THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Ed Koch
Title: “To Be a Politician…and Lose!” Part I
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. For many months to come, we Americans are going to be analyzing and debating the meaning and the consequences of the 1982 off-year elections. Indeed, even as we record this program, the votes in some places are still being counted or recounted, for it’s only the day after the night before. Yet I’ve asked the man who holds what has long been considered the second most important elected office in the Untied States to join me today, perhaps to take a less pressured view than usual of political things to come. Edward I. Koch, the extraordinary politician, statesman, delightful human being who presides over the destinies of the city of New York is my guest today.
Mr. Mayor, thanks again for joining me here on THE OPEN MIND. Once before, perhaps it was on “From the Editor’s Desk” if not on OPEN MIND, you talked about the advice you have been giving to your party, the Democratic Party, about the future. And I wonder what the election returns this year, how they impacted upon that advice.
KOCH: Well, I believe the current economic situation skews a little bit what would be the normal philosophical differences that should apply in those parties. I think that Reaganomics, which can be translated as lack of jobs, impacted across the country, not to the extent that we thought it would. It was not a rout of Reagan. But nevertheless it was a defeat for him. And that, because of understandable need for dollars for porridge, remove from the table, but it will come back a change in the philosophical bent of the Democratic Party.
HEFFNER: Well, do you think that that need for change was somewhat diminished by the fact of the need for porridge and the Democrats have not yet learned what that need is?
KOCH: I think that the Democrats have learned, that many of them have, of the need to reexamine what it is that we are seeking to do in the Democratic Party. But I think again that has been overwhelmed or displaced quite understandably for the immediate problem which is porridge again. And it’s understandable. I mean, number one is survival; and then you can talk about ideas.
HEFFNER: But your problem when you talk to your fellow Democrats was that they weren’t really listening to what you were saying. Now they don’t have to listen as much as they did then, or as much as they didn’t then.
KOCH: Well, what happened, and in a sense it’s terrible that what would cause us to win is a bad economic condition causing people simply to want to change what they have because they know what they have isn’t any good from an economic point of view. And I think that that overwhelmingly is why people voted for the Democrats, Democratic governors, Democratic senators and members of Congress. But sooner or later – and I hope sooner – the economic situation will change, and then we can begin to talk about other values which are important but never as important as food on the table.
HEFFNER: Tell me about other values and what your prescription is for your party.
KOCH: Well, what I have said to my party on the several occasions when they’ve asked my advice, and I am on the Chuck Manet committee to help discuss restructuring of the democratic Party philosophically; what I’ve said to them is that when we lost in the Carter/Reagan presidential battle, it was because Democrats perceived the party as having left them and not they leaving the party. What does that mean? It means that they perceived us as somewhat elitist and not concerned with middle-class, common-sense values. Now, let me talk about some of them, for example. You know it is so easy, and understandably so, to say that no matter what things cost we will provide them. And that is what I think some of our people said in the past. Give an illustration. It’s an uncomfortable one, because when you talk about it you’re going to alienate a group, but how else can we talk about the matters if we don’t talk about them frankly? Let’s take what the congress did when I was there as a Democrat. And I have no shame in admitting that I did things that I didn’t realize were wrong, not from a point of view of decency, but from the point of view that we didn’t have the money to do it, that we couldn’t spend those dollars. I’ll give you an illustration. When I was in the congress we mandated that the transportations of this country and in the City of New York, that meant subways, that they should be made equally accessible to the handicapped. Now, that sounds terrific. What I didn’t know then and what I came to know as a mayor was that if you truly did that that over a 30-year period it would cost us close to two billion – not million – billion dollars to put in the elevators and other things that would allow people in wheelchairs to use the subway system. It sounds marvelous. But they also extrapolated that in any one year not more than a thousand people would use their subway system and not then on a regular basis who are in wheelchairs. And it came out to something like $50 a ride. That made no sense if you could find an alternative. And so once again what I’m simply saying is the common sense point of view is to find an alternative that is cost effective, takes into consideration the needs of that population, and at the same time doesn’t so skew our priorities that we’re taking desperately needed dollars for purposes and projects that everybody could be involved in and shifting then over to a greater extent than is possible for a much smaller group.
HEFFNER: Mr. Mayor, it sounds as though, well, it sounds very much like that old argument that you don’t want someone in high public office who hasn’t met a payroll, either in business, in private enterprise, or maybe as a mayor or as some administrative office.
KOCH: Well, I think experience does help. Now, I had never been mayor before, and so nobody knew whether or not I would turn out to be a good mayor. I think I turned out to be a good mayor. I have been reelected as mayor. And I established my ability on the job. But there’s no question about it; experience, particularly if you have demonstrated that you can do a good job, is a much securer, both for the public, than someone who promises.
HEFFNER: Do you think that cost effectiveness though can be a sufficiently dramatic, a sufficiently rousing slogan for a political party?
KOCH: Well, it’s very difficult. Because it sounds like you have no heart. And of course that is the furthest from the truth. The truth is that those who have only heart and no sense will sooner than later destroy us all. And therefore there is a delicate balance to be achieved. And I use that one illustration. You could talk about education. Education for the handicapped, emotionally, physically handicapped. And very important, and we must provide it. But there are limitations. And when you reach the point where, on the basis of the dollars that are available in a very shrinking financial situation, you are using more than should be used, and you have to determine that, for a very limited group to the detriment of the larger group when you could, through a careful examination, put more handicapped in a class, if the number currently might be 15 you might increase that to 17 or 19 and get almost as effective a class for those children and save multimillions of dollars that can be used for all children who are in the what we call the mainstream in our classrooms. It’s very delicate. And you have to be careful, because when you say these things people will say, “Well, but he has no soul”. This is a fight for the heart of the party. And very few people are willing to take it on directly. Occasionally I wonder why I do it. (Laughter)
HEFFNER: You know, when you ask why you do it, and I think back to your rousing speech to your fellow Democrats, I wonder again whether the victories this year due to the circumstance of our economy again will forestall the kind of cost-effective search that you’re calling for.
KOCH: Yeah. You see, in our system we are blessed by the fact that every two years there’s an election. And if, as I believe the economy will turn around between now and our next congressional election so that the economy will not be the issue as it has been in this past election, the ideas in the area that we’re talking about and other areas as well will come to the fore. Now, I believe that it’s already taking place. I remember when I first spoke to the members of this commission on the first occasion which was in, it was either Washington or Baltimore, I’ve spoken on this matter twice before that particular group, and on the first occasion there was dead silence when I talked about middle-class values and the need to recognize that the Democratic Party represents not just the poor but also the middle class. Never leave out the poor. But likewise, never leave out the middle class. When I said that, I was attacked after the dead silence. Nobody came in and said, “You know, he’s right’. Instead, I was attacked by some people who said, “We haven’t done enough for this group or that group; we have to do even more”. And I said, “Only if you have the money, and if you’re not doing it to the damage of all the people are part of the Democratic Party”. But in the second meeting when I again, on this occasion was asked to state my view, my recollection is it was Senator Cranston who said, “Let’s hear from Ed Koch”. (Laughter) And I talked about these matters again. There was applause, which kind of shocked me.
HEFFNER: Well, Mr. Mayor, suppose someone said, “Where is it written that we really can’t afford to be cost effective and to have all these goodies too?” Would you say, “It is written here? It is written really in the facts of our economy, and that there are too many people”.
KOCH: It is written in terms of what is doable. Here, I have a budget that I have to dispense, obviously, with the consent of the legislature. But I make the original proposals, and I limit the amount of expenditures by estimating what our revenues are, and the council is bound by that estimate, which is a reasonable estimate. I have to establish priorities. Every group comes in and tells me how important education is and how important the libraries are, and how important police and firefighters and sanitation. But there are 42 different agencies of government. And one happens to be prisons, for example. Now, if you want to deal with crime you have to have a place to put the criminals. Right? And the Constitution says that there have to be certain constitutionally mandated standards that are required when you put criminals in there or those who are awaiting trial and are simply just charged with criminality not yet established at a trial. Well, there is no constituency out there saying, “Yes, you have to build these cells, and yes, you have to provide decent food. Yes, you have to provide recreation”. And there’s no constituency out there. The courts are out there in responding to lawsuit to mandate – in fact, I think the courts do much too much in mandating what government has to do – I think our courts are far too active both on the state level and in the federal area where they tell local government what it must do. But that is something I can do very little about. And so I have to take the limited budget, exercise common sense, and say yes, there has to be something for the prisons. Right? But there’s no constituency out there saying, yes. In fact, if you asked anybody out there they’d say, “Why give them anything?”
HEFFNER: But that has to do with your problems here in New York. And I’m sure those problems are epidemic.
KOCH: But they’re national. What I just told you is national.
HEFFNER: Right. Okay. The question, I think, really is to what degree you feel that this nation, even if it were to reorganize its resources, even if it were to restructure its system, whether it can or cannot afford to be as good to its people, to find as much social justice and economic justice as we once thought back 20, 30 years ago. Do you really feel that we don’t have enough to go around and we couldn’t have enough to go around?
KOCH: I am saying that the halcyon days under President Johnson will not soon return.
HEFFNER: Leave out “soon”. Will they return?
KOCH: Will they ever return?
HEFFNER: Can they return?
KOCH: Well, you must never say “never” in this world we live in because you find out subsequently that you made an error. But I do not believe that they will return, you know, in the next several generations.
HEFFNER: Okay. Now, that’s a prime principal of yours. It’s an understanding of yours. May I ask who you think in your party best understands that fact and therefore perhaps in your estimation should be most looked after in terms of the future of the party?
KOCH: Well, I would have no hesitation in telling you that I had selected someone to support; but I haven’t. I can talk about a couple of them and tell you what I think of where they are. The two leading candidates are Kennedy or Mondale. But there are others that we know. Glenn and Cranston and Gary Hart and…
HEFFNER: Who are your leading candidates, your own?
KOCH: The two that I believe are at the top, and the one that I most relate to without being committed to him at this point would be Fritz Mondale. His views are closer to mine than would be the views of others. That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t be supportive of others, because I haven’t heard all of their views. I happen to know him very well. I worked with him when he was vice president and I was a member of Congress, and also as Mayor of the City of New York. I don’t agree with all that he says and nevertheless I have a high regard for him but I’m not committed to his candidacy.
HEFFNER: Do you think he sees things as you do in terms of our limited resources or cost effectiveness?
KOCH: I believe he would like to, and yet the problem, you see, with the Democrats always is that in the primary they’re most active in terms of workers and supporters and voters. For example in the Democratic Primary in New York City, the estimate is, and I think it’s probably true, it’s a split of 60/40, liberal 60, 40 moderate to conservative. So that the liberal wing of the Democratic Party is in control of the primary system simply because they come out and vote and others do not to the same extent, although in the general election that would not be reflected in the same proportion. And therefore the problem for a candidate running for high office or lower office, where you have the primary system, is how do you get past that hurdle of having to respond to the most liberal wing in the Democratic Party and in the Republican Party it would be the most conservative wing of the party that dominates who gets the official designation. It isn’t always that way, and some people are able to overcome it; but I’m giving it to you as a general proposition. How do you get past that and keep your bona fides and your credentials and not sell your principles in exchange for the designation? It’s a very difficult balancing act, and people are constantly looking to find a way to do it, namely get past that primary and then revert to what their normal, maybe more responsible positions would be. And here I’m using “responsible”, quote-unquote, to define the common-sense positions that I believe are the most responsible.
HEFFNER: Who among the leading Democrats in your estimation are most unlikely to come through the primaries in a fashion that would be suitable for your understanding of what this country really needs?
KOCH: If I really knew I wouldn’t hesitate to tell you. I honestly don’t know what each of them – there are about six out there – is willing to do. Let me give you an illustration. When Ted Kennedy was running for president vis-à-vis Carter, when he first started he was more conservative than Carter in his presentations, as I recall them at that time. And then when he perceived that that wasn’t going anyplace, then the presentation became much more liberal. Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting that he changed his positions on anything. I don’t know, because I haven’t had that kind of conversation wit him, and I do like him, and, you know, I always think of the Kennedy tradition and I like him. But if you go back and check the positions that he took in the second half of that primary you will find that he emphasized the liberal issues, “liberal”, quote-close quote, to a far greater degree than he did in the early part when he found that the positions which were less liberal weren’t taken off.
HEFFNER: Mr. Mayor, what you’re making, it seems to me, is a rather sad comment about the American political process.
KOCH: No, I’m just telling you the truth. (Laughter)
HEFFNER: I understand that you’re telling me the truth. You always do. But the question is whether we can survive this kind of hanky-panky, one might…
KOCH: I want to reiterate. I’m not for a moment suggesting that Kennedy took a position different than one that he necessarily believed in, or changed his position. I’m simply saying that of the broad spectrum of issues in the beginning he was featuring those that I would refer to as the more moderate positions. And when they were not taken off, then he shifted gears and featured these other positions which were, you know, spending in terms of dealing with social needs. You can always, if you say, “Gee, there’s a social need”. There were always social needs. And if you say to a particular group, “We’re going to spend to make it possible to have you get a house and get a job no matter what the cost”, you know, you’re going to attract that group, but you’re not necessarily going to be able to fulfill it.
HEFFNER: Mr. Mayor, you’re being so generous and so sweet in describing this as a matter simply of emphasizing one part of your platform at one time and another at another.
KOCH: No, no. I want to make it clear, I’m not suggesting that everybody when they do this trying to get past the liberal primary syndrome that we’re talking about, that everybody is honest about it intellectually. I’m simply saying to you that I don’t believe Senator Kennedy is dishonest intellectually on the matter because I don’t know of anything where he said something on one occasion and then shifted gear and reversed his position on that particular issue. And therefore, as it relates to him, I’m simply saying to you that he shifted to emphasize different positions. It may very well be, in fact I’m sure that there are people who will in fact not only emphasize different positions but take the same position, repackage it, and put it into another mold if that’ll get them elected. But that is not what I want to say about Senator Kennedy because I don’t believe that to be true about him.
HEFFNER: Mayor Koch, do you think that we’re likely to find in 1984 a clearer choice between the parties? Or are we going to find, as you suggest, that the Democratic Party should move a little more in the direction of practicality, of cost effectiveness with a heart, of course, but cost effectiveness? Aren’t we going to be left with no choice between the parties? And isn’t…
KOCH: I don’t think that’s true. I believe that – and I know it sounds simplistic, and it is. But even simplistic statements have much truth to them, you know, otherwise they wouldn’t be so simple. Right?
HEFFNER: I’ll have to ponder that.
KOCH: (Laughter) Well, something that is a trite statement is generally a truth. You know, it’s been said so many times, it’s because it’s true, it becomes trite. What I perceive about the Republican Party is that it is basically a party that believes in the trickle down theory. We can call it Reaganomics, we can call it anything you want to. But it is that if you allow people to become richer than they currently are, and now we’re talking about affluent rich people, that somehow or other others will get the benefit of it. I honestly believe that’s what Reaganomics is all about, and that that basically is the Republican Party position. That is not the Democratic Party position. That doesn’t mean that the Democratic Party does not help people become richer. There’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, I have said – and this is certainly a trite statement – it’s better to be rich than to be poor. My mother told me that. But nevertheless, the Democratic Party’s overriding concern is for the largest number of people in this country, that would be the poor and the middle class, regrettably over the past, I don’t know, 20 years or so, and I can’t fix the time when it occurred, we seem to have forgotten about the middle class, took them for granted, and only talked about the poor. If you do that, you’re going to run the middle class off. I think that’s changed now. I think that Democrats are once again talking about their need to be supportive of middle-class values and include as a major partner with another major partner, the poor, a major partner, the middle class.
HEFFNER: Do you think maybe then there’ll be a third party, if the Republicans believe in trickle down from the rich, and the Democrats focus, focus, but not exclusively, in on the middle class, that we’re going to have a third party concerned with the lumpen proletariat?
KOCH: Well, there are such parties, but they are not effective and I don’t think that our system on a regular basis will allow for the third-party syndrome, and I’m happy about that. I am not for the special interest party.
HEFFNER: But I’m must talking about one of the three interests; not a special interest. If we identified those who were going to trickle down and those in the middle and those on the bottom, I’m talking about simply those on the bottom.
KOCH: Well, the difference is, again, the Democratic Party, I have said, has an alliance, a partnership, a concern for the middle class and the poor. And what you’re suggesting is, is it possible that parties will, only concerned about the poor, spring up and take control in some major way or have some major impact? I just simply doubt it.
HEFFNER: Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND. I hope you’ll stay around and talk some more about politics.
KOCH: Happy to.
HEFFNER: Thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope too that you’ll join us here again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.