Edward I. Koch

Ed Koch Looks Back … The Way We Were

VTR Date: December 17, 1989

Guest: Koch, Edward I.


Guest: Mayor Edward I. Koch
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Title: Ed Koch Looks Back…The Way We Were
VTR: 12/17/89

Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. One day here in New York City back in the 1930’s the Mayor’s office dispatched two rather hefty directives to the home of an irate letter writer to inquire into the details of what this particular indignant citizen had written the Mayor charging all kinds of municipal skullduggery. They didn’t know to start with that the letter writer was only 12 years old. But when they found out that’s all I was, they laughed, gave me a sirens-blasting police car ride to City Hall, remedied the situation I had complained about…and off and on I’ve been a Mayoral fan ever since.

Well, Hizzoner was Fiorello LaGuardia then. He’s Edward I. Koch as we record this program….has been for a long, long time, will be for a bit longer. And then Mayor Koch will move on to greener, and I hope, very happy pastures, leaving us, of course, no longer with the question: “How’m I doing?” But rather: “What must others do now?”

Mayor Koch has often been my guest here on The Open Mind (of course I’ll wait to see now if in turn he invites me to his program!). And I’ve been reading back over the transcripts of these encounters, remembering in particular the absolutely extraordinary press we received across the whole nation when I asked what he would want as his epitaph. What he said then was: “He was fiercely proud of his Jewish faith. HE fiercely defended the City of New York. And he fiercely loved the people of the City of New York.” And he probably wouldn’t change a world of that. But what I want do ask him now is what—from the vantage point of hindsight, which, of course, is always 20-20—what he would have done differently over these many years in public life…or, better, what he would do differently now if God gave us to do it all over again. Mr. Mayor?

Koch: Well, that’s a good question and I believe that substantively I wouldn’t change much. I think that the one area that I felt most wounded by, because my intentions were so good, my substance was so terrific, and yet it wasn’t appreciated, was my relationship with some leadership people in the minority community and some parts of the minority community itself. And if I could do it over I wouldn’t change substantively what I did because I appointed more minorities to high positions, particularly to the judiciary, than all the Mayors before me collectively, especially with respect to judges, but maybe my language was too tough. I always too the position that you treat people who are economically the same, you treat them the same—White, Black, or Hispanic. It’s not true, you can’t. There is a feeling particularly among Blacks that greater deference has to be paid to their prior, and even current, condition so that the language you might employ with others direct, wounds them more than is permissible. That was particularly true of Jesse Jackson’s situation. Everything I said about Jesse Jackson was true. They said, “Yes, but you shouldn’t say it,” or “You shouldn’t say it that way, you have to understand the symbolism that’s involved.” And if I had to do it over, I would take that into consideration.

Heffner: Mr. Mayor, if you were to go back beyond the position of Mayor, back to the Congress, back to the beginnings of your political life, how would you say the question of race has impacted upon American political life?

Koch: Well, I must say, it’s impacted enormously for several reasons: one is there’s not enough honesty paid to that subject…

Heffner: What do you mean?

Koch: Well, I mean that people are frightened to discuss facts. And I ma talking not in any racist way, but for example, if you say to people, “Yes, Blacks have been discriminated against. They were brought here against their will, but that was 300 years ago and that cannot be an excuse today for special treatment or quotas.” On the other hand you have to acknowledge there continues to be discrimination and the way you deal with it is not to create new discrimination and say that there should be special programs for Blacks, and that Whites who are equally deprived economically shall be excluded. There isn’t enough honesty in the discussion of racial relations.

Heffner: How do you think that does impact upon on our national politics and what do you think the future will bring in this area?

Koch: Well, I think that changes have come about that are so enormous—the election of a Black Mayor here in the City of New York—even there, there isn’t any real discussion on…97% of all the Blacks in the city voted for David Dinkins. That is not considered racism, that’s considered racial pride. 24% of all Whites voted for David Dinkins, about 30% of the Jews voted for David Dinkins and that’s considered prejudice—that the figure wasn’t larger. Now I must say, if I looked at the two figures I would say I understand racial pride, and I also understand that when people were evaluating (who were not Black) the candidates, they may have concluded over all, other than those who were motivated by racial pride, that maybe I was worthy of another term. Now let me make something very clear; David Dinkins won it fairly, squarely, hugely. I have no sense of rejection, dejection, anger. In fact, I feel relieved. I mean I really would have liked to have been mayor. I would have done a good job. Figuratively, in my head there are two paintings on my wall—they’re not there—one is of me, and the other is of David Dinkins. I’m getting younger every day, he’s getting older every day, and I look forward to my new career. I feel, you know the Mayor is like Sisyphus. You carry this enormous boulder in your shoulder. You walk up almost to the top of the mountain, then the boulder pulls you back because of obligations are so great, the responsibilities, the problems are so enormous. Well, I no longer have that boulder, I’m walking into the promised land, over the mountain.

Heffner: And you look as though you’re walking that way.

Koch: I’m getting younger.

Heffner: I appreciate that particularly since you turned 65 the other day and I’ll join you fairly soon. But look, I really want to enlarge upon this. You keep coming back to the city of New York, which is quite understandable, but I remember when you became a major figure in the national scene and talked about the political development of this country, talked about your party, the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, and I really wonder what you see as developing in the future…

Koch: I’ll tell you, I sometimes have sort of a hopeless feeling about my own party. I’m proud of being a Democrat, and I call myself a liberal Democrat. There are new terms now. There are people who are referred to in the Democratic Party as liberals, and others who are referred to as progressives. Progressives are liberal-liberal. I don’t know how far liberal, but much further than just old fashioned liberals like me. And I fear for the Democratic Party because after we have been defeated, and we have been defeated so many times in recent Presidential elections, we always say, “Oh God, we did it again. We allowed the radical left to paint us into a corner.” Our Candidates who are not really radical, or even progressive as I’ve given you the terminology, but who want to appear progressive or radical in the primary so they can win, and then they think that they can turn to the center in the general election, and they can never catch up with themselves. And we all day, “Oh yes that’s true.” And I have been to these soul searching meetings where we have these discussions and people say, “Oh yes Koch, you’re right,” or whoever is speaking. And then we repeat it. We let the Ted Kennedys become our spokesman. He doesn’t represent the Democratic Party, or mainstream American, but he becomes the symbol for us.

Heffner: What are you predicting then, a continuing Republican Presidency?

Koch: Well, I must say, unless we learn from the past, as oft times been said, we will repeat it.

Heffner: And your own role, will you stay in a defeated, defeated, defeated party.

Koch: No, because I am, as I think you mentioned earlier, I have a whole new life. And my new life includes having a television commentator program, and radio, and some other things that I’ll be doing, a column, so I won’t be able to be as partisan in favor of the Democrats, or to be supportive of candidates as I did before, but I will try to tell the truth.

Heffner: Wait a minute, what do you mean you’re not going to be able to be as partisan? When you write this column, what are you going to be doing?

Koch: Well, it will not be as some columnists do—there are a number of columnists, I would say half a dozen, who use columns as political vehicles in support of a particular candidate. I’ll give you the names of some: Jack Newfield, Earl Caldwell, Les Payne, McAlary, a number of them. They’re not columnists; they’re politicians who have columns. That cannot be me. I have to write a column that will hopefully tell the truth, or in my commentator status on television, to tell the truth, but without partisanship.

Heffner: But you know for all these years when you’ve sat at this table you’ve said when I’ve quoted people who said, “he shouldn’t have written the book that way,” or “He shouldn’t have said this,” you’ve said, “Look this is Ed Koch. I’m Ed Koch, I have to do what fits me.” Now what are you going to do?

Koch: Now, I’m going to do the same, I’m going to tell the truth, as I know the truth. What I’m trying to say is that there are some columnists who, instead of seeking the truth, are seeking to achieve their political goal. That is not what I will do.

Heffner: Okay, and as you find the truth, and state it, I wonder what your political position will be, and I don’t mean in terms of candidates, I mean in terms of these two parties?

Koch: Oh, it’s easy. I’m mainstream Democrat. I believe that’s where most people are, and that means liberal.

Heffner: But you say the party has left that position.

Koch: Well, not the vast majority of Democrats.

Heffner: The party?

Koch: Not even the party. It is the people who vote in primaries. The primary does not represent, in either of the two major parties, the true spirit of the people who represent, who make up those parties, because the radicals—radical right, radical left—who come out in those parties, vote in those primaries.

Heffner: Would you change the primary system as many people have suggested?

Koch: Oh, I think I would have national primaries to a greater extent than I think we currently have. I’m not even adverse to making voting mandatory with some modest find if you don’t vote.

Heffner: Are you serious?

Koch: Yes, I’m serious.

Heffner: In this country?

Koch: Sure, why not?

Heffner: Because it’s not in our tradition.

Koch: So what? At this particular moment our tradition is that 25% of the people eligible to vote, vote. That’s some tradition, I want to change it.

Heffner: You would make it compulsory?

Koch: Oh, I know it’s not going to happen, but you asked me, in the best of all worlds, and if I could wave this want and say this is what we should do.

Heffner: Let’s talk about the best of all possible worlds. I’m interested…I mean you were such an outstanding outspoken congressman. Any chance that Ed Koch will be running for the Congress?

Koch: No, I will never run for public office again, and that you can rely on, that’s Sherman-esque, so to speak, in my devotion to that particular matter. And you may say, “Why?” Well I’ve given 25 years of my life to public service. I’ve now embarked upon a number of entrepreneurial matters that I think from a financial point of view are going to be very, very helpful. That’s number one. Secondly, I’m tired of taking the abuse the media heaps on people in public office, particularly people like me who fight back. You know if you’re a broken person and you just accept it, after awhile they don’t care about you. But if you stand up to them, as I do, and I’m not talking about across the board. There are people who misuse their editorial positions in some of the major papers in this city. When my book comes out I discuss it very directly. I have a book coming out in March called “All the Best,” these are letters that I’ve send to a lot of people including editorial writers, and newspapers, and columnists, and I tell the truth there. And in some cases when I explain it all, I say some of them are maniacal, and I name them. Now, I get no money from this book, it all goes to WNYC Foundation, so I encourage people to buy it. It’s an unusual book.

Heffner: When it comes out maybe I’ll get you to come back even if I have to say Mr. Mayor in an honorific way.

Koch: Well I must say this to you, this is not to butter you up, of all the interview I have had on a regular basis, yours is the best. That’s something that nobody can explain. It’s rapport, chemistry, and your own native intelligence; it’s extraordinary. I’ve always enjoyed these better than any other.

Heffner: It’s because we’re both the same age, that’s why it is Your Honor. But look, I appreciate what you’re saying. You talk about the media. I’m very interested to know, now that you’ve come to the end of the political road, as you’ve put it, what you’re feelings have been about what’s changed in American life, in American political life? I think of the media. I think of race. I think, particularly, let’s finish out the question of the media: What you think the impact of this beady red eye, as Mike O’Neill has referred to it…

Koch: Well, television is extraordinary, and it is the media, for the most part, for most elections. And it is probably the fairest of all the media in my judgment.

Heffner: Why is that?

Koch: Well, it is because that camera, with some rare exceptions, is like a magic, discerning eye. It reveals you for what you are. There are very few people who can be something other than what they really are before that television lens. Now, and people see you directly, there’s no reporter in the print media reporting what you’ve said and extracting something from the entire statement that which…you know we all make mistakes, we all say foolish things, and everything can be taken out of context. You can’t take it out of context with television. What you see, is what you get.

Heffner: I’m surprised to hear you say that because you know as well as I do that there have been so many people who’ve said, “Indeed, what you see mostly on television is taken out of context.” Thinking about the political commercials, for instance.

Koch: No, I don’t even think the commercials are bad. I mean what do you want from a commercial? It’s 30 seconds. It’s supposed to sum up the point that you want to make. And the fact is that people, in most cases, this is not an overall rule that applies in every case, you can discern the gold form the dross. I believe you can.

Heffner: Yes, but Mr. Mayor you say, “what do you want from a commercial?” And I would ask you whether what you get from the commercial is what you want from American political life?

Koch: There’s no perfect way of handling this. It isn’t possible to have debates that won’t bore people to death. I mean more than two or three debates is a waste of time in the course of a campaign. People don’t turn in to listen, they become boring. If they don’t become boring, they become the kind of gouging contests that sicken you, and then you turn it off yourself. So, I believe we’re ultimately able to decide which candidate deserves our support for whatever reasons.

Heffner: So that the use that is being made of the beady red eye at this moment is acceptable to you in political life?

Koch: Yes, yes it is. I think it does a good job.

Heffner: I guess I’m silent because I’m so shocked.

Koch: (Laughter) That’s because I’m so good at it.

Heffner: Well maybe, you think maybe that’s it?

Koch: That’s a joke, that’s sounded arrogant, that’s hubris as they say.

Heffner: Now, come on, come on, that’s no joke. You are good at it, you know darn well you’re good at it. Could that be the reason that you embrace it?

Koch: It could be one of the reasons.

Heffner: I mean, look you’re the guy who just said something about making people vote, or at least doing something to penalize them when they don’t.

Koch: Yes.

Heffner: Now you accept this other thing?

Koch: There’s nothing perfect, but the fact is that people now are accustomed to television. There was a time when they were terrified, candidates were absolutely terrified. They either went out and they took lessons, or sufficient experience with it has sharpened their ability to deal with it. Some people are better than others, but the fundamental thing that you cannot hide is, “is he sincere? Doe she have character? What do I think about his personality?” I’m not telling you that you can’t put a special pitch on a position that will convey something that isn’t, but the fact is that camera looks into your eyes, and the eyes are the soul.

Heffner: Holy mackerel, no kidding. This, obviously, is spoken by a guy who is so good at it.

Koch: Yes, well I don’t know about that, but I think so.

Heffner: Well you are, and I’m not saying that to compliment you. I’m saying that because I’m still in a state of shock because you’re one of the few people in public life…well maybe that’s because until the other month you had won most of the campaigns.

Koch: I was in 25 elections and I lost three; the first time I ran for Assembly, once when I ran for Governor, and when I ran for a fourth term for Mayor. I don’t regret any of it. I must tell you, the people of the city have been so good to me, 12 wonderful years. There are only three Mayors who have served for three terms: LaGuardia, Wagner and myself, and when Wagner and LaGuardia went out of office, they were reviled. People didn’t like them. I’m leaving office, and I’m more popular today than before I lost. Why that should be? I don’t know why that should be.

Heffner: Tell me what your guess is? Why is it, not why it should be, why it is?

Koch: Well, I suspect people are saying, “what did we do it ourselves?” (Laughter)

Heffner: Come on, elaborate upon that.

Koch: Well, I believe…there was a poll immediately before the last general election that said if I were on the ballot, on an independent line, that I would’ve gotten 40% of the vote, David Dinkins 32, and Rudy Giuliani 17. Now, I want to tell you in real life it wouldn’t have happened that way because if I had stayed in the race I would have continued to be the center of attention drawing all of these attaches—some fair, some unfair—and it wouldn’t have worked out that way. I believe David Dinkins would have won even if I were on the ballot and so I don’t, in any way, contest his victory. It was a genuine victory. He convinced the people of this city that it was time for a change, that he could somehow or other deal with what he phrases as this “gorgeous mosaic”…I wish I had thought of that term…(laughter)

Heffner: You could use it.

Koch: (Laughter) and that he could bring people together. Maybe he can. We’ll see, and I only wish him well. I have said that in my new life I am going to try and not be critical of him, personally, for the first time in six months. I will be critical of his policies. I will be critical, meaning for or against, of his appointees, but I will try to not be critical of him. I can’t give a hundred percent pledge, but I will try to honor that commitment.

Heffner: Because we have so many of our viewers outside the New York area, in California, in Massachusetts, Illinois, etc., I wanted to come back to the question, in the few remaining minutes, about what you see as the way the parties are going to develop and where the power will be?

Koch: Well, you know I believe what’s been established through Carter, and I don’t like Carter but I think he did a good job of reviving our military position, and Reagan to an even greater extent, and Bush is part of the Reagan team, they must be given great credit for what has taken place with respect to the Soviet Union. I believe if we had listened to the radical left in this country, and had unilaterally disarmed, and had caved, that you wouldn’t be seeing communism throwing in the towel economically in central Europe as well as in the Soviet Union. And you wouldn’t be seeing Poland, and Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, getting the Communist Party out, and getting some new party in, or changing the Communist Party. So what is means is being strong is extremely important?

Heffner: Okay, now how are we going to deal with the results of what you consider a wise policy?

Koch: Well I believe that we should make every effort to deal with Gorbachev extending the economic ties with Central Europe, and I think that we in the United States are going to find that we’re going to be in an economic position that’s unenviable unless we start establishing our own block with Canada, as we already have, with Mexico and maybe with the Pacific rim because the Europeans now are extraordinarily strong with respect to the European Common Community and they will increase that with the two Germanys becoming one Germany, and new markets in Eastern Europe. So we have to look to our economic situation to be more competitive.

Heffner: Do you think that situation will be strong enough so that we can being to turn our attention more to what has been called an effort to achieve social justice? Do the things that perhaps you are unable to do?

Koch: We have to. We have to, but nevertheless, even David Dinkins said the other day, “I can’t do everything. We can only spend what we have,” or words to that effect. And somebody said to him, “ You sound like Ed Koch,” and he said, “Well, I’m being pragmatic.” (Laughter)

Heffner: What do you think the nation is going to be able to do?

Koch: Well I believe that some of the peace dividend—not all—some of the peace dividend, as a result of a reduction in our expenditures for armed forces, should be used for social purposes and some of it has to be used for a reduction in the national debt, and in expenditures that cause us to have an annual deficit that is so tremendous and is ultimately responsible for inflation.

Heffner: Mr. Mayor we have 20 seconds left…the future of urban America?

Koch: The best yet to come. People should never give up…there will be a couple of tears here in New York, and the rest of the country, where we will suffer a little bit, but it’s going to get better.

Heffner: Edward I. Koch I’ve greeted you here so many times as Mr. Mayor and this may be the last time, it is the last time, and I want to thank you so much for joining me all these times, and for being such a good guy, here in New York and elsewhere.

Koch: And I’ll see you, I’ll see you around this table and at my table on another channel.

Heffner: You know it’s all being recorded. Thanks Mr. Mayor.

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 today’s program, please write THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an 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 Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The New York Times Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.