THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Edward I. Koch, Esq.
Title: Ed Koch … Forever: Hizzoner, The Mayor
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today and I go back together a long, long time to when he was a young crusading Democratic party reformer, then a top-notch New York Congressman, and finally Hizzoner, the Mayor of New York. Known so well and admired so widely around our nation that when we did an Open Mind program together immediately after he had had a minor stroke, and when as only a loving old friend could, I asked Ed Koch, whether, when he was in the hospital he had given any thought at all to how he wanted his epitaph to read, his answer was picked up and printed on the front pages of major newspapers all over this country. They loved him, too.
Of course, Ed Koch is still such a live wire, such an ebullient, unflagging and always wise commentator on just about every important subject under the sun, that when the Presidency of the United States seemed up for grabs in November, 2000, he and I very much wanted to talk here about things political and Presidential at this table. But given the inevitable lag-time between taping The Open Mind and seeing it on the air, we decided to wait a bit and then be able to look back with some better perspective, though who in the world knows what will happen between now December 20th, the year 2000 and when you actually see and hear us. So we’ll just have to take our chances. That okay with you, Ed?
HEFFNER: Well, Mr. Mayor and when I said Ed before I realize I’m always torn between those two ways of addressing you …
KOCH: No …
HEFFNER: … still both.
KOCH: Well, it’s interesting. You never lose the title. It’s like being an Ambassador … it’s always “Mr. Ambassador” and I remember saying to Mickey Carroll who was the leading columnist, political reporter for The New York Times, who kept calling me “Mr. Mayor”, when I just started at City Hall. I said, “Don’t, I mean everybody calls me Ed”. He said, “I can’t”. [Laughter]
HEFFNER: You are the Mayor.
KOCH: [Laughter] So I said, “whatever makes you happy”.
HEFFNER: Well, what would make me happy now is to get some sense of what you think about what happened in November and into December, 2000.
KOCH: Well, it’s interesting. I believe that if the election had been properly called in Florida that Gore should have won. We’ll never know for certain. And … but it’s over. And it wasn’t “stolen” from him, there were decisions made by the United States Supreme Court which I think they will regret and they will always be held responsible for … that Majority of Five … and the dissent was brilliant, particularly Judge Stevens, who excoriated the court. But, it’s over. So that, on my radio program … I have one every day, it’s a call in and people, a small coterie will still talk about the “illegitimacy of the election”. And I say, “Get off it, already”. This is ridiculous, he’s the President, it’s gone the courts and let’s hope he’ll be the best President we’ve ever had because if he is then we are the ones who benefit. I sent him a letter, actually.
HEFFNER: One of those wonderful letters you send around?
KOCH: Yeah. I love writing letters. And, the fact is you’ll see it shortly in a packet that I’ll send to you. And in the letter I said to him … firstly I congratulate you, I didn’t vote for you but I want you to be the best President we’ve ever had since that will inure to the benefit of the country. And you’re appointments of three minorities, Powell, Rice and Gonzales … substantive appointments because they are amongst the best people in the country in terms of merit selection. And symbolic appointments because Blacks, who only voted for you to the extent of about 8% and felt and been told that you would not be fair, have to be reassured and you are doing exactly what you should do. It’s not only substantive, it’s symbolic. And then finally I said, “Since you want to be known as the education President, why don’t you consider having the Federal Government create four high school academies that the student body will be selected on merit, but not just testing.” Did they overcome poverty, did they do acts of courage, different things that will allow people who don’t test well … I didn’t test well … but would not be on the basis of race or gender set-asides. And have them come, no fees, you will not only pay tuition, but you will afford them accommodations and food and so forth. And even a stipend. And they do this in France. I haven’t gotten a response. But I hope he does that. And that they become academies for the country.
HEFFNER: Let me go back a moment, though, when you said that the Five on the Supreme Court would regret it. Why do you say that?
KOCH: Well, I believe as Judge Stevenson … Stevens said that the decision will haunt them in that it will mean for many people in this country that they will not have the confidence in the Supreme Court decisions that they have heretofore had, even when there were five/four decisions. We’ve had major cases that split that way. But you felt that the decisions were based on total integrity without political involvement and you don’t feel that at this point, and that’s what Judge Stevens in effect said. So, it haunt them. It will haunt Judge Scalia when Judge Rhenquist, now Chief Judge leaves and Bush seeks to impose Scalia. There will be an enormous battle to keep him from becoming the Chief Judge, based on this decision.
HEFFNER: You know I’ve asked myself, and I realize I don’t know the answer … does the appointment of the Chief Justice, if he is sitting on the court now, does that require approval of the Senate?
KOCH: Yes, it requires a new re-confirmation. He won’t leave the bench, but the choice as Chief Judge has to be approved by the Senate.
HEFFNER: What do you think the impact of November/December 2000 will be upon our party structure?
KOCH: Well, I believe that Gore will leave the stage. He did not do a good job. His personality, his preemptory approach to others. He did not bring in Clinton … I mean that’s the joke of it all … here’s Clinton who exhibited the morals of an adolescent in the White House when it came to his testosterone, but who was a brilliant President and who will be missed. And he will continue to be the titular head of the Democratic Party because Democrats will look to him. In terms of the actual running of the country, with the Senate being evenly split, the Moderates will control. Moderates in both the Democratic and Republican parties will make certain that the legislation is overwhelmingly middle-of-the-road.
HEFFNER: Well, let me go back to this point about Vice President Gore. He won in the popular vote …
KOCH: He did.
HEFFNER: I … when you talk about a poor campaign and I keep hearing that …
HEFFNER: Doggone it, he won.
KOCH: Listen, it’s very similar to what happened with Bela Abzug when she ran against Bill Ryan and I was for Bill Ryan and I went to his campaign headquarters and the first E.D. that came in — election district — was her own election district in Greenwich Village. And she lost. And the reporters came running over to me, “How can you lose in your own election district”. And I looked to heaven for guidance, and I said to the reporter, “her neighbors know her”.
KOCH: Now, she never forgave me for that. Although I recently, and you know, she’s been dead over a year and she performed wonderful things even though she and I fought all the time, and I hope that a statue is erected in her memory in Washington Square Park. But Gore lost his own Congressional District, lost the State of Tennessee. This is unpardonable. If he had won Tennessee, he would have won the election. So while it is true that he won the popular vote, he lost the election and he could have won the election had he asked President Clinton to enter the race. He’s such a popular man in many parts of the country. Now those parts of the country where he’s not popular, so he doesn’t go there. And there isn’t anybody I know who hated Clinton for whatever reason, good or bad, who would have voted for Gore. It’s ridiculous.
HEFFNER: You don’t think he would have lost more than he would have gained if he had further embraced Clinton.
KOCH: No, he could only have gained if he had asked for …
HEFFNER: But wait a minute …
KOCH: … Clinton to go to Florida, for example.
HEFFNER: When you say, “He could only have gained …”
HEFFNER: … you would concede he would … in some places he would have lost …
KOCH: But you wouldn’t sent him there. He wouldn’t …
HEFFNER: No, no, no. Look, today, with the media. You know what’s going on at all times.
KOCH: No, I don’t mean that he should have campaigned in secrecy. But I’m simply saying that there isn’t a single person that I know of who would have voted for Gore, but who would have said, “oh, my God, he is allowing Clinton to enter the campaign on his behalf”. It’s ridiculous. And we’ll never know. It’s over.
HEFFNER: Well …
KOCH: I’m sorry about Gore, he’s a very able person. But anyone who would allow someone to tell him you have to wear brown suits, instead of blue suits is foolish. You have to be yourself. Whatever you are, that’s how you got to where you are. And to try to make a change in your life, politically, we’re not talking about issues where you can become educated and change on positions. We’re talking about how you dress. It’s ridiculous. [Laughter]
HEFFNER: Okay. What’s the impact going to be upon, and this is really the question that I wanted you to address yourself to … upon the parties, upon the party structure, not just in terms of …
HEFFNER: … who will be the nominee next time around.
KOCH: Right. The party structure has already changed and is indicative of Clinton dominance, because normally the defeated candidate here … Gore … would be the titular head of the party in name, the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. And that didn’t happen, it was Clinton who named the new Chairman in effect.
HEFFNER: Third parties … we haven’t spoken about Ralph Nader … I mean …
KOCH: Oh, he’s terrible. He should be flayed. You know what “flayed” means …
HEFFNER: Yes, I do.
KOCH: … it means skinned alive.
KOCH: … And he should be skinned alive.
HEFFNER: Tell me why.
KOCH: Well, I believe that for him to have gone around the country saying that there’s no difference between the candidates is reminiscent of what happened when President Johnson stepped down and Hubert Humphrey ran and there were people on the Radical Left who said, “there’s no difference between Nixon and Humphrey” and Humphrey lost by, I think, 100,000 votes. And many of us never forgave those Radical on the Left. I think, while you cannot call …
KOCH: … Nader a Radical on the Left, he will be held in the same vein and held up to derision. I’ve seen him since say, “Oh, no I’m building a party”. It’s such a ridiculous statement on his part. What he … this was ego-mania costing the nation a continuation of the Democratic Party positions. I mean … that’s why I was for Gore, not that he’s someone that I have great affection for … I like him … but I liked the Democratic Party positions which had been enunciated and carried forth by both Clinton and Gore over the last eight years.
HEFFNER: But what Nader did show is that a third party candidate can have an incredible impact.
KOCH: Yeah, but not a positive impact. It’s not like they came out … they didn’t even get five percent. They’re not going to get any funding next year. Perot got twenty percent. His foolishness was not in running Congressional candidates at the time. If he had done that there would have been a viable third party. But Nader didn’t get the five percent that’s mandatory if you want to get funding. He got Perot’s funding this time … he didn’t … Perot’s funding, I’m sorry, it was Buchanan who got that. But in any event what he was was a spoiler.
HEFFNER: Ed, how do you explain the split … just almost down the middle in this country.
KOCH: Well, I have always thought of the United States as a country of moderation. It’s to the credit of the Republicans that they have been able to convey that there is sufficient moderation there. I don’t happen to think it’s true. I think it’s the Right Wing, the Ultras, that really dominate the Republican Party. But they have been able to convey across the country that they are moderates. The American pubic is … unlike Europe that swings to the Radical Right, Radical Left far more often than it should. [Laughter] We don’t do that. We are Moderates, and that’s good.
HEFFNER: You say it’s good. Would there be nothing positive about having some stark difference between the parties?
KOCH: There are people who believe the parties should re-align and one should be the Labor Party, the Left, and the other be the Right Wing party. But we find that, for example, in England they’re following our model …
HEFFNER: I know.
KOCH: … rather than their old model and I think it is because a) this, this is an extraordinary country. I mean aside from the personal aspect, and I’d love to talk about it now, the people who are first generation American like myself … Mario Cuomo, he became the Governor, I became the Mayor. Extraordinary opportunities. In addition to that, it’s given a better life to the overwhelming population of this country. Poor people in this country, and we have poor people, no questions about that. Poor people in this country are rich people compared to the vast majority of populations in other countries. And I think that basically comes from the moderation that our people display in elections.
HEFFNER: Think back to your years as a Congressman, and a damn good Congressman, too …
KOCH: Thank you.
HEFFNER: … and think about the statement made recently that the age of the imperial presidency is over. Are you … how would you feel about tending more toward parliamentary government, or do you think that’s just …
KOCH: No, no. I don’t believe for example that it’s legitimate to say to the Republicans who won the Presidency and who will have one more vote than the Democrats in the Senate because the Vice President votes to break a tie. And it is not legitimate to say we should alternate the Chairs of the committees. That’s ridiculous, one party governs. And one party does not. Now, it is legitimate to say we want more staffing, we want more of the equities that come from having a larger number of people than we had in office in the last Congress. But I believe that our Presidential government is far more stable, far more productive than the parliamentary system. I wouldn’t change it.
HEFFNER: Did you feel that way when you were in the House of Representatives?
KOCH: Ah, when I was in the House of Representatives, I think I did. I don’t believe that I ever urged a change in that form. I enjoyed it. I loved being a Congressman, you know. I loved being Mayor even more because a legislator generally proposes and you’re one of a very large number. And a Mayor, particularly in a city like New York where you have a strong mayoralty can do things and get things done.
HEFFNER: Hey there’s going to be a mayoralty election soon. What do you think?
KOCH: Well, what is interesting is and maybe it’s because I was part of the pack, I look at those who are running now, and I have a horse in the race, Peter Vallone, is someone who I think is the best of the four. But I look back to ‘77 and there was far more pizzazz. I mean you had people who were known throughout the country … you had Bela Abzug and Mario Cuomo and Herman Badillo and Abe Beame and
HEFFNER: And Moynihan.
KOCH: Not for Mayor.
KOCH: Not for Mayor.
HEFFNER: In the primary?
KOCH: No. Moynihan was not in there.
HEFFNER: I thought he did.
KOCH: No. There were seven people, but Moynihan was not one of them. And, and I was probably one of the least well-known, except in my own Congressional District. Now, the four that are running now. They’re able people. As I said, I think my horse is the best horse. But they’re really not in the same category in terms of public attention. And I mean positive public attention, not simply press attention.
HEFFNER: You didn’t bite at my bait. I was talking about Ed Koch.
KOCH: Oh, no, no. Let me tell you why I’m so happy doing what I’m doing. You know I’m a partner in a law firm, Robinson, Silverman and then I have ten other jobs. Many media jobs on radio, and I write books and I write a column for Newsday and I endorse candidates. I’m probably one of the few people, particularly in media, who has said to potential commercial sponsors, “You want me to stop doing what I’m doing politically … get somebody else”. This is the joy of life.
HEFFNER: A commentator, on everything.
KOCH: Yeah. Correct.
HEFFNER: I gather, of course, that you like commentating on, or commenting on the movies, perhaps more than anything else.
KOCH: I am a movie buff and I … you were the number one movie buff having such authority in Hollywood. I, I just saw a wonderful movie and it’s called “The Visitors” and it’s almost an all Black cast. Billie Dee Williams is one of the figures and the only “name” there. But everyone of them is brilliant. And the story is brilliant and I’m sure it’s not going to get a great viewing, because it isn’t mainstream. But I urge people to go see it.
HEFFNER: Of course, I haven’t gotten the latest batch, packet of Koch papers. Which of those films is your candidate for the Academy Award?
KOCH: Well I thought …
HEFFNER: The Koch award.
KOCH: … yeah, I would say that “Billie Elliot” …
HEFFNER: Yeah, the one about the young dancer.
KOCH: Wonderful movie of an 11 year old boy, son of a coal miner who wants to become a ballet dancer. And it just … extraordinary movie.
HEFFNER: Well, my wife has been saying “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go”.
HEFFNER: So I’ll tell her now.
HEFFNER: Ed, what, in the few minutes we have remaining, what’s most on your mind now about the future of this country?
KOCH: Well, I think that we have to do something about the prison population and give them a second chance if they’re non-violent, drug addicts in particular. When people … I’m against the legalization or decriminalization of drugs. But I know that we have treated people very unfairly. For example, Blacks who … overwhelmingly use crack cocaine, they go to jail for five years for a small quantity. And in order to go to jail for a similar five years, if you use powder cocaine, you have to have possession of a hundred times the volume. I want to give some of those people a second chance. And I’m pressing legislation both in Albany and in Washington. And I think maybe we’ve got a good chance.
HEFFNER: Is there something contradictory, though, about your still not wanting to …
KOCH: They paid their penalty. These are for people you’ve paid their penalty.
HEFFNER: But you want people to pay a penalty for …
KOCH: Yes. I think the penalties are too high. But I think that the criminal sanctions should remain, but the penalties are too high. But those who have paid penalty and come out, can’t get a job because every time they have to fill out an application and it says, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” and you have to say, “yes”. They don’t get a call back. If we’re dealing with non-violent drug offenders who have paid their penalty, they’ve been in jail for five years, or more, I want to seal their records so that they can answer that question “No, I have not been convicted of a crime”. It’s legal to do, we have other areas of our society where we do that and if you are able to get a job, you’re able to get married, you’re able to have children and you’re able to have a family structure and that prevents recidivism. Recidivism now is huge in this country. Up to 60% and I think we ought to try the approach of integrating people who’ve paid their penalty back into society.
HEFFNER: Do you think we’re a kinder, gentler people than we were when you went into politics?
KOCH: Yeah, I do. I think the country’s vastly improved and I think we’re more cognizant of one another’s needs. And we try to do better and it’s not obviously yet the perfect society, but still it changes. And it changes for the better. I believe that people should be activists. Non-violent. I believe people who engage in civil disobedience that’s non-violent have to pay a penalty. Obviously you don’t go to jail for a non-violent civil disobedient act which is supposed to shock you conscience and get you to change. But they’re not always right. And if you don’t change, or until you do change, the people who use that method have to pay a civil penalty. Most people who do that say, “Oh, no, it was in a good cause”. Well that’s not true civil disobedience. You have to pay a penalty.
HEFFNER: 30 seconds. What’s you final word?
KOCH: Well, my final word is never retire …
KOCH: … my hope is always to remain relevant until God takes me.
HEFFNER: You couldn’t retire if you had changed your mind and wanted to.
HEFFNER: Ed Koch, thank you so much for joining me again today.
KOCH: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150
Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.