Edward I. Koch

To Be a Politician … and Lose! Part I

VTR Date: November 5, 1982

Guest: Koch, Edward I.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Edward I. Koch
Title: “To be a Politician…and Lose!” Part II
VTR: 11-5-82

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. I’ve often thought that one of the things I’d most like to do as an erstwhile American historian, as a teacher, as a public affairs broadcaster, indeed, as an inquiring, concerned citizen, would be to talk off the record with Ed Koch, the most extraordinary mayor, I think, New York or any other city in the country has ever had. Talk out of the range of the snipers, the carpers, the opportunists, who simply want to take his place. Even, I’ll admit, away from those responsible critics who press for the truth, not for his turf. Well, I’d like to hear rock-bottom, when he’s really at his leisure, totally at his own disposal, and not at all at that of critics or admirers, what this most intriguing public figure has to say privately about power and politics. Not that Ed Koch isn’t direct in public. Indeed, Newsweek magazine once did a story on him, calling him, “Mr. Straight Talk”. And Lord knows that what’s on his mind seems often to be on his tongue, too.

Well, okay, that’s the way I introduced an OPEN MIND program not really that long ago, in November of 1981. And I went on to say: the point is, this might be my very best shot at His Honor along these lines. For we’re recording this OPEN MIND program just three days after the people of New York City re-elected him by a simply stunning, overwhelming vote. By majority probably large enough o be split down the middle and still satisfy any other candidate. Maybe this is the time then, when winning and losing simply aren’t considerations at all, to ask the mayor what he sees as the future of the American political life.

Well, not long after that, Ed Koch did get back into winning and losing again, started the campaign for the Democratic Party’s nomination for Governor of New York, and by gosh and by golly, he lost. So now he knows first hand that to be a politician means to lose as well as to win. And that’s why I’d like to talk with this most unusual star in our political firmament about what it indeed does mean to be a politician.

Mayor Koch, thanks for joining me today. I wouldn’t otherwise have referred to the loss, except to say that that’s part of the game.

KOCH: And a part of my life now.

HEFFNER: What part of your life? I wanted to ask what it really means to be a politician – we can call you “statesman”, but let’s say politician – to be an office-seeker in this country? What do you have to have? What do you have to have that’s different from others? And what do you not have to have to be a candidate?

KOCH: Well, I think there are as many different kinds of politicians as there are people who run. And each one of us brings something different to the job. I can talk about myself, and then maybe talk about others. First let me talk about myself. I love my job. I happen to think that being in public office is the noblest of professions if it’s done honestly and if it’s done well, and brings you the greatest satisfaction. You will never have a boring day. And I have, as my goal in life, that whatever job I have – and I don’t think I’ll have a job other than mayor, by virtue of the fact that I ran for governor and lost – but…

HEFFNER: Oh, come on now. There’s the next day and the next day and the next day.

KOCH: Yes, there is. But at the moment, let’s say mayor. Is that when 20 years later or 40 years later people look back to my mayoralty – which I know is a good one, a first-rate one, the four years that we’ve come through, and we’re now in the second term – that they would say, “He set new standards”. That’s what I want them to say. I think they would say it. Only time will tell. That’s the satisfaction. That you do something extraordinarily positive that lives on long after you have left the job and indeed have left the earth. The single area where I know that they will say that is the way I’ve changed the judicial selections. They are no longer part of the political process, where as once they were traded in exchange for political obligations and votes. In my administration – and anybody who has passed upon it has said so – we’ve taken the politics out of the selection system, and I appoint only from a list of candidates who are given to me who apply themselves. They need no supporter, apply themselves to the committee. If the committee finds them professionally qualified, I interview them and take the best one. I know that that will live on long after I’m dead, or at least have left politics, because they have a term of ten years, and very rarely are they not reappointed. So they’ll be there for 20 or 30 years.

HEFFNER: All right. With all the enthusiasm you naturally muster, you say that’s one of the pleasures. What are some of the pains off being a politician in this country?

KOCH: Well: A), that you’re misunderstood. It’s understandable.

HEFFNER: What do you mean “misunderstood”?

KOCH: Well, let’s take…

HEFFNER: Do you consider yourself misunderstood?

KOCH: Oh, sure. On occasion. Yeah. I mean, do you think you like seeing either an editorial or a journalist saying, “He’s insensitive”, whatever the hell that means?

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

KOCH: It means something. And it ain’t nice. (Laughter) And what I’m really trying to convey is that people in public office, myself included, we read the papers, we read the opinion-makers. And our skins are as thin or as thick as anybody else’s. And it’s painful, particularly if, when you read it, you know that he person who is writing it isn’t someone who is seeking to expose the truth, but to simply help somebody else at your expense.

HEFFNER: Now wait a minute. Are you talking about those times when you know that the person who is writing it isn’t seeking to expose the truth? Or are you saying that is the nature of journalism?

KOCH: No. I’m saying that the journalists that I have…I distinguish, you know, between journalists and reporters, by the way, for me. The reporter is supposed to write the facts in a way that allows others to draw conclusions. I think that’s the nature of reporting, in its best sense. The journalist is more interested in opinion-making, rather than conveying the facts. In my head, that’s how I distinguish the two.

I have found that reporters overwhelmingly are intellectually honest, and I’ve never met a venal reporter, of any one that I know, in any event. I may disagree, and they don’t always like me, and we have disagreements and so forth. But I’ve never really been bothered as I have been bothered by some journalists.

HEFFNER: And you have distinguished them from the working stiffs at the papers?

KOCH: And the journalists who write for those same papers, but they write columns. “Columnists” is a better word than “journalists” maybe. A columnist. “Here’s my opinion”. That’s the columnist, right? And some of them are brilliant. I mean, but I have found that those, where you will find people, limited in number, but nevertheless find the, who are not interested in the facts, but are interested in getting their opinion imposed on the body politic, or assisting someone else who will do that for them, even when what they’re writing may not necessarily be either accurate, and worse still, false, and they know it to be false.

HEFFNER: Mr. Mayor, do you think that phenomenon is more pronounced today than in the past? Remember, George Washington talked about those infamous scribblers and what they did to him. But it may well be, and you may well think, that in our own time this whole thrust of these commentators has been exacerbated.

KOCH: Well, you see, the problem is we’re not really allowed to talk about it because…

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

KOCH: Well, I’ll tell you what I mean. The columnist has the last word. No matter what you say, if you say it to the columnist, he or she will print it, but then they will have the last word in that column, and it’s unending. You can never, ever successfully, in my judgment, take them on. So most people in political life will not deal with the subject. And I’ll tell you how I deal with the subject. Anybody can come to any press conference I have, whether I like or dislike them, or they like me, dislike me. But I don’t feel I have to be interviewed on a one-on-one basis by someone who I think is intellectually dishonest. What do I mean, “intellectually dishonest?” Well, I’ve had some reporters interview me, and then, because I like to tell them the good and the bad, the whole story, and then let them have balance in their article and give it perspective, and let the reader judge. I have found in some cases those particular journalists will only report the bad, never the good. And after I’ve been through that a couple of times I would say to such a journalist, “You and I will never have an exclusive interview again. You can come to any press conference you want to. Ask me any question you want to. But I want the other reporters to hear what you ask, and I want them to hear my answers. Because you won’t write a balanced article. And that is why the exclusive interview will no longer take place between the two of us.

HEFFNER: Mr. Mayor, when you say, “You will not write a balanced article”, do you feel – again this question – You and I are contemporaries. Do you think when you began in political life there were more of those “yous” who do not write fairly, on a balanced fashion?

KOCH: I honestly am not able to judge it. I have greater experience now. I have met so many more people. I, in any one year, will have given more than 300 interviews to all of the media of an exclusive nature, in a sense. Of a television program or reporters. Not just press conferences. And so I am able to make better judgments in this area. I cannot tell you that that which I’ve said to you in describing the situation existed 20 years ago when I came into politics. I can tell you that 20 years ago I wouldn’t have had the temerity to mention it. Right? But I do now, because there are…You reach the point where you say, “I don’t mind my point of view being given, even if you want to hold it up to scorn. But give the whole point of view, not just that which supports your case in which you are seeking to sock me”.

HEFFNER: You know, I don’t have the abilities, and never would find myself in the position where someone would say, “Why don’t you get into public life”. But I’ve often thought that I wouldn’t subject myself to the same kinds of slings and arrows that you do or that other people in public life. Do you think that it now drives out or prevents from coming into public life good people?

KOCH: Definitely. There are many people who will not enter public life because they see how they are held up to scorn, they are, unfairly in many cases, sometimes fairly, but in many cases unfairly, that their motives are often questioned. And I have found very few venal people in public life. There are some. Percentage wise, less than those in the public sector, in my judgment. There’s people constantly examining what you do. But as your rule, you will find that the media won’t hesitate to convey that whoever they’re talking about‘s got to be a crook. “He’s a crook!” That’s it. You know. Who else do we bring into public life? I happen to think we bring a lot of good people into public life. Well, when a person is subject to that, and he or she goes home — and I have heard these stories – where the kids say, “Daddy, somebody told me you were a crook, in the classroom today”, or words to that effect. I mean, how long are you going to keep a person like that in public life, or how many are you keeping out because of that kind of assault? Now, I’m talking about the unfair ones. Obviously there will be occasions when people should be scorned for the venality. But the attacks, in my judgment, far exceed the truth.

HEFFNER: Of course, what the press generally will say then is that what you are saying would preclude investigated journalism. And that’s not what you’re saying.

KOCH: Not at all. But be careful about it. Be reasonable. Think of the person that you’re holding up to scorn and accuse him of being a crook. Think of that person going home, and if you’re only speculating, then think twice about it. Make sure you have all of the facts. In other words, don’t think of a person in public life as less then human, as without feelings.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s funny. You say, “As less than human”. I though you were going to say as less than you. Because I think basically that’s the assumption, that that kind of person makes. So that’s the cross you have to bear if you’re in public life.

KOCH: Yes, I think so.

HEFFNER: Do you think it’s the only major one?

KOCH: Well, by the way, the benefits far outweigh it. Not the financial benefits. Anybody in high position in public life, mayor, governor, senator, assuming that they’re first-rate, otherwise they wouldn’t have gotten there, they can triple their income in the private sector, at a minimum, with the responsibilities that they have. But there is the benefit which comes from being able to do something you can’t do in the private sector, generally speaking. In the private sector, you amass wealth. Fine and dandy. Nothing wrong with that. But rarely do you leave a major positive mark on life that affects other people in the sense that I’m talking about. In public office you can do that if you’re top-notch and have the desire to do it. And that’s the reward.

HEFFNER: Are you talking about power?

KOCH: Well, power is required in order to accomplish many of these things that we’re talking about. But it is not the sense of satisfaction – at least not for me. Maybe for some sick people it is. (Laughter) That it becomes the use of power itself that gives them the sense of accomplishment – for me it is using whatever powers the office provides to get something done that has this positive impact for the generations to come. That’s not generally available in the private sector. And that’s the lure of public office.

HEFFNER: Mr. Mayor, are you saying that the question of power, for the sake of power, has no role here?

KOCH: No, I didn’t say that. I said that there are some people who are interested in public office for power in and of itself. But this doesn’t happen to be for me or most people that I know. There isn’t any question. It is most important to have the power to accomplish what it is that you want to do. The sickies would be those who simply looked at the power. The people who have what I consider to be the goal that should exist for those in public office, who say, “How do you use this power granted to you by the people of the jurisdiction that you’ve been elected in to accomplish a positive major goal for all of the people that you represent?” The satisfaction has to come from that, not from just the arbitrary use of power.

HEFFNER: Sure, not just. But there must be something to the Hail-to-the-Chief syndrome.

KOCH: Well, I’ll give you a better illustration than Hail to the Chief. Here, Mayor of the City of New York. Most people in town know me. If I walk the streets, go to a movie, get on line, go to a restaurant, get on line, many of the restaurants that I go to where they don’t take reservations. People say hello, and they talk to me. And they talk to me as though I were their brother or their uncle or their friend. Or on occasion they don’t like me, they’ll say something nasty. But they talk to me. And that comes as a result of the fact that as mayor I’ve impacted on their lives in some way. I hope positively. I’m sure some would say negatively. There is a sense of satisfaction there that comes from that. And it is not the sense of satisfaction that maybe a movie star gets, “Gee, look at that movie star”. That’s not what it is. It is the interrelationship. Can I give you just a little illustration?

HEFFNER: Please do. Please.

KOCH: I, after going to an event one evening, actually it was the nuclear freeze, the evening before, when I read a proclamation at some church. And so I then decided I would go to a movie. And I wanted to see “E.T.”, which had just opened. And I went with a friend who had accompanied me to the church and I said, “You know, I can’t get on line because we’ll never get into the theater. So tonight I’m going to go in and I’m going to jump the line”. And I walked down the line, I said hello to everybody, went to the theater ticket window, bought my tickets, walked into the theater. And when I was seated, and about five minutes later, the theater had emptied out and new people come in. And the people sat around me and they asked for my autograph. It’s nice. They talked to me, chatted, and so forth. Then suddenly this young woman, about 30 years of age, walks down the aisle and she’s looking for me. I can tell. And she says, “There you are. There you are. You jumped the line. I bet you didn’t even pay for your tickets”. I said, “I did pay for my tickets. I did. And I got ahead of the line because I haven’t seen a movie for a month. Give me a break”. And people stood up in the theater, about 50 of them. And they said, “Give him a break. Give him a break”.

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

KOCH: Right? Now, wasn’t that nice?

HEFFNER: I wish I could have done it.

KOCH: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Mr. Mayor, aside from getting in to see “E.T.” without standing on line, about the impact of public life upon being a private person, that seems to me sometime as the most horrendous sacrifice – let’s put it that way – that you make.

KOCH: Sure. Yeah. Well, let me tell you how I try to recapture some private moments, which I think is important. I never, with rare exception, take an official event for a Friday night, Saturday night, or Sunday night. I reserve that for myself and for my friends. So, people know that by now. In the beginning they couldn’t believe it. “You mean he doesn’t go out and sit on some dais on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights?” And the answer is yes, I don’t. Now, that permits me the private life and the sense of sanity that comes from the relationships that you have with you old, old friends. I never want to give them up. I like to say to people, you know, I have met thousands of people. Many of them think they’re my friends. But I use the word “friendship” very carefully. Thousands of them are acquaintances. They’re not my friends. I tell people the last friend that I made was about ten years ago, in the sense of a friendship. And that continuing those relationships, perhaps 20 friends and their spouses, 40 people, those are the people I feel most comfortable with and spend my Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings with. All of them at once.

HEFFNER: I can see all over the political map, people sitting down and figuring out, “Have we known him for ten years at least? Are we friends or acquaintances?” But, you know, that’s, in a sense, a positive approach to it. And I was really thinking of something more negative. The fact that you’re always in the spotlight. Maybe not Friday, Saturday and Sunday night. But what you say, what you do…

KOCH: True.

HEFFNER: With no anonymity.

KOCH: And people have said to me, “Because of that, you should be more careful in what you say”. And then they want to abuse me, so they’ll say, “Not shoot form the hip”. The hip. Okay. My response to that is that I can’t change my personality or my style. It’s amazing, with all of the occasions where I have an opportunity to speak in the course of a day and give 300 exclusive interviews in the course of a year, exceeding 15 minutes in time, that I say so few foolish things, you k now. I mean, everyone’s going to say something foolish on occasion. And certainly even if it’s not foolish rue the day that you said it. But on balance, I think I’ve been pretty good in this area.

HEFFNER: That’s a wonderful calculus: “How many foolish things did I say today or this week or this year?”

KOCH: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: You know, just in the few minutes that we have remaining, talking about to be a politician, who, in your estimate, historically, in terms of the contemporary scene, or what, who have been the best politician/statesmen?

KOCH: Well, the two people I admire the most – they’re not heroic figures – but the ones I admire the most were Harry Truman as president and Fiorello LaGuardia as mayor. And I knew neither one of the two. I read about them, and I know that they were ordinary people with special qualifications. I mean, they grew in their jobs, and they never forgot that every single thing that an ordinary person does they do each and every day of did at the time. And those are the people who I think of as real role models.

HEFFNER: Why does this matter of ordinariness enter into your new calculus?

KOCH: Well, I believe that the genius, as opposed to the ordinary – that’s what I really am talking about – the genius generally can’t fight his way out of a paper bag. I mean, the genius is a very special little something that he or she can do. But the broadest spectrum of things that involves you and I each and every day they couldn’t handle. And so what you need is someone in a position of leadership who has the ordinary responses with some special capabilities. There is a distinction.

HEFFNER: I think it was Lord Morley who said of Theodore Roosevelt that he had “the psychology of the mutt”. He sort of vibrated with the way people think.

KOCH: That’s good.

HEFFNER: That’s a quality you admire.

KOCH: That’s a quality I would admire.

HEFFNER: But you, you know, the real question, I guess, for me, is: Are you born with it? Is it makeable? Can we create it? Can we make a politician? Or is a politician a good one?

KOCH: I think that you have to have both. That there is the genetic factor. I think the Irish are the best, the best. I mean, you really have to love them. And the Brogue helps, by the way. It really creates a very special rapport. But in addition to that, you will have to learn. Life is a learning experience. And it’s simplistic to say it, but it is true, you don’t get smarter with experience, but you get wiser. And it is that experience and ultimately if you become wiser that makes you a better politician, better person in public office.

HEFFNER: What did you learn from your defeat in the gubernatorial primary?

KOCH: I learned that I clearly had alienated more people than I thought I had. And I don’t know that I can change that. I will try very hard. Substantively I have no regrets on anything I’ve done in the broad sense of the discussion as mayor. I have regrets about the way I have done it, perhaps.

HEFFNER: Why do you say “alienated”? The Playboy interview? That sort of thing?

KOCH: Oh, I don’t think really the Playboy interview alienated a lot of people. I think it titillated them more than anything. There was nothing really bad about it. If they had only read it. They only read reviews of it. They never read it, for the most part.

No, I think that people resent, in part, my inner security. They say, “What the hell does this guy think, that he knows all his fears?” And I do have a sense of inner security that says decisions have to be made, people elected me to make these decisions, and I’m going to make them. And there are a number of people who resent that willingness to move forward and make the decision.

HEFFNER: Mr. Mayor, in a sense, you’re bigger than life. And that may be one of the things you’re talking about there. Anyway, thank you so much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND. I really appreciate it.

KOCH: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.