Edward I. Koch

Mayor Koch on “Mayor,” Part I

VTR Date: February 8, 1984

Guest: Koch, Edward I.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Ed Koch
Title: “Mayor Koch on “Mayor,” Part I”
VTR: 2/8/84

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Years ago when a guest on The Open Mind wrote a personally very revealing book about her own psychoanalysis, someone suggested that the desire to write that book should have been analyzed rather than realized. Not a totally irrelevant thought today. Indeed, today one might invoke the injunction, “Would that my enemy write a book”, to sum up what some people are saying about our guest, His Honor, Ed Koch, the ebullient Mayor of New York, for his extraordinary personal and controversial new book, Mayor, could do him the kind of political harm they fervently wish for. After all, one doesn’t inherit office in this country. A lot of people help to put you there, to keep you there, and a lot of those people, and many others too, are skewered right and left in the pages of this quite intriguing book. Knowing what a shrewdie Ed Koch is however, don’t be surprised if he believes his look at everyone else’s warts just may be the very best opening gun in a kind of kin of candor campaign to stay in office. So what after all if everyone hates you but the people? They do the voting. They like to be entertained to. And it its way, Mayor is an entertainment. So since politicos have always provided not always bread but circuses, I want to ask Mayor Koch if indeed his book is to be seen as a new style, or at least a Koch style, Barnum and Bailey of contemporary American politics. Mr. Mayor?

Koch: Well, the first thing is that it is me, and it is taking a slice of the administration, about five years of a little more of the six years that have gone by, and bringing people into the mayor’s office so that they would know how I made decisions. I was particularly interested in your comment, because it’s been made by some others, “Gee, he also is critical of some of his friends or his associates or his supporters”. Imagine what you would have sad or others who would be commenting if I had only commented occasionally adversely but trying to present the truth on those who were perceived as hostile to me. Then you would have said this is a jaundiced, prejudiced political book in the worst sense of it. I think it’s a political book in the best sense if you believe that good politics is good government.

Heffner: Let me ask you though whether the excitement about the book – and it is a fine book and it is a book that I couldn’t put down, and I’ll make no bones about that – whether the excitement about the book, the animosity that has been stirred up by the book is an indication that it is good politics, or it’s an indication that it’s bad politics? Which?

Koch: Well, let me first tell you that the other night I was at a dinner, a political dinner, and someone who is described in the book, I don’t think with any ill will on my part, but described nevertheless in a way that he would not necessarily find most supportive, his wife came over to me and she said, “I don’t know whether to kick you or kiss you”.

Heffner: Which did she do?

Koch: And I said, “Why”? she said, “Because you put him in the book”. And I said, “What I said, did I say something that was untrue?” She said, “NO, it was all true. I was there”. And then she kissed me. Now, let me tell you that that isn’t illustrative of every situation obviously. But what I believe I have done is to capture the mayoralty in such a way that has never been done before. What do people do if they are seeking to look at a period from an historical point of view, 20, 50 years later? They have a look back and they try to interview people who were there, half of them dead, others whose minds can’t recall everything that was done. Instead, to the best of my ability you have what took place in matters primarily of government. You know, the book has been sensationalized not by me but by my enemies who thought they would do me in and in fact have been, I suspect, quite helpful, by taking out passages, not out of context, but taking out passages which don’t reveal the really extremely important areas where nobody would have had any insight other than myself because I was part of it. When I described in such great detail how the mass transit strike occurred and what we did here in the city and the principals and how they responded to it, I think that’s history in this city. Or my conversations with President Carter to get him to change his position on Medicaid and on Israel, and what he ultimately did to secure my support, doing it too late so that 44 sates repudiated him anyway.

Heffner: Well, let’s go back to this, that’s the kind of comment I suppose that people take exception to.

Koch: Why?

Heffner: It’s not untrue that 44 states repudiated him anyway.

Koch: Correct.

Heffner: That’s the needle? The needle?

Koch: What’s wrong with that?

Heffner: I didn’t say anything was wrong with it.

Koch: Okay.

Heffner: But it’s the kind of thing that people are pointing to in this book. Now, a question from me.

Koch: Yeah.

Heffner: Did you anticipate this reaction?

Koch: No.

Heffner: You didn’t?

Koch: No. I mean, I anticipated that there would be interest and the response which is a desire to read the book to the numbers that I now know exist, I did not anticipate that, if that’s your question. I’m told it’s now in its third printing, which means 52,700 copies have been printed. And in the first two days they sold 9,000. And I know that when I went to six bookstores on Fifth Avenue I was mobbed by people. One guy had seven books! And I said to him, “Why are you buying my book?” and he said, “Because I really, really like you and I want to read what you have to say”. And I said, “Why are you spending so much money on seven of them? He said, “I want my friends to have them as well”. I said, “Show me a sales slip (laughter) before I autograph any of them”.

Heffner: Of course you did. Well, let me come back to the question again. You say no, you didn’t anticipate this kind of reaction.

Koch: The positive response, the negative response, sure. The negative of individuals not liking my describing them and at the same time some people who simply read what the sensationalist journalists who were hostile to me in part, others not, but nevertheless sensational in any event, they would describe an incident but they wouldn’t describe the total incident or the way I describe that individual at a later part on the page. Not out of context, but not simply the whole situation.

Heffner: You mean those footnotes, “So-and-so is still my good friend”?

Koch: Yes, yes. Yeah, yeah.

Heffner: …as a kind of last-minute…

Koch: What they don’t understand is that was in the book before it became public. And when I say “public” I mean the copies that were disseminated without permission, the earlier gifts.

Heffner: The summer’s dot?

Koch: The summer’s dot as I referred to it, right. (Laughter)

Heffner: I remember in those days before the material was officially distributed.

Koch: Right. But the footnotes were part of that.

Heffner: Yeah, but you know, I still wonder, I read the book with enormous interest, can’t help but. I also wondered whether it was the first gun in a political campaign.

Koch: No, not at all. The fact is all my advisors told me that it would be harmful to me. I didn’t believe it then, but if it was for the purposes of a political plus you wouldn’t do it when everybody tells you not to do it. I did it because wanted to capture history, a little bit of history, not the most important, but nevertheless I’m the 105th mayor of the City of New York. There are some people interested in what has happened over the last six years when I came into office. A billion dollar deficit. About six or eight months ago we close the fiscal year with a $515 million budgetary surplus. I think that they want to know how it was down. That book tells them. And in an interesting way.

Heffner: And an entertaining way.

Koch: Well, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Heffner: Nothing wrong. Absolutely nothing wrong.

Koch: I mean, people sometimes get upset that I’m able to run the city, to be in charge of the fourth largest budget in the country, first the US then the State of California, then the State of New York, then the City of New York, and at the same time exhibit a sense of humor.

Heffner: Wait, we are referring to those examples of that sense of humor that did hurt, not you, but others.

Koch: Want to talk about some of them?

Heffner: No. I want to go back to the question again of whether you think that it will turn out to be a politically wise action.

Koch: Oh, I think most people today based on the response to the book which I never envisioned would occur, the numbers of people who want to buy it, most people today say it’s a definite plus. But that’s not why I wrote it.

Heffner: But you’re not a teacher first and foremost. You are a teacher, it turns out, you’re a magnificent educator with the book, but that’s not your primary calling.

Koch: You’re wrong.

Heffner: Okay, tell me.

Koch: I have perceived myself when I was a congressman to have an educator’s role, to talk to my constituency. In fact, I didn’t originate the congressional newsletters, but I used them more in my day than any other member of congress at that time because I actually paid for the printing of my newsletters. I sent out four a year, and the government didn’t pay for the printing. But I wanted my constituents to know what I was doing. I felt that’s one of the roles of being in public office. This is a kind of educator’s book, but in an interesting way it tells them what their surrogate – that’s how I perceive myself, as a person fortunate in life to be the mayor, but no different than the seven and a half million people that I represent, exercising common sense, doing what they would do for the most part if they were sitting in the room in my job – and I want them to know how I make my decisions and what those decisions were. So in that sense I’m an educator. I also say, maybe facetiously, this is a scholarly work, it has footnotes.

Heffner: You know, my wife always accuses me of when I like someone of endowing them with the things they really don’t have or thoughts they’ve never entertained. I remember once doing an interview with Hubert Humphrey and he thought I was late for sitting on a plane with him from Washington to New York, and by gosh as candidate for the vice presidency of the United States he sat for an hour on a plane and waited. I had been a great admirer of his. And when that happened I wondered, now, do I want to vote for a man who would sit and wait for an interviewer for an hour in the midst of a presidential campaign, and the vice president of the United States.

Koch: But you know, it’s interesting. Maybe the people said it was very important to you and he wanted to show you a special courtesy because he thought it would be helpful to you that he wait.

Heffner: Absolutely. I know that. But that’s what makes me wonder about this action of yours. I find it very hard to believe that knowing what you’ve accomplished and knowing what you plan to accomplish in the future that you would do something that in fact might jeopardize your reelection chances, and when Dan Wolfe, who you say is the wisest man you know, when the book idea came up I’ll be he said no. am I wrong?

Koch: They all did.

Heffner: Okay.

Koch: I didn’t do it with a suicidal bent here. I am not a masochist or a sadist.

Heffner: I didn’t think so.

Koch: Okay. I made a decision which turns out I think to be correct that it’s helpful to the body politic, to all public officials if you want to get support for a government. You know, most people have such little respect for government. They love their own member of Congress, they hate the Congress as an institution. I think that I do quite well with people as a mayor, but they hate the mayoralty or government. You know what I’m saying? And nevertheless, I think I can get them to understand that people in public office deserve more respect from them because of what we have to do. That doesn’t mean there aren’t crooks or incompetents in public office, but overwhelmingly the people who are in the highest positions are pretty good.

Heffner: Well, that’s why I wondered whether, despite what all of your advisors said and despite what the press said, and they did have a heyday when the little excerpts were coming out unofficially, whether they just didn’t calculate correctly that Ed Koch really understood what the impact of this book would be and it would be positive politically as otherwise.

Koch: Well, I thought it would be positive. I simply conveyed at the opening of your show that I didn’t realize it would be as well received as it is, but I thought it would be well received.

Heffner: And politically positive.

Koch: Yes I did.

Heffner: Okay. Do you think…you mentioned before that, just a moment ago, you said so many people have negative thoughts about the institutions of government.

Koch: They do.

Heffner: To you as an individual they respond magnificently.

Koch: Right.

Heffner: To the institution not. I wondered whether you have the feeling that it’s possible when reading this book that people will come away from it with a plague not on your house but the houses of all the rest of those people.

Koch: I don’t think so. I honestly don’t think so. Not from the reactions that I get as I walk through the streets and people know me just as mayor, but now they’ll come over and they’ll say, “I loved your book”. That’s what they say. Now, I want to tell you, I’m not an author by profession, but it is awfully nice to have somebody say that they love what you have written. And I detect no animus, just the other, a certain kind of respect for government. Now, others..

Heffner: For government?

Koch: I believe so. I believe that when I talk about situations in government, for example, let’s take Hugh Carey, okay? I have said consistently that Hugh Carey is probably the greatest governor the State of New York has ever had. I have said that he saved the City of New York. And I have also pointed out some eccentricities in the course of the years that I have known him.

Heffner: That’s a very nice word that you’re using now, “eccentricities”.

Koch: Well, how would you describe them?

Heffner: It’s not the question, how I would describe them. That’s not a word that you really used in the book.

Koch: In the book I said “bananas”.

Heffner: I would say that “bananas” and “eccentricities” are two different words. No, your Honor?

Koch: Not where I come from.

Heffner: Now…

Koch: Let me explain to you what I mean by that. You know, there is a vernacular that we have in the City of New York, and I would say that when I tell you, and everybody knows this, that I really think that Hugh Carey deserves a special place in the hall of fame and honor for the State of New York, do I have to explain to people on occasion he acted in an eccentric, bizarre way? Do I have to do that? So if I sum it up by saying, “On that occasion he was bananas”, everybody understands that in the that particular case it’s almost affectionate.

Heffner: You know, I think they understand it better when they see you and hear you. When you read the book, when you read those phrases they may not come over with the same innocence.

Koch: You know what the answer is? When you read the book, read it aloud to yourself and you’ll hear me talking, because that’s what that book is. That is not a book of a professional author who sits down and measures the syntax and the phrase and makes sure that he’s writing iambic pentameter. That is me talking.

Heffner: How come those very wise advisors of yours really didn’t know that that really would come out that way and that the people who were skewered, they were going to yell like stuck pigs, but that for the rest of us it’s delight?

Koch: I cannot tell you what went through their minds. I think it is their feeling of protection for me. You know, I have probably a reputation of doing what I want to do and when I want to do it, and hopefully always for the people of the City of New York, and having them as the people that I want to be helpful to and thankful to them that they’ve put me where I am. And so I have as my style, and it’s not an eccentricity, in my judgment it’s not; it’s me.

Heffner: You’re not bananas? You’re not bananas?

Koch: No, I’m not bananas. On occasion I’m sure that I could be described as such. On an occasion. But in the same loving way, I hope. But what I have established is that I believe in talking to all people the same way. It got me into trouble. I believe in using the humor that I have by nature. Hopefully on occasion some wit, and occasionally it’s going to be a sharp wit that people might resent. Not too many people. And I think I’m a New Yorker. You know, I have said about New Yorkers, we walk faster, we talk faster, and occasionally we think faster.

Heffner: And we talk somewhat differently. And as a New Yorker myself, Mr. Mayor, I know what it is that you’re saying. I would like to go back a moment. I heard what you said. No, this is not a book that will turn people off, make them uneasy about politics and politicians. I think that I would like to differ with you. I think I’d like to tell you that in my reading of it there was that uneasy feeling about, “Here’s another one”. Not another one who’s bananas or eccentric, but that I had the feeling that, you remember Teddy Roosevelt when he was in New York State Legislature wrote back to his wife or to his mother and said, “It feels like being in prison”, the kinds of people I associate back in the late nineteenth century. That’s a little bit of the feeling. And I couldn’t help but to think of TR as I read your book. And I…

Koch: You know, Teddy Roosevelt I think was the first user of the phrase, “The bully pulpit,” right?

Heffner: Right.

Koch: And in a way I like to think that that book is part of the bully pulpit procedure. I’m trying to get to people without being strained through a strainer. You know, people like myself who are in government, we require the message to get out there somehow or another, so it gets out through the print press and through the radio and through the TV, and not on a show like this where it’s done from beginning to end and you’re not edited. That’s fine. But that’s not the way most people are presented to the public. They are presented in the way that the journalist reporter wants to present you. After all, you say a lot in an interview or a press conference, but the reporter decides what to report. And I’m not attacking a reporter’s integrity or honesty as it relates to that. It depends on that reporter’s skill. This book is unadulterated me, and is me warts and all. I hope fewer warts than positives, but the fact is this is a description of government that is unique, done by someone who’s lived through it. You have found it interesting. Even the adverse comments will generally say, with some rare exception, that it was an interesting book. One guy, a journalist, I’m not going to name him here, he doesn’t like me. And so he writes, “Oh, this is such an uninteresting book. I even had it,” said he, “from these semi-set galleys before anybody else did, and I wouldn’t even comment because I didn’t think it was interesting”. Now, you know he’s not either telling the truth or his perception had to be suspect, right? His judgment. The second thing that that same writer said was, “Why didn’t the mayor write about the two-man sanitation truck or productivity?” and I thought to myself, “Well, he wrote about the two-man sanitation truck and productivity, and I don’t think anybody read him. In fact, I think I bought him on remainder shortly after it was published”.

Heffner: If it’s the same journalist I’m thinking about – and we won’t name names, because I haven’t got the capacity to put a footnote and say he remains my good friend –

Koch: Right.

Heffner: I think he did some very interesting early writing about his Honor.

Koch: Who read it?

Heffner: I did.

Koch: You did.

Heffner: And we did a program in which I quoted lengthily from him.

Koch: Right. Sure.

Heffner: That’s really not the point. I’m interested in what you say about the relationship between the political figure and the press. And you say it not in a hostile way. Almost inevitable.

Koch: Yeah.

Hefner: That’s what President Reagan has been saying to some extent recently.

Koch: Every public official says it who believes that they’re saying something meaningful and important, and it’s the nature of our society – and I have no quarrel with it – that you want to present yourself warts and all, but a total picture. And you generally find that you will not get the total picture across except in something like this book.

Heffner: All right. I remember James Reston wrote a piece on Richard Nixon. At least it was a piece that appeared in a book of Reston’s in which he, I think he called it “It’s What’s Up Front That Counts”. He said that Nixon, taking from the old cigarette commercial, really thought that everybody in public life had the right to be presented to the public up front. Don’t interpret. Don’t have a headline and then say, “The mayor was crazy, bananas, eccentric, whatever”. Don’t set it in your own perspective. Get what the public official has to say set before the public. And you say you do it this way with the book.

Koch: That is not my position that the press is required or should do that. There is a limitation on what they can get across. You are one little story in the New York Times3 or the News or the Post or the other papers, and they’ve got a lot to cover. They take what they think is important. Ofttimes it is; ofttimes you don’t think it is. And the only way you will get your message across will be an unedited television performance on Sunday in the morning generally, or by a book of this nature.

Heffner: Well, then we’re in trouble because not everyone, indeed I don’t know anyone else in our generation who has the capacity, who’s sort of bigger than life as a politician who just gets on the air or gets before a group of newspapermen and says it in such a way that it gets into the papers. So you’re talking about a very, very particularistic solution to the problem. You’re outrageous at times, right?

Koch: No, I wouldn’t say that.

Heffner: No?

Koch: I would say that what I’m saying about getting your message across is the complaint of almost every public official, not again with any attack upon those who are reporting, but simply recognizing the limitations that they have o work under because you’re just a small little blip in the news.

Heffner: Yes, okay. You’ve solved that problem. You’ve solved it with Mayor: An Autobiography. It isn’t really an autobiography.

Koch: No, I didn’t put that word there, “an autobiography”. It is a political autobiography of about five years. Bu the publisher put “autobiography”. It is a political autobiography for about five years.

Heffner: Can we assume that we will have a real autobiography from Ed Koch?

Koch: I doubt it. There will not be a Mayor II. And what I’ve said is that in the third term I expect to write a book on restaurants on the cheap, because lots of people would like to go to the very modest restaurants that I go to, and I’ve given that list out to close friends. So now maybe I’ll do a little book on it. And then in the fourth term maybe I’ll do a diet book.

Heffner: You know, I remember when you sat at this table after that overwhelming reelection of yours, and maybe it was the time of day, maybe it was the day of the week, whatever, you for the first time then to my hearing, said, “Well, third term? I’m not so sure”.

Koch: That’s what I said.

Heffner: I gather you’re sure now.

Koch: I am sure. You know, there are certain people in life who really love their job and who are thankful each and every day and jump out of bed as I do six o’clock in the morning every day to rush to work to be able to meet the challenges of the day. If only more people were happy in their job. That doesn’t mean id’ be destroyed if I didn’t have my job, but I really like it. And I think I do a good job, and of course the voters ultimately make that decision for you. So I would like to be the mayor for a third and possibly a fourth term.

Heffner: Fourth term too?

Koch: Yes, I think so.

Heffner: You’ve upped the ante.

Koch: Well, somebody said, “What do you really want?”. I said, “I want to be mayor forever”.

Heffner: Well, why not? I mean the question, “What do you want to do when you grow up?”

Koch: Right. (laughter)

Heffner: Here you are. And very few of the rest of us can answer a question that way. Let me, in the minute remaining, come back to this question of what others in public life, what opportunity they have really to get their own ideas presented to the public.

Koch: Well, I think you make it. After all, I’m a mayor. There are lots of mayors, there are governors and senators and so forth. You make the opportunity. I am whatever I am. I have not changed since I was a congressman. More people focus on me because being the mayor of the City of New York is very special no matter who the mayor is. John Lindsay had the same attention, and Abe Beame had the attention, and Bob Wagner before him. Each of us was different. I’m not going to change.

Heffner: That’s neither a promise nor a threat.

Koch: No. (Laughter)

Heffner: Mr. Mayor, thank you very much for joining me here on The Open Mind. And I just say to the audience that I’ve got you to sit still and we’ll do a second program on that fascinating effort of yours as mayor of New York, the Democratic mayor, to get the candidates for the Democratic nomination for president in ’84 to speak their mind and answer the questions that you’ve put to them. Thank you for joining me today.

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.”

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 Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wein; and the New York Times Company Foundation.