Thursday, March 7, 2013

Koch

"You know who New York City really needed as a mayor?"
"Pinochet?"
"Exactly!"

So The Boy and I decreed after watching the documentary on three-term mayor Ed Koch, who basically ruled New York City in the '80s and became a national fixture, immortalized in this Ghostbusters 3 snippet from "The Critic":

The late Koch (who died only a few weeks ago) is predictably lionized, with some commentators blaming New York's '80s housing crisis on Reagan, while attributing the crime rebound—normally attributed to Giuliani's "broken windows" policing policy—to Koch's massive housing project (which ultimately would end his reign with its corruption).

But there's not a ton of stuff like that, and Koch is a likable character, and even a refreshing one with a near classically liberal POV, at least as portrayed here. He fights the unions to keep NYC out of bankruptcy, he shuts down a hospital because it's not profitable, he doesn't really pander to ethnic groups (although one of the commentators insisted he pandered to whites), and he got his start apparently championing a pro-divorce/pro-choice/pro-sodomy platform.

He's also challenged at one point for backing a pro-life candidate and he dismantles that challenge pretty handily by saying he wouldn't ostracize someone for following their conscience. And then by pointing out that the questioner undoubtedly supports same-sex marriage, but wouldn't throw the President (Obama) out because he doesn't.

Stuff like that is nice.

An interesting bit involves a hospital in Harlem being shut down. Koch got one block of black votes enabling him to be mayor by supporting the hospital, but once in office, he felt like it was a waste of nine million precious medical dollars. Ironically, while his predecessors (Abe Beam and Lindsay, I think) had campaigned on shutting the hospital down and then backed off in fear of the backlash from the black community, Koch was the one who shut it down.

And the fascinating thing is that, in this documentary, Koch says he regrets having done it. Not because it was the wrong thing to do for the city, but because of the political fallout. It was such a strange moment I wish the director had spent a little more time and probed a little more on it.

I mean, presumably, if you're shutting down a hospital to save healthcare dollars, you're using those dollars to save lives elsewhere. If you regret that purely for political reasons, then  you must believe (unless you're outright evil) that whatever lives you saved were better exchanged for future political ambitions.

And that may have been the case. Koch comes off as amazingly unassuming on the one hand, and so massively egotistical that he considers himself the owner of New York City. I don't know enough about the situation to know if he ever went full Bloomberg (and really, that would've been impossible in the '80s, even in NYC).

But the documentary glosses over most of the ramifications of his housing and renovation projects. I mean, they sort of say "Yay!" because they like the results—itself kind of interesting, since liberals are known to lament the so-called Disney-fication of Times Square, especially when they're blaming that fascist, Giuliani—but of course they don't really question whether government should actually have that power.

Of course, this is my bias: If things are crappy here and there, or if the rent's too-damn-high, I'd probably first look at what the government is doing to create those situations (hello, high taxes and rent control!). To me, this whole housing project looked like mischief.

The movie has a little problem there, since it wants to praise the project, and shows blocks full of very nice looking, presumably low-income housing. At the same time, it was part and parcel of the scandal that brought him down. Though not mentioned in the film, Koch's affirmative action policies also played a part in the corruption.

Of course, those aren't things you want to tie together, because they're inevitable result of big government schemes.

Koch, and the movie, make the case that he didn't know about any of the corruption, and they make it pretty convincingly. Though if you're parsing closely, what you hear is Koch saying he can't stand the idea that people think he's a crook, and that he's one of the most honest people he knew, neither of which actually precludes him knowing about corruption.

Ultimately, I think he felt he was the best thing for the city, and since he couldn't be in that position without the corrupt Democrat machine working for him, he just didn't look at it. And of course it was the "extremely aggressive" Rudy Giuliani that took him down.

During the racial unrest in the late '80s and early '90s, the grievance-mongers got him back for the hospital by painting him as uncaring about the black community, which hurt his chances.

Also, the homosexuals got him, apparently because he caused AIDS and was gay himself but in the closet. (He has a special rejoinder to those who queried about his sexuality.) Actually, the gay thing is kind of interesting because as he was gaining popularity in his first mayoral race, Andrew Cuomo's campaign started the "he's gay" rumor—and it was effective in dragging him down.

He got himself a beard in the form of the first Jewish Miss America. (Without commenting on Koch's sexuality, she was a beard because they were in no wise actually dating.) This was effective which, I guess, tells you something about the people of late '70s NYC.

Anyway, it's pretty fun, interesting and reasonably short, though padded out at the end with the octogenarian Koch wandering around the 2010 DNC shaking hands and what-not.

The Boy, The Flower and I all enjoyed it.

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