Edward I. Koch

On Intimations of Mortality

VTR Date: September 12, 1987

Guest: Koch, Edward I.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Edward I. Koch
Mayor, City of New York
Title: “On Intimations of Mortality”
VTR: 9/12/87

Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. His Honor, Ed Koch, the Mayor of New York is really so much bigger than life, invariably does things, everything on such a major scale, it was surprising, though in this instance, quite gratifying to find him doing anything small. Yet it was a small stroke that recently laid him, not low, but at least somewhat lower than usual. And since he and I are both getting on, not only in girth, but also in years and since over these years we’ve talked at this table about so many things, enjoying as we do something of a generational togetherness, I thought today we might deal with those intimations of mortality that come eventually to all of us, even to political luminaries and to professors turned broadcaster. Now that’s not too grim for you, is it Mr. Mayor?

Koch: No, not at all. In fact, I was interested in my own feelings as they related to what might happen to me when I discovered I had a stroke. So, let me just give a little background and then give you some of the thoughts that I had at the time. I was in the car going uptown and I suddenly realized that my left cheek was falling down my face and that my speech was slurred and that I wasn’t listening to the other people in the car. I realized I was having a stroke. I don’t know why I knew it, but I did. And so I asked my security detective in front of me to take me to the hospital. And he did. And then I was in the hospital for, I don’t know, maybe four or five days. I went in and out of the stroke on several occasions and on those occasions I thought to myself, “I don’t really care if I die, but please God, don’t let me leave this place paralyzed or unable to speak”. And … because I’m not afraid of death … I don’t welcome it, but I’m not afraid of it. And, while I’m not an observant Jew, I believe in the Hereafter and I believe that Act II should be better than Act I. So, it’s okay. And when I was able to leave and just prior to that the Rabbi of the synagogue that I attend on the two High Holidays when I go, Arthur Schneier, came in and he said, “Repeat after me the Jewish prayer to be saved”. And I did and he translated it into English. It went something like, “Save me and I shall be saved. Heal me and I shall be healed”. And I said it. And he said, “Now you must come to the synagogue shortly after you’re out of here, when you are recovered. It’s required. To thank God.” And I did. And I also felt, subsequently, not at the time, I don’t want to make this sound ridiculous, but subsequently, the power of prayer. Mother Theresa comes to visit me at Gracie Mansion. And I say, “Mother, what are you doing here?” And she says, “You were in my prayers and I heard you were sick so I wanted to see how you are.” And she came in. Now here is a living Saint, so to speak. And then as I go through the streets of the City of New York, people who worried about me and are so supportive and they say, “Watch your weight”, and “Mayor, don’t forget your diet” and “We’re so glad to see you”. So I thought about all of those things, and I said to myself, “I am really very lucky. Extremely lucky. I read my own obituary and I liked it”.

Heffner: That’s a terrific line. That’s a terrific … what an introduction to what you call “Act II:. Thinking that there is an Act II, make it any different than those who don’t think there is an Act II?

Koch: Oh, yes. Indeed. The funerals … and I go to a lot of funerals because whenever a cop or a firefighter dies in the line of duty, I go. As well as other public officials of importance who I know, so to speak, over the years, paramount figures. And the best funerals

Heffner: The best funerals … God!!

Koch: The best in terms of the way people come out of the chamber, so to speak, those who are there to attend, to honor the decedent, are the Roman Catholic funerals. And why is that? Because the whole Roman Catholic faith is predicated on the fact that you’re here for a short time and that the Hereafter is really where you want to be. Now I haven’t reached that point, nor will I ever. I like this place.

Heffner: Act I is a

Koch: Act I is okay. Act II may be better, but it can wait. (Laughter) But in terms of coming out without this feeling of desolation. You know, you’ve been to Jewish funerals and I’ve been … everybody cries (Laughter) and you throw yourself on the casket, the widow or the widower. And that doesn’t happen in Roman Catholic funerals. There’s a certain sense of exaltation. Which is nice. And I don’t know how you could put that into the Jewish ceremony. If you could, it would be nice. So in any event, I’ve acquired some of that feeling. I’m not a convert, never will be, I’m very proud of being Jewish. But, you know you can be a little eclectic in this area. And, in fact, when I came out of the hospital, I went to the funeral … shortly thereafter … of a former Deputy Mayor, her name is Lucille Rose. She was a Deputy Mayor in Abe Beame’s administration. A wonderful lady. And she lived in the Bed-Stuy area and the church was in that area. I went and her minister announced, actually she was Roman Catholic, so it was a priest, that when she was in the hospital, she knew she was going to die and she left instructions on her death, how it should be performed and who should be invited and who should speak. She asked that I speak. It was rather sweet. And I did speak.

Heffner: Listen I have a deal going with someone, I’m going to say it over him or he’s going to say it over me, maybe that’s the best way to have what you want said, said. But I’m very serious about this business of … given the intimations of mortality, personal changes. What about you as a political leader? What about you as a human being?

Koch: When I got out, the obvious questions on the part of the reporters were, “Does this make a difference in the way you’re going to do things?” “Are you going to slow down?” The answer is, “Well, for the first week I’m going to be on a half day, seven hours and then I’ll go back to my regular schedule of fourteen hours”. And that’s exactly what I did the second week that I was there. “Are you going to be different?” And I said, “I’m going to try to be better”, but what does that really mean?

Heffner: Well, you tell me.

Koch: I don’t really know. I think I maybe more accommodating and accepting of other people, but I think that was happening even before my so-called trivial stroke. You know, 62 years of age

Heffner: Mellowing out?

Koch: Yes. And I don’t know whether you saw the comment of my doctor who said I had a 28 year old brain? You know, he measured my brain against other brains that had been scanned and mine came out 28 years old. (Laughter) Now, I think … I think I am a little different in the following sense. I do appreciate life more. Absolutely. There’s no question about it. It’s not like every minute has to be filled. But I think that I am more animated now than I was before I went into the hospital. And that would come from a greater appreciation of life and a desire to use it more. But also others have said, and I think that it is true … I have gone through an enormous trauma over the last eighteen months because of the corruption of some people in the government. A relatively small number of people … six people were indicted in my administration and five of them had been in the prior administrations; only one was a newcomer to government, appointed by me. But even though the number is so relatively small, it’s gotten an enormous amount of attention. And it hurt me. It hurt me as if it had been sixty because I treasure my competence and I know that people were disappointed that it happened, under me. Right. When I hold people to such a high standard and the trauma was awful. It may even have contributed, who knows, to my so-called trivial stroke. The anger, the feelings that I was having … I don’t know. That I’m not sufficiently capable of discussing in a technical way. So, this kind of put a coda on it. I was so overwhelmed with the fact that people seemed really, genuinely to be distressed, not only for my personal safety and health when I was taken to the hospital, but the thought that they would miss me as the Mayor. Not just as Ed Koch, human being who you might have some compassion for, when any human being is suffering. But that they might miss me as Mayor. And to see some of the editorials of writers who I … who had been so miserable to me over the last eighteen months, I thought on occasion unfairly, and others who were not miserable, but hostile, suddenly say nice things about me. I thought to myself (Laughter) do you have to really come close to death before you’re appreciated? (Laughter)

Heffner: It’s not a bad question, is it?

Koch: It’s not a bad question.

Heffner: And you know, I wondered when you said, “Do you have to come that close to death to be appreciated?”, I wondered about the answers you’ve given me in the past to some of the questions I’ve put to you. For instance, having to do with running again and again and again. I remember once you’re saying, “Let’s go into the 21st century”.

Koch: Yes.

Heffner: Still feel that way?

Koch: Yes. I am one of the less than one percent of the people who had the kind of stroke that I had who recover without a deficit. Deficit meaning paralysis of motion or speech. I’m very lucky, extremely lucky. That’s what the doctors have said to me. I came within a hairs breath of being paralyzed or losing my speech. But I didn’t. God was good.

Koch: Now, so at this moment I’m healthier than somebody else who’s never had a brain scan, because they know that my brain at this particular moment doesn’t have any thrombosis running around, blot clots, etc. whereas you don’t know at the average person between forty-five and sixty-five has in their brain or elsewhere in the body. They know everything about my body and my brain and they say Pm very healthy. I want very much to be the Mayor for at least another term. But if it doesn’t happen, if I were to die tomorrow, and I have no premonition of death, in fact because I thought about it, I actually played with my epitaph.

Heffner: I was going to ask you that question.

Koch: (Laughter)

Heffner: Okay, what it is. Now I’m going to write it down.

Koch: Okay. Let’s see. 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. That’s my epitaph.

Heffner: You know, it’s so interesting. Because you may not remember, but a long time ago when you first became Mayor, I asked you that question and the answer was a very simple one. It was, “He was as good as Fiorello LaGuardia”. And now you want, something more, I think.

Koch: Yes. You’re absolutely right. I do remember you’re asking me that and my saying that. And I think my first answer was probably both pap and also knee-jerk response. Because LaGuardia has set the standard, continues to set the standard and so any Mayor would like to be compared with Fiorello LaGuardia. And I’d like people to think of me that way when the time arrives. But I think I have some independent characteristics and I think I have named them in that trilogy.

Heffner: Or you’ve written it down somewhere because we’ll have a transcript of this program.

Koch: Yes, I want to tell you … no, I’ve written it down. I have given to my friend, one of my closest friends and my attorney, who has my Will, I gave him also the instructions of my death. Of how I’d like my funeral to be conducted. Now, I never thought I would do that. But when Lucille Rose, former Deputy Mayor, did it, I felt, “What a hell of a good idea!”

Heffner: You haven’t made a tape recording to be played at the time?

Koch: No. No. I have not done that. That I would think is a little gross. (Laughter)

Heffner: You know, this question of how we feel. You keep coming back to this wonderful twenty-eight year old head…

Koch: Right. Brain … not body.

Heffner: Okay. Do I remember correctly that the New York Times editorialized on that…

Koch: They did.

Heffner: … and said, “What’s So Good About 28?”

Koch: No, what they said was, “Why don’t you sort of divide it. Twenty-eight year old brain, sixty-two year old body and come out with the forty years average”.

Heffner: (Laughter)

Koch: It was a loving editorial. A loving editorial. And I loved it.

Heffner: See what you have to go through to get a loving

Koch: Right.

Heffner: … story.

Koch: Come near death.

Heffner: You know we still in a sense haven’t touched on that other question about the relationship to other people. We’re in the same generation, we’re the same age, you’re bigger than I am so you weigh a few more pounds

Koch: A few more pounds.

Heffner: … than I do. Looks better on you. But I’ve wondered, I kept thinking, there’s Ed Koch in the hospital, what’s he thinking, what’s he thinking about? Remember the program we did sonic years ago when you wrote your first book? And so many people felt, I think quite legitimately, that it was mean-spirited, boy you took out after an awful lot of people.

Koch: It was a little mean. It was very humorous.

Heffner: What do you mean, “A little mean”?

Koch: And it was the best political book ever written of its genre. That’s not in saying that, that’s Gay Talese, who reviewed it. I told the truth as I knew the truth. Obviously, errors would exist. And I wanted people to know how government worked. My second book was even better, but it didn’t sell as well.

Heffner: Why not? I’ve wondered about that.

Koch: I never really quite understood. But maybe I can tell you why. It was a novelty to have Ed Koch, Mayor, write the first book. The second book, which was published maybe a year or two later, was not a novelty and therefore, didn’t receive the special kind of recognition. But I am writing two other books. They’ve been announced. One is with the Cardinal and the title should sell it, just by itself, His Eminence and His Honor

Koch: The Cardinal will write a chapter, I will write a chapter on a controversial matter, let’s take Israel, abortion, gay rights, birth control. Then we will exchange chapters and then we’ll each write a three page rebuttal. I look forward to that book.

Heffner: You know, you’ve…

Koch: The fourth book. But I have to tell you the fourth book. The fourth book is a letter book. All of my best letters and in most letters that I send, no matter

Heffner: What do you mean, best letters?

Koch: Well, I want to tell you. I write very good letters. I love writing letters. And, it’s … someone described these letters, they’ve seen it … it’s Letters to the Blacks, Letters to the Jews, Letters to the Clergy, Letters to every special interest group and special interest is not intended to be pejorative. And they’re tough letters, very tough letters. But I always sign them, “All the best”, so the title of the book is, All The Best: Letters From A Compassionate and Angry Mayor.

Heffner: I thought it was going to be called, Epistles

Koch: No.

Heffner: You know, you’re interest Catholicism interests me.

Koch: Yes. Well, it is interesting, I agree with you.

Heffner: I mean I grew up in this city and I know about the traditional relationship between Jews and Catholics. Very strong relationship. How do you account for it?

Koch: I cannot talk about others, I don’t know them. And of course, there are lots of us here, Jews and Catholics. But I do have a very special relationship with the Cardinal. In fact, in my instructions to Allen Schwartz who has my instructions on how I’d like my funeral to be conducted, I said, “If the Cardinal’s alive, I’d like … would he please ask him if he wouldn’t speak at the funeral, which I’d like to be conducted in Temple Emanu-El”. And I hope, I hope that he is alive.

Heffner: But there’s a quality. It’s not just personal, because I think if I remember correctly you have always had this kind of good relationship.

Koch: Yes.

Heffner: What is this connection?

Koch: Well, firstly, Catholicism and Judaism are very close. The Pope has referred to the Jewish religion as the older brother, is the way I think he referred to it in Rome when he discussed the problems that exist. I have become very familiar with the Catholic mass because I have gone so many times to mass because of the deaths of, regrettably, too many police officers and firefighters over the last ten years in this town, defending the rest of us.

Koch: So, that acquaintanceship would be good. And I do especially like, in the Catholic liturgy, the hymns and the, just the uplifting of the service if it’s done well by a priest who knows his business. Because I have been to some of the masses where the priest doesn’t know his business and he talks about the decedent, because that’s when I’m generally there, in a way that you know that he never knew him. And in the same way Rabbis talk about the decedents before them as though they never knew them and it’s awful, absolutely awful.

Heffner: But you know, you talk about the book that you and the Cardinal, Cardinal O’Connor, are doing. You’re dealing with subjects on which there is such bitter divisiveness

Koch: There are.

Heffner: on which there is such bitter divisiveness

Koch: Correct.

Heffner: How are you going to do that?

Koch: Well, when we had our discussion, I said to the Cardinal, “You know, this cannot be a kissy-huggy book, because it will not sell. It’s got to be controversial”. And the controversy is the differences in our opinions, not something fancied or made-up. But we have a difference of opinion on a number of subjects. I’ve ticked off four of then), we’ll probably have ten chapters. And, but each one will be, with the most part, r there’ll be one or two where we won’t be as far apart as people think we are, but there will be a difference of opinion. And, he summed it up, by the way, when he invited me to Ron when he was elevated from Archbishop of New York to Cardinal, and he asked me to come and be there. And I did. I thought it was a great honor. And there was a dinner in his honor later, and he obviously was the guest of honor, and he spoke and he said, “Only in New York could two people”, pointing to me, “who see one another so constantly, be such good friends”.

Heffner: But you know, such good friends, your … what informs you … are very temporal attitudes, reasons that presumably are subject change. Presumably what informs his position is something very different, not subject to

Koch: Eternal truths, as he sees them.

Heffner: Right. And how do you match?

Koch: Well, I don’t know that you match. I have no conception that I’m going to convince him to change his positions on any matter because he perceives them … on these matters that we will be discussing … as eternal truths. More likely that he could have an impact upon me because I do not perceive the eternity of these truths. I think positions can change. But I am not writing for him and he is not writing for me. We are writing for the public to make their judgments.

Heffner: Yes, but Mr. Mayor, let’s take this question of the possibility that His Honor, Ed Koch, may change. What are the areas in the divisions now on these subjects that you’ve mentioned? What are the areas where you feel there might well be movement. Forget about “well”, there might be movement?

Koch: I will tell you. I’ll tell you the most controversial area … probably will harm me, politically to discuss it, but on your show, that’s the way it should be. I am absolutely for maintaining the United States protection of the right of a woman, in consultation with her doctor, to have an abortion. But I’m not sure I’m right. Now, what do I mean by that. I think it’s ridiculous to maintain a fiction that a fetus at no point in time becomes a human being. I think that’s just an absolute fiction. The Supreme Court used twenty—six weeks as the cut-off simply because under twenty-six weeks, at that point in time, no child could survive, if through cesarean operation. That was the history. Today that’s not true. They deliver children who might, undoubtedly not be delivered or shouldn’t be delivered because they will come out deformed or mentally disabled, even if they survive, as we can save them, oft-times. And if you have my philosophy, which is, I don’t think that we should save those fetuses. But his philosophy, the Cardinal’s, would be that every life is sacred. I don’t believe that every life is sacred. I believe in the death penalty, so every life cannot be sacred. I believe in defending the country and shooting the enemy, so every life cannot be sacred. And therefore, I come to the conclusion that the rights of the woman in a whole host of cases, incest, rape, deformity of the fetus, that she should have the right to make that determination. And then you go to the last stage which is, well should she have the right to do it in every case, not limited to these special circumstances? And I say, if we were in the best of all worlds, and I knew that the others would be safe if you eliminated just abortion on will, then I might be persuaded to make a change. But I know that once you’ve made the first change, those people who want to make the first change will also seek to make the other changes and therefore, I will resist even the first change.

Heffner: Except that you said you’re not so sure.

Koch: I’m not so sure. But, at this point in time

Heffner: What would either solidify your certainty or push you further.

Koch: If I knew, I would already have made that decision. I have no way of knowing that I could be pushed any further. But I have, at this point, I think, gone to the outermost limits. I’m simply saying, that I recognize the fictions that we employ in order to satisfy the conscience of some people, saying “Well, we’re not killing”. Abortion, without question, under certain circumstances is the death of another living being. An infant. But, I believe that when the choice is made, for example, as I understand the Catholic dogma, if you have a woman who’s giving birth and an infant and one of them has to die, you may not save the woman, the mother. You have to allow God to make that decision, even if they both die. That’s why lots of Catholic women have Jewish doctors because that’s not what a Jewish doctor would do. A Jewish doctor would save the mother.

Heffner: When our two boys were born and we had a Catholic doctor, we made sure that his attitude was somewhat…

Koch: (Laughter) That he was Jewish in this particular area.

Heffner: … in his attitude. But you know, we are gaining so much control over life…

Koch: Yes.

Heffner: …and death these days. I wonder what that fact, those scientific facts, what their impact will be upon the kinds of considerations that both you and the Cardinal will have.

Koch: Right. I believe, and here I suppose I’m not so far apart from what I understand the Catholic position to be. I believe that you should not use massive efforts to save somebody who doesn’t want to be saved. I believe that. I don’t believe that … in euthanasia. I do not. But I believe that you shouldn’t use massive efforts. I also believe, in another area where there is a certain amount ferment and the Catholic position is one that’s not accepted by a number of people. I believe there are limits on scientific discovery and examination of genetics. I believe that you would not want to allow a scientist to create a centaur.

Heffner: You mean we should put limits.

Koch: Yes, we should.

Heffner: Not that there are limits.

Koch: Yes, that we should put. We should put. I do not believe that we should allow a scientist to create a centaur, a half animal, half horse.

Heffner: And that’s probably the point at which we should end the program. This half animal … ah, half man, half horse. Mayor Koch I so much appreciates your joining me again today.

Koch: Oh, I loved it.

Heffner: Come on back.

Koch: I will.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you’ll also join us again. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, about what the Mayor has said, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P. 0. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, 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 Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; and the New York Times Company Foundation.