Edward I. Koch

Urban Leadership

VTR Date: February 12, 1980

Guest: Koch, Edward I.


February 12, 1980
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Mayor Ed Koch
Title: “Urban Leadership”

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. My guest today is Ed Koch, His Honor, perhaps the most different, the most off-beat mayor of New York since Fiorello LaGuardia.

I’m not going to ask him the usual questions about today’s crises in our town. But since he is so outspoken, so thoughtful, so involved in the very zeitgeist of urban America, and contemporary America is so largely urban, I’m going to ask him questions about the style and qualities of leadership that perhaps could best help Americans, both to realize the promise of urban life, and to diminish what Lincoln Steffans once called “the shame of the cities”.

Mayor Koch, I’m delighted that you joined me today. I wanted to start off by indicating that this is the day of full disclosure, and so I ought to indicate to our viewers that four years before you actually ran for mayor, I had gathered a group of friends to introduce Congressman Ed Koch, to gain their support for your mayoral ambitions. That didn’t work, but four years later you did become mayor, and I’m glad.

And I did have the distinct impression, when I interviewed you and the other candidates on television during the actual mayoral race, that you weren’t at all happy when I probed rather persistently into the death penalty/capital punishment plank of your campaign. And since the media plays such an important role in the development of political leadership today, I wonder if I could first inquire about your sense of how that role should be. I know it’s a tough question, put quite that way, for it’s hard to separate from our sorrow and anger about yesterday’s murder of another New York policeman, one you knew. But I wonder if I could ask you what you feel, in interpreting for Americans, the role of the chief executive in an urban area, what the role of the press is, and what you think it should be.

KOCH: First of all, I would take exception to your thought that I was uncomfortable with your questioning me on my position on the death penalty. What I was perhaps uncomfortable with is the feeling of those who are opposed to the death penalty – I’m not talking about yourself, because I don’t know what your view is on that – that anyone who is for the death penalty is somehow or other immoral, and that is what I resist.

I happen to be fore the death penalty, and have been for it since 1970, when I was running for Congress – for re-election – and expressed it publicly, and am today for that as an option for cases of premeditated, willful murder, particularly the murder of a police officer.

Now, what leadership requires in this area. I believe that the public quite correctly wants greater penalties in a whole host of areas as they relate to crime and criminal activity. And I think the public is right. When you look at the number of felonies that are committed, and the number of those felons who are actually apprehended, and then the still infinitesimal number of those who are tired, convicted and actually go to jail, it’s appalling,. And the public knows that.

Therefore, I do believe that the feeling of the public that the balance is out of whack is correct, and that more concern has to be exhibited for society, while never denigrating the rights of the individual defendant.

HEFFNER: I really wanted to go onto you view of the media, but on the question of capital punishment, I gather you’re setting aside the possibility of locking people up and throwing away the key as an alternative.

KOCH: Never happens. It never happens. They talk about that. The people who are opposed to the death penalty say life imprisonment. It never happens. The guy always turns out to be the Birdman of Alcatraz, who you begin to like, or ultimately, you have the Umbrella Man, who was supposed to be there forever, and who ultimately got out, and then condemned society for keeping him there so long.

Now, in terms of the media, to go back to that.

I think that the media can’t be faulted in its positions – I mean, it depends on what you’re talking about. There are papers that are very tough, there are other papers that are not so tough, in the way they perceive the criminal activity and what should be done there. So, I don’t have any point of view which would be critical of the media on the subject of crime.

HEFFNER: Alright. Let’s move away from the subject of crime and think about your posture as a leader in terms of the – of the role of the media themselves. I remember some years ago, James Reston did a piece on Richard Nixon, and he said – he titled it, “It’s What’s up Front that Counts”. And he said that Nixon wanted the press basically simply to report what political leaders had said, not to go behind the returns, not to analyze them. And I wonder how you feel about that. Do you feel your potential for exercising leadership is at all diminished by the insistence upon going behind the returns?

KOCH: No, not at all. I think that I’m rather lucky in a way, as the mayor of the city of New York. This is the communications capital, this is the press capital, even to a greater degree than is Washington, in my judgment. And so what is happening here in the city, what is happening at City Hall, is extremely well covered. And all that I can ever ask for, and I believe I have had that from the press, is that they give us fair coverage. They don’t always agree. I get criticized, quite correctly sometimes. I even agree with them after I’ve looked at what I’ve done in retrospect. But sometimes, I think, not correctly, or I think the point of view may be in error, but I never disagree with the fact that that’s the nature of our media. They play an enormously positive job in getting a message across; and I cannot fault them in terms of the way they have looked at our administration and it hasn’t in any way limited my ability to exercise leadership. Indeed it’s been useful, because it’s given me an opportunity to project my point of view.

HEFFNER: You’re pretty good at that.

KOCH: I try.

HEFFNER: You’re a very upfront guy. When I read about you in the normal course of events, and when I prepared for this program, I find that that quality is referred to again and again, your capacity to be upfront. Do you think that’s a secret, a key to leadership at this time?

KOCH: Yes, and it is not something that I’ve acquired. I’ve always, this is not arrogance; I’ve always said exactly what was on my mind. I will never get ulcers. And I have always believed that when you do that, if you talk with people as equals never pandering to them – when I talk to a child for example, I talk to that child obviously in the language of that child, that she or he can understand what I’m saying, but as an equal in the sense of never pandering. Now even more so with an adult. And I’m going to say to you that it’s my strength, but it also causes a good deal of vitriolic spleen to be vented upon me by those who don’t want that.

HEFFNER: What do you mean they don’t want it?

KOCH: Well, I must say there are lots of people who would prefer that I have a bedside manner. They will say, “You shouldn’t be so straightforward”. Now maybe they don’t use the line straightforward – so direct. “A mayor should be quiet and be a healer and listen and not irritate”. Well I think you can be a healer and listen and also irritate. There’s nothing wrong, if you believe that what you’re saying should be said and even if it will irritate, so be it. Now I want to emphasize that I think it’s a plus, not a minus when people say, “Well, is it worth it?” Yes. Or I wouldn’t do what I’m doing. I wouldn’t be the Mayor if I couldn’t do it in the way that I’m doing it. I really wouldn’t – I wouldn’t do anything in public office if it couldn’t fully permit me to express myself. But I also know it is a strength and has made it possible for me to encourage people to do tough things that are necessary to get the city moving. Other mayors didn’t do it. They pandered, or they stroked and brought the City close to the edge of bankruptcy. I believe that what I’m doing is healthy for the City.

HEFFNER: Let me ask about that. You say other mayors pandered and stroked. Presidents do that too and we’ve frequently believed that that’s what they must do. Are you under the impression that perhaps there is a different quality of leadership required on the Municipal level?

KOCH: Yes, I don’t think a President can do what a Mayor can do in the openness and the directness that a mayor can do and should do; and when he or she does it, it will be acceptable. Presidents deal in a more ethereal word and are much more removed from direct contact with people. Now the reason I can be direct is I’m talking directly to another human being. When the President talks to people, simply because of a position of the President, it’s almost a fatherlike figure. The mayor is not a fatherlike figure. The mayor is another human being, the President is more. But on the other hand, I also think that the directness, not to the same extent, is required if you want to encourage your people. The most direct president that I can remember in my years here, would be Harry Truman. And while he was the President, he was not accorded that status that he’d accorded today. But when we look back on what he did and what he said, we say he was a giant. Most people would in my judgment. You do.

HEFFNER: Yes, I do. I gathered from reading somewhere, perhaps in the New Yorker profile of you that in your readings, you’d prefer Merle Miller’s – you used as an example Merle Miller’s book on Harry Truman.

KOCH: Plain speaking.

HEFFNER: So Truman was a figure you sought to emulate.

KOCH: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: Do you think that Harry Truman’s kind of directness – you’ve referred to it – would work today, 1980?

KOCH: Well every era is different. If you’re now talking about the presidency, I would say probably – I don’t want today…probably not. I don’t know. I really don’t know. It’s whether or not you have the ability to carry it off. You have to be true to yourself. You cannot be something that you are not and have people respect you and respond to you. Harry Truman was a bona fide human being who said what was on his mind, and you knew it was not posturing. Someone else, unless they had that spirit characterability and it was native to them, couldn’t carry it off. So that’s the only answer I can give on that.

HEFFNER: You know in this New Yorker profile, it says, “Koch prides himself on a lack of guile by which he means he says that he doesn’t employ duplicity or artifice. But he adds, ‘I want to make it clear, I’m not Billy Budd. Billy Budd was a schmuck’ “. What did you mean?

KOCH: Yes. Well what I meant was – I know exactly what I’m doing. And I am not someone who walks in and thinks that everybody is absolutely good or absolutely bad, but rather that there are shades. And I am not naïve, I’m relatively sophisticated. I mean how else can you live in the City? If you didn’t have relatively a sophisticated – So that is what I intended to convey. I mean I’m not wearing my heart on my sleeve. I am simply saying, “I understand what has to be done. This is the way I perceive it. And I’m going to tell it to you directly”. Billy Budd was a different kind of person. Billy Budd was someone who would be the person that you would take advantage of if you were in that business so to speak. I don‘t let people take advantage of me.

HEFFNER: I’ve never heard anybody say that, that they take advantage of you, but you know, one question — that reminds me of a question that I suppose should be asked. What do you regret in your Mayoral position thus far? Is that a fair question?

KOCH: It’s a fair question. I don’t know that I can respond to it. I don’t know that I can respond to it. The two questions that come up that are difficult to respond to are 1) What do you regret? Or 2) What did you do that you would do over? They’re somewhat alike in content. I honestly don’t know. I’m really not someone who can go back and say I would do it differently because – the probabilities are I would do whatever I’ve done almost the same. I mean if something happened and in retrospect you can go back and change it and have it come out better, you’d have to be a dummy not to do that. But it’s hard for me to go over the two-year period and we’ve had failures, but I think more successes than failures – to go back and look at those failures. I’m going to let others do that.

HEFFNER: A question I’ve asked frequently of others – maybe not in this context. At the end, what do you want them to say about you? Fair question?

KOCH: That’s a good question. I want people to say at the end of the term or terms that I serve…I hope to be here for 12 years. But if I’m not it’s okay…That he was the best mayor since LaGuardia. That would be the greatest accolade that I could ever receive.

HEFFNER: You’re a little more reticent about the three terms than I’ve read you. You’ve always said, “I’m going to be here for three terms”.

KOCH: Yes. Yes, there was a nuance there that you quite correctly perceived.


KOCH: Not tired; nor do I feel sorry for myself. Occasionally I get moments – well, it’s not been the best of all days. And you lose a certain amount of energy. But what I’ve decided is that, with all of the attacks made upon me – and I’m not feeling sorry for myself because I would say that overwhelmingly people have supported what I’m doing, but you don’t hear from them as much as you do from those who don’t like what you’re doing – someone who likes what you’re doing doesn’t send a letter; someone who dislikes what you’re doing sends two letters! So, that occasionally weighs upon me.

And so I’ve come to the conclusion that I want to do everything but if at the end of the four-year period, people say, you know, it’s just too tough what he asks us to do; there is so much going on, we’d rather have a little more quiet (Laughs) – that will be okay with me.

HEFFNER: You mean you’d let us do that to ourselves?

KOCH: (Laughs) It’s nice to put it that way.

HEFFNER: Take the easy way out? Seriously. That’s what you’re talking about.

KOCH: I am going to do everything I have to do. I’m never going to be deterred by political or physical threats – and both have been applied to me. (Laughs) And yet, and I want to be the mayor for twelve years, because I think it takes that long to turn the city around. Everything gets done so slowly. I have an enormous amount of energy. But nevertheless, I sometimes feel as though I were stepping in glue, and I think something’s been done, and three months later, I’ll go back and it hasn’t been done; people are still thinking about it and I’ve gone onto something new, hoping that it had already taken place, and I’ve got to keep pushing. So that sometimes wears you down.

And then I also – I’ll tell you a little story. I hate going to formal dinners. In fact, I make a point of not doing it. I will go to the cocktail hour, the hour before, and then leave when dinner is served because it drains you of your energy. And yet, you have to go to some. Some. And the other day, I went to one of the dinners that I had to go to, as a matter of obligation. I’m not faulting anybody, there are certain things you have to do by way of obligation, and I would assume and fulfill my obligations. And a good friend came over, and he saw that I was sort of a little distressed because I was so bored at the dinner. He came over, and he said, “I have to tell you what my mother told me”, he said. This is an old friend. He said, “My mother told me that everybody has a nashuma”. A nashuma is a spirit – it’s your energy, it’s your spirit, it’s your soul. God knows what else goes into your nashuma, which is a Yiddish word. And he said, “People are constantly picking off a little bit of that nashuma from everybody. And you have to reserve it, because that’s your energy”. And I thought, yes, that’s very smart.

HEFFNER: Mothers do have a habit of saying very smart things like that.

KOCH: (Laughs) That’s very smart. And it is that constant drain on your energy that you have to make sure doesn’t deplete you.

HEFFNER: Do you think in 12 years it can, or could be turned around?

KOCH: Yes.

HEFFNER: This city? Any urban – or this urban area?

KOCH: Yes. Yes. This is an extraordinary city. Wherever I go, people will say, “Gee, what vitality the city has! What energy it has!” And it does. And that comes from the fact that people who live here, are born here, or in most cases coming here from 49 other states and the rest of the world, and it is that which makes it special. I have a special honor, only 104 other people have had the job that I currently have. So it’s – it’s remarkable. And I want to use it to make this a better city that it was when people elected me to be the Mayor of it. I think I’m doing it. I mean, to tell you the God’s honest truth, I believe I have changed City Hall. I believe that people in the city know that there are no sweetheart deals being made; that everything is done on the merits; that when people are retained to work at city government, where I can appoint them, it’s not done in a political way. Hard, I know, for some people to accept. But go out and ask those who, in the past, put people on the payroll. I don’t put people on the payroll; I say to commissioners, “You hire and fire anybody you want. Don’t call me when you fire somebody because I’m going to hold you responsible for doing a good job, and if you don’t do a good job, I’m going to fire you. Therefore, I don’t want you to be given the people, because I’m holding you responsible. Go out and hire them yourself”. That’s not patronage. Maybe he’s engaging in patronage, but I’m holding him responsible.

I’ve taken the judiciary out of the political process. In the past, mayors appointed judges as a result of political obligations. We were lucky when they appointed good ones, and there were some good ones, notwithstanding the political aspect. Today, I’ve appointed 37 Criminal Court and Family Court judges. I don’t think I knew the names of thirty of them. That is to say, of 30 or more of the 37 that I appointed, I have never met, never heard of, but came through committees and I appointed them because they were allegedly the best, based on their prior history and what people said about them. Some of them are going to turn out to be clinkers, but on the merits, they were appointed. That didn’t exist before. And the other five or six, I knew their names, but they came out of this panel system in the same way. That’s tremendous. That’s an enormous change.

HEFFNER: Mayor Koch, one of the major questions that faces any urban area today has to do with race relations. And in this profile, the author had had access to your oral memoirs up at Columbia, said, “Koch reveals his innermost feelings and fears about race relations…You wrote, “The Black community is very anti-Semitic. I don’t care what the American Jewish Congress or the B’nai B’rith will issue by way of polls showing that the Black community is not; I think that is pure bull. They’d like to believe that. My experience with Blacks is that they’re basically anti-Semitic. Now, I want to be fair about it. I think Whites are basically anti-Black. But the difference is, it is recognized as morally reprehensible, something you have to control”. Have you changed your mind since you wrote that in those – spoke those words at Columbia?

KOCH: Well, those were spoken in 1974 and 1975, unedited, into a tape machine, for Columbia University. And, in retrospect, I would change the language, and edit it not for the purposes of suppressing anything, but to give it a more clear-cut definition.

HEFFNER: What would you say today?

KOCH: What I would say today is not that most Blacks are anti-Semitic, because I haven’t met most Blacks. But many of their people who are in leadership positions that I have met – many, not most – are – have evidenced anti-Semitism. The best illustration of that would be the people who went with Jesse Jackson, and gave their accolades to Arafat, and Joseah Williams, one of the people who went with Jesse Jackson, when going to Libya and giving the Martin Luther King, Jr., Medal – imagine that? – That saint would turn over in his grave, I suspect, were he to know about it – to Khaddafi. That is what I had reference to.

HEFFNER: But what would you say about the other side of the equation, “…now I want to be fair about it. I think Whites are basically anti-Black”. There, you know a little more.

KOCH: I would say that there is a lot of racism in this country on both sides. I don’t think it would be responsible, because I can’t say it as a matter of knowledge, that most on either side. Lots of whites are anti-Black. And everybody knows that. And lost of Blacks are anti-White, and in may cases, anti-Semitic.

But I would have refined that language, had I been given the opportunity to edit it in the way that I’ve just suggested to you.

HEFFNER: Mr. Mayor, we have just a minute or two left. I would ask this question having to do with an editorial in the New York Times recently about the ex-Congressman and the Mayor, in which they applauded you for giving a lesson in civics to Congress, really. Is it true that when you’re sitting there in Washington, you just don’t have the faintest idea of what the problems are here in the cities?

KOCH: Well, you have an idea of the problems, but you don’t have an idea of the expense. And I now call myself on occasion Mayor Culpa, having voted for programs that sounded good and are good, but require an extraordinary expenditure. And I voted for them as a Congressman without voting for the funds to make them possible to come true, and imposed the obligation on cities that don’t have the funds to executive the Congressional mandates.

HEFFNER: Do you think cities are going to survive with this problem of money, money, money?

KOCH: Oh, I do believe that there is an enormous change now, that Congress is getting the message, and that hey will either provide the funds or not require cities to do the things that they heretofore directed us to do.

I also believe that things are getting better, not worse.

HEFFNER: That’s the best way to end any program and I appreciate your joining me today, Mayor Koch. Thanks so much.

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”.


HEFFNER: This is Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. We would like to know your ideas and your opinions about the subject we discussed. Please send your comments to me, in care of this station.