I recently read a book published in 1988, City for Sale: Ed Koch and the Betrayal of New York, by Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett, who were investigative reporters of that time. Koch was New York Mayor from January 1, 1979, through December 31, 1989, and the book is about the corruption, mostly from machine politicians, in New York City during the time of Koch’s administration. Koch first ran as a reformer and an anti-political machine candidate, but after he was elected, while making a failed attempt to become governor, he turned to the machines for support and then became allied with them.
The thesis is not the Koch was corrupt in the sense of seeking money, but in seeking to maintain political power, he turned a blind eye or was willfully ignorant of the corruption around him. The authors conclude: “Ed Koch’s tragic flaw had been a desire for power, not money. He became the mayor who didn’t want to know. Admiring his own performance, he didn’t notice anyone else’s. While he had been gazing into the mirror, his city had been for sale.”
The book was enjoyable to me partly to read about people whom I had not thought about for a long time, like Donald Manes, Meade Esposito, Stanley Friedman, Mario Biaggi, and so on. It was surprising to come across colleagues and friends who, unbeknownst to me, had had peripheral, noncorrupt roles in the scandals. It was almost nostalgic to revisit times when headlines and news reports were dominated by the bizarre plots and maneuverings of local politicians instead of the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up of the national politics of today. City for Sale, however, was also interesting for present-day lessons, parallels, and ironies.
The two authors, both of whom worked for the Village Voice during most of the chronicled events, drew heavily on their own investigative reporting but also utilized reports by many others who worked for the daily newspapers and local television stations. This made me wonder who today would cover comparable corruption stories since newspapers are disappearing and investigative budgets have dwindled. This could be as good a time as any to be corrupt, at least if it is kept local and does not attract national attention.
Although they came to office decades apart, I find parallels between Mayor Koch and President Trump. Koch was obsessed with the media and from early in his career looked for his name in the papers every day and sought to learn whether radio and TV had mentioned him. And he was good copy. “Koch had both a mastery of and an infatuation with the media. . . . Koch bombarded the public with foreign policy pronouncements, restaurant recommendations, opinions on pending court cases, and burlesque put-downs of his critics as wackos and kooks—all delivered in perfect, pithy, thirty-second sound bites for radio and television.” Twitter did not exist then, but if he could master the sound bite, surely Koch would have mastered twitter. Trump, who was coming of business age in New York during this time, must have envied Koch’s frequent domination of the media. But the parallel between Koch and Trump is not complete. Koch did seek the limelight constantly, but he also seemed to have some interest in actual governing.
(continued December 19.)