Spin Cycle

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To the end, Koch was unavoidable for comment

All the books and profiles on Ed Koch -- fawning, critical, autobiographical, mythical, accurate -- are long since completed and published, leaving an unusually rich reserve today for the obituary writers. In the 22-plus years since he left the New York City mayor's office, he never went away, never gave up the spotlight, sticking with a City Hall reporter's characterization of him as "unavoidable for comment."

Something idiosyncratically Koch: He lost a Democratic primary to David Dinkins in 1989 following his tumultuous and controversial third term that included corruption scandals involving his allies and appointees as well as high crime and racial tensions. Four years later, Koch endorsed Dinkins' GOP opponent, Rudy Giuliani. Many years later still, Koch would write another book, this time about Giuliani -- called "Nasty Man." It was as if the circle of embattlement was complete.

Many of us choose to hide our peeves to look better. But long ago Koch decided it was no problem putting his opinions, worldviews and alienations on the fullest display, no matter whom it irritated -- or how many. In the process he masked what those close to him insisted was a tender and decent side he seemed to keep offstage, such as his many devoted visits to a dying friend.

One year in the 1980s, after both Koch and then-governor and ex-rival Mario Cuomo had published books, the late Newsday columnist Murray Kempton put his finger on the difference: "To the governor of New York, language is a device for making oneself look better than one probably is. To the mayor of New York, language is a device for making oneself look worse than one could possibly be."

 In the early 1960s, as a lefty member of the Village Independent Democrats, Koch suffered a defining primary defeat to Democratic Assemblyman Bill Passannante. As recalled in Jonathan Soffer's relatively recent "Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York," Koch referred to this as the "SAD campaign" -- an acronym for his platform that advocated repealing laws from that time against consensual sodomy, abortion and divorce.

Koch's war record didn't get much attention. Like many a veteran of his generation, he didn't talk much about it. But he served in Belgium, France and Germany with the U.S. Army between 1944 and 1946 -- and was awarded two battle stars. He served in the 104th Infantry Division and later, the European Civilian Affairs Division, in Bavaria.

He wasn't always what he appeared to be, but then, which political performer is?

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