Twenty years ago, when I was named president of the Catholic League, it gave me an opportunity to return home. I had been away for 16 years.
One of the first persons I got to know was Ed Koch. The former mayor of New York City was now doing radio and TV, writing columns, giving speeches and practicing law. Ed and I met regularly on a local TV debate show, Street Talk New York. I was a guest, and he was one of the two hosts.
Ed was known as a liberal Democrat, although the label is deceiving. He was actually a truly independent thinker, a man who had some clearly conservative convictions. Most of all, he was honest.
And that quality, I believe, is why he was loved by liberals as well as conservatives, Democrats as well as Republicans. With Ed, what you saw was what you got. He was excruciatingly fair. On top of all that, he had a marvelous sense of humor.
Although I didn’t get to know Ed until 1993, I had dealt with him in the 1970s. After I was honorably discharged from the U.S. Air Force in 1970, I attended New York University. Ed Koch was my congressman. I contacted his office asking for assistance when the Veterans Bureau didn’t provide me with funds from the GI Bill to pay my tuition. A week later, the check arrived.
From 1973-1977, I taught in a Catholic elementary school in Spanish Harlem. My students, Puerto Rican and African-American, were skeptical of politicians, thinking they really didn’t care about minorities. I challenged them by asking them to write a letter to Rep. Ed Koch (he was not their congressman, but he was well known) requesting help in promoting school vouchers. They didn’t think he would even reply. He did, pledging his support.
In the 1980s, Mayor Koch struck up a relationship with Cardinal John O’Connor that would prove to be lasting and exceedingly strong. But it didn’t start that way. The two titans clashed over an executive order Koch had issued on gays and agencies that did business with the city of New York. The strain didn’t last once they got a chance to know each other.
Both men were straightforward, and it was this bluntness that not only ended their discord, but led to a bond that would never be severed. It also led to an encounter that allowed Cardinal O’Connor to help Ed through a bout with depression.
There is no doubt in my mind that it was the deep friendship between Cardinal O’Connor and Ed Koch (they would co-author a book together) that inspired the mayor to become a vocal critic of anti-Catholicism. No one in the Jewish community was more forcefully opposed to anti-Catholic bigotry than Ed. Indeed, he hated anti-Catholicism as much as anti-Semitism.
As soon as Ed received his copy of the Catholic League's annual report on anti-Catholicism, he wrote me a letter extending his congratulations. The last letter he wrote to me was a statement of his support for the Catholic League’s battle with an anti-Catholic Jewish lawyer. He was totally on our side.
One meeting with Cardinal O’Connor and Ed Koch that I attended that stands out in my mind was a very special breakfast at the cardinal’s residence in 1995. I had no idea what the meeting was about or who would be attending. When I got there, Cardinal O’Connor told me to sit across from him in “Ed’s chair.” I quickly learned that “Ed’s chair” was the one Koch regularly sat in. Today, however, it would be mine. Sitting next to me was Ed, and around the table were bishops, archdiocesan officials and lawyers.
It was the consensus of the attendees, led by Cardinal O’Connor and Ed, that I should start a Catholic PAC (public action committee). After listening to their comments, I ran off a list of reasons why a Catholic PAC would never work. The meeting ended abruptly. The next day, I spoke to a priest who had been at the meeting, inquiring whether I was out of line. He said absolutely not — Cardinal O’Connor did not want “yes men” around him. Moreover, he agreed with my reservations.
The loss of Ed Koch is not just the loss of a great New Yorker. Unlike most politicians these days, Ed was a man of the people. He was someone who could change his mind, cross over to the other side, and let everyone know exactly where he stood. He will be sorely missed. There was no one quite like him.
Bill Donohue is president of The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.