A curmudgeon in the old dictionaries is “an avaricious, grasping fellow” but in American political usage, as recorded in William Safire’s Political Dictionary, is “a likeably irascible old man…with a talent for invective.” The licensed scold has had a long life in American politics. The curmudgeon’s distinguishing mark is the ability to say things offensive and outrageous enough to sink any normal politician and yet continue to delight an indulgent public that responds fondly to each new extravagance.
The first and most stylish was John Randolph of Roanoke, who, for example, called the blameless Edward Livingston “a man of splendid abilities, but utterly corrupt. He shines and stinks like rotten mackerel in the moonlight.” Theodore Roosevelt was the preeminent twentieth-century curmudgeon, with his Ananias clubs, muckrakers, malefactors of great wealth, lunatic fringes, and nature-fakers. TR’s cantankerous disciple Harold Ickes remarked in the 1930s that Huey Long “is suffering from halitosis of the intellect. That’s presuming Senator Long has an intellect” and went on to dismiss the Republican candidate in 1940, Wendell L. Willkie of Commonwealth & Southern, as “the Barefoot Boy from Wall Street” and to note of the Republican candidate in 1944, “Tom Dewey has thrown his diapers into the ring.”
Fiorello H. LaGuardia, another son of the Bull Moose, set high goals for mayors of New York in the field of picturesque invective. Alas, the Little Flower must be a dim figure today, at least for the present incumbent of City Hall, who, in the two references to his distinguished predecessor in this new book, calls him “Fiorella.” Mayor Koch’s sense of history, though, is strictly contemporaneous. In an almost unique lapse into generosity, he pronounced Hugh Carey on Richard Heffner’s The Open Mind (March 3) “the greatest governor the state of New York has ever had.” Carey was unquestionably a first-rate governor when his mind was on the job; but it is hard to say that he was greater than a dozen eminent governors (four of whom went on to the presidency) during the long years from DeWitt Clinton to Nelson Rockefeller. Back to his usual self, the mayor in his book describes Carey as “absolutely bananas”—insulting enough, but a considerable descent in rhetorical majesty from Randolph and even from Ickes.
Mayor—the book might have been entitled more accurately Supermayor—is a profusion of anecdotes, artfully assembled by William Rauch, the mayor’s press secretary. (The populist hero notes with pride that Rauch “was a member of the Porcellian Club, Harvard’s most prestigious.”) Heaven alone knows about the authenticity of the anecdotes. The mayor admits that other participants may remember some of the incidents differently, and protest and correction have already been vehement. But no one can question the authenticity of the voice. This is Ed Koch in person, not a motion picture, certainly not a ghostwriter’s simulation. The voice runs on and on, breezy, cocky, truculent, self-satisfied, self-centered, vainglorious.
And sometimes genuinely funny: indeed, for a moment or two almost winning. Supermayor makes some excellent jokes. After defeating Whitney North Seymour, Jr., for Congress: “‘Nobody thought I could win. After all, how could a guy with two names beat a guy with four names?’ I took him to the cleaners.” Explaining to the press why Bella Abzug lost her own election district in the primary contest against William Fitts Ryan in 1972: “Her neighbors know her.” Yet very soon one begins to notice the binary structure of the mayor’s jokes: he is always scoring, often cruelly, at the expense of someone else. The cumulative effect is depressing in the extreme. As the voice sounds implacably on, one feels a torrent of whine and meanness, bound together in overpowering egotism.
No one escapes. One can understand meanness about enemies; the mayor is equally mean about friends, like the devoted John LoCicero, Koch’s campaign manager. When Richard Heffner asked him about this, the mayor, for whom everything is grist to the mill, cited impartiality in meanness as conclusive evidence of devotion to historical truth. Candor, he tells us, is his great virtue. It becomes his all-purpose excuse. No historian wants to discourage candor, and the mayor’s addiction to candor helps to explain both his readability as a writer and his peppiness as a man. Yet candor, as we all know, can easily go beyond guileless honesty and become an instrument of aggression.
He gets back at everybody. “You worry about Herman [Badillo],” he confides to the reader, “because even when he is your friend he can do terrible things.” (Unlike Ed Koch?) After referring to Carol Bellamy as a “horror show” and a “disaster,” he writes: “I never retracted the substance of any of these remarks. I simply said I was sorry I had said them.” “There can be no doubt,” he writes of Mario Cuomo’s “complicity” in the whispering campaign alleging that the mayor was a homosexual.
As for Jimmy Carter, Ed Koch’s autoda-fé makes the reader finally feel sympathetic to our hapless ex-president—no inconsiderable feat. Israel is the perennial grievance; and Koch acts as if he were not only mayor of New York but Israeli ambassador to Washington. His account of conversations with Carter reproduces the mayor’s private thoughts; the dialogue should be played like a scene from Strange Interlude:
Carter: “The resolution that we had was one which regrettably came up on a Saturday and I hadn’t actually read that statement.”
Koch: I am thinking: It is ridiculous that in a statement which relates to Israel he hasn’t read every word. Ridiculous. He, Jimmy Carter, from Camp David.
… . .
Carter: “Now, Ed, I just want to make one thing clear…. If you decide the day before the primary or the day before the general election that someone else would do better for this country or for the City of New York, I would understand….”
Koch: That, of course, was purely self-serving. He felt it was necessary to say that…. But it must have been very wounding to his pride: The President needs ol’ boy Ed Koch.
Carter: “I want you to know that my being reelected is not the first priority for me.”
Koch: I am thinking: I doubt that.
“If it had been left to Jimmy Carter,” Koch concludes, “the fifty-two Americans who were taken captive by the ‘students’ in Teheran would probably never have been freed.” As for Carter himself, “I think he’s a mean and vindictive man.” No doubt it takes one to know one.
Koch has strong points as mayor. He loves the city, especially the outer boroughs. He loves the job and would like, he told Richard Heffner, to keep it forever (which didn’t stop him from running for governor in 1982). He is resourceful and untiring in promoting the cause of the city and in seeking solutions to its fiscal problems. But he has been a dismal failure in the most vital of his responsibilities: holding the city together.
New York has growing black and Puerto Rican minorities. Koch’s three predecessors as mayor—Robert Wagner, Sr., John Lindsay, and Abe Beame—were men of very different qualities, but they had one thing in common. All were fair-minded men, and all gave the minorities a sense that, even if City Hall could not meet all their demands, the mayor would give them a sympathetic hearing and do his best for them. Mayor Koch has given the minorities the opposite feeling: that he dislikes them and, worse, is prepared to pluck the racial nerve in the city to his own political advantage.
The mayor denies racial prejudice, and I am sure he is honest in his denial. But he has no doubt that blacks are “basically anti-Semitic.” He also thinks that whites are “basically anti-black,” but that is not so bad because “it is recognized as morally reprehensible, something you have to control.” He leans over backward in finding excuses for Jewish “paranoia”; “you have to understand that the Jews for two thousand years have had people sell them out.” But he has no tolerance for black paranoia, forgetting that blacks through history have not just been sold out; they have been sold. The New York minorities become in the mayor’s view one more importunate pressure group, greedy and ungrateful, making trouble for the selfless and great-hearted mayor. On the evidence of this book, the mayor has learned very little in his years at City Hall about the most critical challenge confronting the city he loves.
Nor does the book do much to illuminate the mayor’s passage from Stevensonian liberalism in the 1960s to Podhoretzian neoconservatism in the 1980s. Though billed on the jacket as an autobiography, Mayor is sketchy on the premayoralty life. The mayor started out in politics as a Reform Democrat, led the fight against Carmine DeSapio, and entered Congress as a liberal. Racial apprehensions evidently set off the move to the right. The efforts in the early 1970s of Lindsay, the Ford Foundation, and other WASP agencies to help the poor created the impression of a “limousine liberal”-black-Hispanic coalition. This impression generated understandable resentment among lower-middle-class Jews, Irish, and Italians—a resentment that Koch shared and soon began to manipulate.
Today he is filled with rancor against “elitists,” who, on the one hand, are “a very inbred group of very rich people who go around telling everybody what to do and how to suffer,” and, on the other hand, are Bella Abzug and Herman Badillo. In any event, according to the mayor, “Most of them are not Communists, although some of them may be. Most of them are just uninformed, totally naive, unthinking or just dumb…. They want to remake the world.”
The mayor rightly believes that it is not possible to remake the world, and he is extremely irritated, as only a self-righteous man can be, by the competitive self-righteousness of the reformers. In recent times, however, he has moved beyond irritation against reformers to a broader repudiation of reform. The Democratic party, he told the Democratic National Strategy Council in October 1981, has lost the sense of “what its purpose should be and what the reality facing America was all about.” It has become “the party of government for government’s sake,” embalming past successes in “regulations and programs,” conferring “on special interests…the right to set our legislative agenda,” etc. Does he really mean this? When he got down to particulars, the mayor went on, without break of stride,
Poverty must be treated as a national problem…. The Federal Government has an obligation to provide shelter…. Washington has an obligation to help local governments rebuild their deteriorating physical plants…. The Federal Government has an obligation to ensure employment…. Washington cannot abandon assistance to mass transit.
And so on. Who is against big government now?
Mayor, however, is a soap opera serial, not a systematic analysis. The mayor throws little light on his own concerns. How does he reconcile his neoconservative crusade against affirmative government with his recognition of a vital federal role in meeting urban problems? How does he balance tax benefits to real estate interests against the garbage rotting on the streets, the decay of the subways, the general decline in municipal services? The reader will emerge from Mayor with little insight into the structural problems of the contemporary city.
As political soap opera, the book is a spectacular success, high on the bestseller list, movie and television rights up for auction; and the mayor is in a state of euphoria. Bad reviews? Jealousy on the part of unsuccessful journalists, he told The New York Times (February 22); “their anger at the book comes from the fact that they didn’t write it.” His friends, he said, had warned that the book would do him political damage. “I’m sure the people who advised me not to write a book are feeling silly.”
Politicians conclude that the mayor’s book means he has relinquished hope of higher office. They also must recognize that he has written a powerful political document for the mayoralty election next year. Manhattan may not like it but it plays in the outer boroughs, where people rejoice in the admiring self-portrait of their irrepressible mayor, fighting for their interests in a scurvy world of wackos, nuts, elitists, and anti-Semites. Perhaps the mayor’s string is running out. In the gubernatorial primary in 1982, he lost Manhattan to Cuomo, who had shown at Forest Hills and elsewhere his skill as conciliator in racial quarrels. The combination of concerned whites and aggrieved minorities could portend the end of the Koch epoch. But, if he does serve as mayor forever, one can only hope that he will apply less of his boundless energy to self-adulation and more to cleaning the streets and subways, fixing the potholes, hiring policemen and firemen, manning the sanitation trucks, and, most important of all, healing the mistrust between the races.
The Guiding Light May 10, 1984