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Remembering a legend

Former New York Mayor Ed Koch was laid to rest today at a gravesite he spent much time sculpting.

Former New York Mayor Ed Koch was laid to rest today at a gravesite he spent much time sculpting. Of course he took the crew that was shooting a documentary about him to see it.

The documentary is called Koch and it's an intimate portrait one of the most complex public servants of the modern era, a man who embodies New York and shaped it. You can put Koch's body in the ground but his spirit will forever be a part of this city. Times Square was once the rotting core of the city, an obscene section filled with peep shows, porn, crime and the homeless. Koch condemned, rezoned, lured private developers and launched the revitalization of Times Square. Now it's a neon-dominated, over-commercialized obscenity--but one that's clean and brings millions into the city. Less visible to tourists but just as important is the $5 billion he spent on creating affordable housing which helped change the Bronx.

At Koch's funeral Bill Clinton spoke--which is fitting because it's hard to find two politicians more nakedly in need of love and acceptance and approval. In the documentary, it's said being liked is Koch's oxygen. But where Clinton is a smooth operator who approaches America as if it were a lovely lady he'd like to pick up, Koch was brash and opinionated and tough like a New York cabby.

On the modern political stage his truest echo is Chris Christie, another man who tells it like it is and doesn't care if it hurts and brings a certain gritty ethnic persona that's well known to their constituents onto the big stage. In the doc, Koch says you can only get the people to follow you by being bigger than life; he refers to politics as theater which makes sense: he was good at all sorts of theater.

Eddie Murphy's character's antipathy in the documentary is representative of the Mayor's deep troubles with New York's black community. For someone who needed to be loved he was strangely polarizing to and unafraid of angering New York's blacks. Maybe he knew he didn't need their support.

In the doc a reporter says Koch lacked a sensitivity synapse toward black people or at least to their political needs. Koch apologizes for closing an important Harlem hospital. Perhaps it's fitting that New York's racial troubles in the 80s were a part of his political undoing and his successor was the city's first and only black mayor. Dinkins was a gentlemanly mayor.

Then Rudy Giuliani was a mean-spirited, combative one. Michael Bloomberg has been a cold, businesslike manager who thought he was a king. None could match Koch as the embodiment of the city, this epic, sprawling, complex city which often seems at war with itself. Both New York and Koch are larger than life. Both have massive egos. Both have things they'd rather hide. And both are an essential part of the fabric of America.