The last event of our trip was a meeting with Ortega in a middle-class suburb of Managua that Koch remarked made him think he was in Great Neck, Long Island. It had been scheduled for 11 p.m., rather late, but the comandante made us wait until 3 a.m. — a typical trick of leftist dictators meant to impress upon us how busy they were, and how much more important they were than those who have to idle away hours just to meet with them.
At that meeting, Ortega defended his regime’s use of the armed thugs who beat up would-be protesters, characterizing their actions as spontaneous outbursts of popular revolutionary enthusiasm, while everyone present knew and had seen evidence that they were carefully controlled shock troops of the state security apparatus, bused from one place to the other in government trucks to stage attacks on opponents of the regime.
In that little-remembered trip, Ed Koch revealed that he was, as he put it so often, a “liberal with sanity,” a man who had no truck with Marxist-Leninists and those of the hard Left.
He never lost his sense of humor. I recall a few comments he made during that trip that revealed his sarcastic wit. As he walked to the presidential palace in El Salvador, surrounded by armed Marines at a moment when rebel attacks were regularly taking place, we walked over some plants. Koch looked down and said: “Don’t step on the marijuana.” At another time, the morning Sandinista newspaper greeted the delegation’s arrival in Managua with a hostile editorial attacking Koch, whom they accused of wanting to foment a world war. Koch read it and turned to us, referring to his toughest U.S. critic among the journalists, Village Voice columnist and reporter Jack Newfield, and said, “I didn’t know Newfield was writing editorials for the Sandinista paper. When did he arrive in Managua?” At a morning press conference, he announced that the press would notice he was meeting with a member of the legislature who was a firm supporter of Ortega and the Marxists whose second name was Hooker. He said he could see the New York Daily News headline tomorrow: “Koch meets with hooker.”
There were many other examples of his constant good cheer, his seriousness about working against left-wing dictatorships, and his willingness to do this with the firm opposition to the trip from entire New York City editorial staffs of the major newspapers (with the exception of the Post) as well as the left-liberal intellectuals.
I am proud of having been selected to be on that trip with Mayor Koch, and to subsequently have had the opportunity to talk and reach out to him by email on Israel and other political questions. Today, when it seems that all centrist and liberal Democrats are abdicating their responsibility to even question the suitability of Chuck Hagel to be our next defense secretary, it is more apparent than ever how much our country needs the disappearing kind of liberal that Ed Koch represented so well.
He will be sorely missed. R.I.P.