The Former Mayor Keeps on Moving

Since leaving office, Ed Koch has embarked on a varied media career and become the ultimate platform-agnostic octogenarian.

On a recent rainy afternoon, Ed Koch sat in his corner office at a Midtown law firm and spoke about his day thus far. He explained that earlier at lunch, several strangers had approached him to offer compliments on such things as his radio show and his commercials. Before that, an admirer had approached him at the gym.

“One of the guys in the gym came over, I didn’t know him,” says Koch, a grin spreading across his face. “He said, ‘Mayor, I understand you’re a blogger.’”

At this, Koch laughs. “No one’s ever called me that before!” he added. “I don’t have a Web site.”

Which is not to suggest that Koch’s reach as a media pundit is, on the whole, limited. In fact, since leaving office in 1990, the former three-term mayor of New York City has embarked on a rich and varied media career. One which, at this point, almost rivals his political career in terms of longevity.

Along the way, he has spread his crotchety brand of Ed Kochness into virtually every imaginable medium. He has been a talk radio host. A television commentator. A regular on the lecture circuit. He has served as Judge Wapner’s successor on The People’s Court and appeared as himself on Sex and the City. At the same time, he has written extensively as a newspaper columnist for such outlets as the New York Post, the Daily News, and Newsday, and he remains a tireless autobiographer.

In his 1994 book, Ed Koch on Everything — one of his eight published political biographies and autobiographies — the erstwhile mayor and congressman explained his lifelong love of writing.

“My writing skills were sharpened in Congress, where I learned that the way to raise the consciousness of your colleagues was by inundating them with expertise on particular issues, subjects in which they were interested but about which they had little knowledge,” wrote Koch. “Quantity in this case came close to quality in impact.”

The emphasis on quantity seems to have guided Koch’s media instincts ever since. To this day, he continues to inundate. Every week, he hosts a call-in show on Bloomberg Radio and appears as a guest “Wise Guy” on the New York area’s 24-hour news channel, NY1. Every week, he writes a movie review column for the weekly Villager newspaper and a political column for the New York Press. He is also currently hard at work on two more books.

In short, he’s the ultimate platform-agnostic octogenarian. Albeit, one without a blog.

“What do I need it for?” says Koch. “I’m not doing this to make money, which is what some bloggers do, with advertising and so forth, I think. I may ultimately create a Web site. At the moment, I don’t find I need to.”

For the time being, when Koch bumps into one of his fans, such as the guy at the gym, he asks for their email address, which he then adds to an expansive list. Each week, the roughly thousand or so people on the list receive a bulk email from the former mayor, containing his latest column or movie review.

Since this past summer, Koch’s mass emails have included content from his most recent media gig — writing a political column for the New York Press. In August, around the time of Koch’s debut column, Adario Strange, the latest editor in chief at the tumultuous alt-weekly, heralded Koch’s arrival. “Having such a historic icon of New York City in our paper is not only an honor,” announced Strange, “but a logical move for New York’s only remaining independent alternative weekly newspaper.”

The last bit was a not so veiled shot at the Press’ nominal rival the Village Voice, which last year was bought by the country’s largest chain of alternative weeklies. But the fact that the anti-Voice (as the Press is sometimes known) was championing Koch was not without a whiff of historical irony. After all, Koch won his 1963 campaign for district leader thanks in part to the ardent editorial support of the Voice. It was his first major political victory in New York.

Another potential source of awkwardness between Koch and the Press dates back to this past spring, when the Press named Koch as one of its “50 Most Loathsome New Yorkers” in an item that harshly criticized not only his politics but also his writing.

Nevertheless, Koch says he bears no grudge. “I don’t care about that,” he says of his #18 ranking on the most loathsome list. “What the hell do I care? They’re publishing my column. People are getting an opportunity to read it. It doesn’t have to be friendly to me. I’m past that. I’m never going to run again. So what the hell do I care if a newspaper likes me or doesn’t like me. Especially, if they’re publishing me.”

And thus a partnership was formed. Now, every Sunday, shortly after waking up, Koch says he spends up to two hours handwriting the first draft of his column. Once back in the office on Monday, the column is typed up, and then edited by Koch and a team of his colleagues. According to Koch, nobody at the Press fiddles with his copy.

As for the subject matter, that’s up to Koch as well, who says he draws inspiration in part from the major national and international news stories, which he talks over on his weekly radio program. He also appears to draw inspiration from his past.

During World War II, Koch was drafted and sent to Europe, where he eventually served as a specialist in the de-Nazification program that the American military was conducting in postwar Europe. More than half a century later, Koch’s debut column for the Press returned to the subject of Nazis, drawing a parallel between the followers of Hitler and the followers of radical Islam. “Hitler meant what he said,” wrote Koch. “So do the Islamic fanatics.”

In the months since, Koch’s subject matter in the Press has wavered only slightly. Occasionally, he will veer off to discuss such topics as the lack of affordability of prescription drugs. But for the most part, he remains reliably focused on his support for the war on terror, the danger of Islamic radicals, and the righteousness of President George W. Bush.

“I think we are in World War III,” says Koch. “But this is a war that people don’t, in sufficient numbers, yet realize that we’re at war. And it’s a war that will go on for decades.”

Despite dispensing such conservative views in a largely liberal town, Koch says that most of the feedback from his columns has been positive. “Whenever people talk to me, or write to me, the intensity of support for my movie reviews is greater than for my commentaries,” says Koch. “Although, most of the people who write to comment on my commentaries are very, very positive.”

Some former employees of the Press, however, are less than enamored by Koch’s work.

“It’s depressing that a paper I once loved is now poaching talent from the Villager,” says Jeff Koyen, former editor of the Press, who resigned from the paper last year amidst the dustup over a controversial column about the imminent death of the Pope.

Koyen, who is now freelancing for such publications as the New York Times and Wired, calls the addition of Koch to the Press just another “stunt byline.”

Tim Marchman, a former managing editor of the Press who also resigned in protest (albeit over a completely unrelated editorial controversy), says that he too is less than thrilled with Koch’s column.

“I don’t really see the point of having Ed Koch if he’s not going to be writing about the mechanics of city politics,” says Marchman, who is currently writing about baseball for the New York Sun and working on a book about the Mets. “I know he likes to play the daft old man, the liberal Democrat who’s going to speak up for George Bush and give the young hooligans what for. But he’s a more interesting guy than the shtick he’s got going there.”

“You can get a lot of old guys from the Village to talk about the threat to Western civilization,” adds Marchman. “If he insists on going that route, you have to poke him in the ribs a little bit. And say, hey, there was a damn good think piece in the Atlantic last month saying that we already won the war on terror. What do you say to that?”

“But he’s Ed Koch,” says Marchman, “so he can get away with it.”

When he’s not busy writing about politics, or talking about politics on the radio or on television, Koch turns his attention to his other favorite subject, the movies. According to Koch, he’s been writing movie reviews more or less since leaving office. These days, his distinctive binary form of criticism (every film gets a “+” or a “-“) can be found each week in the Villager.

Like his columns about politics, Koch’s columns on film tend to quote extensively from the pages of the New York Times (which perhaps explains why some readers could mistake him for a blogger).

“First I read the reviews to see if they are any good,” says Koch. “I don’t have any time to see bad movies. Regrettably, I’m much tougher. About 40 percent of the movies that I go to thinking that they are terrific, based on reviews, turn out not to be so terrific.”

And, according to Koch’s reviews, a significant percentage of those not so terrific movies tend to be kind of boring. Here’s Koch on the The Age of Innocence: “a big bore.” The New World: “boring.” Transamerica: “Parts of this movie are quite boring …” Munich: “unbelievably boring.” Superman Returns: “Boring.”

Another pattern that emerges from his body of critical work is his tendency to dish about the sexual dalliances that take place on screen — which amounts to a striking departure in style from his personal essays. In 1992, the New York Times published a review of Koch’s autobiography, Citizen Koch, in which critic Walter Goodman wrote, “The one striking omission is sex. … There is not a word here about any childhood crush or memorable date or dreams of romance or first visit to a whorehouse.”

But nobody can accuse Koch of holding back in his film reviews. Here’s Koch on Basic Instinct 2: “The script includes several murders, a house of prostitution Amsterdam style, a lesbian relationship, homosexual shagging, and an opening scene generally described by reviewers as Sharon Stone pleasuring herself.” On Somersault: “not a kinky film like Blue Velvet.” On Heath Ledger’s performance in Casanova: “In this film, he is in command of his libido and sexual activities and constantly beds the opposite sex.”

On the whole, Koch says readers react well to his film reviews. “The movie reviews, people will say, ‘I never go to the movies unless I read your review,’” says Koch. “Or, ‘I went the other week and I’m so sorry I didn’t read your review.’ It’s very personal.”

Towards the end of the interview, with Koch in mid-sentence, the lights in Koch’s office shut off without warning. “It goes off automatically if there’s not enough movement,” says the mayor out of the darkness.

Not to worry. If history is any guide, Koch won’t be sitting still for long. He’s got columns to edit, newspapers to read, television and radio appearances to prepare for. Sixteen years into his second career as a member of the media, Koch intends to keep on moving, keep on hustling.

“I don’t have much time left,” says Koch. “I’m 82. I got to get all this stuff done.”

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.