Edward I. Koch

The Democrats … After the Fall

VTR Date: November 9, 1988

Guest: Koch, Edward I.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Edward L. Koch, Mayor, City of New York
Title: “The Democrats – After the Fall”
VTR: 11/9/88

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. A bit more than a year ago, after he had experienced a very minor stroke – but had recouped his public energies almost immediately – Ed Koch, the ebullient, always outspoken Mayor of the City of New York examined with me, here on The Open Mind those intimations of mortality that come ultimately to us all: to a politician no less than to a professor turned broadcaster. Indeed, Hizzoner told me then what he wanted as his epitaph…and that actually made headlines all over this country. But now the scene changes from the personal to the political…and intimations of mortality may at this point have more importantly to do with his party’s defeat in the Presidential election this week. So I want to ask the Mayor what the Bush victory’s implications are for the Democrats and for his own tenure at City Hall. Mr. Mayor?

Koch: Well, it’s an interesting question that I guess will be debated for the next month or so. It just happens that before I came here I heard Dukakis discuss it, and if you listened to him it was like we won. (Laughter) I don’t think we won. And I believe that we lost this one, and the two prior Presidential elections, Mondale, Carter before him, because our party has allowed a significant, but not majority group, representing the McGovern and more latter day Jackson supporters who are much more radical than either the party itself, and certainly more radical than the electorate country-wide, to dominate the party’s platform and leadership. Now they take positions which simply don’t have a majority point of view. I’ll tell you what they are…just a few of them.

Heffner: Please, because that’s important.

Koch: Sure. They can be against the death penalty, which they are. But they accuse everyone who is for the death penalty of being an ogre, a beast, without morals. It’s ridiculous. I respect the other side. They don’t respect those of us who believe in the death penalty, as a protection for society. If you want to change welfare, and require that able bodied people be required to work as thought their welfare check were a salary check, they refer to it as slave labor. If you talk about the need for prisons, they talk about the fact that it costs more money to send someone to prison than to Harvard, as thought that were an equation. The fact is that there are people who belong in prison. They talk about the court system…every time you seek to change the rules so as to see to it that people who are guilty, but who walk out of court because of technicalities, that the rules of evidence are changed so as not to allow those technicalities. If you had to sum it up…or patriotism. You talk about saluting the flag (laughter), that this is like fascism. It’s ridiculous, and I believe you can sum it up by saying that they are so pre-occupied with the rights of the individuals that they don’t see the need for the rights and protection of those rights for society. They see the trees, they don’t see the forest, which is the converse.

Heffner: But Mayor Koch that sounds as though that could have been a campaign speech up until Monday night of this week. It sounds like a Bush campaign speech.

Koch: Well, I know that that’s what they would say, and I’d hoped that you wouldn’t say it because you have to say that I would not reject being described as a Liberal, but I’m a Liberal with sanity. I believe that every one of those positions that I’ve just enunciated is a Liberal position, if you say the rights of society are paramount, and must be attended to at least as much as the rights of the individual, and in my judgment, even more. Now, in addition to espousing those particular positions as I’ve outlined them, conversely to what so many of our leaders say on those issues, you have to talk about, as conversely to what so many of our leaders say on those issues, you have to talk about, as I have on every occasion, the compassion the Democratic Party shows by saying, “You know this is not a bad society. America’s the best in the world, most opportunities. But not everybody has been given those opportunities”. And whereas the Bush people…and I wish him well, I’m not someone who is going to attack President Bush simply because he’s a Republican, and because he won over and above the person I wanted to win. In the third year of his term we’ll become political again, and seek to displace him so he doesn’t have a fifth year. But I would talk about the fact that there are people in the water who need help as opposed to “don’t rock the boat”, which was the Bush position. That compassionate response is required, but at the same time you have to ask people to do more for themselves, and not expect that government can solve all their problems. I don’t perceive that to be a Republican speech. That is a Democratic statement that Hubert Humphrey would have made, that FDR would have made, that Truman would have made, but there are people who came after them, much later, who don’t accept those values.

Heffner: Yes, but not accepting them, in terms of what you said, does this make the party something very different than it was Humphrey’s time?

Koch: Oh (laughter) no question about it. Today, if you went to a convention, I believe that if you put up a provision which was to impose racial quotas on every part of our society, in housing, in education, so that you assure that every part of our society is reflected demographically and proportionately, in every area of endeavor, I believe that the delegates to such a convention, based on the delegates to the last convention, would clap and applaud. Whereas Hubert Humphrey said that racial quotas were an anathema to him, that the way you deal with racial discrimination is to end discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion or gender. I happen to have always been supportive of what the recent Supreme Court case on the subject of housing quotas here in the City of New York, they just said a so-called benign quota to limit the number of blacks so that whites wouldn’t flee this particular housing project, violates our Constitution, and I agreed with them before they made that decision. There is no such thing as a benign racial, ethnic, religious or gender quota.

Heffner: Well, let’s get back to the question of party, because the probability is you case your first Presidential vote the same year I cast mine, 1948.

Koch: That’s exactly right.

Heffner: okay. And we probably both voted for Harry Truman.

Koch: We did. And who (laughter) whoever expected him to get elected? You had the Dixie-crats, you had the Wallace Democratic sector…

Heffner: But that’s just what I was going to refer to. You had the split, now what do you see as happening to the Democratic Party in the next four years?

Koch: Well, we’re not going to have a split. The…

Heffner: But you described that…

Koch: …Dixie-crats. No, we’re not going to have an official split. We have it in the party, but the party’s not going to split. The Dixie-crats, whatever they were called at the time officially, they’ve gone to the Republicans. A majority of whites in the South now vote Republican, and in the South, the Democratic party is overwhelmingly supported by Blacks, but not by whites. I would hope that you’d have a majority in both for our party because one without the other is not the kind of party that I’m enamored with. Now, regrettably, currently, the moderates, let’s call the Truman supporters, myself, you as we espoused Hubert Humphrey…those who took that position, they don’t seem to want to fight for it, and they’re not the militants, they’re not the activists. The activists, in both parties, are the radicals in the Democratic Party on the Left, and in the Republican party on the Right.

Heffner: But then you’re saying that the Democratic Party will be taken over, lock-stock-and-barrel in these next four years…

Koch: Well…

Heffner: …by the radicals.

Koch: …I believe there’s a very good chance that the party instead of moving mainstream, just based on three defeats, and a reasonable analysis would be that our positions didn’t reflect mainstream America, and they voted for Bush who they thought was closer to mainstream America even thought to the Right of mainstream America, but closer to their point of view on these issues and others that I’ve outlined to you. I am fearful, since I went to two caucuses, one after the Carter debacle, and then after the Mondale debacle, and they invited leaders to come in to discuss why, as they will now. I doubt that I’ll be invited now. But on the other two occasions…and you know who carried the day on those other two occasions, even thought they were again a small number? Those who said, “we didn’t talk enough about opposition to the death penalty. We didn’t talk enough about the need to increase the welfare rates and slave labor to require people to work off the welfare checks, if they were able-bodied” and all of the other items that I talked about. They carried the day, and regrettably, the candidates, even in this last election, maybe a little less, certainly on Dukakis’ part, he was lucky because what he did was he left everybody else kill themselves, you know, on the Left and on the Right and he was very pristine and he gave the image of the technocrat, and he didn’t get involved in major battles in the primary, and I think it’s a fluke, frankly. He won the primary and became our candidate…a decent man, I like him, I supported him after he won the primary, not before. The fact is that our candidates in the primaries move to the Left because of militants who carry the petitions. What we need, frankly, is a national primary. In my judgment that would change the whole operation. If you had a primary in the Democratic party that took place on the same day throughout the country, so that you had to appeal nationally, not parochially as they all do, running from caucus to caucus, and the results come out at different times and you hope to do building blocks. If you had a national primary I think it would bring the party closer to mainstream.

Heffner: The national primary being in a sense a counter-part to the old conventions?

Koch: Except the old conventions had delegates, small in number, who made the decision initially. I’m talking about a national primary where you elected those candidates…

Heffner: Yes.

Koch: …those delegates, but on the same day.

Heffner: Are you betting as to the opportunity, the chance that that’ll happen?

Koch: Oh, it won’t happen.

Heffner: Okay.

Koch: Absolutely won’t happen. (laughter)

Heffner: Mr. Mayor, if you say it won’t happen…

Koch: Yes.

Heffner: …what is going to happen to the party?

Koch: I believe that unless we do what I’ve just outlined to you, we are doomed as Santayana said to repeat the errors of the past. It’s the first time I’ve ever used that in the context that made such great sense.

Heffner: And then?

Koch: We’ll have another defeat. (Laughter)

Heffner: All right, but you know perfectly well…

Koch: Yes.

Heffner: …that the party cannot tolerate defeat again and again and again.

Koch: Well we say that. We say that. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I remember when Goldwater was defeated they said the Republican party would never rise again because they had been so smashed by Johnson. They elected people thereafter, and, you know, sooner or later there’s something else that’s working irrespective of whether you do what I suggest. There is a political pendulum, and at some point it swings.

Heffner: But you’ve said the pendulum has swung already.

Koch: Yes, but it sooner or later has to swing the other way. You said…

Heffner: Which way?

Koch: Well…

Heffner: What will happen? What will be the manifestation?

Koch: Sooner or later, but I believe that if we don’t make the changes that I’ve talked about…

Heffner: Right.

Koch: …and allow people to understand that the broad masses in the Democratic Party are middle of the road mainstream. And if the rest of the country perceives the party to be reflective of the leadership positions which are those that I’ve outlined, espoused by people like Ted Kennedy, for example, and I’m not trying to beat him up, but he would surely accept responsibility for being supportive of the wrong side of the issues as I’ve just outlined them to you. Unless we get the public to understand that those leaders don’t reflect us, and then actually in the delegate process choose people who do reflect us by putting in the kind of mechanism that is suggested, we’ll have another defeat in all probability.

Heffner: How does this impact upon your own tenure at City Hall?

Koch: Well, I’m a…you know I’m a political miracle, in a way. I have these positions which are moderate. They’re not right wing, they’re Left wing. I believe to be supportive of society is to Left, not Right. There are some who will take a different position on that. But nevertheless, I’m attacked constantly by the militants and the leaders In our party…some leaders…some leaders say nice things (Laughter) about me, but far and few between…and at this particular moment I’m rather low in the polls. I mean the most recent poll showed that 31% of the people wanted me to run for a fourth term, and 54%, I think, said “No”.

Heffner: When they knocked on your door, and the poll-taker said, “What do you want the Mayor to do?”, what did you say?

Koch: Well, I’m going to run for a fourth term, and when people say, “Well, aren’t you unhappy about this?”, I say, “Well, sure” I mean I’d rather be popular now, but I’d far more rather be popular as we celebrate election day. And I remembered, said I to some of the press people who asked me this, that Dukakis was seventeen points ahead right after the convention, and he lost by eight, which meant that he fell twenty-five points. So, he would have been better off if he was low to begin with and high at the end. That’s what I hope to be, low to begin with, high at the end.

Heffner: I’ll always remember on this program you’re saying, I think it was during the first term, as the first term was coming to an end, you wanted to stay here in City Hall until…

Koch: Yes.

Heffner: …the next century.

Koch: Yes.

Heffner: That’s still your ambition, after all of the…

Koch: Yes, and people say…

Heffner: …nonsense that takes place.

Koch: Yes, people say “Why would anyone want to have to have the job you, Ed Koch, have?”. Well I love my job, and it’s a very tough job, and it’s kind of a campaign slogan with me now, “this is a tough town, it takes a tough guy to run it”. I believe that if you compare me on the basis of intelligence and courage and integrity and experience with the eight or so guys or women who are seeking to run against me, although they have not yet declared, that I come out leagues ahead of them…overall. But at this moment, people are running me against some mythical god-like figure that has no flaws. I make a lot of mistakes, who doesn’t? so they’re going to weigh me with my record, I think of achievement, but some errors, my personality which is a little abrasive, I have small tolerance for idiots, but nevertheless I think I’ve done a very good job. You know, what’s interesting to me is when I came into office we had a billion dollar budgetary deficit, now we have had nine years of fully balanced budgets, and sometimes a half a billion dollar budgetary surplus. In the ten years before I became mayor we lost 600,000 jobs. In the ten years since I’ve been mayor we’ve gained 325,000. We had no capital budget when I came in, today we have a capital budget of five billion dollars. We had no market rating, we couldn’t sell our bonds when I came in, and today we have an A rating with Moody’s. I must have done something right.

Heffner: In doing “something right” as you say, I’ve always wanted to ask you one particular question and somehow or other we come to the end when they say “30 seconds left” and I never have. There’s this wonderful expression “I am my brother’s keeper”…

Koch: Sure.

Heffner: …and I’ve wanted to ask you to what extent you think that reflects American attitudes and to what extent it reflects your own?

Koch: Fine. I believe that Americans are the best people in the world because they’re the softest touches in the world in terms of compassion. They want to help, and so do I. my problem with many people is that I don’t bleed enough publicly, that I say what’s on my mind, but they’re no more compassionate than I am. I get things done, but I don’t believe in blather. I don’t believe in the doctor’s stroking you kind of approach. I tell you what the facts are, and then I go out and I try to help those at the bottom of the economic ladder because that’s where my mother and father were, and that’s where I was. I lived in poor and integrated neighborhoods before anybody ever heard that that was the thing to do.

Heffner: And?

Koch: We were poor.

Heffner: And what do you think that will…how will that impact upon your campaign for re-election?

Koch: It’s going to be tough. My campaign for a fourth term will be the toughest election I will have ever had, even though my third term I got 78% of the vote, but all I need is 51 so there is a cushion.

Heffner: Yes, I remember doing a program the day after the election, and saying “this fellow on the other side of the table probably wonders where are those other points”?

Koch: (Laughter)

Heffner: You hadn’t made enough.

Koch: It’s…listen, I want to be Mayor and I’m not going to be as flip as I was in my second term when I said, as I recall it “Listen if everybody I’ve insulted at one time or another got together and voted against me, they’d throw me out”. I’d get a better job, financially, they wouldn’t get a better Mayor.

Heffner: Let me ask, setting that rather personal and partisan point aside, let me ask what you expect of the new Administration. You said you liked Bush, I remember you’re saying to me…

Koch: He’s a nice man.

Heffner: …on this program you liked Ronald Reagan…

Koch: Yes.

Heffner: Ah…

Koch: Okay, let me tell you. When I say “like” that doesn’t mean “agree with” their…

Heffner: No, no I understand.

Koch: …policies. Ronald Reagan was a genius mensch, a first class person, and that’s why there were Reagan democrats. I was not one of them, and lots of Reagan Republicans, because you knew he was honest, and he was compassionate, and that he wanted to do the right thing even if he bumbled and even if he wasn’t the smartest guy you’d ever met. He was a decent man, and he’ll go down in history as one of the most effective, because he was able to marshal people in support of his view, and he changed the country by moving it. George Bush is no Ronald Reagan, to use Senator Bentsen’s reference. (laughter) Decent man, I served with him in the House of Representatives, and I think he will put together a very good staff. My job and the job of everyone else, irrespective of their party affiliation, is to help him become a great president if he has it in him. Not to try to make him stumble. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have constructive criticism, but don’t go out of your way to bring him down. Instead, work with him for at least three years, because if he becomes a great president, it’s helpful to this country, and then we take him on in the third year so he doesn’t get a fifth year.

Heffner: Do you think that he will promulgate policies that will enable you better to deal with the problems of this city?

Koch: No. no, because he will carry out the economic policies of Ronald Reagan, some of which I agreed with as it related to freeing up the economy, so we have today the lowest unemployment rate in eighteen years. But he is for withdrawal of federal aid, as Regan was, In housing, in AIDS, in education, in all of the areas where we so desperately need help, so I look for greater financial problems for the city.

Heffner: Then why this honeymoon that you’re urging upon us?

Koch: I didn’t vote for him, I voted for Dukakis. But he’s going to be there for four years. What I am saying is that every President, first elected as a party president becomes our president the day after the election. It is in our interest if we want to make this country even greater to help him lead, not to stand in his way. Party politics will enter in the fourth year of his term.

Heffner: What role do you think Jesse Jackson will be playing in the Democratic Party?

Koch: He will play a major role. I think he’s already conveyed that he’s running again for President. He’s a very substantial man. I disagree with him on a number of substantive issues. I agree with him in his opposition to drugs, his support for education, support for housing. I disagree with him on unilateral disarmament, his Mid-East policy, and not being as concerned as I think we have to be on spending.

Heffner: Do you think that the dialogue, this is something we’ve heard a lot in the last days of the campaign, that the dialogue that went on during the 1988 Presidential campaign was so disastrous as to move us away from the kind of good reason, “right reason” that we must employ if we’re to deal with our problems?

Koch: The campaigns, on both sides, were horrible. Remember the Republicans were quite right when they said that we vilified George Bush at our convention, “Where’s George?”, “Silver foot in his mouth”, all of the terrible things – much worse than what I’ve just said…President Carter referred to him as effeminate…what an outrage. What an outrage. Now, on the other hand, the whole campaign of George Bush (laughter) was directed at the low road.

Heffner: What do you think the impact will be? Now.

Koch: They’ll do it again, because it worked.

Heffner: That’s a horrendous thought.

Koch: I can’t help it. If it worked, they’re going to do it again.

Heffner: And this escalation of that element of campaigns you think will become a permanent…

Koch: I believe the low road campaign which worked so effectively for George Bush against Dukakis will be used by a lot of candidates, other than President, and probably by the next Presidential nominee for both parties because it worked this time.

Heffner: What about you as a candidate for re-election?

Koch: Well, I’m not even going to be talking about my opponents. You see, in my election when I run, I have such a strong record and personality, I am the issue. People will be running negative campaigns about me, I hardly think I even want to mention their names.

Heffner: You know you sort of…you don’t dismiss this kind of campaign, but you say “That’s the way it’s going to be”. The question is, can we survive it?

Koch: Oh, sure we’re going to survive it. It isn’t unique, we’ve had these before. I think they’ve brought it down to a fine black art. (laughter) in terms of dismissing it…rather than being upset by it, I just think it’s wrong. You asked me “will it be used again”?.

Heffner: Yes.

Koch: I am telling you it will be.

Heffner: You’re saying it’s a permanent fixture of American political life.

Koch: Yes. Yes.

Heffner: And the manipulation, the use of television?

Koch: You can’t get away from that, I mean television is both good and bad for a candidate. It tells you a lot of about that candidate, and you can practice and become good on television. But I want to tell you, you will know more about the person who you’re viewing when you do it on the television tube than when you view them when they’re on a stage, a podium, when you’re far away.

Heffner: Why do you say that?

Koch: Well, it’s a piercing tube. I cannot tell you why it is, but my perception, having viewed a lot of television and having been on this side of the camera as well, is that, not in every case, but in most cases, it tells the phony from the true, the whey from the chaff.

Heffner: Do you think it did this campaign?

Koch: Well, I think that…in a way. George Bush is a fundamentally decent man. I’m putting aside the negative things, when you listen to George Bush, fundamentally decent man, when you…when the television focused on Dukakis I think you saw him as a fundamentally decent man without passion. I think he ruined himself, frankly, in the first debate in a way that he never recovered from.

Koch: This was a personal aspect, and that was when he wouldn’t have killed the guy who raped and murdered his wife in the hypothetical. His wife probably wanted to kill him.

Heffner: Mr. Mayor, I appreciate your joining mea gain on The Open Mind, it seems to me that we ought to make a date for the day after the next campaign, too.

Koch: Sure. Love it.

Heffner: Thanks again for joining me.

Koch: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you’ll join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write The Open Mind, PO 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, “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; and the New York Times Company Foundation.