Edward I. Koch

To Be a Politician … A Citizen’s View

VTR Date: December 28, 1991

Guest: Koch, Edward I.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Edward I. Koch
Title: “To Be a Politician…A Citizen’s View”
VTR: 1/28/91

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Over its long history, few political persons have joined me more often on THE OPEN MIND than my guest today. First as a local reform Democrat, then as Congressman, as a would-be Mayoral candidate, and finally over and over again as Mayor of New York City…a job often described as second in importance and difficulty only to the presidency of the United States.

Now, after political defeat, but what is clearly personal victory, he joins me as a private citizen…promises not to skewer anyone or make political…but rather to talk about what it means to be a politician in America at the end of the 20th century, about which I would ask my friend, citizen, Ed Koch, how possible is it…and how pleasurable, and how consistent with one’s integrity and self esteem to be a politician in America?

Koch: Well, you know, the word politician regrettably in America…I don’t think in many other countries…is pejorative. It shouldn’t be because I have said for so many years, that I oughtn’t repeat it, but I will…that public service is the noblest of professions if it’s done honestly and done well, and I’m talking about public office-holders. I think that most of them are very decent. I don’t think that most of them have great courage, but that is because most people don’t have great courage, and they are a reflection of the society that elected them. But they’re generally assailed and criticized unfairly. Not given enough credit for what they really do.

Heffner: Even give the role of the dollar mark in politics today?

Koch: Well, I think that’s vastly overstated. People believe that simply because you receive campaign contributions to get elected, to pay the cost of television and media and whatever else is required, and the costs go up every year…that somehow or other a campaign contributor is buying you. I don’t believe that for a minute for most people. There are some who are venal. A very, very few. And the monies that are used, are used in campaigns, otherwise it’s a criminal violation…they’re not put in somebody’s pocket. So I do not believe that you buy pubic officials…with some rare exceptions perhaps…simply by giving them campaign contributions, and that that is vastly over-stated. In fact, I am shocked, really when they talk about the payments that come from…and I’ve forgotten the name of that exact term…but organizations that collect money…

Heffner: The PACS…

Koch: The PACS…perhaps I repressed it. There’s nothing wrong with PACS. I mean PACS are…is an institution that allows you to contribute your maximum of a $1,000 and that $1,000 was the maximum in 1974, and here it is 1991…far diminished in impact from the point of view of inflation…allows you to join with others to be supportive of a particular cause. Now, nobody gets upset when the PAC is for the environment. “Save the Whales”…anybody get angry if you have a PAC called “Save the Whales”, and it truly is for saving them…when they give money to a Congressman. Well, there are other issues. Supposing you’re concerned about the repression of Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland…which many people are…I am concerned about that…was as Mayor…still am. And supposing you raise money for candidates who are very supportive of the Irish Freedom issue and the rejoinder of the 32 counties…is that terrible? Or if you’re a supporter of the State of Israel…Jewish or Christian…and you want to support candidates who support the security of Israel. A PAC can only give, my recollection is $5,000 to a candidate. Are you buying the candidate for that? It’s ridiculous.

Heffner: Well, well…let me ask another…my basic question another way then. Suppose…you’re a wonderful debater…you usually…won’t say “usually”…strike that…you always take the side you believe in…

Koch: Absolutely.

Heffner: But suppose you had the obligation to state the position of those who are so opposed, or so concerned about the uses of money in politics today…what would you see as the downside?

Koch: Well, I think that they say, unfairly, that you are buying the pubic official and has too much impact and that all of the money ought to come from individuals by separate letters. For example, we now have a law in the State of New York that if you have a dinner, to raise campaign monies, and you want to sell tables, which is the normal way…you bring in 20 or 30 people who are going to go out and try to bring in 300 or 3,000 people. Anyone who goes out and solicits campaign contributions to come to the dinner is called a “bundler”. And his name, or her name has to appear on the record a shaving gone out and gotten 10 friends or 20 friends to support a particular candidate. Now…you…there will come a time when people will say, “What do I need this for?” I’m not talking about the candidate, I’m talking about the people who participate in politics. “Why do I need my name in the newspapers as a bundler? Sounds already criminal”.

Heffner: Now, what you’re saying then is that you really see no problem associated…because you’re talking about venality over here, at this end and there isn’t all that much…talking about criminality…and there isn’t all that much.

Koch: Correct.

Heffner: So you have no great concerns about what lies between even though so many people are concerned.

Koch: Well, I will tell you why you hear the concern…because most newspapers, and most of those who express themselves this way believe that all campaigns…not for just the presidency…ought to be publicly financed. That’s what they believe.

Heffner: You don’t?

Koch: No, I don’t. I wouldn’t be opposed to it. But I don’t believe that every race…City Councilman, state legislature, every congressman…that all of those monies…hundreds of millions of dollars now raised in the private sector by candidates, who, if they didn’t have to raise it, but got it publicly funded, would just run because there’s no reason not to. That it’s necessarily a great advantage to the body politic to have the Federal treasury paying for all these campaigns.

Heffner: But…Mr. Mayor, aren’t they saying this because of their concern about…their concern, not yours…about what the impact of dollars has been upon politics? Again you’ll say, “there hasn’t been such a…”

Koch: I don’t believe that you can show many cases where people have been bought. There are some. I don’t believe that you can find many cases where people are corrupt. Although there are.

Heffner: Suppose you…we left the question of being “bought” and talked more about the question of being “sold”. And the time it takes away from one’s appointed duties as a public official to raise all those dollars that are needed today to run and to win.

Koch: Well, we now have made it so difficult for people to enter politics…we attack their personal lives, we scrutinize them like nobody else. We demand that they exhibit their income taxes and net worth statements. You’re not allowed, on fear of…on pain of death, of going for a weekend to a friend’s home, if that friend is doing business with the city government. You cannot go even for a weekend without thinking, “My God, they’re going to accuse me of taking some…something…”Not from a friend, but from someone who does business with the city of New York. So there…we, in effect, have said that if you run for office, there’s a prima facie presumption that you must be a criminal. (Laughter) And I think that’s very harmful to the body politic, myself.

Heffner: You say “harmful”. In what ways has it been harmful? What have we seen as a result of that?

Koch: Well, I believe that lots of people who ought to be running for public office have not and will never run.

Heffner: You really do believe…

Koch: Oh, I do believe that. You know we don’t pay our candidates, and our public officials I should say, very much money. Let me give you an illustration. When I first became Mayor, which was in 1978, the salary was $60,000. Young lawyers, people getting out of law school and going to the first class firms, were getting $80,000. Today the salary for the Mayor of the City of New York, the 4th largest corporation in the country in terms of budget… a budget of $29 billion dollars, plus another capital budget of about $4 billion, far greater than General Motors, and Westinghouse and General Electric…the 4th in the country, first the United States government, then California, then the State of New York, then the city of New York…that Mayor is making $130,000. Lee Iacocca, who took a bankrupt corporation and built it up and now, I think it’s not doing as well as it should…although that’s not his fault, he made $20 million a year, when the Mayor…in that case, me…I was making something between $60,000 and $130,000 a year. I never begrudged him a single dollar, because I lived what I was doing. I would have, in my judgment, far more to be remembered for if I did it well, then he would, if he did it well. And that’s what makes people, good people, be in pubic office. It’s the psychic income, not the financial income.

Heffner: But then, doesn’t that, ipso facto, keep out the concerns about what you can make and can’t make, and the way you will be examined so closely, if you visit a friend’s home, who happens to do business with the city, with the federal government, whatever it may be…doesn’t that…

Koch: No.

Heffner: …keep out the bad guys…

Koch: No…

Heffner: …and bring in the good guys?

Koch: …it doesn’t keep out the bad guys. Anymore than it has a greater impact in keeping out the good guys, let me just say. Because we just have…instead of appreciating the pubic servant, who works so hard at the top levels…I’m not telling you that there aren’t people who don’t work in government. Civil Service, as good as it is, has an enormous adverse impact on the work ethic (chuckle). I’m talking about the people at the highest levels…they work 14, 16 hours a day. They love what they’re doing. And they’re constantly held up to assault, assailed in the editorials…editorials…you have to be thick-skinned to be in public office, or…and I was not thick-skinned because every unfair attack upon me, I felt keenly, but I responded. I mean I’m one of those people who’s not afraid of the press. So I stood up, toe-to-toe. I’d write letters…”why are you writing so many letters?” they would say to me, or reject my letters when they thought there were too many of them. I said, “As long as you keep attacking, I’ll keep writing”. Now there aren’t too many people who are willing to do that. It takes an enormous amount of energy.

Heffner: Alright. Brings me back to the first point. Whether…what the nature of politics is or the political apparatus is, here at the end of the 20th century, is good for our nation, bad for our nation, produces the right kind of public officials, or prevents the right kind of people from joining in?

Koch: Well, what I’m saying is that we find that nevertheless with all of these problems, somehow or other, there are sufficient numbers of people who are courageous and able to and willing to take on the slings and arrows, so we’re not without sufficient candidates, but there are many more who are good, or better than those, that are currently in the system, who will never run because our system treats them so badly, so shabbily. And primarily the press…

Heffner: It is my impression, and tell me whether you think I’m wrong…that there are increasing numbers of people in American politics, probably people you admire, who are saying, “Thanks, but no thanks, I’m getting out now”.

Koch: Oh, I think…

Heffner: “…I got in, but I’m getting out”.

Koch: I…

Heffner: …and many of them talk about money.

Koch: That’s true, too. We don’t pay our public officials enough.

Heffner: I…I wasn’t talking about it from that point of view. It seems to me that what I’ve heard…they have talked about the struggle to raise dollars.

Koch: Hmmm, I haven’t heard that. I believe that there are many Federal judges, for example, I know some of them, who…recently they got a raise, that still doesn’t bring them up to anything comparable to what their lifestyle and standards should be and what they would be making, as first rate lawyers in the private sector. Nevertheless, they will continue because public service is part of their blood. I believe that we ought to be kinder, more gentle to our public officials, criticize them where criticism is warranted, but not to use the language that some of the editorial writers and the reporters, who by the way, are not subject to normal, normal libel laws. I mean you can libel a public official, and you cannot be sued. With rare exception.

Heffner: Would you change that?

Koch: Oh, yes I would. And the change would not be money damages, but it would be a legislation which Chuck Schumer introduced many years ago, in which the newspapers refuse to support…

Heffner: Retracting…

Koch: …will allow you a trial, and a judge to say that what you said was unfair, libelous, but no payment to the pubic official. But an opportunity to have a forum decide whether or not you were libeled. And the newspapers, they’re opposed to that even thought their general support of the legislation which excludes them from the regular libel laws is “Well, you don’t want to chill dissent and you don’t want to cause financial damage which would put newspapers out of business”. But the Schumer legislation wouldn’t put them out of business, it would imply give a fair forum to the public official who believes he or she has been libeled to establish that they in fact were libeled.

Heffner: That’s a wonderful word…”fairness”. That’s the word they object to, isn’t it? Somebody else determines what…

Koch: Well…

Heffner: …was fair or what…

Koch: …but don’t we have libel laws that affect everybody else, other than…if a newspaper libels someone who is not a public official, or a public figure, they are held responsible in a court of law. This exemption only applies if you’re a public figure.

Heffner: But libel and fairness…really there’s a vast gap between them, isn’t there? And you are talking about fairness.

Koch: No. You cannot…no…I wouldn’t even say that. I am talking about libel…I am talking about not being able to establish that they were…that their judgment was erroneous as it relates to whether you were good or bad in this area of fairness. I am talking about their sheer libel if in writings, slander if oral.

Heffner: Now, you have no concerns about the chilling effect of, of this…

Koch: No, because it…

Heffner: …”Koch” doctrine.

Koch: …well, it’s, it’s…others have advocated it. And, in fact, there as a time when the newspapers advocated it, but they don’t anymore. Why? I don’t know why. I think newspapers today, editorial writers and remember, an editorial…most public figures don’t realize this…if the opinion of one person…somehow or other takes on the aura of a citadel…New York Times editorial…they have an Editorial Board, one person writes that editorial. And they are, many times brilliant in their editorials and I wouldn’t take that away from some of them, but some of them are very monomaniacal in their views.

Heffner: But if you say, Mr. Mayor, that you would not take that away from some of them…

Koch: I wouldn’t.

Heffner: …wouldn’t the very threat take that away from all of them?

Koch: I’d…

Heffner: Wouldn’t you by imposing the fairness that you want to impose upon them, similar to the libel laws…wouldn’t you chill them ‘till they were frozen out?

Koch: You know, what is terrible is that most reporters, when I was Mayor…got very upset when I took them on head-to-head, toe-to-toe, in the Blue Room where I had my press conferences and…I have no hesitation to say to a reporter who asked me a stupid question, “That’s a stupid question. Why don’t you learn what the facts are?”

Heffner: But that’s different from going to court…

Koch: But I want to…But, but…reporters were overwhelmingly affronted by this. They believe…the newspaper…the media believes that the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech is only for the media. That’s not true. It’s for every American. The media doesn’t believe that. And the media doesn’t want to be held responsible, as I believe they should be, without pecuniary damages being imposed upon them. I’m not interested in putting them out of business. But give the pubic official an opportunity to be heard, to state his case, and to allow a judge, who would have that power in any other trial, not involving a public figure, to make decision…”Yes, you were libeled, Mr. Congressman, Mr. Mayor, Mr. Councilman”. What’s wrong with that? But the papers don’t want it.

Heffner: Alright. Now let me ask you to put on your prophet’s hat. Do you think that there is anything in the winds that would indicate an increasing concern, such as you express, and therefore, the greater potential for limiting the press in this way?

Koch: No. No. The press…I am not a press “basher”. They have been very kind to me…I have been attacked unfairly by some reporters, some columnists, some editorial writers, but over the 12 years that I was Mayor, the 9 years that I was a Congressman, I had a very favorable press. In fact some reporters resented that, they thought it was too favorable. So I have no onslaught against the media. They made my reputation for me. I mean I think I was a very good Congressman. I thought I was a very good Mayor. But if the press didn’t say that at some point in time, nobody else would know. So, I’m not anti-press. But I see how if you’re not in a position, as I was as Mayor, to be able to, not only respond, but to get your comments covered, and you’re in a lesser public position, you can’t even get the press to cover you, by way of your response.

Heffner: And that’s what’s disaster, isn’t it?

Koch: Well, that is what takes the heart out of a public official.

Heffner: Now, let me…let me ask what you think about…not…getting away from the matter of dollars, the dollars that will buy television time. What…as you look at the question of being a political person in America today…what the impact of being able to be on television, making use of broadcasting, being so good at the 30 second, 20 seconds, 10 second “bite”?

Koch: Well, the first thing is that the largest expenditure that you have in the campaign is the cost of television advertising. And since the license means that the owner of the license doesn’t own the television airwaves, but simply has a license, which has to be renewed…I’ve always taken the position, when I was in Congress and up until now, that the FCC ought to impose upon the media, television and radio, not newspapers, which are privately owned, the obligation of free time, allocated to the candidates. And you would then eliminate huge parts of the campaign budget.

Heffner: Free time for Federal candidates? State candidates? Local candidates? Dogcatcher?

Koch: Well, I, I am not able to tell you how pragmatic it is…at what level…you’d have to look at it. I mean you obviously don’t want to have an hour…I shouldn’t say an hour…an evening where there’s no entertainment and there are only commercial statements for candidates. People would just turn off their sets. So you have to look at it and see, maybe you could try it. Maybe the first candidates who should get free time would be the members of Congress.

Heffner: Any chance that the members of Congress will pass legislation that would provide for that when, in all probability, they’re going to have to provide for those who are opposing their incumbency, as well?

Koch: Oh, you’re absolutely right. Members of Congress would like to limit campaign budgets to the smallest possible amount so as to limit the effectiveness of their opponent. I mean that, that’s understandable from their point of view. I, I heard that. I never did. I mean I…when I was a Congressman, when I was a Mayor I looked forward to the campaigns, frankly, because it gave me an opportunity to test whether or not I had done a good job. You know, when I was first elected I got 50% in a four-way race. The first re-election I got 75%, the third time I ran, the second re-election, I got 78%, and the 4th time…and nobody had ever run a 4th time before, I got 42% and I lost. I’m a very lucky guy…my adversary who won, David Dinkins, is a very unlucky guy. He’s getting older by the minute, and I’m getting younger by the minute. I’m enjoying my life…he’s having a terrible time. So I don’t regret the fact that I lost. In 1981, when I ran for re-election the first time, I said to every crowd I got to, I said “Now listen, if all the people I’ve alienated were to get together and vote against me, you could throw me out. And if you do, I’ll get a better job, and you won’t get a better Mayor”. I was arrogant in those days, unlike now. And I couldn’t have said it when I ran for my 4th term, and in fact, all the people did get together and they did throw me out. They didn’t know it, they were doing me a favor.

Heffner: You did get a better job.

Koch: (Laughter) I got a better, and I will say to you, they didn’t get a better mayor.

Heffner: I’m not going to argue that point…

Koch: (Laughter)

Heffner: …with you, Mr. Mayor. But I want to, in the couple of minutes that we have left, ask you what you see as the future of being a politician in America?

Koch: Well, I am now with the vantage point of being the critic. And it, you know, it’s so much more fun, being the critic…

Heffner: It’s terrific.

Koch: …than a victim. But I believe that our public officials are becoming better in the sense of more able…that I think we are reasonably well represented at most levels of government. I really believe that. I believe that more people are concentrating on making the decision as to who will represent them at executive or legislative levels. So I’m very hopeful.

Heffner: Would you support in any means or any way at all, the legislation that is offered in a variety of states now, to limit the years that one can serve?

Koch: I’ve always been opposed to that, but I’m getting closer to supporting it. And I’m getting closer to supporting it because it just seems that no matter what, the incumbent is re-elected maybe 98% of the time across the country. So, at this point, I still haven’t crossed that bridge, but I would not be distressed if they had three tern limitations.

Heffner: What are you waiting for? To cross that bridge? 99%?

Koch: I, I honestly don’t know. I mean it, it’s so against my grain, so to speak, that we should say to a, a voter, “Listen, we don’t trust you. You could throw anybody out, but because you don’t, and you’re lazy, that we’re going to impose throwing them out, instead of you’re making that free choice”. That’s against my grain. But I may swallow that sand.

Heffner: Does it make more sense to you because the numbers of people participating in our elections are so abysmally low?

Koch: Yes. Yes. It’s about 50%…

Heffner: Or less.

Koch: …in general elections, in primaries about 25%.

Heffner: Anything to do about that? Anything that you think we can do?

Koch: Well, I wouldn’t be adverse to the Australian system which taxes you if you don’t vote. I’m not opposed to that. Even if it’s a minor tax of $5.00, might bet people to vote.

Heffner: As you go on, you seem to be getting more restrictive in your…in the things tha you would accept.

Koch: Well, I’m getting older so…

Heffner: I thought you were getting younger…

Koch: (Laughter)

Heffner: …you look younger…

Koch: My brain. (Laughter)

Heffner: Your brain.

Koch: My brain. (Laughter)

Heffner: You said that once before, some years ago.

Koch: Right. Right. And, you know, you…I have never been a knee-jerk responder to anything. Even less so today. When I was a public official, you have to take into consideration the impact of what you’re doing with respect to getting re-elected. Never, I would hope, when it affects matters concerning conscience. There, if you’re a person of conscience, you must never sacrifice it to get re-elected. On the other hand, there are lots of areas where you can go either way and sometimes you will…say as I did, I’m sure, on occasion, “Well, I have a judgment which is different than the electorate. But it’s so overwhelming, they want it this, what the hell, why not, it’s not a matter of conscience”.

Heffner: And that’s the point where it’s a matter of conscience to say we’ve run out of time. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for joining me today.

Koch: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s intriguing guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as 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 Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.