How Did Ed Koch Do It?

New Documentary Celebrates the Man in All His Koch-ety Glory

I’m With Schmuck: Ed Koch stands beside Governor Andrew Cuomo, whom he once described with a common Jewish epithet.
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I’m With Schmuck: Ed Koch stands beside Governor Andrew Cuomo, whom he once described with a common Jewish epithet.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published January 25, 2013, issue of February 01, 2013.
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Ed Koch thinks Andrew Cuomo is a schmuck.

He says so in an aside caught on camera by the makers of “Koch,” an excellent new documentary about the former New York City mayor that opens February 1 in New York. Cuomo’s specific offense is unclear: It’s election night in 2010, and he’s just been declared governor, and Koch has been told that Cuomo won’t see him.

It’s a delightful, seemingly unguarded remark from the 88-year-old who specializes in delightful, seemingly unguarded remarks. The quip comes shortly after we see Koch endorsing Cuomo in the 2010 governor’s race, assuring a reporter at a press conference that no hard feelings are left over from Koch’s earlier political battles with the Cuomo family — particularly from 1977, when Koch defeated Andrew Cuomo’s father Mario in the Democratic mayoral primary.

Video courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

No hard feelings? Yeah, right. “Koch,” directed by former Wall Street Journal reporter Neil Barsky, reveals that for the Mayor, politics is everything and no political grudge is ever forgotten.

You could follow Koch around with a camera for a day and get enough quirky Koch-isms for three documentaries. As I wrote in a profile earlier this year, Koch is aware of his nostalgic cachet, and he knows how to employ it for effect. Barsky has taken advantage of that, to some degree: There’s a one-liner in particular involving Koch’s prostate and George Pataki that should go on Koch’s tombstone. (It can’t, as Koch’s tombstone is already carved and installed at a Manhattan cemetery, as we see in the film.)

Barsky, however, doesn’t leave it there. The movie takes us through Koch’s political career, from his East Village days battling Tammany Hall don Carmine De Sapio (who looks a bit like Dr. Strangelove) to the corruption scandal that nearly disgraced his administration. Most impressive is a segment on Koch’s decision to close Sydenham Hospital, a Harlem institution that employed a large number of African-American doctors. Decades later, some politicians who opposed Koch’s move at the time still feel betrayed. Koch offers an apology — but it’s not even half-hearted.

“I made a mistake,” Koch admits. Then, as if unable to help himself, he goes on. “I should have given in to the same terror that the three mayors before me had given in [to], and then there would have been no problem,” he says, and laughs.


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