There is an old saying, "Youth is wasted on the young." When we are young and energetic, few of us take stock of our lives. Instead, we use our energy to take on new challenges and enjoy life to the fullest. And that’s the way it should be.
When we get older, and our energies begin to diminish, we take stock of where we’ve been and what’s left to do. At age 83, I am much more reflective than I was when I was 40.
Looking back at my life, I feel blessed that I have had a great ride and have no complaints. I am the son of Louis and Joyce Koch, both Polish Jewish immigrants who came here in the early 1900s. They raised three children and worked their way into the lower middle class.
They had a hard life, but their energies and aspirations were directed at ensuring that their children would have better lives than they had — educationally and financially. In this respect, they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
In my career as a public servant, I held the offices of city councilman, congressman and mayor of New York City. In the course of the 23 years of my public career, I met seven United States presidents. Yes, me, a kid born on Crotona Park East in the Bronx in very humble circumstances, held three of the most important elective jobs in this city and met seven of the most powerful people in the world.
The first president I met was Lyndon Johnson. It was at a joint session of Congress which he was addressing during the first 20 days of my service as a member of Congress in 1969. I sat near the door through which he would enter the chamber.
When he entered, there was enormous cheering and as he passed me, I reached over and touched him on the shoulder and said silently, “I forgive you,” and wished him well. I was against the Vietnam War and he had led America in this destructive conflict.
I realized that he had done his best and achieved many domestic victories, particularly in the civil rights field, and deserved the country’s forgiveness and gratitude.
In that same 20 days, Johnson left office and Richard Nixon became president. Nixon came to the floor of Congress. He was allowed on the floor because he had been a congressman — remember the Whittaker Chambers controversy.
Speaker John McCormack suspended the business of the House, so that members could stand in line and greet the new president. At first, I thought, Why should I stand in line? I don’t like him. Then I thought, Nixon does live in my district, so I got into line to shake his hand.
As I got up to him, the clerk of the House, Fishbait Miller, said in a loud voice, “Mr. President, this is one of our boys who took one of your seats away, Ed Koch in the 17th in New York.” Nixon put his hand out to shake mine and said to me, “A lot of money in that district.” I thought, “How tacky.”
The next future president with whom I had a conversation was Gerald Ford when he was the House minority leader. I had been told by the congressman and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Manny Celler, with whom I discussed how to assist the Soviet Jews and others seeking visas to leave the Soviet Union, that I should visit with Ford.
He was soon to become vice president and then president of the United States. At that time, we did not know it. In those days, everyone in the House, on both sides of the aisle, was on a first-name basis. I said, “Jerry, I need your help to bring those permitted to leave the Soviet Union into the country.” His reply was, “I will help. These are good people; they will never go on welfare.” Little did we know how many did. But he helped and saved many lives.
Ford lost to Jimmy Carter. I came to know Carter well. When he ran for re-election, he asked me to campaign for him in 1980 — I was by then mayor of New York City — and I said that I would vote for him, but not campaign for him because he was then engaging in hostile acts towards Israel.
I was popular with the Jewish community and when I would not campaign for him unless he changed his position, he called me to his hotel in New York when attending a fundraiser and said, “You have done me more damage than any man in America.”
I felt proud then, and even more today, since we now know what a miserable president he was then and the miserable human being he is now as he prepares to meet with Hamas.
Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter. On one of his visits to New York City, I drove with him from the helicopter pad to Reagan’s hotel. The streets were lined with tens of thousands of people and, as he looked out the car window while were crossing 42nd Street, he suddenly yelled, “Look at that guy — he gave me the finger!”
Sure enough, there was a guy with his middle finger extended upright. I said, “Mr. President, don’t be so upset. Thousands of people are cheering you and one guy is giving you the finger. So what?” He replied, “that’s what Nancy always says. She says I only see the guy with the finger.” I never voted for him, but I loved him.
Then came George H.W. Bush, father of the current president. We served together in Congress and when he was CIA director, he called me to tell me there was a contract out on my life by the security forces of the Condor — made up of Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile.
I asked if the CIA would protect me. He said, "No, we don’t provide personal protection." I asked, “George, what should I do?” He replied, “Ed, be very careful.”
Then came Bill Clinton. I supported Hillary Clinton for the Senate when she first ran and support her now in her quest for the presidency. I attended a fundraiser for her. At the time, I was suffering from an enlarged prostate. As the curtain of the show we were attending fell, I started to run up the aisle to the restroom.
President Bill Clinton stepped into the aisle, stopped me and started to tell me how much he appreciated my support of Hillary. In my mind I was thinking, “If you don’t get out of the way, Mr. President, I’ll have to knock you down.” Telepathy must have played a role, and he stepped aside.
Now we come to the last president on this list, George W. Bush. I campaigned for his re-election and have no regrets. I believe that history will treat him more kindly than current public opinion polls indicate. He and Tony Blair recognized the danger of Islamic terrorism to the Western world when most world leaders did not. In addition, he is a very nice guy.
I met Pope John Paul II twice, once in Rome and once in New York City. In Rome at a private audience, I talked with him, urging the Vatican to recognize the state of Israel. He said that it would, but that he had to be careful because of the “Qu`ranic” response. When I continued with my urging, he replied, “Enough, already.”
The Vatican ultimately extended diplomatic ties to Israel. By the end of this week, I will be greeting Pope Benedict XVI at the synagogue I attend, Park East Synagogue.
Wouldn’t you agree that I have led a sensational life?
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