In the last interview of his life, with CNN’s Piers Morgan, Edward I. Koch described himself as a secular Jew who nevertheless believed in God, and reward and punishment.
“I expect to be rewarded,” Koch said.
As do we.
It’s been more than two decades since the iconic and colorful mayor of New York City left office, yet Koch, who died Friday, Feb. 1, at the age of 88, remained a popular celebrity even among people who were children when he served.
And, of course, Jews have always revered him for his passionate support of Israel. Koch considered Israel an issue that transcended party lines and even criticized his fellow Democrat, President Obama, for some of his positions regarding the Jewish state, not the least of which being his latest appointment for secretary of defense, former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel.
“Such an appointment would give great comfort to the Arab world that would think that President Obama is seeking to put space between Israel and his administration,” Koch said of Hagel in a Dec. 15 interview with the Algemeiner, a Jewish electronic newspaper, just prior to the nomination. “I hope he doesn’t go forward with that appointment.”
Of course, the president did go ahead with it, and Koch continued to criticize it — right up to his final interview with Morgan. However, and this is what made Koch such a great politician, he continued to be a supporter of Obama, too.
Koch was by no means an all-or-nothing statesman — the kind that’s in vogue today in Washington and too many state legislatures across the country. He demonstrated that leaders could disagree on key issues and still work together.
Even more important, he understood that the true art of good government was common ground, not principled stands. Again, in his interview with Morgan, he stressed politics should be about compromise, “doing a deal,” instead of forcing some dogmatic position upon one of the most diverse nations in the world.
And Koch loved doing a deal. It’s one reason he enjoyed his three terms as a U.S. congressman from New York prior to becoming mayor in 1978, and why, he opined, so many congressmen today don’t enjoy the job as much as he did.
Common ground. It’s the stuff of great republics, and Koch understood that.
Like we said above, Koch was a secular Jew, and he didn’t pay particular attention to Jewish ritual, which is why he had his headstone made up before he died, and why he eschewed a Jewish cemetery, preferring to be buried in Trinity Church Cemetery, at the time the only memorial park in Manhattan that had space.
That may have raised the ire of some observant Jews, but the inscription on that headstone should more than make up. It includes the last words of slain Wall Street Journal Reporter Daniel Pearl: “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.”
Koch was a proud Jew who wanted to repose in the heart of the city he loved. We say he earned it.