Trinity Cemetery in upper Manhattan. “I want to be in Manhattan when I die. I would like it if people visited,” says Koch, adding that he’s not particularly religious, but he believes in God and the afterlife. He’s ready.

“My brain is good, but my body is deteriorating,” he says. “I probably have another two or three years. Or I can pass tomorrow, but it doesn’t make a difference to me.”