Edward I. Koch

The Art of Politics

VTR Date: December 14, 1985

Guest: Koch, Edward I.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Ed Koch
Title: “The Art of Politics”
VTR: 12/14/85

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I suppose that the principle of full disclosure requires that right off I own up to a particularly profound liking and admiration for today’s guest. Indeed, he sat at this table so many times over the years I’d be quite hard pressed not to appreciate his frankness and his enthusiasm and his astuteness and his dedication to the public interest even when on occasions I take exception to his policies and to his politics. Politics, incidentally, is the title of his new Simon and Schuster book, just as it is the theme of Ed Koch’s life. And I want to ask our best-selling author and best vote-getting mayor of New York about the art of politics, about his claim, “I don’t want to sound like I’m a martyr type here, because I’m not. But I’ve always found that when I’ve done what I thought was morally right I’ve never suffered, never”. But what I want to ask Mayor Koch, on the other hand, is the extent to which players in public life gain when they do what’s morally wrong, when they play to our baser instincts, not exactly an unheard of phenomenon in American politics, so I’m told. What do you think, Mr. Mayor?

Koch: Well, I think short-run people can, if they ride an issue even though they know that the public opinion on that particular issue at that particular moment is wrong, if they know it and they still support it, in the short run they will have an advantage, but long run not…

Heffner: Are there focal points right now in American politics where you think the wrong thing is being done and people are rewarded, that they’re not being done in?

Koch: Well, I think the best illustration probably locally and maybe nationally would be to cater to the popular demand that those who are suffering from AIDS be treated as pariahs, lepers, and placed on an island and garrisoned in, as opposed to what is the correct thing, which is that since we know it is not transmitted except by intimate sexual contact or through the exchange of blood or blood and semen, that a child should be going to a public school even though the child has AIDS is not a danger to the children any more than a child that has Hepatitis B which would be an even greater danger, and yet nevertheless goes to school now, short run you will find lots of people in public life, politicians, public officials, saying, “No, no, no”, and standing up with this crowd. I don’t want to put down the crowd. I understand the mob. They’re not evil people, they’re worried about their kids. But at the same time it’s incumbent upon people who have a legal obligation to lead to do what’s right. I think I’m doing what’s right in that particular area.

Heffner: You know, it’s interesting. You say, “I understand the mob”.

Koch: Sure.

Heffner: Is that where the deep sympathy of so many voters for you comes?

Koch: I suspect so. In this sense, when we say mob, that’s a pejorative term. And I was using it in this case to indicate an unreasoning group fired up by passion. I suspect that most of those people in that mob overall when not fired up by a particular passion exercise common sense. And I think what they like about me – (Laughter) you know, it’s hard to say this about yourself – is that I exercise common sense. I cannot be intimidated by a mob, while I understand them. And I talk back to them. And I will not be beaten up without seeking to defend myself and giving as good as I get, and sometimes even better. But at the same time trying to understand why the people are inflamed and understanding that they have been taken advantage of in many cases by government, and they see government as the enemy rather than the friend. And I take pride in the fact that in this last election, without trumpeting my own horn, 76 percent of the people in this city against all thought that they would do that a year ago, voted for me.

Heffner: You know, I was thinking of those percentages when I was reading Politics the other evening. And in Politics I had the sneaky feeling – you stop me if I’m wrong – that there is something about the rich that Ed Koch doesn’t particularly like. And tell me about that.

Koch: It’s true. It isn’t that I’m against people having money, I really think that’s the American capitalist system which I happen to enjoy. And I’m not a poor person, but I’m not a rich person. My salary is $110,000, and I’m not complaining but I could do much better in the private sector than I’m doing as mayor, but I couldn’t get the psychic satisfaction. Now, what I…

Heffner: You keep writing books you’re going to be very rich.

Koch: I hope so. But let me say, as it relates to what I mean when I refer to “richies” which is the word I use, those are the people who inherit wealth as opposed to the people who do it on their own. . I have rarely met someone who has made money the hard way, as they say, by earning it (Laughter) on their own, who I don’t like. You know, the entrepreneurs. I like entrepreneurial talent. I like people who have a lot of competitive spirit and drive and go out and do things. Now, that doesn’t mean that everybody who’s inherited money can’t be a nice guy. But there’s a presumption in my head unconsciously that if you inherited your wealth you’re not as good as someone who made it on your own.

Heffner: Well, that comes out when you write in Politics, the new book, about the richies. It’s a very strange phrase.

Koch: Well, they’re not my friends, although some people who are wealthy are my friends. I draw that distinction.

Heffner: How do you draw the line between your friends and the others?

Koch: Well, friendship you know has different circles. So let me give you an illustration about that. I recently had my birthday party, 61 years.

Heffner: Congratulations.

Koch: Thank you. And you know, I’ll bet there are people out there who are distressed that they weren’t invited to my birthday party. But I believe that if everybody is perceived as a friend in the truest sense, closeness, somebody that you would rely on when things are really tough, I mean, you know, you have to narrow that circle. If you don’t, then friendship means nothing. So, I have friends and I have acquaintances and I have people who I know. And I kind of summed it up when I talked about the people who came to my birthday party, without in any way talking about those who did not, that the I think it was about 60 people, that involves mostly couples, but not always, a total of 60 people, that I had known them for anywhere from ten to 20 years, long before I became the mayor, and I had worked with them in most cases on a whole host of things, and I would trust my life to them. That’s what I call a friendship.

Heffner: Well, I can understand when you say you need to, anyone needs to narrow down the circle of those with whom they’re going to spend that much time that you consider them friends. Why does Ed Koch seem to have to broaden the scope of those who have been done in by him, again in the book Politics as in the book Mayor?

Koch: Look, if you decide that you’re going to write a slice of history – and I’ve used this phrase so it’s almost becoming hack even for me — this is not The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, the book that I wrote. But it is a slice of New York, and its history. And if you decide to write history then you have to accept the fact – and here I’m quoting Stanley Finck, who is a good friend of mine and who said this to me — he said the reason that he doesn’t want to write a book about his political experiences is that he’s not prepared to bruise feelings. And if you write history, said he and I say the same, then you have to prepare to bruise feelings because the truth bruises in many cases. That’s what I’ve done. Yet nevertheless some people say that I’ve mellowed in this book as compared with the first book. I don’t think I really have. This book has more humor in it than the first book. And the reason is that it covers a larger period. It goes back to when I first entered politics in the early ‘50s, up to the most recent election. Whereas the first book was solely about being mayor and in the first four or five years, and those were much tougher, tenser times because every day was a new catastrophe that had to be met and prevented whereas, you know, you can’t have a catastrophe every day for 30 or so years. It’s not possible.

Heffner: And yet your expansiveness here in this book about those years when you were in Washington, so intriguing. You write about the Congress. You write about your experiences there. And I remember a program that we did some years ago in which you said, as mayor, you think back to the votes that you cast in the House of Representatives, and you wonder, “Now, how in the world did I get the nerve to impose upon the cities of this country…

Koch: Right.

Heffner: …what I imposed upon them?”

Koch: Every single day, almost, I kind of laugh a little bit at what I used to do to people like John Lindsay and to Abe Beame when I was a member of Congress. Imposing burdens upon them that were ridiculous, but always with the thought, “Gee, I’m doing good”, because that’s what every member of Congress thought he or she was doing. No, we were doing bad on occasion.

Heffner: How do you account for that? You are not a man who does ridiculous things. Yet you say those things were ridiculous.

Koch: Well, what I’m talking about would be the following, saying to a city, “You must spend your money in a certain way. We are mandating that you do things in a certain way. And we will give you, in some cases, some money, or we will give you a lot more, but at the end of three years or five years we’re not going to give you a nickel, and you have to continue the program yourself”. So the city, those mandated to engage in some programs where they got very little, but they had no choice, or sometimes they were offered an option, “You take this money and you do the program, but at the end of the three years you’ve got to do it on your own”. And they blindly thought, “Oh, so what? We’ll find the money, somewhere”. And the money wasn’t there. But the constituency had been built up for that program so it became almost impossible to eliminate that program at the end of the period when the federal government was out.

Heffner: But these are not bad people, these are not foolish people, as you noted. Does this continue today in the relationship between the communities around the country and the Congress?

Koch: I hope to a lesser degree, but nevertheless to some degree. The Congress still mandates in a whole host of areas what we have to do. I think to a lesser degree. And I have kind of summed it up. I have maintained a very good relationship with the members of Congress. I would suspect that far less than 50 percent of the members that I served with are still there, because Congress became a little bit unattractive for people for a whole host of reasons, and they left, they retired, in some cases defeated. And yet I go down there and even the new members I try to stay current with and write to them occasionally and seek their support for city programs, etcetera. And I have a good relationship. I mean, people sort of vicariously, the members of Congress like what I’m doing. And I’m talking about liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans have sort of taken the politics out of being mayor – I hope it doesn’t sound arrogant – in the same way that Fiorello did. You know, nobody cared whether he was a Republican. I mean, Democrats think he was probably a Democrat at heart. And I hope that Republicans don’t think I’m a Republican at heart. But I do believe that what they think is that I have common sense at heart and that what id o is not doctrinaire.

Heffner: But you know, you talk about conservatives and liberals alike. In your book Politics there is an indication that as far as the humanity of it all is concerned, you opt for the conservatives.

Koch: I do, because having been a reformer – I’m not anymore, as I define reformer – I am for reforming things, but I am not a reformer, because the reformers had a certain arrogance, myself included, a certain attitude which was, “Well, we don’t give a damn for the individual, we care for the society. And if this is good for society, don’t tell us about the impact on the individual”. That’s at least, they will never say that that’s what in fact they believed then and maybe even now, but in fact, I think that’s really the impact of what they did. Whereas conservatives, I had always found, were more forgiving. That’s the point, you see. That a conservative would say, “Oh, listen, Koch? I don’t like him on 12 things. But you know, on this I do, so let’s give the guy a little credit”. Whereas reformers would say, “Listen, I agree with him on 11 out of 12, but I don’t like him on that one thing. The hell with him”. That’s the difference.

Heffner: And now you find the same thing here in this city?

Koch: Yes, to a lesser degree, but nevertheless to a strong degree.

Heffner: But you know, I do want to come back a moment again to, for a moment, to Congress. The Wall Street Journal, my friends on the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal constantly write those wonderfully funny editorials, the very biting ones about the gang of 535. Your former colleagues in the House…

Koch: Sure, sure.

Heffner: …and the Senate too. This notion that we can’t afford the delays, the obstreperousness of the Congress of the United States and its relationship with the chief executive, how do you relate to that notion?

Koch: Well, you know, I believe that the Congress is doing its job when it perceives itself as an equal with the chief executive. And I happen to like Ronald Reagan in a strange way. I have said he’s a great president. Not that I agree with him on a whole host of issues, but greatness is defined in this sense for history’s sake, I believe, as how did he move the country. Very few presidents have moved the country. FDR moved the country to the left, and Reagan has moved it to the right. Now, if I thought that he was outrageous and vile and immoral, then I would say that that greatness is a word that cannot be applied. But that isn’t true. While I disagree with the extent that he’s moved the country, there’s nothing immoral about his actions, and he is committed to what he perceives to be an image of America that really doesn’t exist. I’ll tell you a little story. If you have a little moment of it. I’ve met the president a number of times, and I’ve always found him entertaining and interesting and informed on many, many issues. But also harking back to his earlier days. And he has told this story on a number of occasions to different people, and I happened to be in the crowd when he told it. And he cannot get over the fact that his daughter, when she was three years old, and I believe being paid to act in maybe some movie or some other art form, that they took social security out of her check. And he said, “But she was only three”. Well, what’s that got to do with it? Right? So in a way it is harking back to the earlier frontier days when you were really totally on your own. Well, that doesn’t exist in any civilized society anymore. We are more interdependent than we were when we were on the frontier.

Heffner: Yes, but Mayor Koch has also drawn largely upon nostalgia. Wouldn’t you say that’s true?

Koch: Oh, yes. I have this other little anecdote. Early in the first year that I was elected, actually in the summer of that year, I was walking on the boardwalk at Coney Island, Coney island and Brighton, and an elderly lady, maybe in her 70s, rushed over to me. And she said, “Mayor, Mayor” and she grabbed my hand. And she said, “Mayor, make it like it was”. And I thought to myself, “Listen, it never was the way you think it was. But I’ll try”.

Heffner: Do you think you’ve succeeded?

Koch: Oh, I think I’ve had some impact. I think I’ve given credibility back to government. I think that most people, because they see that I exercise common sense and I’m not going to do what’s radical or chic, but what’s in the best interest of people, individuals and the totality of our society, I think that more people today have a diminished anger at government. They’re still angry. Still angry. But nevertheless, I don’t think they see me as they did several of my predecessors, and that they see me more in an avuncular way, that I’m a friend, I’m an uncle. I love it. Because I’ll walk along the street and people will yell, whether it’s a ten-year-old youngster or some senior citizen, they’ll yell, “Ed”. Well, I like that. Or someone will yell, as they do, because I have a trademark, I’ll say, “How’m I doin’”? You know, it’s to strike up a conversation. And it’s become part of my logo, if you will. But the best part of it will be when someone yells across the street, “Don’t ask. You’re doing terrific”.

Heffner: (Laughter) Do you think it’s possible to translate that feeling outside of the five boroughs of New York?

Koch: No. and the reason that I give no is that I tried it once. I tried to run for governor in 1982 and I lost. And I lost because Mario Cuomo is a good candidate in his own right, and people voted for him because they liked him. But they voted upstate in part against me because I was perceived as the quintessential New Yorker, meaning New York City. And while they might like my humor and the visits to New York City, they might worry about me being in Albany. They wouldn’t have had to worry because I would have been a good governor and I would have treated the whole state fairly. But I don’t think I could ever get over, from their point of view, being the quintessential person from the City of New York. The other thing is I occasionally go down to the South Street Seaport on a weekend when it’s packed with people from New Jersey. And they all like me in New Jersey, even more than they do in New York City. And somebody once said to me, “Why do they like you so much in New Jersey”? and I said, “Because they see me on the tube, but they don’t’ have to live with me every day”. (Laughter)

Heffner: You mean you’re not going to give the opportunity o anyone outside of the City of New York to live with you that way?

Koch: No. I will hopefully be carried out of office eight, 12, 16 years from now. My father lived to age 87, and I want to be mayor until I die.

Heffner: You want to say that again?

Koch: I want to be mayor til I die.

Heffner: Well, let’s see. That takes us way into the 21st century.

Koch: What’s wrong with that?

Heffner: Well, you know, I’m a few months behind you, and I’m going to stay there watching and waiting and then seeing if you’re going to do what you say. Mr. Mayor, we don’t have that much time left, but I wanted to get on to the question of the prejudice of the people you consider the extremists, the zealots you write about in politics. Do you find a great danger in zealotry.

Koch: Oh, I do. I believe there’s a place for it, out there is still danger. The zealot takes the way-out position that no person with reasonable common-sense approach would take. There’s always got to be a balancing of interests. But the zealot is a one-issue person. And if you are not exactly on target with that person, some of them will just simply be near violent, in some cases even violent. Those people are a danger. Now, the person who’s fired up , and who is engaged in non-violent, civil protest, that’s okay.

Heffner: Where do you see the areas of zealotry in our country today?

Koch: Well, I think, here it’s hard to say because I haven’t really given that any great thought. But zealotry today would be in the area of saying that the poor are there because they made themselves poor, and that we want to bring the country back to the frontier. That’s a danger. You know, everybody’s on their own. I think there’s a reasonable balance. I think in some cases we have done too much to intervene in the lives of people. I think there should be minimum standards below which people shall not fall, but I don’t think we should ever take the position, and some people do, that welfare should not only be a right but that you don’t have to even ask people who are able to work and who have children in school and therefore they don’t have to be home to consider a welfare check a salary check.

Heffner: Do you want workfare?

Koch: Definitely. I’ve tried to do it in the City of New York. If you are able-bodied and able-minded, and your children are in school, whether you’re a woman or a man, you should be held responsible for that welfare check in the same way as a salary check. Now, most people in this category of women on welfare with children, have children that are under six, and therefore they wouldn’t be required to work. But if they’re over six and if you can find jobs for them during the school hours, they should take them. And the attitude that some have in this social welfare system, who are not themselves on welfare, is, well, you must give them jobs that aren’t menial. That’s a lot of baloney. What is a menial job? Is it a menial job to pick up the litter on the streets of the sidewalk of New York? It is not. People get paid a lot of money for it. And that’s a profession. But if we can use you in addition to the regular service force that we have during these hours when you’re not with your children, why shouldn’t you pick up the litter on the street? Why shouldn’t you be in the hospital washing the floors? Why can’t you be serving food to people in senior centers? There is no such thing as a menial job which people on welfare ought not to be required to engage in in the same sense that anybody else who gets a salary – and read “welfare check” as a salary check – would be doing.

Heffner: Mr. Mayor, you’ve expressed admiration today and previous times for President Reagan. Do you agree with what seems to be his desire to move us back further and further from the frontiers of social welfare action?

Koch: No (laughter). That’s the zealotry in him. But I happen to like him. I mean, he’s not Attila the Hun. Definitely not. But he goes too far.

Heffner: Well, I didn’t really want to get you back on him, but rather to find out how far you think, if we have to move back, we do have to move back.

Koch: Oh, definitely. I’ve given you the concept which I support of workfare. I believe that whether you’re rich or whether you’re poor, if you steal – because nobody steals for hunger today. Nobody. Oh, maybe you find somebody out there, but rarely. I’ll put it that way. You steal because it’s easier to steal than to work. And the chances of getting caught after you have stolen are less than the odds at the track,. In other words, more favorable to you than the odds of winning. So I believe that whether you’re rich or poor, if you steal, and particularly from the government, that you should go jail. White-collar crime, whether you’re rich or poor, you should to go jail. Now, I don’t mean for years, if it’s a white-collar crime and you can recover the money that’s been stolen. But whether it’s a couple of weeks or a couple of months or a couple of years, depending on the crime, you should go to jail. Now, most people in the social field don’t equate it that way. Somehow or other they think, well, if you’re poor and we give you a rent check and you decide to use it for your personal expenses and not give it to the landlord, that we should not hold you accountable. And when I try to hold people accountable and I denounce such people as having stolen from the government, then I’m assailed and assaulted by some of the ,quote, civil libertarians. Or another area where I have lots of problems with people.

Heffner: Mr. Mayor, I wish we could go on. And obviously you’re going to go on with three more books?

Koch: Well, I have at least 900 more pages in me.

Heffner: You’re going to do it that way, 300 a book?

Koch: Right.

Heffner: All right. Then we’ll get you back here again at least three more times.

Koch: Good.

Heffner: Thank you for joining me today, Mayor Koch.

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.”