In the 22-plus years since his downbeat departure from City Hall, Ed Koch never really surrendered the spotlight, keeping true to a City Hall reporter's characterization of him as "unavoidable for comment."
He lost his bid for a fourth term in a Democratic primary to David Dinkins in 1989, following a tumultuous and controversial third term plagued by a corruption scandal in his administration, racial tension and high crime. Four years later, Koch endorsed Dinkins' GOP opponent, Rudy Giuliani. Many years after that, Koch would write a book about Giuliani -- called "Nasty Man."
It was as if the circle of embattlement was somehow complete. Koch, who said he liked to "tweak people," kept the limelight with endorsements, broadcast commentaries, movie reviews and continual emails to a long list of recipients. As a lifelong bachelor, it was if his public became his family to noodge. All the Koch books and profiles -- fawning, critical, autobiographical -- are completed and published.
Long ago Koch decided it was no problem to put all his opinions, world views, pointed jokes and personal alienations on full display, no matter who might have grown irritated. In the process, the larger-than-life Koch masked a life-size Koch, or what those closest to him insisted was a personal decency that he seemed to keep offstage -- such as his many devoted visits to a dying friend.
One year in the 1980s -- after both Koch, then mayor, and ex-rival Mario Cuomo, then governor, published books -- the late Newsday columnist Murray Kempton wrote: "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."
His humor-as-weapon could actually turn self-deprecating. In the early 1960s, as a left-wing member of the Village Independent Democrats, Koch suffered a defining primary defeat to the late Democratic Assemblyman Bill Passannante. As recalled in Jonathan Soffer's relatively recent "Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City," the young politician 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.
Much later, when he was about to be inaugurated for the first time as mayor, the story got around that someone talked him out of using as a signature song, "Send in the Clowns." The show-biz aspect of the job gained a life of its own. At one Inner Circle show performance, he appeared in a sequined suit from head-to-toe. One reporter's spoof portrayed Koch singing to the tune of "I Am Woman:" "I am Mayor hear me roar, cuz I'm too loud to ignore . . . "
All the New York glitz and glare was a long way from what Koch might once have been, coming as he did from working-class Newark and Brooklyn. Like many GIs of his generation, he didn't talk much about World War II. But Koch 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?