The Myopia of the Muckracker : CITY FOR SALE Ed Koch and the Betrayal of New York by Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett (Harper & Row: $22.95; 485 pp., illustrated; 0-06-016060-8)

In New York City this year, Edward I. Koch will attempt to win an unprecedented fourth term as mayor. He will do this despite a third term that has been a ceaseless embarrassment, a dark political comedy featuring some of the strangest local color since the days of Damon Runyon:

*Three of the mayor's prime political sponsors--the Democratic county leaders of Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx--were exposed as corrupt; two were convicted, the other committed suicide by impaling himself on a carving knife.

*The bachelor mayor's surrogate first lady, Bess Myerson, was indicated for trying to bribe a judge--Hortense Gabel--in order to win her boyfriend a favorable divorce settlement. She was alleged to have done this by offering the judge's brilliant but hopelessly neurotic daughter a job; the daughter, Sukhreet Gabel, became an instant New York celebrity when she agreed to testify against her mother--but her testimony was so faulty ("My mind is like Swiss cheese," she said) that Myerson was acquitted.

*There has been a steady stream of corruption trials starring assorted kooks and clubhouse flotsam--one fellow laundered bribes through his synagogue; another was an enormously obese failed sex therapist.

*The 64-year-old mayor suffered a "trivial" stroke; his doctor told him not to worry, he had "the brain of a 28-year-old."

*The mayor behaved in such an obnoxious and vituperative fashion during the New York presidential primary that the Democratic Party made it clear he was not welcome at its Atlanta convention; when he finally was asked to campaign for Michael Dukakis (in Florida) last fall, he praised Ronald Reagan. When asked what sort of First Lady Kitty Dukakis might be, he responded, "How the hell should I know?"

*Most recent polls indicate that the vast majority of New Yorkers hope that he will choose to retire.

Because New York is a city with a sense of the macabre--and despite the polls--Koch remains a formidable political presence; some experts still consider him the favorite in this year's campaign. Certainly, he reflects the spirit of the town as no mayor since La Guardia; and if New Yorkers are sick of him, it's the same way they're sick of garrulous Uncle Herbie, who comes to Thanksgiving dinner each year and never stops talking. He is obnoxious, a real pain--the city is a mess--but he's still family.

There is material here, one suspects, for a lively political history. But "City for Sale" is an unrelenting screech--dense, clumsy and so detailed that it is probably incomprehensible to anyone living west of Riverside Drive. Indeed, a caveat emptor seems in order: This book is the latest chapter in one of the more virulent and longstanding family feuds of New York politics. The mayor and Jack Newfield have known each other for more than a quarter-century. They were allies in the 1960s--Newfield, a crusading reporter for the Village Voice; Koch, the Voice's lawyer and a leading reform Democrat. They fell out in the early 1970s when Newfield decided that Koch, blinded by ambition, was demagoguing the race issue. It has been bazookas at 20 paces ever since.

Newfield and his co-author, Wayne Barrett, clearly put a great deal of work into this. They courted the various prosecutors pursuing Koch Administration miscreants; they know the city cold. Parts of the book are quite compelling; some of the characters gain life and breathe. The account of the main corruption trial is one of the most engaging courtroom dramas I've read--thanks, in no small part, to the fact that both the prosecuting and defense attorneys, Rudolph Giuliani and Thomas Puccio, are longtime friends and sources of the authors.

But Newfield and Barrett's friends and enemies, obsessions and vendettas, are never far from the reader's consciousness. They shape--indeed, they distort--this book and the reality that it is alleged to reflect. The authors constantly lose track of the story, following their prosecutorial heroes on wild goose chases, scurrying after leads that don't quite pan out, detailing petty corruptions that are only tangential to the real story of the Koch Administration.

In the end, Koch himself is something of an innocent bystander (as, in fact, he was in the scandals)--which is a shame, because he's far more interesting than the petty crooks whose greed and stupidity are chronicled here. If it is true that Koch "betrayed" New York--as the title suggests--it was a strange sort of betrayal, a willful blindness by a very talented man who lost his way.

Koch's story is a bizarre twist on the great American municipal cliche: the reformer who wins office and becomes every bit as corrupt as the "machine" he replaced. But this mayor didn't sell out for money or power: He went Hollywood. He became besotted by the cameras. He was--and is--the proprietor of an endless, floating press conference, a man who brags that his name has appeared in the newspapers or on the air every single day for the last 12 years. As a result, he became neglectful of the city, unaware of the funny business his appointees were perpetrating, more interested in shtick than substance. He became a classic media-age political type--the statesman-entertainer--a soul brother, in that sense, of his famous nemesis, Jesse Jackson. His narcissism was such that his "innocence" in the scandals was obvious to all but the most cynical observers; he had no time to be corrupt, he was too busy performing.

In their furious pursuit of the mayor, Newfield and Barrett suffer from a fatal case of an obscure disease--muckraking myopia. The scandals were awful, it is true; but they involved only a few, less than crucial, city agencies. The far greater scandal was what happened, or didn't happen, in the city's schools, in the streets, in the welfare hotels, in the desperate armories where the homeless are warehoused, in the embattled, drug-ridden middle-class precincts--while the mayor was preoccupied, watching himself on the evening news. In their eagerness to score points against a formidable adversary, Newfield and Barrett lose track of the most important point of all.

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