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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 It was there that Koch announced he had rescinded his critical editorial written a few days earlier in the New York Daily News on Barack Obama’s views towards the Jewish state.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.