Rest in peace, Ed Koch, the passing of a giant

I went to sleep Thursday night, having just read on the Internet that Ed Koch was in the intensive care unit at Columbia-Presbyterian hospital in Manhattan.  I posted on my Facebook page a request that people pray for him.

I awakened around 6:30 am and turned on Channel 4 NBC-New York news.  It was as if I was having a bad dream.

The anchors were interviewing Rabbi Arthur Schneier, the rabbi of Park East Synagogue in Manhattan, a synagogue to which I belong and often attend, asking his reactions to the death of Mayor Koch at 2:00 am.  Rabbi Schneier was Ed Koch’s rabbi, and the former mayor would speak at services every year at Park East on Rosh HaShannah. 

Hours later, I was still stunned.  I started listening to a YouTube of Nat King Cole’s rendition of “The Sidewalks of New York.”  I needed to play something that symbolized the joys and aspirations of New Yorkers, from Riverdale to Canarsie.  I loved watching old videos of former New York Governor Alfred E. Smith singing that song. 

That song will always symbolize the soul of New York City, just as Ed Koch, for me, will always also symbolize the soul of New York City.  Two hours after I heard the news of his passing, I was in tears.  I had only cried upon the death of one other political leader in my lifetime, when Ronald Reagan passed away in 2004.

And then, vignettes of my memories of Ed Koch passed through my mind…….

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I had the joy of meeting Ed Koch on numerous occasions.  No, he was not a member of my family.  He was a member of EVERY American Jewish family.  And he was a member of every New Yorker’s family.

I remember first reading at length about Ed Koch during the Yom Kippur war of 1973.  Ed was then a member of the United States House of Representatives.  He was passionate in his successful efforts to gain full support for Israel from his Congressional colleagues at a time when the very existence of the Jewish State was endangered.  I said to myself after reading about him, “We’re going to hear more about this fellow.”

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Fast forward to 1977.

Ed Koch was running for mayor of New York City, with his good friend and former Miss America Bess Myerson at his side.  There was something about Koch’s campaign that revived the confidence of New Yorkers after over two decades of pessimism.

Since 1954, the city had been governed by inept mayors, with the real power in New York City, Robert Moses operating in the background for much of that time period.   The mayors were the feckless Robert Wagner, the out-of-touch John Lindsay, and the hapless Abe Beame.

For that campaign, Ed Koch had the most ingenious campaign slogan I have ever heard: “After eight years of charisma (Lindsay) and four years of the clubhouse (Beame), why not try competence?”  That slogan hit home with the voters of a city on the edge of bankruptcy and beset with runaway crime.  Koch scored a decisive victory, defeating Mario Cuomo in the Democratic primary runoff and then besting Cuomo, also the Liberal Party candidate in the general election.

Those who have written since Koch’s death about him having “charisma” don’t get him at all.  Ed Koch PRIDED himself on not having the movie star glamour looks and charisma of a Kennedy or Lindsay.  What Ed Koch had was the ability to connect with people by projecting competence and remarkable empathy.

Ed Koch would govern New York City for twelve years.  Suffice it to say that his achievements in restoring the city’s fiscal health and efficient government earned him a place among New York City’s greatest mayors.  Yet just as important was Ed Koch’s understanding of symbolic governance.  New Yorkers felt that at long last, they had a mayor who, unlike Lindsay, was something more than the mayor of Manhattan, somebody who knew the concerns and problems of the day-to-day lives of the residents of the outer boroughs.

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Yet there was something ugly about that 1977 campaign as well.

There were rumors about Ed Koch’s sexuality in 1977 arising from his unmarried status.  Cuomo supporters throughout New York City began brandishing posters that said “Vote for Cuomo and not the homo.” Mario Cuomo and his campaign manager, his son and present New York Governor Andrew Cuomo denied any involvement with these posters.  Ed Koch never believed them and neither did I.  I have never bought Mario Cuomo’s self –portrayal of sainthood, and neither will I buy Andrew Cuomo’s act either – even if he becomes our next president.

Today, we live in a society that is much more tolerant on the issue of sexual preference than the America of 1977.  The leading candidate for mayor of New York in 2013 is Christine Quinn, an open lesbian who is married to another woman.  I met Christine, presently the speaker of the New York City Council while I was serving as Region 2 EPA Administrator during the Bush administration.  If I were a resident of New York City, I would vote for her in the 2013 election.  She is a supremely competent, likable person, and she will be a great mayor.

As for Ed Koch himself, in recent years he handled impertinent questions about his sexuality with the classic Koch humor.  His response was, “I will not answer your question.  I must say, however, that at my age, I consider any question about my sexuality to be a compliment.”

 

My parents were Democrats, and Ed Koch was a Democrat.  I am a Republican.  No matter.  I loved my parents, and I loved Ed Koch.

Ed Koch was a Democrat in the very best tradition of a Hubert Humphrey, another Democrat I disagreed with, but greatly admired.  Koch rejected completely the leftist fringe of the Democratic Party, and he had total antipathy for the leading Democrat advocate of ultra-left radicalism, the late Congresswoman Bella Abzug.  When Bella was trounced in one of her last elections, Koch was asked how she could have lost in her own neighborhood.  He displayed the classic Koch humor again, saying, “Her neighbors knew her.”

 

I always felt that the worst mistake Koch ever made was his unsuccessful run for governor of New York State in 1982, in which he was defeated by Mario Cuomo in the Democratic primary.

Ed Koch symbolized in every respect the very best of New York City, the greatest city in the world.  His campaign was actually doomed from the outset by remarks he gave in a Playboy magazine interview about “suburban life being sterile and rural life being a joke.”

I have always felt that if Ed Koch had actually been elected governor of New York, he would have found his new job to be a step down from mayor of New York.

 

Ed Koch was a good and great man, but he was not a saint.  He had the typical politician’s weakness of being unable to forgive those he perceived as having shafted him at some point.  This was most true with regard to those who had supported Cuomo either for mayor in the 1977 election or governor in the 1982 election.

One such erstwhile Cuomo supporter was the late former Speaker of the New York Assembly Saul Weprin.   His son, New York Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Queens) is a friend of mine, despite our differing political parties and philosophies.  He and I have spent considerable time together at Orthodox Jewish political events, and I have often attended Shabbat services at David’s synagogue, Young Israel of Jamaica Estates, in Queens.  We are both Orthodox Jews.  

In June, 2011, David was selected by Democratic Party leaders to run as the party candidate in the special election in New York Congressional District 9 to replace the departed disgraced former Representative Anthony Weiner.  Yet on special Election Day, Tuesday, September 13, 2011, Weprin was defeated by his rather unknown opponent, Bob Turner.

A key factor in Weprin’s loss was Ed Koch’s endorsement of Bob Turner.  Koch stated that Turner’s victory was necessary to send a message of outrage to President Obama over his anti-Israel policies.

I do not in any way question the pro-Israel motivation of Ed Koch’s endorsement of Turner.  Yet it must also be said that his advocacy of Weprin’s defeat was also classic political payback.  This becomes more evident when one takes into account the fact that Koch eventually supported Obama himself for reelection.

Ed Koch was, after all, only human.

 

I received a personal compliment from Ed Koch in 2011, which I shall always treasure.

I am not exactly a major Sarah Palin fan, but I wrote a column vigorously defending her against charges of anti-Semitism after she used the words “blood libel” regarding criticisms of her.  After reading my column, Koch sent me an email on January 13, 2011, stating “Your commentary defending Sarah Palin’s statement is superb.  All the best, Ed Koch.”

A compliment from Ed Koch is something of which one can be most proud.

 

Finally, there is the ultimate  connection between New Jersey and Ed Koch which is even more significant than his youth in Newark.

Ed Koch and Tom Kean had a superb personal relationship.  Aside from their governmental responsibilities, they would often dine together in Manhattan.  This is described by my good friend Alvin Felzenberg in his biography, Governor Tom Kean.

Ed Koch was the greatest mayor of New York in the 20th century, even greater than Fiorello LaGuardia.  Tom Kean was the greatest governor of New Jersey in the 20th Century.  Koch paid Kean the ultimate compliment in the Felzenberg biography when he said that Tom Kean “established that you could be courteous in public as well as in private and not scream to get it (the job) done.”  There are numerous political leaders in America now who should pay heed to these words.

  

I think there was something else about Tom Kean that endeared him to Ed Koch.  The New Jersey Jewish community never has had a better friend in the governor’s office than Tom Kean.  I wrote in a previous column, “Israel, Robert Kean, and Tom Kean – Perfect Together”  about the historic roles played by Tom Kean and his father, the late member of the U.S. House of Representatives Robert Kean on behalf of the world Jewish community and the American-Israel relationship.  The link to this column follows:

 

http://www.politickernj.com/alan-steinberg/47457/israel-robert-kean-and-tom-kean-perfect-together


In understanding why this would be so important to Ed Koch, you have to understand his most essential trait:  As Rabbi Schneier said at Park East in his sermon this past Shabbat, Ed Koch wore his Jewishness on his sleeve.

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Ed Koch wrote his own entire epitaph to be placed on his tombstone, which is already in place:  “My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish.”  These were the final words of Daniel Pearl, the Jewish journalist who was kidnapped and beheaded while in Pakistan investigating Al Qaeda back in 2002.  As Dovid Efune, the editor of the Jewish journal, Algemeiner Journal wrote on Friday, “How befitting that the day of his (Koch’s) passing, Feb 1st 2013 comes 11 years to the day after the brutal murder of Daniel Pearl, that icon of Jewish pride.”  Below these words of Pearl on the Koch tombstone are the words in English and in Hebrew, “Here O Israel,The Lord Our God, The Lord Is One.”

Finally, at the base of the Koch tombstone are the words:  “He was fiercely proud of his Jewish faith. He fiercely defended the City of New York and he fiercely defended its people. Above all, he loved his country, the United States of America, in whose armed forces he served in World War II.”

For World Jewry, the City of New York, and the United States of America, the passing of Ed Koch is indeed, the passing of a giant.

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and eight federally recognized Indian nations. Under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, he served as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. He currently serves on the political science faculty of Monmouth University.   



 



 

 

 

 

 



"He would always say ‘Joe, look where the parade is going and jump in front.'"
—Newark East Ward Democratic leader Joe Parlavecchio, on his friend, the late Ray Durkin.