It’s a cold Friday night last December and I am at the reception desk to see former New York Mayor Ed Koch at New York Presbyterian Hospital.
“Ed Koch please,” I ask the young African-American fellow serving as the receptionist.
“You’re here to see Mayor Koch!” he says rather excitedly to me, exclaiming rather than questioning.
I am curious as to his reaction, coming from a young man no older than 25 and probably not even born before 1989, when Koch served his last year as mayor.
So, as he’s scanning the computer for Hizzoner’s room, I say, “You know of Mayor Koch.”
“No, I don’t know him. But it’s a name I have heard all my life, like he’s part of me,” he says.
I found the story amusing, so upon entering Koch’s private hospital suite, I shared the anecdote with Ed.
“Ed, most of these kids don’t know who the vice president is, but they know who you are after all these years out of office,” I said, adding as Koch was smirking, “You ARE still relevant after all these years!”
He loved it, because after he left the mayoralty he frequently said his goal in life was to “remain relevant.”
In fact, he was remaining relevant that Friday night.
Though recovering from the flu (doctors first thought it was pneumonia) with medical monitoring devices strapped to his body as he lay in bed, Koch had papers strewn across himself, and a nearby table.
He was working on his next column (his column appeared on Newsmax, among several outlets) on the Middle East and the Obama administration’s policy toward Israel.
Koch had not been pleased that Obama had reverted to form and was again taking a more hostile line on Israel.
The mayor had strongly endorsed Obama in his re-election, but said he was not surprised by Obama’s behavior either.
“I only backed him because I thought he was going to win,” Koch said to me bluntly.
Someone who didn’t know Koch may have taken him as quite cynical and opportunistic.
I didn’t. Koch was being candid and eminently practical.
Koch apparently thought that if Obama was going to beat Romney, then Obama would be president for four years.
Four years can be a long time.
So Koch figured that it would be better to at least have a foothold with the Obama White House than no foothold at all if he remained neutral or backed Romney.
Koch was quite open to endorsing Republican candidates if he liked them on national security issues, as he did with George W. Bush in 2004.
Koch had spoken favorably of Bush but had not endorsed him. Early in 2004, I met Andy Card, Bush’s chief of staff, at a dinner and told him that Koch was open to endorsing the president but had never heard from the White House. Card rectified that and Koch went on to campaign actively for Bush in Florida and Ohio.
And his endorsement carried quite a bit of weight, especially with New Yorkers, former New Yorkers and Jewish voters.
As it turned out, Bush beat John Kerry by a small margin of 118,700 votes in Ohio, and I like to think Koch played a role with Ohio’s Jewish community. With Obama, Koch didn’t want an open door at the White House for personal gain, but for the causes he cared about.
Koch had made a bet with himself that if Obama won re-election he would support Israel. It was now becoming clear to Koch he had lost the bet.
I reminded Koch of his private meeting with Obama in the fall of 2011. Soon after his powwow, Koch had shared the blow-by-blow details, which I had written about in my article, "A Tale of Two Obamas.”
Koch had clearly been charmed by Obama’s charm and frankness.
Obama, apparently knowing of Koch’s penchant for talking, began the conversation by saying, “Ed, I know you have a lot to tell me. But first, I’d like to speak for about twenty minutes. Can you let me do that without interruption and when I finish, you can speak all you want.”
As Koch related with a smile, the president was basically telling him to “shut up and listen.” Koch quite liked Obama’s blunt approach, saying it was “cute.”
During their conversation, Obama made all sorts of promises and assurances about U.S. policy toward Israel. Koch decided within days of the meeting that he would accept the president at his word.
But, without pressing, he quickly offered to me that Obama “could be lying to me.”
Koch liked Obama personally and, in his mind, Koch had nowhere else to go politically.
Shortly after the election I had written of Romney’s shortcomings and Koch wrote me a letter with a note that said: “Romney lost because voters saw the Republican Party as the party representing the interests of the very wealthy in this country. They saw the Democratic Party as defender of the middle class and the poor.”
Typical of him, Koch summed up the election in two sentences.
We’re still in the hospital room and the election is about two months into history, and Koch still has regrets.
“The Republicans should have cleaned Obama’s clock,” he laments.
But now we are talking about tax policy and Koch is telling me the only way to solve the nation’s fiscal problems is to tax the rich.
I counter that doing so could lead to actually less government revenue, not more, with a widening deficit — just as it happened in Britain.
“You’re crazy, that’s simply crazy,” he says to me, the feisty Ed Koch I knew was returning, looking for a good partner to spar with.
At this point I’m thinking to myself: Is it wise for me to argue with an 88-year-old man recuperating in the hospital?
Fortunately, the nurse came with Koch’s dinner and interrupted us.
He waved to her. “Not yet with the food, put it over there,” he said pointing to a table.
“But give me the chocolate milk right away.”
“Chocolate milk, Ed?” I said quizzically, as he took the large glass with both hands. “You drink it regularly?”
Slurping it down in gulps, he came up for air. “Yes, I do. Every single day. How do you think I made it to 88!”
The trademark Koch smile flashed across his face and we both laughed.
Last night I went to sleep with the radio on. That’s how I fall asleep and stay asleep.
My doctor told me that there is nothing wrong with it — the sound apparently helps my brain waves sync to get sleep — and that I should not change the habit!
Typically, being asleep I never remember anything that was on the radio, but I do remember last night being startled and hearing a female voice: "Breaking news, former New York Mayor Ed Koch has died . . ." or words to that effect.
Apparently my “sleeping” brain was listening somehow, woke me up and then allowed me to drift back to sleep.
Waking up later that morning, I thought, was that a dream or did Ed Koch really die?
I clicked on my cell phone and Ken Chandler, my editor, had left a simple message: “AP: Ed Koch dies.”
Ken, who once edited the New York Post, knew Ed as well and we all had lunch together just months ago.
It wasn’t a dream after all. Ed had died.
But it was in a way a real dream, having been a friend of this remarkably good man and public servant.
Meeting the Mayor
I knew Ed Koch as a friend and confidante for more than two decades.
Almost every time I met him there was some anecdote to be remembered.
His detractors often criticized his outsized ego, which he had. But while others saw it as a liability, I thought it was a tremendous asset for him and a blessing for others.
Koch loved the spotlight, as long as it gave him an opportunity to do good. He was not one for grabbing the spotlight for the sake of it.
He loved telling the story that on Hillary Clinton’s election to the Senate, she walked over to him and said, “I want you to stand right behind me” on the stage.
He never would have tried to steal the stage from her, “as some other politicians would have,” Koch recalled to me, obliquely referencing New York’s senior senator.
With Koch it was more than just ego. Politicians who are only ego-driven, who love the limelight so much, are not willing to take risks that may cut them off from establishment outlets.
Not Koch, he was totally different. And that’s sort of why we first got to know each other.
It was in the early ‘90s, when I edited a tiny publication few had ever heard of and I broke several stories about a PBS documentary called “Liberators” that purported to show how two African-American combat units had liberated the concentration camps of Buchenwald and Dachau.
I had discovered that the story line had been distorted and greatly embellished. In fact, the black soldiers featured in the film had truly been heroic. But they were not liberators of those camps.
When I interviewed several of the soldiers, they told me that the film had distorted the truth and they actually had never made the claim about liberating the camps.
Koch heard about my stories and contacted me. We first spoke by phone.
He was upset by the allegations. If true, PBS was revising Holocaust history for reasons of political correctness.
He asked to meet me at his New York law office. We had a long chat.
A flurry of letters and phone calls followed, with Koch demanding that PBS explain what happened or “fess up.” Other press joined the fray and the American Jewish Committee soon criticized the documentary.
In the end, an embarrassed PBS pulled its support for the film.
I had established my credibility in Koch’s eyes, and our long friendship continued through my journalism days at the New York Post, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and later, with the founding of Newsmax in 1998.
And during my wilderness years reporting critically on the Clinton administration, Koch, a Democrat, always remained quite supportive.
Soon after I founded Newsmax, I held a kick-off party for us in New York. Koch served as our principal host.
Ed Koch’s Unlikely Best Friend
Many Americans think of Koch as a quintessential New Yorker and a proud Jewish-American.
Koch was quite proud of his Jewish faith.
He said he wanted his tombstone to read “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish,” the last words of journalist Daniel Pearl before he was beheaded by militants in Pakistan.
His Judaism animated him, but not in a narrow, isolating way.
Just as being a fervent New Yorker might have made him provincial to the city (he famously told Playboy magazine about the suburbs: “It’s sterile. It’s nothing. It’s wasting your life.), he thought well beyond Manhattan and its insular thinking.
In many ways, Koch’s political views probably had more in common with those of a blue-collar Ohio Democrat than a West Side liberal.
Why Koch was loyal to me I am not exactly sure. We liked each other.
I was a New Yorker, with my family coming to Manhattan in the 1840s. I was an Irish Catholic, my Dad had been a police officer, and I was a strong supporter of Israel.
Koch seemed to have an affinity for the Irish and got on famously with the police during his mayoralty. He also had an unflinching interest in protecting Israel, America’s longtime democratic ally in the region.
And Koch simply loved the Catholic Church.
Koch had many friends. But his best friend, as far as I could tell, was the late Cardinal John O’Connor.
O’Connor, named Archbishop of New York, received his “Red Hat” soon after Koch became mayor. The two hit it off, beginning a friendship that lasted until O’Connor’s death in 2000.
At first glance, the two came from totally different worlds.
O’Connor was from Philadelphia and spent his life in the U.S. military as a chaplain, rising to the rank of admiral, as Koch represented Manhattan in Congress and later New York as mayor.
In private, O’Connor was somewhat retiring among people, but he was also known as an outspoken traditionalist when using his St. Patrick’s pulpit to excoriate the country’s lurch leftward on social issues like abortion and gay rights. Koch was an extrovert and staunchly pro-choice and pro-gay rights.
Yet this unlikely duo remained best of pals even after Koch left Gracie Mansion.
Each year, Koch would attend Christmas Eve vigil mass and sit in the front row.
Cardinal O’Connor would comment before the mass began, “For those of you Catholics who are returning to church and have forgotten when to stand and kneel, just watch Monsignor Koch, he knows what to do.”
Everyone would roar.
I recall, shortly after Koch’s open heart surgery that kept him in the hospital for weeks, visiting him at his Greenwich Village apartment as he was convalescing.
His apartment was simple — not much furniture, books, few knick-knacks, or papers.
But what really struck me were the mementos of Cardinal O’Connor on the wall. As you entered the apartment, a large poster for a book Koch and O’Connor co-authored was framed.
Other O’Connor pictures adorned the wall.
Anytime O’Connor’s name was mentioned, Koch would light up. In conversation, I would sometimes drop his name, just to see Koch’s reaction.
Koch told me about a year ago that he wasn’t sure when he had open heart surgery if he would survive as he lay in the hospital for weeks. So he put a picture of Cardinal O’Connor on his chest and kept it there during his hospital entire stay.
Not only did he survive, Koch said, but when he left the hospital, he was completely cured of a debilitating stenosis of his spine that had made it difficult for him to walk.
He later told me that he informed Cardinal Egan, O’Connor’s successor, that he was willing to testify to a miracle for O’Connor’s proposed sainthood.
“How’m I doin?”
Today, the obituaries are being published about Edward I. Koch.
Most are focusing on what the press sees as his “one big thing” -- the one line history will remember about the person.
That one line about Koch reads like this: He became mayor when New York was on the verge of bankruptcy, took on the powerful unions and saved the city.
I have no quarrel with that line itself, but I think Koch is so much bigger than the view he was just the City’s “savior” or even the “quintessential New Yorker.”
In my mind Koch was an archetype.
He was a model of how a public servant and a good citizen can make a significant difference in the lives of others, in a real and positive way.
He was engaged totally in the things he loved. He loved New York, its people, his country, his Jewish faith, Israel.
I remember bumping into Koch’s late brother Harold sometime in 1990. He told me that he was very worried about his brother, that he might commit suicide, as his personality, after three terms as mayor, had become so identified with the Big Apple that he was simply lost, depressed, and might give up on life.
Harold wasn’t joking about this.
I told Koch the story some years later and he said “Harold was right.” Koch did have a difficult though brief time becoming a private citizen.
But Koch soon realized his identity and mission was so much larger than New York.
In many ways he became more influential after leaving the mayoralty. His political endorsements helped make Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg mayor, not to mention helping to re-elect leading New York Republicans like Gov. George Pataki and Sen. Alfonse D’Amato and Connecticut’s independent Democrat, Joe Lieberman.
Koch joked to me once that if he endorsed one more Republican, he would have to leave the Democratic Party.
But that was what the public liked, his courage to overcome party labels to bring people together and argue for causes larger than any party.
Koch urged me to do the same and reach out to former President Clinton, despite having been a longtime critic of him. During a lunch in 2007, Koch told me that in the 1990s he didn’t like the Clintons for a variety of reasons.
But after Hillary was elected senator and he got to know her, he was impressed by her dedication and work ethic. He also admired the former president for his humanitarian work after leaving the presidency.
“You can disagree but still be friends,” he said, suggesting a meeting with Bill Clinton.
I agreed with Koch that Bill Clinton had done a remarkable job in his post-presidency as a global ambassador of good will and with his work for his Clinton Foundation. And like Koch, we both thought the Clinton presidency was much better than we saw it at the time.
Soon Koch had a letter off to Bill Clinton about a meeting. Just months later, Clinton extended an invitation to myself and my business partner, Richard Scaife, to meet with him for lunch at his Harlem office.
As a result of Koch’s introduction, I have become friends with the former president and a strong supporter of his foundation.
Koch was right. We can disagree. It’s actually good to disagree. But at the end of the day, it’s also good to work for the common good.
I have no doubt Koch is in a better place for playing such a positive role in the lives of so many people.
And I am sure somewhere he’s asking, “How’m I doin?”
You’re doing just fine Mayor, but don’t stop now.
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