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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Edward Koch

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-03-07

Edward Koch has a wish list for New York City in his new self-styled role as guru of globalization.

"India is right on top of it," the former mayor said yesterday. "I'm delighted that President Bush made peace with India last week during his trip. Not only is India truly a democratic country, I feel it's one of America's genuine friends. It always seemed bizarre to me that until recently, India wasn't considered our friend but Pakistan was. The fact is, the Pakistani people simply don't like America."

Mr. Koch paused to savor his shad roe, and then said:

"I know there's criticism that Mr. Bush was too lenient with India in the nuclear treaty that he signed. But let me tell you - democratic countries are to be trusted far more as to how they handle nuclear technology, even nuclear weapons, than military dictatorships like Pakistan and North Korea, and fanatic theocracies like Iran. So I'm delighted with this new relationship that's shaping up between America and India. I'm delighted, but obviously the New York Times is not - they wrote that strange editorial condemning the treaty."

That condemnation echoed the general view in the liberal press that Mr. Bush was, in effect, bamboozled by the Indians.

The government of Indian Prime Minister Singh agreed to accept international supervision of 14 nuclear facilities that generate power for consumer and industrial purposes; implicit in such acceptance was an assurance that India would buy more nuclear technology and expertise from America. Mr. Singh also obtained a concession from Mr. Bush that India's 8 other nuclear facilities - which are used for military purposes - would not be subject to outside scrutiny.

This, the critics said, created a dangerous precedent. Other nuclear powers could conceivably make deals under which they'd open their so-called civilian facilities to international monitoring, but would simultaneously advance their weapons development in secrecy.

"Bah," said Mr. Koch. "I believe Mr. Bush did the pragmatic thing with India. I'm a pragmatist myself. The president recognized that in international relations, there's always give and take. The plus for America in a stronger relationship is enormous. And it's not as though India is a rogue state. After all, who sold nuclear secrets to the real rogue states like Libya and North Korea? The Pakistani scientist who was the 'father' of the country's nuclear bomb."

Mr. Koch allowed that even though he disagreed with President Bush on many domestic issues, he supported his foreign policy.

"I do not hesitate to cross party lines - which is why I voted for George Bush over John Kerry in 2004," he said. "I believe that President Bush's approach toward globalization is the correct one - that America needs to sustain its economic strength by looking outward, encouraging free trade, and promoting democracy. At the same time, more has to be done to protect American workers from unfair competition. The two are not inconsistent."

So what's Mr. Koch's wish concerning India?

"That New York should become India's staging ground in America," he said. "The cliche is worth repeating - there's no other American city like New York City. Its energy, its diversity - 175 races and ethnicities - its sheer capacity to absorb other cultures and yet retain a distinctive New York identity. This city says to its people, 'By all means blend into New York's fabric. But never forget who you are. Never forget your roots.' Where else would you find all this?"

He posed that question rhetorically, of course. But if there seemed an easy cadence to his enthusiasm for a city that he governed from 1978 through 1989, it is because he practices salesmanship in behalf of New York at his law firm, Bryan Cave, where he's a partner.

"We have 16 offices around the world, and I'm frequently traveling to meet with people who want to do business in New York," Mr. Koch said, noting that recent trips took him to California and Missouri.

Has he been to India?

"Not yet," Mr. Koch said. "But I would love to be India's voice in New York. Its democracy, its rich culture, the enterprise of its people - including the tens of thousands who have settled in New York - all these things resonate in my heart."

His heart remains sturdy, he said, the result of genes he inherited from his parents Louis and Joyce, even though Mr. Koch had a heart attack some years ago, and a stroke before that. He's up at 5 a.m. every day, Mr. Koch said, and three times a week he works out at a gym near his Midtown Manhattan office with a trainer.

His heart also remains sturdy because of seven special friends with whom he lunches every Saturday that he's in town. They gather at his home at noon, kibitz a bit, and then drive to Aquagrill or Union Square Cafe for a meal that lasts until 3 o'clock.

"These are loyal friends - we've been doing this Saturday lunch for the last 35 years," Mr. Koch said, adding that his buddies came from many backgrounds, especially politics.

Did any of them press to strengthen his heart further by, say, getting married?

Mr. Koch laughed.

"At 81, the cast of my life has been set - I'm not about to change at this age," he said.

"But I'm very close to my family," Mr. Koch continued. "My sister, Pat Koch Thaler, has 3 sons and 7 grandchildren, ages 3 to 14. I spend a lot of time with the kids. When I leave permanently, they will be quite wealthy."

"My father lived until he was 87 - so according to the actuarial tables, I may have another 7 or 8 years ahead," Mr. Koch said. "I want to continue to be relevant in what I do."

And hence Edward Koch, guru of globalization.

He isn't worried that its economic promise - spreading worldwide prosperity, and freer flow of capital, ideas and services across borders - won't pan out.

"What worries me deeply is that we are now in a war of civilizations," Mr. Koch said. "The Islamic fascists are willing to die for their beliefs, while we want to, live for ours. They have set out to destroy the West as we know it - the West of tolerance and secularism. New York was already their victim once. There may well be a possibility of another terrorist attack on our city. I worry about winning this battle of civilizations. I worry about our having the strength to stay with the battle until we win it. But we simply cannot let the terrorists win."

That, to a reporter, seemed as much of an assertion by Mr. Koch as an abiding wish for the city of his birth.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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