Koch New York’s mayor!
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Koch New York’s mayor!

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Ed Koch and Bess Meyerson ride the bus during the 1977 mayoral campaign.

Anyone who has ever met Ed Koch remembers the moment. The 88-year-old former New York City mayor is a large and unforgettable presence, whether you met him on the street, doing what he does best – politicking – or watched him give his opinion on something – Ed Koch always has an opinion.

Koch once attended a film screening about French Jews at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan. I was there too. From the audience, I watched as Koch, a very proud Jew, went on to rail for a full three minutes about how all French people are anti-Semitic.

Now, finally, a filmmaker has taken on New York’s three-time mayor – he served from 1978 to 1989 – and captured this larger-than-life man on film.

“Koch” is Wall Street Journal reporter and hedge fund manager Neil Barsky’s first film. He does a masterful job following the iconic mayor’s daily activities.

Koch almost never stops. Despite three hospitalizations this year, he does not like sitting idly by. He still stomps for candidates, and his political endorsements, never tied to one party or ideology, still carry a great deal of weight. In the last election, Koch supported Barack Obama, and Democratic Party operatives saw Jewish Florida voting heavily Democratic. A Koch endorsement still holds that kind of sway.

Barsky follows Koch around the city in order to provide a framework for his look back at a career that began with a failed run for State Assembly. He then shows how this little-known liberal congressman from Greenwich Village went on to wrestle with Mayor Abe Beame, Mario Cuomo, and three other well-established candidates, win the Democratic nomination, and become mayor. This was as New York City was on the edge of bankruptcy. Barsky looks at that fateful 1977 mayoral campaign, when accusations that Koch was gay almost put him out of contention. He shows how media guru David Garth brought in Bess Meyerson, the former Miss America, to join him on the campaign trail, often holding Koch’s hand, to mute the rumors and help him win.

Barsky amasses an amazing amount of footage to show us the combative figure who ferociously took on his critics, fought to keep New York solvent, and went to Washington to secure financial backing as President Ford indicated that the federal government would not bail out the city. One of the more interesting moments that the filmmaker inserts is the exchange between then U.S. Senate Banking Committee chairman William Proxmire and the combative mayor about why New York should or should not get assistance. Koch loves his city and he made sure that the senators at the hearing understood that the nation’s well-being was tied closely to New York’s health. As we know, the city got the aid it needed and emerged from the crisis a stronger, better, and more fiscally responsible entity.

If you love contemporary history and are fascinated by how one person can make a difference, then you will thoroughly enjoy this movie. Barsky treats his subject not simply as the city’s 1970s savior, which in many ways he was, but as the combative and feisty person who made and continues to make as many enemies as he does friends. This comes through clearly as we sit in on the 2011 New York City Council vote that was to determine whether the Queensborough Bridge was to be renamed the Ed Koch Bridge. The votes in favor are far from unanimous. Some cite betrayals, others scandals in Koch’s third term that reached the highest levels of his administration. Yet, all in all, this mayor comes out of each and every fight as an honest and decent person. He remains unusually blunt, a characteristic generally missing in today’s politics. Koch talks about his decision to finally close Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital. The facility cost the city millions of dollars each year, but previous administrations saw the move as politically not feasible. He laments the decision as having cost him dearly as a politician, but sees it as the right thing to have done at a time when the city was fighting serious financial woes.

One of the segments touches on the election of Andrew Cuomo as governor. At one point in the campaign, Koch, having endorsed him, joins the junior Cuomo on stage, the two sharing warm words in a show of solidarity. But the animus between Koch and the Cuomos, which dates back to Mario Cuomo’s defeat in the mayoral primary and Koch’s loss to Cuomo five years later in the gubernatorial primary, is clear. Barsky catches a classic Koch moment as the mayor, waiting at the hotel where the newly elected Cuomo is to speak on the eve of his 2010 election victory, is told that Cuomo will not receive him until after he has spoken. Koch, leaving the hall disgusted at what he sees as a rebuff, simply calls the newly elected governor a schmuck.

There are moments that baffle us but add to our understanding of this unique person. Why does this man, so comfortable as an American Jew, choose Trinity Church’s cemetery as his final resting place? With typical Kochian logic, he explains that he cannot fathom being buried anywhere but in Manhattan. To be buried in some gated and locked Jewish cemetery that nobody can reach? No. Etched on the memorial stone, already prepared and ready, are a Jewish star and the Shema. Also on the stone, borrowing the last words uttered by journalist Daniel Pearl just before he was murdered by terrorists in 2002, is this proud Jew’s epitaph: “My Father is Jewish. My Mother is Jewish. I am Jewish!”

The film ends with The Mayor standing at the entrance to the bridge that will now bear his name. Whatever you want to say about Ed Koch, he truly bridged the gap and again made New York the Big Apple, cultural capital of the world. Michael Bloomberg may run New York today, but Ed Koch will always be The Mayor. May he reign till 120!!!

“Koch” opens in New York today at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the Angelika Film Center.

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