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O'Reilly: Ed Koch, the man in the arena

New York Mayor Ed Koch raises his arms

New York Mayor Ed Koch raises his arms in victory at the Sheraton Centre in Manhattan after winning the Democratic primary in his bid for a third four-year term. (Sept. 11, 1985) Credit: AP

Someone once said: It's Ed Koch's world; we just live in it. And it very often seemed that way.

We've never seen anyone quite like him, and we may never again. He was "the man in the arena" that Teddy Roosevelt described in his epic poem. He lived to fight for what he thought was right every day, up until the end. Just last month he was back criticizing President Barack Obama, the man he endorsed for re-election, for not doing enough to defend Israel on the world stage.

New Yorkers of every political persuasion -- or of none at all -- mourn Ed Koch's passing today. Tens of thousands have cherished memories of the mayor, even when those memories are of being rolled over by his forcefulness.

I first met Ed Koch in 1988. Or rather, that's when he first met me -- with his shoulder. I had been sent to City Hall Park by a state senator I worked for at the time to listen in on a Koch news conference. The two of us ended up on converging paths at the northwest corner of the park. When we surprised each other at the point of intersection, Mayor Koch did what any sturdy 6-foot-2" man would do when confronting a lesser 5-foot-9 1/2-er: He knocked me on my behind.

I was more than taken aback. The mayor of New York City had dropped his shoulder and decked me -- on purpose. But it was also understandable. Both of us were barrelling ahead, and the collision was almost certainly going to knock one of us down. The mayor was just making sure he wasn't the one.

I made a mental note as his security officers picked me up and brushed me off: Koch is even tougher than people say.

Twenty-three years later, I was blessed to be able to spend time with Mayor Koch again, without ending up sprawled on the ground. Then 87 years old, Koch crossed party lines to endorse a Republican political novice named Bob Turner in a race for Congress in a Queens-Brooklyn district that hadn't elected a Republican since 1922.

The Democratic Koch couldn't give a damn, as he would have said, about the long odds. The mayor saw an opportunity to highlight Obama's anemic support for Israel in a district with one of the highest concentrations of Jewish voters in America, and he was going to pounce on it.

The Turner headquarters was a two-room storefront on Cross Bay Boulevard in Howard Beach. When the mayor came to the headquarters, he would sit in the back office and pepper campaign manager E. O'Brien Murray with questions about every aspect of the race, despite having a notably weakened voice and poor hearing. Anyone, including yours truly, who attempted to share a nostalgic word with the legend, was quickly disappointed. Koch was there to help win a race, not chit-chat.

And help win a race he did. The mayor's early and unwavering support made Turner's unimaginable victory possible, and it made those of us advising the campaign look better than we are. Rep. Turner and Mayor Koch remained friends to the end.

But what marks Koch most, at least to this observer, was his utter brashness. He really did seem to believe that the world belonged to him. And who was going to challenge him?

Three years before the Turner campaign, I was at a funeral at St. Patrick's Cathedral for William F. Buckley Jr., an uncle of mine who had been friends with Koch. The place was packed, standing room only. Just as the service was about to begin, the mayor came marching up the center aisle and squeezed himself in the front pew, edging my aunt Priscilla aside as he did.

It was incredibly brazen. It was so ... Ed Koch. But that was his seat as he saw it. And so it was.

Koch was as large as life itself. There isn't a venue big enough to hold his memorial.

How'd you do, Mayor Koch?

You did great. You were yourself to the end.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.