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Edward I. Koch

Ed Koch on the 1984 Democratic Presidential Candidate, Part II

VTR Date: February 8, 1984

Guest: Koch, Edward I.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Ed Koch
Title: “Ed Koch on the 1984 Democratic Presidential Candidate, Part II”
Air: 3/15/84

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. One of the great blessings of having studied and then taught American history for 40 years now is that it’s so much easier to recollect Lincoln’s wise insistence that when new views prove to be true views he would adopt them, and to respect, historically speaking, Franklin Roosevelt’s similarly pragmatic approach to Americans’ distress when in the 1930s and ‘40s he moved so swiftly from one political or economic posture or another, always in an effort to find what would work for our nation rather than what would just conform to campaign pledges. And that’s why it’s so interesting that one of the most pragmatic political leaders of modern times, Ed Koch, Mayor of the City of New York, has chosen a particularly unique approach to the candidates for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. Democrat Koch has asked them to reply to several series of the most specific and detailed possible questions on what position each holds on issues ranging from our defense budget to ERA to tax increases to gun control to gay rights to the insanity plea and so on. Well, right now it’s Super Tuesday, March 13 as we record this program. We don’t’ know how the remaining Democratic candidates will fare. At least the press hasn’t yet taken to announcing election results the day before. And Mayor Koch won’t announce his preference just yet. He’s told me so. But with his new book, Mayor, riding so high, number one again on America’s best seller lists, what Ed Koch does have to say about political commitment and consistency obviously looms large in our national concerns.

So, welcome to the Open Mind again, Mr. Mayor.

Koch: Nice to be back.

Heffner: You know, I know from reading Mayor that you had certain litmus-test questions that you put to Jimmy Carter when he was running the second time for president of the United States. If the paper turned the wrong color it was going to be no, no support; the right color, some support. Do any of the questions that you’ve put to the Democratic candidates have a similar quality about them? If they reply in the wrong way, yes for Koch or no for Koch; if they reply the other way, the other way around?

Koch: Well, there are only three candidates who I would consider supporting before the convention and after the convention, and they are, and not necessarily in this order, Mondale, Hart, and Glenn. I will not support Jesse Jackson, I will not support George McGovern. As it relates to the three that I would support, I disagree with each of them on several issues, but overall I could support any one of them with pride and with vigor, as they used to say.

Heffner: Let’s go back though to a question of a litmus-test question. Is there a question there that you consider crucial in which there’s been some disagreement among the candidates?

Koch: There is no question that I posed where the answers came in, even though they were not answers that satisfied me, that would bar any of those three candidates from getting my support. In other words, I do not believe that any candidate can be expected to be totally on track with my positions. If overall their positions are satisfactory, even though I might disagree with several of them, so long as they did not take such terrible positions on any one matter I could support them. There isn’t a candidate of the three whose position is so outlandish on any matter, even though I might disagree, that I couldn’t support.

Heffner: What were those issues that you comment on with such certainty in the book, Mayor that you pressed with President Carter?

Koch: Well, that was somewhat different in that what President Carter wanted me to do was to campaign for him when it was important for the City of New York to get Medicaid reform, and he had promised it in his first time running for office and then he had reneged. And I wanted him to reestablish that commitment by some action if he wanted me to campaign heavily for him in New York City. And then because President Carter wanted m to be out there supporting him in the Jewish Community where I have some credentials. I said, “Not unless your positions are such that they would satisfy the Jewish community and myself. Even though I will vote for you,” said I to him, “in any of these eventualities, whether you are taking the positions I want or not, I’m not going to commit my energies to you If your positions are not something that I can be supportive of.” Now, that doesn’t apply to these three even though their positions are not in every case what I would want on either of those two issues.

Heffner: Wait a minute. You say it doesn’t apply to these three. Why? Because you don’t intend to campaign for them?

Koch: No, I will be campaigning very strongly irrespective of the fact, that they don’t necessarily in each case take the positions I want on those two issues. As I say, with respect to President Carter, President Carter was seeking a second term. He had made some commitments. He had not kept them. If he wanted me to go out and espouse his positions for him and to campaign as he hoped I would in those communities, the City of New York and inside the City of New York in the Jewish community, then it was necessary for him to take positions that were satisfactory to me. I do not hold the same standard to these three men who are running and one of whom I will be supporting because I’m evaluating them not on two positions, Medicaid and Israel, as I did President Carter, but on 12 positions.

Heffner: I’m not going to try to force your hand. Nobody can, nobody would succeed at that. And you’ve said you’re not now today and not until you’re ready to before the New York State primary going to choose among those three. But I think it may not be unfair to ask – forget about which candidate you’re going to support eventually – which one answers in a way that pleases you most?

Koch: Not one of them pleases me totally in all respects. So let me talk about what they say that bothers me. Okay? Let us take Hart. Hart and Glenn both support racial quotas to some extent. Hart more directly than Glenn, although they both have come out for racial quotas. I’[m unalterably opposed to racial quotas. I believe in affirmative action which does not include quotas, does not include numerical goals, timetables and sanctions, because those three phrases or words in a phrase are simply synonymous with racial quotas. It’s just that the people who support racial quotas want to fudge it, so they will use goals, timetables, sanctions. But nevertheless, even though I disagree with the two of them on that particular issue, I would be supportive of them if they became the candidate because of their overall approach. Now, as it relates to Mondale. Mondale took a position which was that our going into Grenada was comparable to the Soviet Union going into Afghanistan. I think that’s ridiculous. I was very proud of our going into Grenada to save Americans who were in danger, and I distinguish between Grenada and Lebanon where we have no role and where we should not be. So those would be two illustrations, Grenada and racial quotas, where I’m in disagreement with the candidates, and there are other areas as well.

Heffner: What weights do you give to these two areas?

Koch: Oh, I have not fixed a numerical weight to any one of them. I’m simply saying that even though I disagree with them on those issues that would not prevent me from supporting then, and vigorously, if any one of them should be the convention candidate, and I will support one of them before the New York primary because I think it’s my obligation to do so.

Heffner: Well, let’s look at the question of Grenada. Which one of the three candidates or which of the three candidates satisfies you most in his responses and in his general behavior beforehand and after the responses in the area of foreign affairs?

Koch: Well, I have no objection with respect to the three that I mention. George McGovern, Jesse Jackson, the pits. But the other three I’m not able to distinguish between one question and another other than to say that overall I am not able to so distinguish between their positions as to say one is overwhelmingly better or worse than Hart at this point. I will, when I make my decision, distinguish between their positions with more precision.

Heffner: Will you be doing that on the basis of another questionnaire?

Koch: No, it will be on the basis of trying to help the candidate that I am supporting to make more clear the distinctions between the three who are the frontrunners.

Heffner: Please run through that again.

Koch: What I’m simply saying is that at this point I have said in advance of making a selection in advance of the New York State primary that if any one of the three becomes the convention candidate of the Democratic Party I will support them with pleasure.

Heffner: Right.

Koch: In advance of the convention I feel an obligation to support a candidate of the three in the New York State primary. When I make that public announcement I want to help my candidate.

Heffner: Oh, I understand that. But if you have presented these questionnaires to them, and you have, if you’ve gotten the replies, and you have from all except Jesse Jackson, but you’ve ruled him out as a recipient of your support anyway…

Koch: The pits.

Heffner: Okay. You’ve gotten the replies. What are you waiting for?

Koch: Well, I have not yet in my own mind come to the definitive conclusion as it relates to which of the three. That’s number one. And secondly, I want to do it in its most effective way. You know, when the governor of this state and most public officials early in the campaign came out for Fritz Mondale they urged me to do that. And I said, “No, I’m not ready to make a decision either for him or for anyone else”. And then everyone said, “Well, the bus has left the depot. The train has left the station. And there’s poor Ed Koch. Nobody cares anymore”. As I’ve said on more than one occasion, the bust has turned around, the train is coming back and waiting for Ed Koch to get on.

Heffner: And we don’t know yet where he’s going to get on, which car?

Koch: No. it will be done in the most effective way to help the candidate that I ultimately select as the one I want to be supportive of. And then, someone said to me the other day, “How do you know it’ll help such a candidate for you to endorse him?” I said, “Before I make the endorsement I will ask whether they want it”. It will not be gratuitous.

Heffner: Let me ask about this question of questions. We’ve talked about this before. I began the program by referring to the pragmatism that characterizes Ed Koch, that characterized Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and the best of our political leaders. Franklin Roosevelt said he was going to balance the budget. If asked at the Economic Club or the Commonwealth Club, wherever he spoke in ’32, he said, “I’m going to balance the budget”.

Koch: He meant it probably at the time…

Heffner: Okay. Why are you pinning these men down so specifically when you know there is always likelihood, a great likelihood that given the experience of the White House they’ll have to change course?

Koch: Well, the first thing is want it to be helpful to the Democratic party because I want to defeat President Reagan. And I believe the best way you defeat President Reagan is to set forth the issues and to pinpoint where we are different than the Republicans and President Reagan. And also I have made the point continually, and I think it’s been justified as a result of the primaries that have been held thus far, that we do not want to be perceived as the captive of the most militant faction of any special interest. I think that some people perceive us as that way. There’s nothing wrong with special interests. I’ve reiterated that. But there is something wrong with responding affirmatively to the most extreme position simply to obtain the votes of those special interests when in fact you will not if what you’re doing is appealing to the most extreme rather than the mainstream.

Heffner: How has that been demonstrated? What makes you think that?

Koch: Well, I can illustrate that. Fritz Mondale probably is perceived as in trouble at this moment because he is thought of as too cozy with the labor unions. I’m not sure it’s true, but that is what the people perceive. I believe that Gary Hart’s in trouble for having said that he would deny aid to states that didn’t adopt an ERA amendment. He subsequently said he never said it, and then I think Senator Glenn read the transcript. I made mention of this,, I believe, when I was on your program that these appeals to the most extreme of responsible issues would not be helpful. I wanted to avoid that happening, and I think I’ve helped to some extent. That’s number one. Secondly, when you elect somebody you really want them to do what they say they will do. And even though you know that time changes things and the most reasonable, responsible of people will find that events have caused them to change their positions, if it’s not that cause but simply because they didn’t mean it in the first instance you will find it’s more difficult for them to withdraw from the position that they took when the position that they took was in writing.

Heffner: Okay. You say two things there, it seems to me. You’re going to make it more difficult for them to withdraw.

Koch: Yes.

Heffner: On the other hand, you concede the need at times for people to withdraw.

Koch: Sure.

Heffner: Now, how do we make those balance?

Koch: Well, there’s nothing wrong in changing your position if the change takes place as a result of the experience between the time that you were elected and two or three years into your term. I’ve changed my position on a number of matters. I’m happy to defend my changes. I may be wrong, but I don’t’ believe that you simply adhere to an original position if you are convinced that times or the facts are such as to require a change.

Heffner: Were you at all surprised when you did get as specific replies as you did?

Koch: Yes, I was. Pleased in a way. I must say that I, without passing on the questions and the answers, although I have indicated some distaste as it relates to the answers on racial quotas, what Gary Hart did was to say he was for racial quotas. I disagree with him, but I found it admirable that he would put it up front, because lots of people would not put it up front. They would hide in some fudging way because they know that that’s not a popular position. On the other hand, I was distressed with his position in a different way on the subject of Israel because he didn’t answer the questions. And when someone doesn’t answer the questions and gives you some gobbledygook which is sort of an all-encompassing, nonfactual answer, the suspicion always is that if he told you what he really meant you wouldn’t like it. That bothered me in that particular answer of Gary Hart. I also am distressed with the answers of Mondale and Glenn as it relates to Medicaid takeover by the federal government. They really are obviously not for it. They may fudge it and said, “Not at this time”. They’re not for it in my judgment. I am for it. I think you’ve got to lift the burden from the localities.

Heffner: Poor Jimmy Carter.

Koch: Yeah.

Heffner: He wasn’t for it and he didn’t really get away with that.

Koch: Well, he was such a mean-spirited person.

Heffner: And you don’t think they are, so that’s the difference.

Koch: (Laughter) Right. I thought he was a man without character, frankly, and I held my nose when I voted for Jimmy Carter. And it turned out that I was right, because the positions that he even advocated under pressure on both Medicaid and Israel, he subsequently reversed himself as it related to Israel, he came out in support of recognizing the PLO, of selling arms to Saudi Arabia when those were in direct conflict with the statements that he made in writing in order to secure my support.

Heffner: Does that mean you heaved a sigh of relief when you saw the way the Reagan Administration went?

Koch: Oh, I think the Reagan administration on Israel – and I’m not talking only about President Reagan, and Secretary Schultz, who has come around to President Reagan’s position; Secretary Weinberger has been terrible on the subject of Israel – President Reagan’s position on Israel was far better than that of President Carter, and I believe that if President Carter had been elected he would have sold Israel out. That’s my honest belief.

Heffner: You know, over the past near four years there have been those who have said, listening to Ed Koch, the Mayor of New York, “My gosh, he likes so much what this fellow Ronald Reagan stands for that he is a Reagan supporter”.

Koch: It’s not true.

Heffner: Tell us about it.

Koch: Let me tell you. The other day I had a debate with the Mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington on a program in Chicago, a discussion more than a debate. And his position was denunciatory of President Reagan as it related to the person. Just denunciatory. My position was denunciatory as it related to President Reagan’s position on a whole host of matters, but also very acknowledging of the fact that most people, myself included, like him personally. And I said to the audience, “Isn’t it possible in this day and age to say nice things about an individual with respect to their character and their integrity and their courage, which I have said about President Reagan, and at the same time disagree strenuously with their positions in Lebanon and their positions on the national economy and the way they have hurt people, his policies as it relates to third-party transfer payments of food stamps and welfare assistance and a whole host of things? Isn’t it possible in this day and age to distinguish between the person and the policies of that person? I think it’s possible”.

Heffner: But it doesn’t happen terribly often. So that when you say it’s possible, how possible is it if it doesn’t really happen?

Koch: Well, it happens with me.

Heffner: It happens with you, but seriously…

Koch: I mean, let me give you an illustration. I happen to like bill Buckley. I think he’s terrific. I enjoy having dinner with him and talking with him. I disagree with a whole host of his positions. Do I have to denounce Bill Buckley because I disagree with his philosophy?

Heffner: Now, you know that I’m not suggesting that you do have to. And you don’t, and that’s one of your many characteristics that people admire. Okay. Not that people haven’t detected in the book a little, as they say at times, mean spiritedness.

Koch: But nobody’s perfect.

Heffner: Okay. I knew that you were going to say that. But look, seriously, do you think there is room in terms of reality for that kind of generosity of spirit in American politics today since we do not see it so much?

Koch: Well, I think there is room for it because I think that the public sees itself making those evaluations. You know, one of the problems that we as Democrats have is making the charges which are accurate and valid stick. President Reagan…

Heffner: Wait a minute, wait a minute. What do you mean?

Koch: Well, President Reagan has been referred to by others – not by me, but I think it’s a very apt term – as the Teflon man, because, you know, Teflon in a pan, nothing sticks to it. And our problem is to get the public to understand that he is responsible for Lebanon, he is responsible for the deaths of 261 marines, for keeping marines there, introducing them there when we had no mission there. He is responsible or people being hungry because he has been responsible for reduction in food stamps or reduction in human services. Now, those charges, which are accurate, at this point if you ask the average person in the street I’m not sure that they would accept the accuracy of them. They’d blame somebody else in that administration.

Heffner: Well, you just went through that on the question of Israel. The president was all right, Secretary Schultz is all right, but then you really indicate that other members of the administration.

Koch: The difference is that President Reagan has imposed his policy, for the most part, not in every case, in support of positions on Israel that Secretary of Defense Weinberger was adamantly against. And so the White House imposed conditions on Weinberger instead of having Weinberger impose them on the White House. In my judgment there were better people in the administration than President Carter. It was President Carter who signed the authorization for censuring Israel at the United Nations and then told me that he didn’t know what he was doing because he didn’t read the resolution because it was a Saturday.

Heffner: Shabuoth.

Koch: Shabuoth, yes.

Heffner: You know, in Mayor, aside from the business about Jimmy Carter which we’ve gone through, there is this continuing enthusiasm that roils forth from you that everybody I believe who comes in contact with the book is just overwhelmed by. Let me ask you whether you think that enthusiasm on your part is going to be able to be translated this fall into effective, successful support for the Democratic candidate. Now, you’re always up front. You never tell me something you don’t believe.

Koch: You’re correct.

Heffner: What’s going to happen?

Koch: I will enthusiastically support any one of the three candidates that I’ve mentioned.

Heffner: Okay. And then, how successful do you think their campaign can be?

Koch: Their campaign can be successful. We are the underdogs at this moment. When I read the poll, the Gallup poll saying that Gary Hart was nine points ahead of President Reagan at this particular moment in time if an election were held, I thought to myself, there has to be a duplicate of the Liberty poll that showed Alf Landon beating Roosevelt I think at the time. It’s ridiculous. We are the underdogs, but we can prevail if we hit the correct issues. The issue which regrettably the party, my party, is concentrating on now is not a winner. That issue is that President Reagan has destroyed the economy. He did, but it overtook President Reagan and the economy is getting better. And if they believe, the members of my party, that we’re going to be able to convince people the economy is bad, they’re wrong, because it’s getting stronger. Our issue has to be war and peace and international affairs and whether or not the president is capable of engaging in legitimate arms reduction. I am for the strongest possible defense involving parity with the Soviet Union. We should never be less than, either in nuclear weaponry or conventional weaponry. But there’s a limit. And I believe that’s where our issue is. And on the other hand, if we do it on the basis of, “Well, gee, we have too many arms and what difference does it make what the Russians have?” then we will lose, because the Soviet Union is an aggressor nation and the Soviet Union is threat to the free world, and we have to have parity with the Soviet Union to defend not only ourselves but other free nations.

Heffner: But you know, I remember very well that on this program and on others you’ve spoken about the importance of bread-and-butter issues.

Koch: Sure.

Heffner: Okay?

Koch: Yes.

Heffner: Now you seem to be saying that the major issues of bread and butter, the economy, is on the side of the President.

Koch: It is, because he held back the economy is what I will say when people will say, “Well, the economy is getting better,” I will say, “Yes, but it would have gotten better quicker if President Reagan hadn’t held it back”. I don’t know whether people will buy that (laughter_, but the fact is that’s what I’m going to say. Now, secondly, if we’re going to say the economy is bad, people will know that’s not true because it is surging ahead.

Heffner: Now, the question I ask in the 30 seconds left is, if Democrats can’t campaign on the bread-and-butter issue, then how successful can you possibly expect it to be?

Koch: Well, I happen to believe that people today are worried about nuclear war and the destruction of the earth. And I happen to believe that that’s the issue.

Heffner: And you think there is a Democrat among the three you would support who will be able to convince them and be willing to convince them in all parts of the country that they are the, he is the peace candidate?

Koch: I don’t want to call him the peace candidate. Not at all.

Heffner: Then what do you want to call him?

Koch: It’s not a question of the peace candidate. It is a rational, reasonable candidate who knows how to deal with the Soviet Union without destroying the world.

Heffner: That’s the point, of course, at which we need to end our program. Thanks so much for joining me today, Mr. Mayor.

Koch: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you’ll join us again here on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”