In Impromptus today, I have a note on Max Kampelman, who died last weekend. I will do a little note on Ed Koch now. They had a lot in common, really: They were both “liberals with sanity,” to use Koch’s phrase. Kampelman began as a pacifist — and became a Reagan arms-control negotiator. Still interested in peace, but perfectly understanding of how it comes about (and foursquare for freedom).
Bill Buckley loved Koch’s company, and so did I. Someone once complained, “Koch just tells stories about himself.” First, it wasn’t true, but, second, what if it had been? Those stories were magnificent, and usually illustrative of political or historical points. Or simply human points.
A couple of years ago, I taped an hour-long interview with Koch, an interview that ran the gamut. We talked about his life, New York City, America, the world. We argued, teased, and so on. Afterward, I remembered something Churchill said about FDR (I believe): Being with him was like opening a bottle of champagne. Koch was like that, or could be.
The conventional view is that he was a national-security conservative and a domestic liberal. The national-security part is certainly true, and the domestic part is mainly true — but he was sober in this area as well. Largely free of illusions. For example, he had no patience with the idea that poverty causes crime. In the teeth of the Great Depression, he would note, you could sleep in Central Park.
He set an example of how to remain engaged in life into old age. He never stopped following the news, making the news, going to movies, reviewing them, writing columns, corresponding with public officials, all over the world. He questioned them, hectored them, praised them. “By way of introduction, I was Mayor of the City of New York from 1978 to 1989 . . .”
In that interview, we talked candidly about his death — because he had before. He was comfortable with the subject, as he was with most subjects. “Americans are terribly afraid of death,” he said. “I am not. It’s part of life.” He did not want to be buried in New Jersey, where his parents lie. The ignominy! He insisted on remaining in Manhattan — “and on a subway line.” He hoped that people would “come and visit.”
With due care, he chose the words for his tombstone. He chose to say what Daniel Pearl said, before he was beheaded by terrorists: “My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish.” He also chose this: “Hear, o Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”