Edward I. Koch

Citizen Koch, An Autobiography

VTR Date: September 3, 1992

Guest: Koch, Edward I.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Edward I. Koch
Title: “Citizen Koch, an Autobiography”
VTR: 9/3/92

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And my guest today is an old friend. Well, surely not old, old. After all, we’re just about the same age…and I don’t feel so old. But we have known each other – at least in this interviewer/interviewee, host/guest relationship for a long, long time now. Indeed, from way before Edward I. Koch became Hizzoner, New York City’s indomitable , irrepressible three-term mayor.

Well now, of course my guest has become Citizen Koch, no more “Mr. Mayor”. And “Citizen Koch” is the title of his wonderfully evocative and touching up-to-this-point-at-least autobiography published by St. Martin’s Press. Actually, Citizen Koch did join me here on The Open Mind right after he gave up the raiments and trappings of public office in January 1991, then we focused our words together on just what it means to be a politician here in America in the twilight of the 20th century. Today, we ought to talk about what it means to be, instead, just “Citizen Koch”, though I can’t really think of my guest as “just” anything.

So Ed Koch, “Citizen Koch”, let me begin by asking you about a, a funny kind, funny aspect of your being a citizen again…that has to do with the press. In a sense you’re a member of the press now…you have…

Koch: I am.

Heffner: …programs, you write, you lecture…as a citizen, how do you evaluate the press?

Koch: I don’t like the press. And on one occasion a reporter said to me “you’re one of us now”, I said, “just because I’m ‘one of us now’ doesn’t mean I have to like us”. And I don’t. That doesn’t’ mean there aren’t individual reporters, members of the media that I do indeed, have a high regard and affection for. But, overall, I’m very soured on them and I think they have been basically destructive to the body politic. I think there is a reluctance on the part of people to run for public office now simply because they don’t want to expose themselves to the viciousness that politicians, people in public life are so often subjected to. And you have to have thick skin. People said that I didn’t have a thick skin, , that I was too thin-skinned. The truth of the matter is it hurts when you’re attacked unfairly. Now there were times when I was attacked very fairly. But overall I found media coverage not to be as good as it should have been, or could be.

Heffner: But you know this book is…which I describe as evocative and warm and all kinds of good feelings come from it…as you talk about your youth, growing up, getting into politics as a young lawyer, did you feel that way about the press, when you were part of the Village Democratic…

Koch: Oh, no. I mean, I didn’t really know the press. I was so happy when they would talk to me or cover me when I was a member of Congress, or even before that as a member of the City Council. But the coverage of the Mayor is very intense. It’s every day. There are 25 reporters, television, radio…the newspapers whose very livelihood is coming up with a story a day about the Mayor. So I had more press than I wanted and, and by the way, it’s a symbiotic relationship. I, I hope I don’t say it arrogantly, I’m quotable…because I say what I mean and I mean what I say and I have an ability o say, in two or three sentences what it takes people pages to say. And that’s what the press, particularly radio and television require is the 30 second “bite” as they refer to it. So I was quoted all the time, there wasn’t a day in the course of a year, over a 12 year period where I was not quoted either in the newspapers, television or radio, or a combination of the three.

Heffner: But you’re saying that before then, before you sat in Gracie Mansion…

Koch: Yeah

Heffner: …lived in Gracie Mansion…

Koch: I wanted to be covered every day.

Heffner: Okay, yeah, but…

Koch: …and I wasn’t (laughter).

Heffner: But you are also saying that you didn’t mind the press then.

Koch: Because they weren’t covering me. I mean it wasn’t that I was the subject, when I was a Congressman…

Heffner: Right.

Koch: …and a Council member. The, the coverage of the members of Congress and the other offices, other than the Mayor is, you know, scanty. Really quite scanty. And I’m not going to tell you that, as Mayor, I didn’t want to be covered. I did because I wanted my story to get out. I wanted people to know what I was doing. I wanted them to understand that no matter how bad things were for the City when I came in in ’78, I would lead them out of the desert. That requires a presence. And I think I brought a presence back to City hall and you can only do that with the media. And it may very well be that really what impacted me most adversely towards the media was the cove rage during the corruption crisis, as it was called. I say this to people – I said it then, but nobody cared. Today, occasionally people listen, and it’s in the book. Brought me to the point where, the, the coverage was so unfair and so intense, I, I thought of suicide. I mean it’s hard to believe, I became so depressed. Because I appointed over the 12 years…thousands of people at high levels, and six were corrupt, indicted and convicted and I asked the judges to send those people to jail for long periods of time. But, I was not responsible for the corruption of independently elected people like Donald Manes, Stanley Friedman, Mario Biaggi, I could give you others. They were elected on their own. But because my presence at City Hall, and in this city was so strong it was as though I had appointed those people. I had not. And the press never really distinguished their corruption from what I had to be held responsible for, which was the corruption of the half a dozen people that I had appointed.

Heffner: But you know, Ed, as I read “Citizen Koch”, I had the feeling you were making too much of a fuss over it. Obviously, it stung you so badly that you seemed to think that the public perception still, in to some degree…

Koch: Yeah.

Heffner: …too great a degree revolves around the matter of corruption. I don’t think it does.

Koch: Not any more. You see, I , in a sense I was very fortunate. Nobody ever thought that I was corrupt, even my enemies would never convey that they thought that I was fiscally corrupt. The worst that they could ever say is “power was what he was after”, you know, if you can’t find anything else…

Heffner: Well? Well? What about that?

Koch: Well, maybe so. (laughter) I don’t call that corruption.

Heffner: Wait, wait a minute. Not “maybe so”.

Koch: Actually, wasn’t so at all.

Heffner: Then why…what was the spur?

Koch: I will tell you. First to the scar, as it were.

Heffner: Okay.

Koch: Let me cover that. It was the day after day, I felt a) that some of these people who were being indicted, people who I had appointed, or people independently elected, that the prosecutors really wanted what they would refer to as the “big fish”…I’m the big fish in those days. And that under the Federal laws, unlike the State laws, you don’t need corroboration. So if some criminal says that “Mr. So-and-So was involved with me in a criminal action”, you can indict on that simple statement, and then it’s for a jury to decide whether or not he was telling the truth. You can’t do that in the State court. There you need corroboration. And I always felt that in exchange for getting off, any one of these criminals might say, “Koch did it”. Now, I must say, once again, I’m very proud of the fact that nobody ever thought that I was corrupt, and…but when you’re living under those circumstances, you become terrified. Now, of course, I had to govern a city at the same time. And I couldn’t voice this and, there were moments, as foolish maybe or un-understandable as it may sound…I wept. I thought to myself, “Is my administration going to be thought of this way when I have left” putting aside anything else. “After all I’ve done, I think of public service as the noblest of professions, if it’s done honestly and done well…I know I’ve done it honestly, I believe I’d done it well…will my reputation be smeared?”. Well, I must say to you, fortunately it didn’t happen that way, and that I think most people still have a high regard for me, and I probably have never been as popular as I am now. People in the City of New York tend to like you after they’ve kicked you out. (Laughter)

Heffner: Well, listen, I, I’ve got to get you back though to the question of fame. Is it the spur?

Koch: Not for me, no.

Heffner: What is the spur?

Koch: I will tell you. People think that. I honestly believe in public service. I believe that the greatest job in the world is the mayor’s job. People say, “Ah, you mean, better than the Governor, better than the President?”. Yeah. Because those people are removed from daily contact. I was able to change, in a positive way, the lives of people in this city. And I did. And I am proud of what I did. And there are few, if any other jobs, that allow it. And you have a special relationship with the public. I used to sum it up by saying, “You don’t like the President, cost you $200 to go and picket him in Washington. You don’t like the Governor, $150 to picket in Albany. You don’t like the Mayor…$1.20 round trip down to City Hall”.

Heffner: More than that now.

Koch: (Laughter)

Heffner: More than that now, Ed, more than that now. But, look, I started off by asking about Koch, the citizen.

Koch: Yeah.

Heffner: There are a lot of things about your past that I would like to go into. And maybe first..there was a, there was a , a statement that you made here that I thought was just…I,I just was fascinated by, talking about when you were in Congress…

Koch: Yes.

Heffner: …and you had a very productive Congressional career…you were very much…

Koch: I’m proud of that.

Heffner: …liked…you were very creative, you were very productive, you say, “As Mayor, I didn’t think I could spare the time to be as nice as I really am. It was a mistake on my part. But I was a nice Congressman”.

Koch: Right.

Heffner: “I thought I had to be”. What did you mean?

Koch: Well, the different is this. You see, a Congressman, a legislator educates people. An executive, a Mayor, has to get something done. And when I came in, the City was on the edge of bankruptcy, and I knew that I didn’t have much time to do what had to be done to save it. It’s as simple as that. And therefore, the tough things that had to be done…if you had the time, you would explain them, and you would bring people to the point where they could accept them willingly. I didn’t have the time. So I just had to say, “this is what we’re going to do”. And people would say, “But this hurts”. And it wasn’t’ adequate to say, “Yes, I know, but it’s good for us, and even though it hurts now, in the long run it will be better for all of us”. When I was a Congressman because being a legislator gives you a long period of time to get something done, I could bring them along through cajoling and education and sitting down and almost on a retail basis, one…with one…you can’t do that as Mayor.

Heffner: And in, whatever this is now, Act III. Is it Act III?

Koch: Oh, well yeah. But I expect four acts. In other words, I’m in my third career, and I’m having a wonderful time. I’m a partner in a major law firm, Robinson, Silverman…I do a column for the Post, I’m on Channel 5, television commentary, I do movie reviews, I teach at NYU, I speak around the country, I did the book, and I think I’ve left out a couple of things. And every day is filled with adventure. I spend as many hours in – I get up at 5:30, I don’t go to bed before midnight, as many hours as I did as Mayor, but of course, when I was Mayor, it was much more important and impacted on the lives of other people. Now, I only do what I want to do. I mean, if I don’t want to do something, I don’t do it. I’m enjoying my life. And you know, the nicest thing…

Heffner: What’s that?

Koch: …is what people constantly say to me as I walk around, “Oh, we miss you. We miss you. You must run again”. And my response, jocularly is, “Oh, no. people threw me out, and now the people must be punished”. And they respond, “We’ve been punished. How long?”. (Laughter)

Heffner: Well, what about, “how long”? Any thoughts about going back into the fray?

Koch: Oh, no. no, no. I will never, ever run for elective office again. Never. I’m 67, I’m in my third career, financially I don’t have to worry about anything. But, I don’t want the…if you’re Mayor, and you’re responsible for seven and a half million people, you have anxiety all day long. “Are you doing the right thing? Are you spending the monies wisely?”. The decisions that you just made involving millions of people, millions of dollars, were they the correct decisions? And if you’re a leader, you have to take them. I mean one of the things that I think distinguished my administration, and made it very positive was that I said to myself, “Listen, there were seven people who ran when I ran for office, and many of them very able people, and maybe there are lots of people who didn’t run who are even more able than I, but they didn’t have the courage to run”. People selected me. They want me to do my best. If you want to do your best, you have to have confidence in yourself, make the decision, get something done. Understand that if you make enough decisions some of them are going to turn out lousy. And if they turn out lousy, admit the error. People forgive error. But don’t be caught up in a way that you, that you’re ineffective. Now when you do that, and I did that, you nevertheless have anxiety. I mean they’re not inconsistent. Get it done. Do it. But it doesn’t mean you don’t worry about it.

Heffner: Okay, no more elective office, right?

Koch: Right.

Heffner: What are we going to be appointed to?

Koch: Well, I don’t want to be coy. I have no desire to be appointed. I wouldn’t say that I’d reject offers that might be made in the future, but I have nothing in mind. Honestly. Nothing at all.

Heffner: There’s nothing that you would be least likely to reject?

Koch: Oh, I would reject being Ambassador to London, Paris or Jerusalem. (Laughter)

Heffner: You would reject…

Koch: Yes. I don’t’ want that. I don’t want to be an Ambassador. And I don’t’ want to be a judge. So those two things clearly…

Heffner: SO what do you want to be when you grow up?

Koch: (Laughter) Well, I’m doing the things I like. I mean you see before you a very happy person. And it’s not a put-on. I, my health is good, I had two medical incidents in my lifetime we’ve discussed them on prior shows, I have a pacemaker, it’s a guarantee of 15 years, otherwise I get my money back…

Heffner: (Laughter)

Koch: …I had a stroke about six years ago, fully recovered with no diminution of motor services, and, there’s nothing…can I sum it up?

Heffner: Please.

Koch: IT’s going to sound ridiculous.

Heffner: Go ahead.

Koch: I…I like the fact that I can walk into Brooks Brothers and if I like a shirt, I can buy eight of them (laughter) different colors. And I couldn’t do that before. And, in other words, I have no obligations that are serious that require me to be particularly careful in my tastes as it relates to expenditure of money, and I am certainly not someone who spends money foolishly. I mean I buy all of my stuff, including at Brooks Brothers, on sale. (laughter) but, there is a sense of freedom I have which you can’t have if you are in public office, if you want to do your job right, because you’re on duty 24 hours a day. And now when I go to sleep, nobody’s going to call me at midnight, or 2 o’clock in the morning. If my phone were to ring, and it never has since I’ve left office, I’d pick it up and I’d say “Wrong number, call David Dinkins”.

Heffner: (Laughter) But, now wait a minute. You know one of the programs we did when you were still “Hizzoner”, I don’t know how I came to it, but asked you what your epitaph…

Koch: Yes, I remember that.

Heffner: …you wanted it to be…and the next day in the press, all over the darned country, throughout…

Koch: (inaudible)

Heffner:…the country there was what you said. But you’ve talked about Act IV…

Koch: Yeah.

Heffner:…come on, isn’t there…

Koch: Well I have no plans for it. What I was really trying to convey is that I can perceive myself as a young man. Even though I’m chronologically 67, when they examined my body from head to toe when I had the pacemaker, the doctor went down and said to the press “He’s got the body of a 42 year old man”.

Heffner: And they had already said that when you had the stroke, about your head.

Koch: NO, they said my brain was only 28 years old.

Heffner: Oh, okay.

Koch: So I’m trying to bring them into closer alignment.

Heffner: (laughter) And you still do that.

Koch: Yes.

Heffner: So that…when I said, in introducing our program, I said, “At this stage of the game…” because autobiography implies that’s in the past, it was Koch in the past…

Koch: Yes.

Heffner: …but it can’t be…this is just Volume One.

Koch: Well, the reason that this book is special is I have written a total of four books, and the reason this book is special, the other three were political, primarily, this has some politics in it, because after all, it’s a major part of my life. But this goes back to age 5, and I don’t make up a single conversation. I said, early on, to myself and to the readers in the book itself, “I can’t understand those people who write autobiographies and remember what they said to their mother and father in…and siblings at age 3 or 5”. I can’t remember. But I remember feelings. And that’s what I’ve expressed here, until I remembered conversations. And I talk about my parents. I had wonderful parents. They were not wonderful vis-à-vis one another. They were mismatched. And yet I loved both of them, and I see them now differently than I saw them 50 years ago, or earlier than that, or later than that. My mother was an extraordinary woman, very, very intelligent. And I sided with her over my father, who was not as intelligent. But much nicer. (Laughter) and, but nevertheless, I sided with my mother, and when my mo9ther died, and she died a terrible death involved in cancer, very painful..I recorded in the book. Oh, it was awful, I saw her every day at the hospital, she screamed out “Let me die. Let me die”. And she did, and we were thankful to God that he took her at that point. And , but when she died, my father re-married. He married a woman much simpler than my mother, not as smart as my mother, but much closer to his tastes and he was gloriously happy. He’s dead now, too. Both, as we say, of sainted memory, and I appreciated how nice my father was, how much he put up with. Now that doesn’t mean I love my mother less, but I learned to love my father more. Not more than my mother, but more than I had.

Heffner: It was so interesting, throughout the book you refer to that. You refer to their being mismatched, but both parts of the match you obviously loved and respected very much.

Koch: Indeed.

Heffner: And that’s a very, very touching part of this. Ed, what changes have taken place in you? What, what have been the insights that have led to changes?

Koch: Oh, I would say, people say, “Well, are you more conservative than you were when you were young?”. Of course I am. Life teaches you that all of the glorious things that you from life itself and others, is sometimes over-stated in expectation. So I think I’m much more practical. But I’m still a Liberal. I, I know what…

Heffner: What do you mean by that?

Koch: I will tell you. I have referred to myself as a Liberal with sanity. It means that I, without getting involved in the politics of my party, I don’t want to do that for this program, but I believe that the fundamental values are still there. And that we’ve made great errors in the way we have removed fundamental values from our society and from the curriculum for students. I don’t think that our schools should be as devoid of values as they currently are. And I’m not knocking the schools…I believe in separation of church and state, but I think we’ve gone too far.

Heffner: But Ed, if values were to re-appear in the schools, who’s? whose values?

Koch: Well, there are generally accepted values. I’m not going to tell you that they are values that will last forever, although I assume that some of the values…”Thou shalt not kill”, an innocent human being is a value that should last forever. I mean I don’t know that all of the Ten Commandments have that same verity, but many of them do. Honor thy father and mother…of course. So that there are fundamental values and that’s why even though when Dan Quayle talked about family values and was hooted at, even though he didn’t express it as well as maybe he could have. He struck a, a major sensitive pulse because we have forgotten some of those values. His values may not necessarily be mine, that’s a question of discussion here, and somehow or other in our society, the radicals on the Left, still hold on to…well, let everybody do their thing, that there are not fundamental values. There are. There are. They are not the values of the Radical Right, but there are fundamental values.

Heffner: But you know, you say, do not take a life unnecessarily…

Koch: No, I am for the death penalty for criminals. We’re talking about an innocent life…

Heffner: An innocent life, but then you have to talk about abortion, don’t you?

Koch: Yes, and I have problems. I am supportive of the right of abortion, although I would put restrictions on it. Those that the Supreme Court did. That’s what I mean, I’m a Liberal with sanity. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with waiting 24 hours after you’ve decided to have an abortion…I don’t think there’s anything wrong with requiring that a minor, a child, must talk either with a parent, or if they can’t with a parent, that they must talk with someone that court has designated for that purpose…to talk with the child. I am not for handing out contraceptives willy-nilly without professional advice being given to the student, but I am for making condoms available because we know that AIDS has to be dealt with. I am for teaching abstinence…the people who are against teaching abstinence in our school system for 9, 10, 11,12 year old kids…they are racists because our school system now is overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic, and if those kids were all White, do you think that the…that the parents would allow a 9, 10, and 11 year old kid to be taught about oral or anal sex, which is what they’re doing, or to be given a condom upon request? I am for education, but I simply believe that there are values that have disappeared.

Heffner: Ed, Mr. Mayor, Citizen Koch, all of you together, you’ve got to come back again, but now our program is over. Thank you so much for joining me today, as I urge everyone to read “Citizen Koch”.

Koch: Thank you.

Heffner: Thanks Ed.

Koch: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about our program today, our extraordinary guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; the New York Times Company Foundation; and from the corporate community, Mutual of America.