I attended the gathering of United Nations delegates at the New York Public Library held by President Barack Obama and Mrs. Obama. The New York Public Library is one of the most spectacular public buildings in New York City. Many of its ornate rooms, rivaling in their own American way, the dazzling gold-finished galleries at Versailles, the residence of Louis XIV outside of Paris, were restored with the personal fortune of Brooke Astor who lived until the age of 105.
I first met Mrs. Astor shortly after I became Mayor in 1978. A ceremony had been scheduled for the City to honor her contributions to the City’s efforts to get private wealthy charitable people to do what the City was unable to do – spend money on our many deteriorating buildings and in her case, the main library at 42nd Street, bringing it back to its once preeminent position in the City’s inventory of great public spaces.
A short statement had been written for me to read praising Mrs. Astor, reciting her financial contributions to City projects. I, reading from a script, said, “I am very appreciative of the $75 million Mrs. Astor has contributed over the years.” She immediately broke in and said, “Mr. Mayor, it’s $175 million, and more is coming.” We became good friends. Her most delightful statement delivered many times in the years down the road was, “I’ve never had a face lift.” I personally believe face lifts tend to erase character lines and she was right not to have one. Ultimately, she spent on City buildings and programs over $200 million.
I remember going to the Bronx Zoo where she had given a baby elephant named Astor to the people of New York City. It was grazing in the open with a large elephant, I think probably its adoptive mother, and Brooke said, “Mayor, let’s go play with Astor.” I said, “No, not me. My mother told me long ago not to play with wild animals, no matter how domesticated, because someday they remember who they are.” But Brooke reveled in the opportunity and both mama and baby elephant appeared to recognize her and let her touch them at will.
I thought of all of this as I sat on one of the beautiful couches in the room as the delegates talked with one another. I was lucky when the First Lady of one of the Caribbean countries, formerly a British colony, joined me and identified many of the heads of state in the room. One gentleman dressed totally in black with a fedora who from his attire might have been mistaken for a member of a heavy metal or Goth band, she identified as the President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, who apparently is never seen without his fedora.
The last time that I can recall being invited to and attending such an event was, when I was Mayor and invited by President Ronald Reagan. It was fun to say the least. All were there to see and shake hands with the President. I had that opportunity. I congratulated him on his speech to the United Nations in which he acknowledged Israel’s presence in a difficult neighborhood, saying:
“America’s commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable, and our friendship with Israel is deep and enduring. And so we believe that any lasting peace must acknowledge the very real security concerns that Israel faces every single day. Let’s be honest: Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it. Israel’s citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses. Israel’s children come of age knowing that throughout the region, other children are taught to hate them. Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map. The Jewish people carry the burden of centuries of exile, persecution, and the fresh memory of knowing that six million people were killed simply because of who they were. These facts cannot be denied. The Jewish people have forged a successful state in their historic homeland. Israel deserves recognition. It deserves normal relations with its neighbors. And friends of the Palestinians do them no favors by ignoring this truth, just as friends of Israel must recognize the need to pursue a two state solution with a secure Israel next to an independent Palestine.”
I believe the recent vote in the 9th Congressional District in New York affected in a positive way the policy of the U.S. on the Mideast. The New York Times of September 26 reported, “On Friday, the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union – known together as the Quartet – urged the Palestinians and the Israelis to return to direct negotiations within a month without preconditions. Since this is close to Israel’s position, leaders there welcomed the plan.”
The President should be praised for intervening with the Egyptian army to save the Israeli diplomatic personnel from physical assault and providing the Israeli military with bunker buster bombs, advanced military technology and providing military intelligence cooperation far exceeding his predecessors. I’m now on board the Obama Reelection Express.
There is a huge effort worldwide to end the death penalty. The recent case of Troy Davis, an African-American, received enormous media attention. Davis had been convicted in 1989 of killing an off-duty police officer in Savannah, Georgia, after the officer, who was working as a security guard, intervened to defend a man being assaulted. Petitions to exonerate or commute the sentence of Troy Davis were rejected by state courts and the Supreme Court of the U.S. Tens of thousands of supporters worldwide demonstrated in support of Davis. He was executed on September 21.
Interestingly, at about the same time, Lawrence Russell Brewer, a white supremacist gang member, so described by The New York Times, was executed in Texas. There were no crowds protesting his execution, nor should there have been. The Times described his crime as “the dragging death of James Byrd, Jr., a black man from East Texas. Mr. Byrd, 49, was chained to the back of a pickup truck in 1998 and pulled to his death along a bumpy asphalt road in one of the most grisly hate crime murders in recent Texas history. Appeals to the courts for Mr. Brewer had been exhausted.”
I was very pleased Brewer was executed. I will be equally pleased to see Steven Hayes, who was convicted of the murders of a mother and her two daughters, one only eleven years old, in the Cheshire, Connecticut home invasion case, executed.
Death penalty opponents state it is inherently unfair and racially biased. The facts, I believe, are otherwise. The Death Penalty Information Center has provided the following statistics. The racial breakdown for those sentenced to death since 1977 is as follows: 48.6 percent white; 40.9 percent black; 8.9 percent Hispanic and 1.6 percent other. The race of defendants executed in the U.S. since 1976 is 56 percent white; 35 percent black; 7 percent Hispanic; 2 percent other.
The reason for the discrepancy in the execution rate between blacks and whites is that juries deciding whether to impose the death penalty have concluded in more cases involving black defendants that there were extenuating circumstances militating in favor of a lesser penalty. Hearings on the penalty to be imposed are now required, as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision to make certain that each defendant in a capital case has an opportunity to present extenuating circumstances without limitation, and not automatically face the death penalty after the jury determined guilt.
The American public still supports the death penalty, notwithstanding the hammering capital punishment receives each year. According to a Gallup Poll of October 7, 2010, 64 percent are in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder. I’m glad the American public does.
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I would like to bring to your attention the new blog of my friend, Dr. Bruce Barron. He writes on medical matters. He is brilliant. I hope he also writes on Wall Street, where he is also hugely insightful and courageous. You can access his blog at:
I wrote a commentary not long ago expressing the need for a constitutional amendment to limit the amount that any person, corporation or union could give to any political candidate or political entity and how much any candidate could spend on his/her election. The amendment would give the federal and state governments the power to set those limits. I expect to call a national meeting of civic organizations and individuals for sometime early next year to move the project forward.
The Honorable Edward Irving Koch served New York City as its105th Mayor from 1978 to 1989.