Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Book Report: "Mayor" by Ed Koch

New York. If you can make it there, you can't make it anywhere else.

"Mayor: An Autobiography"has a strange launching point given that New York City was looking at six more years of Ed Koch when it was published and that it came on the heels of his surprising defeat in the Democratic gubernatorial primary to Mario Cuomo.

That loss was only the latest in a series of events described in this autobiography, which must have alerted Koch to the unique limitations associated with his otherwise powerful position.

"Mayor" comes off as the author's stab at "cashing in" before his story was fully told, because it had turned out to be truncated in advance of its termination.

Edward I. Koch assumed office at the city's nadir, in the wake of a rescue plan to save New York from bankruptcy in the mid-1970s. And although his popularity followed the typical politician's arc from novelty to popularity to ignominy, his mayoralty is widely considered to have been a success.

Koch was reelected twice by adeptly turning his gruff, no-nonsense personal style into a certifiable brand for the city itself.

"Mayor" details the idiosyncratic nature of New York City -- our country's financial and cultural capital -- the way Gotham stands apart, stewing in its distinction and self-sustaining...er, um selfness.

To wit: As mayor of America's largest city, Koch could not be ignored on certain issues of national import.

One of the longest chapters in the book involves President Jimmy Carter's efforts at getting Koch to round up the Jewish vote for his 1980 reelection bid and the Mayor's incessant push-back for certain concessions on the administration's Israel policy.

Having gained those concessions, Koch hit the hustings for Carter who was trounced by Ronald Reagan anyway.

And so it goes. Koch was a big fish in a big pond with no estuary by which to escape it.

Another study in mayoral limitations is Koch's accounting of negotiations with the Transportation Workers Union and the strike through which he successfully shepherded the city.

The Mayor's quandary was that, although the strike was in his city, the entity negotiating with organized labor was the Metropolitan Transit Authority, a feud of New York's governor.

Lacking real policy power, Koch glibly recounts how he used his bully pulpit, his penchant for walking the streets of the ultimate street-walking city, and a sly understanding of how New York's overheated media operates, to pull off a successful negotiation, mostly en absentia, with the all-powerful unions in pre-Reagan America.

But his skills were particular to that magnificent and fascinating city. Beyond its boundaries, whether campaigning in Florida for Carter, or clumsily insulting suburban and rural New Yorkers during the gubernatorial primary, Koch's style did not go over well.

"I'm still Mayor," he said after losing to Cuomo.


highwayscribery can remember Koch inarticulately peddling "Mayor" on Saturday Night Live following its publication, the over-the-top delivery, his brash charm clashing with the Klieg lights before falling flat in both the studio and over the airwaves.

But "Mayor" can be good fun for our politics-crazed, cable news addicted legions. It takes you into that room of players and lofty titles it shows you how it goes down, what they say, and who sorts it out.

The book offers egos, grown-up Kindergartners, well-meaning citizens getting hammered for their efforts, radicals of an era gone by all playing the roulette wheel of American democracy.

Koch performs in an entertaining fashion throughout. Tough, uncompromising, holding course often in spite of his missteps, ready each day to start flailing anew.

Ralph Waldo Emerson warned the poet that, "Others shall do the great and resounding things also. Though shalt lie close hid with nature, and canst not be afforded to the capital or the exchange. The world is full of renunciations and apprenticeships, and this is thine; thou must pass for a fool and churl for a long season."

Although "the capital's" inhabitants leave their imprints on future lives and their names on public works, the fascinating revelation in reading "Mayor" is the anonymity into which the big shots of an earlier time fade.

Who, today, remembers New York Governor Hugh Carey (D), or Koch's sexiest supporter Bess Myerson? Carter honcho Hamilton Jordan died last year while Rep. Bella Abzug (D)and her big hats are buried artifacts.

The cast of characters arrayed throughout "Mayor" could have easily been given aliases because it is their actions, more than their identities, that lend the narrative its thrust.

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