Burnishing the Big Apple

New York’s feisty mayor gets rave reviews for boosting morale and balancing the books

Rita Christopher August 10 1981

Burnishing the Big Apple

New York’s feisty mayor gets rave reviews for boosting morale and balancing the books

Rita Christopher August 10 1981

Burnishing the Big Apple


New York’s feisty mayor gets rave reviews for boosting morale and balancing the books

Rita Christopher

It’s undoubtedly the best show in Manhattan, a hit that has lasted longer than such staples as Evita and Sugar Babies. New York drama critic Clive Barnes, usually a hard man to please, proclaimed the performance “terrific” and the Daily News, abandoning its usual four-star top rating, jokingly ranked it somewhere around 6½ stars. Best of all, you don’t have to wait in endless lines for an overpriced Broadway ticket. His Honor’s Cabaret, starring Mayor Edward Irving Koch, plays daily from city hall and every night on the evening news. The show has even scored some notable international successes, thanks to an obliging Egyptian camel who hoisted the mayor up in front of the Pyramids. Koch did the honors by himself on his tour of China when he hugged the mayor of Peking in front of appreciative photographers.

Surprisingly, good theatre has also proven to be good government. Few of New York’s recent mayors have been able to use the theatre of politics so effectively. Tall, handsome John Lindsay, mayor of New York from 1965 to 1973 (of whom it was scornfully said, “If you elect a matinee idol mayor, you get a musical comedy administration”), could never shake the image of a political lightweight. No one could mistake the balding, paunchy 56-year-old Ed Koch for a matinee idol. But if Lindsay was the man for the ’60s, spending the city on its way to near ruin, then Koch, a liberal-turned-fiscal-conservative, is the man for the ’80s. In a city where 7 (/2 million people often seem to have 7Y2 million different opinions, the feisty combative mayor is overwhelmingly popular, and will probably be the first mayoral candidate to win both Republican and Democratic party nominations in his bid for re-election this fall. In his four years in office, Koch has burnished the image of the Big Apple so that politicians who once pointed to New York as the epitome of urban decay, now speak glowingly of its renaissance.

New York teetered at the edge of bankruptcy in 1975, its budget hopelessly out of control; its credit rating so disastrous that it could not even sell its own bonds.

Six years later New York has definitely turned the corner in its struggle toward fiscal recovery. The city has returned to the bond market, an accomplishment due in no small part to Koch’s outspoken ability to veto expenditures that, whether for political gain or social concern, his predecessors had not dared refuse. More important, Koch has balanced New York’s once-unmanageable budget a year ahead of the date originally stipulated as part of the deal that brought the city federal loan guarantees during its darkest days.

As Koch campaigns for almost certain re-election in November, he will undoubtedly be reminding New Yorkers of his fiscal accomplishments, while relishing the opportunity to display the virtuoso wit that has already guaran-

teed him a permanent place of honor in the Fast-Lipped Hall of Fame. When criticized about New York’s off-shore garbage dumping, for example, he responded: “Where am I going to put it? Am I going to take it home with me a night?” He dismissed his diminutive (five-foot two-inch) predecessor, Abraham D. Beame, with a wilting “I think the job was a little over his head.” At the opening of a shopping centre in Brooklyn, someone in the crowd shouted “We want Lindsay.” Koch asked how many people preferred former mayor Lindsay. A few hands went up. Koch cupped his own hands over his mouth and bellowed, “Dummies!” Koch, of course, is no dummy, as he showed when photographers asked him to pose with a live Bengal tiger. “No,” the

mayor shot back, the mayor of New York is not a coward—but the mayor of New York is not a schmuck.”

Schmuck. A Yiddish word that translates loosely as jerk. It’s only part of an arsenal that Koch deploys with such frequency that it sometimes seems he is single-handedly trying to revive a dying language. Other mayoral favorites include megillah for big fuss, Tsimmes for mix-up and meshugge for crazy, along with such classic English-Yiddish phrases as hok him a chainik for drive him crazy. Not since Fiorello H. La Guardia, who presided over the city from 1934 to 1945, has a mayor made such political capital out of his ethnic roots. (It’s no coincidence that Koch calls La Guardia “the standard” by which all modern New York mayors must measure themselves.) During his inauguration as New York’s 105th mayor four years ago, Koch, giving his own version of colonial history, turned to Beame, the city’s first Jewish mayor, and observed: “You know, the first mayor didn’t want to let us in. They wanted to send us, a group of Jewish immigrants, back to Brazil. Did you know that? He must be turning over in his grave.”

The obvious joy Koch takes in his own origins has helped to turn the onceunpopular image of the fast-talking city slicker into something of a folk hero in parts of the country where New York and New Yorkers are usually regarded with disdain if not outright loathing. More important, particularly in an election year, Koch’s up-front ethnicity appeals to other strong ethnic voting blocs, notably the city’s Irish and Italian population. Middle-class whites view him as a defender of the traditional values that they feel have received short shrift as past administrations strove to provide municipal services to poverty-stricken black and Puerto Rican residents. “Of course I defend the middle class. Because I am middle class,” says Koch. “New York City should get down and kiss their feet. The middle class pays the taxes and provides jobs for the poor. I want to move the poor into the middle class,” says Koch, contrasting his own approach with that of former mayor Lindsay who was often accused of sacrificing middle-class interests in an attempt to keep New York City from the epidemic of race riots that haunted America in the ’60s. “Since Lindsay was never poor he had to identify with poverty,” says Koch. “I don’t lionize the poor. I’ve been poor. I know what it is.”

Koch’s most vivid memory of poverty is the restaurant hatcheck concession his family ran after his father lost his job as a furrier in the Depression. “It was demeaning to ask people, as we did, ‘Don’t forget the hatcheck boy.’ That

left a trauma. To live on the largess of people is something that I consider demeaning,” Koch has often recalled. The family, however, weathered the Depression and after graduating from New York University law school Koch became immersed in the internecine and interminable wars of the Democratic party in Greenwich Village. The party was badly split between regulars led by old-line boss Carmine De Sapio and reformers who wanted to oust the autocratic leader. Koch joined the reformers, strayed to De Sapio’s club and finally returned to the reform movement, defeating De Sapio in a crucial leader-

ship battle in 1963. From there he was elected first to the N.Y. City Council and then to the U.S. Congress where he served nine years representing Manhattan’s fashionable “silk stocking” district on the upper East Side. “They considered it a posh social seat. They said they wouldn’t elect this guy from the Bronx, this son of Polish Jews, but they did,” Koch likes to remember.

When Koch announced for mayor in 1977, however, few people gave him a chance to win. But he survived a brutal primary, defeating Beame, former congresswoman Bella Abzug and Mario Cuomo, now lieutenant-governor of New York state. Cuomo, who received the Liberal nomination, challenged Koch in the general election along

with Republican state Senator Roy Goodman, but Koch squeaked through with 50.9 per cent of the vote. Most politicians thought of him as a conscientious but colorless Liberal who needed the campaign support of Bess Myerson, a former Miss America, to give him sex appeal. Few people were prepared for the man who confessed he will never get an ulcer because “I am the sort of person who might give other people ulcers.” Nonetheless, Koch maintains his mayoral shoot-from-the-hip style does not represent a radical change of personality. “I’m the same man I always was,” he says. “The only difference is

before I was mayor nobody was interested.”

Throughout his career, the 56-yearold Koch, a bachelor, has had little time for anything but politics. Although he trumpets New York’s artistic life, Koch himself is no culture vulture. New York City Councilman Edward Sadowsky recalls what happened when he and his wife took Koch to a Carnegie Hall concert. “He was bored to tears,” Sadowsky says. “The only thing he enjoyed was the intermission when he could go into the lobby and shake people’s hands.” Sadowsky, who accompanied Koch on a trip to China, also remembers the time the mayor slipped his official guide and startled the local population by pressing the flesh on a downtown

Shanghai street córner. “Halfway around the world and he’s campaigning,” laughs Sadowsky.

At six feet one inch tall, the mayor, who admits to a weight problem, fights to keep himself between 200 and 225 pounds. Constant dieting, however, doesn’t prevent him from preparing steak, salad and ice cream dinners for close friends in the one-bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village he returns to every weekend. The mayor’s advice for a successful evening: 11 bottles of wine for eight people. (During the week the mayor lives in his East End official

residence, Gracie Mansion, six kilome-

tres away, which he calls “my house in the country.”)

Wherever he is, Koch still has time to ask the question that has become his political trademark, “How’m I doing?” While polls have shown that as many as 62 per cent of all New Yorkers approve of the mayor’s performance, he still has some very vocal critics. Minority leaders see his courting of the white middle class as a none-too-subtle appeal to racial bias. Black educator Kenneth B. Clark has called Koch “a bully” who “panders” to racial prejudice, and former congressman Herman Badillo, leader of the Puerto Rican community who served as a deputy mayor until Koch fired him, now says, “I won’t even talk to the bum.” Koch certainly didn’t

help his own cause when he described minority politicians who profit from anti-poverty programs as “poverty pimps.” The mayor claims he no longer uses the term but he refuses to back down from his tough rhetoric. “What black leaders really don’t like,” he says, “is that I talk to everybody the same way.” Ed Gold, an old friend from Koch’s Greenwich Village days, puts the problem in a slightly different perspective. “Sometimes Ed just has a big mouth and he’ll lose his temper and alienate people when he shouldn’t,” Gold says. “As far as racism goes, remember when a black couple in Queens

had their home fire-bombed? Koch went out, stood on their lawn, put his arm around them and blasted whoever did it. I think Koch likes people who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, much the way he did.” Even some of Koch’s supporters, however, occasionally weary of his confrontational style. He has called the UN “a cesspool of antiSemitism,” and upbraided Prince Charles for Britain’s stand on Northern Ireland.

Many colleagues from Koch’s days in the reform movement accuse him of betraying liberal stands on a range of issues from the touchy urban problem of landlord and tenant relations to racial quotas. “I don’t even want my name in the same article with him,” one for-

mer friend snapped. Moreover, the wit that so delights other New Yorkers is taken as proof of his insincerity by nabobs of the left. “Government by oneliner,” sneered political columnist Jack Newfield of The Village Voice.

Koch has particularly enraged his former friends on the Democratic left with his courting of the Reagan administration. Although Koch, pro forma, endorsed Carter in the last presidential campaign, he entertained Reagan at Gracie Mansion and has made no secret of which man he found more compatible. “Reagan is certainly a nicer guy,” says Koch. “I like his character, his decency, his warmth.” Those kind words will probably not spare New York City from substantial cuts in federal aid but they have undoubtedly helped Koch in his drive to corral Republican as well as Democratic support.

If Koch is to retain his popularity, he will have to do more in his second term to improve the city’s deteriorating municipal services. For much of his first administration, Koch has successfully posed as the severest critic of the city rather than as the man intent on improving it. He has complained that the subways “stink” and lambasted judges, some of whom he himself appointed, for giving out lenient sentences. No one can wax more poetic than Koch on garbage in the city streets and yet no one but Koch has more power to sweep them clean. Last year’s record crime rate has already prompted him to call for 1,000 new cops and 500 civilians on the police force in next year’s budget, plus 37 new trial courts. Still, Koch warns that he can never restore the level of service that existed before the 1975 fiscal crisis: “The only test you can apply today is to ask this question: Ts Koch getting the biggest bang out of the bucks he has?’ ... I am.”

Koch’s feistiness reflects the street smarts that New Yorkers have always liked to think is an integral part of their city. “There’s still a lot of street fighter in Ed,” says media adviser David Garth, a campaign strategist. Adds former mayor Robert F. Wagner, whose selfeffacing demeanor contrasts vividly with Koch’s verve: “Different times call for different people and Ed Koch certainly is the man for these times.” And for quite a while to come if the mayor has his way. Like his beloved Fiorello La Guardia, a Republican who built a coalition that survived three terms in city hall, Koch has announced he expects not only to win a second term but a third as well. Even if Koch is turned out of office before serving 12 years as mayor, one thing is for sure—the mouth will never be at a loss for words. “I’m a pretty good manager. I will get a better job,” says Koch, pausing for effect, “You will never get a better mayor.”