Some people and some cities are fascinating because of their sheer audacity. You can put New York on that list ... and you'll find the "Koch" documentary fascinating. Most PBS stations will air it Monday (Sept. 22), on the first day of the TV season; here's the story I sent to papers:
By MIKE HUGHES
At times, a person and place seem to link neatly. That
includes Ed Koch and his city.
“New York is an in-your-face city,” Michael Powell said. As
a New York Times reporter, he will “often get the feeling that every New Yorker
has been waiting all his life to be asked to give a quote.”
And the late Koch – subject of a new PBS film – was the
extreme. Other mayors might be unavailable for comment; in New York, a newsman
coined the phrase: “Ed Koch was unavoidable for comment.”
He strolled the city, spouting his catchphrase, “How am I
doing?” He was also “hilariously funny,” said Diane Mulcahy Coffey, his
long-time chief of staff. “It was an adventure to work for him.”
That was the surface, but what about the substance of his 12
years in office?
New York “lost a million jobs in the 10 years before Koch
was mayor,” said Neil Barsky, director of the film. “The manufacturing base had
declined to nothing. People were fleeing …. It was very dreary.”
With the city teetering near bankruptcy, Koch made huge
cutbacks. When it could take out bonds again, Coffey said, he went in the other
direction. “He started his housing program for $5 billion. It’s a huge amount
of money …. That (shows) somebody who is daring and somebody who is bold.”
The steps started by Koch brought remarkable changes to the
Broadway district and the neighborhoods. A few years ago, Barsky decided to
show his daughter the city’s underside. “I remembered the rubble and
everything,” he said. “And we drove and we drove and we drove through the South
Bronx …. I couldn’t find it; it has all been rebuilt.”
But amid his frenetic dealings, Koch soon found himself
battling blacks and gays.
During his first campaign (in 1978), he had drawn black
support by vowing to preserve the Sydenham Hospital in Harlem. “Sydenham had
been a place that had hired black doctors when other hospitals wouldn’t,”
Powell said. “It was seen as a critical
part of the black community.”
Shortly after being elected, Koch closed it. That may have
been necessary, Powell said. Koch could have admitted the promise was a
mistake; instead, he attacked protestors. “That became a real weakness.”
Also in that first campaign, Koch – who never discussed his
sexuality – raged at signs that said: “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo.” For the
rest of the campaign, he and Bess Myerson, the former Miss America, gave the
impression of a romantic relationship. “We were never going to be lovers,” he
said in the film.
That may have been a harmless deception, but critics said
the problem went further: In denial about his own sexuality, Koch failed to
confront the AIDS crisis.
Powell takes a mixed view of that. “Virtually the entire
country was very slow,” he said. “And New York City caught up very quickly ….
His greatest failure in the AIDS crisis was his inability to convey empathy.”
This was a pioneer in banning discrimination toward gays,
Coffey said. Koch championed the common man. “He started with nothing; he was a
hat-check boy in Jersey” at 12.
He savored people but – when confronted by critics – struck
back. “He was a complicated cat,” Powell said” … and a match for a complicated
“POV: Koch,” 10 p.m. Monday, PBS (check local listings).
Filming was completed before Koch’s death at 88,
on Feb. 1, 2013.