What’s next for Ed Koch? Cover boy, that’s what. The ever-visible Ed has never been more ubiquitous than in the months since publication of his controversial autobiography, Mayor. He’s hit the top of the nationwide best-sellers list, he’s done guest spots on such shows as “Gimme a Break” and ‘All My Children,’ he’s milked the talk show circuit for all it’s worth. And now his mug will plaster the cover of Gentleman’s Quarterly, the trendy men’s fashion magazine. The photo’s to be snapped by none other than Richard Avedon.

New York Post, “Page Six’,’ April 20, 1984

As even his admirers will tell you, Ed Koch has become insufferable. Gracie Mansion dinner parties break up early so that guests can be made to sit and watch movies—of their host. The New York Times reports that New York City pays to keep a tape of every film and television appearance the mayor has made.

Koch doesn’t seem bothered that the origin of the new adulation has nothing whatsoever to do with his performance in office. Did the woman I met at a Tampa, Florida gift shop (admiring my copy of Mayor) buy the book because she was interested in the way he handled the 1981 transit strike? Of course not. She bought it because it was the au courant thing to do; another I-am-hipper-than-you-are item out of New York.

But trendiness, as Koch must know from a lifetime in the city, can be risky, and if a halfway acceptable mayoral candidate comes along next year, the schtick that has made him a popular mayor and author may cost him the job he loves so dearly. Koch’s trendiness is based on his principal asset, candor, which his editor, Michael Korda, quickly smelled, packaged, and sold. Candor can cut through the stultifying posturing of conventional politicians, but its charm begins to fade when it reveals unattractive characteristics—say, nasty egomania. People are beginning to realize that the mayor is candid only about the other guy’s faults. In combination with the challenge from New York’s blacks, who almost uniformly detest Koch (and who showed their clout by delivering 25 percent of the statewide Democratic presidential primary vote to Jesse Jackson), this awareness could do him in.

The egomania alone is not a problem—it’s a part of his act, like Henry Kissinger’s. The meanness, however, is. It is becoming clear that Koch isn’t just trying to be Don Rickles. The strongest message coming through in the book and in its publicity is that Koch really is a nasty guy—nasty to his friends as well as his enemies. He devotes the better parts of two chapters to describing how he humiliated faithful aides. Firing can be a good thing, and the civil service rules make it harder to do than it should be. Yet it is unseemly how Koch relishes it. He recounts several occasions where aides—whom he cites by name—weep on hearing the news. After excerpts of the book were printed, he added small-type footnotes that say nice things about the victims: by the time the book was published aides excoriated in the text became in the footnotes “exceptionally able administrators” or “still good friends!’ It doesn’t help. His gratuitousness is irredeemable:

“On September 8: [Axel Schupf] asked for an appointment ….He then reaches into his pocket, as I had hoped he would, and takes out an envelope, as I had hoped he would, and he hands me a letter. The letter is very brief. It says, ‘I resign as Health Services Administrator August 8.’ I said, ‘You mean September 8, don’t you?’ He was flustered and said he would take it back and redo it .”

What’s unfortunate about these petty remarks is that they obscure deeper messages that, unlike the bitchy jibes, really have some value. The Village Voice, which in the 1960s was Koch’s biggest backer and has since become his most unrelenting critic, has argued that the book provides no insights into the way city government works. That’s wrong. There are many such insights, and they make the book worth reading despite its nastiness.

Here are a couple of Koch stories that you haven’t seen in the hundreds of reviews of the book. They aren’t as politically significant as Koch’s catty remarks about Mario Cuomo, Carol Bellamy, or Herman Badillo, and they aren’t as memorable as Koch’s observations about Evangeline Carey—”Every time she sees me she has this button in her brain that goes off and she spews out what she thinks a Jew would want to hear”—but they say a lot more about how a city works.

Early in Koch’s first term, a concessionaire stood up at a town meeting and confessed that because the city was so slow in paying its bills the concessionaires were in the habit of building additional charges into their bills. Koch asked for a study and found that more than 50 percent of the city’s bills were not being paid for 30 days, which made most suppliers refuse to do business with the city. After several do-nothing proposals by city bureaucrats, Koch decided on an unusual remedy:

“I said, ‘I’m giving the city agencies 60 days to get their shops in order. Then at the end of the third month, I’m going to publish a list of their names in rank order, one through ten, with ten being the worst—the slowest. And I’ll do that every month! The commissioners said, ‘No, no, no. You can’t do that.

It will embarrass us. “Watch me,’ I said. [Later] the Parks Commissioner comes into my office and he is in great distress and his name is at the bottom of the list as the worst. He says, ‘Mr. Mayor, I am beside myself. I have called in my comptroller and I have said to him, if my name is at the bottom of the list next month, it’s your ass.’ “

In many ways that is Ed Koch at his arrogant worst, setting the scene for yet more testimony to his greatness. But the truth is that the competition worked and soon the city was paying 95 percent of its bills on time, saving millions. Koch simply introduced a little accountability into the system, and as bad as the city bureaucracy had become—as corroded with timeserving employees lacking any incentive—the system responded almost immediately to the cleverly arranged public pressure.

Koch’s recounting of confidential conversations is the feature of the book that makes other politicians the angriest, unless, of course, they are not mentioned at all. But for the rest of us, the conversations—as long as they don’t humiliate the subjects—provide some particularly good examples of the difference between what officeholders say in private and in public. (In most political memoirs, even those written long after retirement, private conversations sounds like dialogues out of the Congressional Record. Lyndon Johnson managed to write a whole memoir, The Vantage Point, in which he didn’t utter one sharp word over the telephone.)

Among the most revealing inside conversations in Mayor are those that take place during the transit strike, where we learn that the politicians representing the government side—in this case, Koch, Governor Carey, and Transit Chief Richard Ravitch—fight each other almost as hard as they fight the union. Koch’s most bitter dispute is not with Carey himself, but with the governor’s top aide—a good illustration of how critical that staff position has become in state government.

When it comes to reporting confidential conversations, Koch doesn’t discriminate. He lectures Jimmy Carter about Jews and Israel as if Carter were a schoolboy; applies a single-issue litmus test that the president must pass in order to win Koch’s tepid support; demeans Carter repeatedly behind his back; and then has the nerve to call him mean.

Occasionally, though, there is a method to Koch’s meanness. When the city personnel director calls early in his term to tell him that it’s snowing (“What a novel way to bring the news,” Koch says smugly to himself), the new mayor learns that the City of New York allows “snow days, ” when people who don’t come to work get paid and those who do receive time-and-a-half. He ends “snow days.”

In this last vignette lies the paradox of Ed Koch. One part of him knows where the Democratic party has gone wrong in its approach to running city government. As he wrote in 1981 and reprints in the book, “What happened over the last decade is that we became the party of the status quo, the party of government for government’s sake, the party of abstraction…we consistently sided with the need to protect the civil liberties of the criminal not the victim .. .we conferred on special interests—particularly friendly special interests like labor, environmental groups, organizations for the handicapped—the right to set our legislative agenda…” Unlike his predecessors, Koch could identify the “snow day” scam and he had the guts to get rid of it.

But at the same time he just couldn’t resist letting a little of the other Koch show through—the side that will take an innocuous comment someone makes about the weather and use it to turn that person into a fool. It’s hard to know where that trait came from. It may be a vestige of the old Greenwich Village Ed Koch, before he discovered Queens and his white working class constituency. That Ed Koch may have aspired to be one of the “liberal elitists” he now quite rightly scorns. These reformers spent a lot of time trying to make Carmen DeSapio and his ilk look not just corrupt but dumb as well. Koch may have lost his class bias somewhere along the line, but the caustic weapons his neighbors used against the police somehow remained. Now it’s blacks and Hispanics who more often get it in the face. Instead of simply challenging minorities when they are wrong—as he quite rightly did on corruption in the poverty programs—the mayor insists on rubbing it in. The only time he really tries to bring them into his tent is when an election nears. Meanwhile, their adversaries among the big downtown real estate interests—is this simply the old Greenwich Village crowd made good?—continue to win tax abatements with Koch’s help.

The real problem with Koch, then, is less policy than tone. His deportment is no small matter, because it threatens the rethinking of Democratic positions of which he is part. Democrats who have reformulated some of the old ideas of their party are particularly open to the charge of heartlessness. The only way to make those changes work without looking like a Reaganite is to do so in the spirit of humane pragmatism that is the real hallmark of the Democratic tradition. That doesn’t mean sugar-coating conservatism—these reforms are not Reaganistic. But convincing liberals of that point requires a sensitivity that the Ed Koch’s of the world will never possess.

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Jonathan Alter, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is a former senior editor and columnist at Newsweek, a filmmaker, journalist, political analyst, and the publisher of the Substack Old Goats with Jonathan Alter. His most recent book is His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.