Ron Radosh

Edward I. Koch 1924-2013: Some Remembrances

I was proud to consider myself a friend of Ed Koch. Despite obvious disagreements, Koch remained supportive of my work, and very often I would get a brief email indicating how he appreciated what I had written about the need to support Israel and to criticize its opponents. I heard from him regularly, the last time on January 2 when he wrote to compliment me for a recent PJ Media column criticizing the nomination of Chuck Hagel and another on the anti-Israel positions of Tom Friedman: “Your commentaries on Hagel and Friedman were superb.” I have no doubt that were he still with us he would have been a lone Democrat who would have commented negatively on Hagel’s testimony yesterday.

Last year when I was openly critical of him for supporting Obama’s re-election, he responded simply that he saw things differently than I did, and he particularly disagreed with my assessment that Democrats were not defending Israel as boldly as Republicans were. Koch argued that he was sure I would not like it if he had insinuated I was against Israel’s interest because I wasn’t a Democrat, and that he thought it important that support of Israel come from both sides of the aisle.

I never felt comfortably calling him Ed, and would address him as “Mr. Mayor” or “Mayor Koch.” I last talked with him personally during the presidency of George W. Bush, when he attended a speech by the president at a fundraising dinner for a Jewish organization in Washington, D.C. Koch walked up to me, addressing me, as he often did when I saw him, as “the bravest man in America.” His judgment, which he often repeated, was not sarcastic, although hardly deserved. I think he admired me because when I spent time with him in 1987 — which I will soon turn to —  he appreciated my outspoken willingness to say what I thought about leftist demagogues when others were either silent or deferential in their presence. Koch, as we all know, always said what he thought, and more than often caught hell for doing so.

The last time I heard him speak publicly was during the counter-session (which Roger L. Simon also attended) at the United Nations to oppose growing anti-Israeli sentiment at the international body. It was there that Koch announced he had rescinded his critical editorial written a few days earlier in the New York Daily News on Barack Obama’s views towards the Jewish state. He had met with the president one day before, he told us, and Obama had assured him that he was a firm supporter of Israel. Koch believed, as he himself acknowledged a short while ago, that he always thought Obama would betray Israel, although as he put it, he didn’t think it would happen so quickly.

Back then, however, he seemed to really think his op-ed had convinced the president to change course, and he desperately wanted to believe that Obama was most sincere at his private meeting.

For those interested in a critical overview of Koch’s role as mayor of New York, so far the best assessments are by Benjamin Smith writing today on the website of the New York Sun and one by John Podhoretz today in Contentions. Also worthwhile is Matthew Cooper’s assessment of Koch’s new liberalism in the National Journal. You can, of course, all read the overview in the lengthy obituary in today’s New York Times.

What I want to mention, however, is an event that Koch sponsored while mayor that everyone seems to have forgotten about, although at the time the mayor was vigorously attacked for it. In 1987, at the time of escalating warfare in Central America, a growing revolutionary threat in El Salvador, and a civil war in Nicaragua between the Sandinistas and the contras (the armed opposition to the Sandinistas by peasants and business opponents of the country’s revolutionary junta), Ed Koch decided to see if he could contribute to the peace process introduced by Costa Rica’s President Oscar Arias by putting together a New York City mission to Central America.

So far, I have not seen it mentioned in any of the discussions of Koch’s mayoralty, and to a certain extent, it certainly was a footnote. But the very idea grated the New York liberals.

I recall editorials chastising the mayor for even implying that the city had its own foreign policy, and calling for him to disband the mission and to cancel his scheduled trip. Koch replied that he only was trying to work with President Arias and trying to see if he could in any way contribute to his effort. What really galled Koch, however, was his memory that years earlier he had welcomed Sandinista commandante Daniel Ortega (now president of Nicaragua) to New York City and, in a public ceremony at City Hall, given him the keys to the city. As a congressman, he had been a fierce opponent of the Somoza dictatorship and hence had welcomed its overthrow by the young revolutionaries, a decision he had come to deeply regret.

He, like other well-meaning liberals, had been conned by Ortega’s sweet talk, only to find he was a low-rent version of Fidel Castro.

A good politician, Koch was careful to include some obvious leftists in his delegation to Central America. One was a Hispanic Marxist who was president of Hostos Community College in the Puerto Rican district of the Bronx; another was an African American woman who was president of the New York Urban League. The remaining six members included an African American union officer, radio magnate R. Peter Straus; Richard Ravitch, then CEO of the Bowery Bank and a former head of the New York Transit Authority; a Hispanic who was head of a Hispanic Catholic center; and former Kennedy speechwriter and Democratic player Ted Sorensen. Koch appointed me to the mission as a result of the suggestion of my friend, the late Eric Breindel, who was then editorial page editor of the New York Post.

Before the mission left, Koch convened a meeting at Gracie Mansion with President Arias, who later would receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his suggested plan for bringing peace to Central America. Arias had critics on his left and his right, but he made it clear that he was a strong opponent of the Sandinistas, whom he rightfully regarded as enemies of democracy. As he told us, ”We may soon see the Communist government of Nicaragua using force against workers, students, peasants, and intellectuals.” The prediction was all too accurate, as their government organized mobs — called turbas (divine mobs) — which they regularly called out to beat up would-be opponents and protesters.

The press and media were hostile to Koch, but Arias was ecstatic, giving the mission his blessings, hoping that it would help lead to regional reconciliation. Although the mission would travel to Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Costa Rica, the New York Times did not cover it or issue one report — although its own correspondent, Stephen Kinzer, was permanently in Nicaragua. The New York Post, which favored the mission, sent its top reporter and covered the trip each day, as did the New York City TV news divisions of the major networks.

Arriving in Managua on November 5, Koch issued a statement of the mission’s goals, stressing our desire to help reach the goals of “reconciliation, amnesty, democratization, a negotiated ceasefire, and an end to the cross-border supplying of irregular forces.” This addressed in particular the supply of arms to the Marxist rebels in El Salvador and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua by the Cuban regime and the Soviets. Koch’s statement called as well for economic aid, refugee relief, and moving away from extremes towards “the democratic center.” It was intentionally ambiguous, and did not work to cease tensions within our group between the left and the right.

The most visible sign of this occurred at a giant Sandinista rally held in Managua where Ortega announced a new change in strategy. For months, he and his comrades argued that they would not negotiate with the contras, who were in fact gaining militarily and scoring defeats against the well-equipped Sandinista army. They would only negotiate, he had always said, with the United States, whom Ortega referred to as the “puppet-masters.” But at the rally, he abruptly shocked the audience by saying he would now negotiate directly with the armed opposition, through the offices of the archbishop of Nicaragua. As he said these words, Comandante Bayardo Arce, head of the party apparatus and a known hard-line Marxist-Leninist, visibly grimaced. At the same time, however, Ortega said that his ruling junta would continue to stamp upon the domestic civic opponents of the regime, and would continue to call out the government’s thugs to crack the heads of those who dared to publicly protest.

Our delegation noticed immediately upon arriving that eight seats had been put on stage, obviously meant for us to sit in. They were directly behind Ortega, who was scheduled to introduce us during his speech. Koch told us that he would inform the Sandinistas that we were not there to give Ortega or his regime its support, but to speak in favor of democratization and peace. To go on stage, he rightfully said, would make it appear to the world that New York’s mayor and his delegation were backing the Sandinistas.

At that moment, the two radical women in the delegation, Hostos President Isaura Santiago-Santiago and Harriet Richardson Michel, announced that they were not going to insult the Sandinistas, and would go on stage and offer them their support. Koch, madder than I have ever seen him, ordered them to stay put, or he would dismiss them from the delegation and send them home. They retreated immediately, and they later accused me of being responsible for Koch’s decision, since earlier I had openly challenged an assertion by a Sandinista official that they were not communists, and had denounced their private hidden agenda.

The rally, it turned out, had all the trappings of an orchestrated, fascist-style rally. Koch remarked at a press conference he called later in the evening that the rally, with its bevy of floodlights and screaming pronouncements by Comandante Ortega, made him think of Hitler’s famous Nuremberg rally captured in the film by Riefenstahl.

The leftists among our group blanched and held in their anger at Koch.

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.