Big Think Interview With Ed Koch
Ed Koch was the 105th Mayor of New York City, serving 3 terms, from 1978 to 1989. During his time as Mayor, Koch oversaw the city’s resurgence from a severe recession, helped to develop low-income housing, and created legislation that prohibited discrimination by the government based on sexual orientation in the areas of employment, housing and education, among many other achievements. The author of 8 books, including “Citizen Koch” and “My Fight Against Anti-Semitism,” he hosts a show on Bloomberg Radio, was recently a judge for “The People’s Court,“ and writes columns for a variety of publications. Born in the Bronx, Koch achieved the rank of Sergeant while fighting in World War II, before completing his law degree at NYU. He lives in Manhattan.
Ed Koch: I'm Ed Koch; I was once the Mayor of the City of New York. I served for three terms from 1978 through 1989.
Question: What was growing up like?
Ed Koch: I was born in the Bronx and I lived there for the first seven years of my life. It was **** Park East. We were on the park side. At age seven, because of the Depression, it was 1931, my father had lost his job, and a job was offered to him by my mother's brother if we came to Newark, New Jersey. And so we moved to New Jersey and I lived there for the next 10 years of my life, and then in 1941, we relocated to New York City, in Brooklyn, Ocean Parkway. It was a nice life. We were poor, like all poor people in those days; we didn't know we were poor. And we got along and the areas that I lived in were 100% Jewish, so I thought the whole world was Jewish.
Question: So, you’ve been lucky enough to live in three boroughs?
Ed Koch: I have lived in the Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, and the other two have yet to get me there, but sooner or later, it's possible.
Question: When did you decide to get involved in politics?
Ed Koch: Not actually until I did. I went into the Army in 1943 after attending CCNY for two years. When I came out of the Army, I was 22 years old, I was still living in my parental home and I ultimately went to law school, NYU School of Law, and I became a lawyer in 1949.
In 1956, I moved to Greenwich Village, where I still live, in a different place but in the Village. And to find friends and get acclimated and so forth, I joined the local political club which was then supported Adlai Stevenson and I became their street speaker and supported Adlai in 1956 and again in 1960 when he ran against Ike Eisenhower and was defeated on both occasions. And that was my introduction into politics.
I became very active in the club, The Village Independent Democrats and in 1962, when they were seeking to run against the so-called regular member of the assembly, Bill Passananti, who belonged to Carmine De Sapio's club, he being the County Leader at the time, Carmine. And they couldn't find anybody to run and so I volunteered, and I lost. I was lucky that I lost otherwise I would be in Albany today and that would be a fate worse than death.
So, I ran again the following year, this time against Carmine De Sapio, who as I said, was the County Leader having been defeated in 1961 and running for election again in 1963, it being a two-year term, or two-year election. It was difficult to find someone who would oppose him, I volunteered again and I defeated him in an election where about 9,000 people voted and I won by 41 votes.
Question: Describe your outlook while serving in WWII?
Ed Koch: Well, I don't know if it was there that I decided that even if I was going to die, and obviously I didn't, I'm not afraid of death. Death is a part of life. Most people I have met, particularly Americans, just are so afraid of death. I don't look forward to it. At 85, I know it's just a few years away, but I don't fear it. I believe in the after-life, I believe in reward and punishment; and I hope I'll be rewarded.
I think some of all of that comes from having served in the war. And I think serving in a war and seeing people die also impacts on how you think about other wars. So, I believe that this country has to be defended and there are just wars and certainly World War II was such a just war, but the Viet Nam War was not. And I thought that we shouldn't be in it and I marched in various demonstrations against it. I believed it was wrong and ultimately a huge majority of people in this country thought it was wrong, and they stopped it with their marches.
Question: How did you feel when you were first drafted into the war?
Ed Koch: Well, I think like most soldiers at the time, I served in the European theater of operations and I served in two campaigns, one for Northern France and the other for the Rhineland and I fought in Holland, Belgium and Germany. I saw people killed, I was very frightened and often thought I would probably die in Europe on the battlefield somewhere. But I didn't. I came out alive and I as discharged as a Sergeant and I think that being in a war has an effect on your character and your outlook on life. I don't recommend it, there are certainly other ways to build character, but it's part of who you are and what you are.
Question: How would you advise Obama on Afghanistan?
Ed Koch: Well, I believe Mr. President, that if you don't exercise your authority to get out of Afghanistan, you will: a) suffer an enormous defeat in the Congressional election next year, and may very well go down as a one-term President. I think you made a terrible mistake and I've always believed that when you conclude you’ve made a mistake, correct it if you possibly can, and in this case you can.
Our allies are deserting us. You tout the fact that something like 40 or more countries are allied with us, we have currently 68,000 troops there that are American. I think that the total number of NATO troops from a lot of European countries don't total anything like 68,000 and also, the papers are replete with comments that Canada and the Dutch intend to bring their forces home and that will be the case with a whole host of other countries and even countries that are there don't want to be engaged in combat. They want American troops to do the combat. They would prefer less dangerous work. That's the German troops that are there would prefer less dangerous work. And the French aren't there at all, I don't think, and said they are not coming.
So, we can't depend on the allies of NATO that swore a blood oath and it's one for all and all for one, like the Three Musketeers. And so, they want us to pull the chestnuts of the world out of the fire and we don't have the young men and women to sacrifice for that and we don't have the treasure to spend on that.
Question: Is the war in Afghanistan winnable?
Ed Koch: Well, most people say Alexander the Great couldn't win in Afghanistan and left it. And we know the British certainly left it. And the Russians who were willing to use any kind of mechanism, torture at the very beginning and work your way up ultimately with over 100,000 troops ultimately had to concede defeat and walked out of Afghanistan. There's nothing there worth having.
Question: Are there any circumstances where we should be at war with Afghanistan?
Ed Koch:I believe the current war in Afghanistan and in Iraq – in Afghanistan it’s a war in support of a corrupt leader of his people who has his own family problems. His brother is allegedly very much involved in the drug trade, why should we spending the blood of young American men and women to keep this government that is corrupt in power?
Of course, if they become a threat to us should we leave? And I hope we leave, and do it as quickly as possible; I would be for starting it tomorrow. And we bomb them, and we send in Special Forces. But I don't believe that we should be involved in a land war. And when the President had his speech at West Point, he didn't convince me, and I don't think he convinced a lot of people, some of course he did, that this was a war of necessity. I'm not saying that we shouldn't be involved and protect ourselves, but I don't think it has to be via a land war. And more important than Afghanistan, everybody says, and I agree, is Pakistan. And we don't have troops in Pakistan. We bomb them. And maybe we should bomb them more in the areas where the Taliban and Al Qaeda are situated.
Question: How do you evaluate Obama’s handling of healthcare reform?
Ed Koch: Well, I am for passage of the legislation no matter what shape it comes out of the ultimate debate in the Senate on the basis that it isn't good enough currently, things that are there that I don't agree with, but let's get it passed and then amend it. I don't agree with those who say that people who want to spend their money on what other's call Cadillac insurance instead of buying a Cadillac should be taxed for that. Why should we all be brought down to a common denominator of less than what some of us think we would like to insure ourselves for?
I, for example, have just been through a horrendous hospitalization involving a quadruple bypass and replacement of the aorta valve and I was in the Intensive Care Unit for five weeks because on several occasions the doctors didn't think I would make it because of problems that arose. The ultimate costs of my stay, and I'm not on Medicare because I'm a working person. And if you're on a working basis, your first carrier is your private carrier. So, I don't cost the government money at this point, so far as I know, under Medicare.
My estimated costs of the doctors and the hospital service that I had, I'm told, is probably in excess of a million dollars. Now, if I want to have a million dollars as I have by way of insurance, should I be taxed for that simply because you want to bring in people who don't have any insurance at all? I don't think so. Next time I'll buy a Cadillac.
Question: How do you feel Obama is handling the legislation?
Ed Koch: Well, he's not doing a bad job. His philosophy was to allow the Congress to come up with the different proposals in both the Senate and the House. I don't fall from, on the **** and say, "Oh no, he should have put it together." Why? He doesn't have any greater expertise that I'm aware of than does the chairman of the various committees and the chairman of those committees, like Max Baucus and others.
So, I'm not faulting him. I disagree with some of the things that he has done. For example, the prior President, George W. Bush, in the deal made with the drug companies prohibited Medicare from getting volume discounts on drugs. And my recollection is that our new change president, Barrack Obama was against that. Now he comes into office and he makes an even worse deal with the drug companies in exchange apparently for the drug companies agreeing to support the comprehensive health insurance legislation. The President agrees that the drug companies, the prescription drug company’s participation in paying for all of this will be limited to an aggregate of $80 Billion over a ten year period, or $8 billion a year. Now, it happens that if you’ve got a 30%, which is a very modest discount, it would mean something like $140 billion a year by way of savings, and over a ten year period, instead of $80 billion, it would be a savings of over a trillion dollars. Why did he give that away? Why does he prevent, by law, continuing the George Bush law, Americans from going to Canada, even on the websites or walking across the border, and buying drugs, American drugs made by American companies, offered at 50% discounts. We're not allowed to have the benefit of that. Why?
So there are things that I don't understand and that I am disappointed in Barrack Obama on those issues.
Greenwich Village in the 1960s
Ed Koch: Well, the famous restaurant which regrettably closed early on, a friend moved in with, Louie's in Sheraton Square, where for $1.75 you could have the best veal parmesan ever made in this country, and for a dime, a glass of beer. The Limelight was another restaurant that had a prefixed menu, $1.75, three courses.
I entered the Village about the time that the Village Voice became the leading non-regular newspaper in the country; I don't know how they referred to it. Dan Wolfe, the editor, and Ed Finch, the publisher, were friends of mine and I'm very proud of the fact that they endorsed me for every position I ran for when I ran for Assembly, Congress, District Leader, Mayor, City Council. I was their candidate and I never, ever stopped thanking them.
Question: Coming from the Village, were you ever thought too liberal to represent all of New York?
Ed Koch: Well, yes, undoubtedly there were some who said that. What was interesting was that, my greatest strength was not with the Jews because they didn't think I was liberal enough. You know, everybody – if you’re Italian, your base is Italian, if you're Jewish, your base is Jewish, if you're black, your base is black, and then you build on that base for getting others. But, my base was never Jewish. My base was Italian and Irish.
It was so peculiar. The Jews, when they took polls, 73% of them were for me. This would be for Mayor. Eighty-one percent of the Catholic Italian and Irish were for me because I have always perceived myself as a liberal with sanity. I've never been crazy, and in fact, many liberals would say, "You're not liberal enough." I'd say, "Listen, I believe that what I am for makes common sense and often what you're for does not. You can call it liberal enough, or not liberal enough. I know what it is that I want to see this country be, and apparently a majority of the people who vote think of it the same way as I do. So, I ain't changing."
Question: What were your first thoughts when you were elected mayor?
Ed Koch: Well, I cannot tell you the first thoughts, but I can tell you this. I was very appreciative in every election that I've run in that people gave me a chance. I mean, when I ran for Mayor, there were outstanding people running. You had Mario Cuomo, Bella Absu, Kermin Bedio, Abe Beame, Percy Sutton. Those are five people who were highly regarded in politics in those days. Today, some of them would be perceived to be giants compared with those that are out there.
And I thought to myself, the people gave me the chance. Most people never believed I would win. I'm not in any way obligated to the forces that normally elect the mayor such as the banks or the real estate developers, or the unions, the municipal unions. And so, I'm going to do everything on the merits. I'm one of the few people ever elected who came in without obligations. And that's what I thought at the time. And I try to carry out that philosophy.
Question: What was your biggest challenge upon becoming mayor?
Ed Koch: Well, I believe that one of the great challenges was taking on the municipal unions who had enormous power and who exercised that power. It was in 1980 when the Transit Union engaged in an illegal strike, the Public employees are not allowed to strike in New York City and state. It’s something called the Taylor law which had punitive measures if they engage in an illegal strike. Oftentimes, the Mayor or the Governor of a particular city is reluctant to alienate the municipal union so they often don't seek to take those penalties after the strike is over. Not me. I said, “You will pay. We'll take every penalty possible and impose it on you that the law permits.” And in effect, I broke the strike. And I’m proud of it. I happen to be supportive of unions and believe that people should be unionized. And it's a shock and wrong that about 13% of American labor is unionized. Once it was a high of about 35%.
But I don't believe that people who are barred from union strikes so to speak, or striking should be in anyway coddled. They have violated the law; there are penalties. I don't think the penalties are enough. I'd have even greater penalties. And as a result of my attitude in exercising the powers that I did have, I caused the union to regret striking and they didn't strike for, I don't know maybe 20 years or so, then they engaged in another illegal strike, but that was somebody else’s' problem, not mine.
Question: Did you encounter opposition while building affordable housing?
Ed Koch: Actually, there was not opposition that I can recall. I decided that the city would have to go into the housing business simply because the housing normally built by the federal government and to some extent by the state government was not being built. The federal government was out of the housing business, the state government very little in the housing business. And so I decided that we would have to do something that city's rarely, if ever, did. And what we did was, was to use capital funds, actually a program that spent $5.1 billion. Over a ten-year period to build low, moderate housing at affordable rents. And we did it. In fact, the housing numbers are extraordinary. We built 250,000 housing units in my administration. A hundred thousand were new units. New in the sense of either actually really new, or rehabilitating an abandoned apartment house, of which there were many in the city at that time and building in effect, a new apartment. A new apartment, to my recollection, a two-bedroom apartment cost $100,000 to build. To build. And you could not expect low, moderate income people to pay sufficient rent to carry all the charges. So, they all had to be subsidized. But people have to have a place to live. And I'm very proud of that program. We really did a wonderful job.
Question: What do you consider your greatest accomplishments as mayor?
Ed Koch: Well, these are the ones that are generally signed and assessed as being the best of our administration. One, and Senator Patrick Monahan said I gave the people of the city back their morale which had been taken away from them because they were all so ashamed of what Lindsey and Beame and others had done to bring us to our knees financially. I balanced the budget. I created this extraordinary housing program.
I also removed from politics the selection of Criminal Court and Family Court Judges. They normally being selected by the Mayor of the City of New York. In the past, if a Mayor wanted to be perceived as progressive, he would after selecting his candidate for Criminal Court or Family Court then turn it over to a friendly committee for an opinion as to whether or not they were qualified and they thought that that was merit. That's not merit. Merit selection system is what I did. I had a committee, which everyone said was exceptional, and more than half were selected by the two presiding justices of the two appellate divisions in the City of New York, and I appointed the other less than half, including the Deans of Fordham, NYU, and Columbia, to find candidates and submit three candidates to me for every vacant position with me being pledged not to pick anyone who wasn't part of the three. If I didn't consider the three adequate, I could tell them to come in with three more. But they picked the candidates, not me. I picked one of the three for final selection.
So, I'm very proud of all of those things. And then I also I'm very proud, equally proud of having as the fourth executive order of my administration ordered that there be no discrimination based on sexual orientation by the city government in housing and jobs and education. That had never been done before.
And then, in 1986, I got the City Council, which was required, to impose similar restrictions on the private sector, the businesses in the City of New York. The executive order only applied to the government. The 86th law, which I initiated, applied to the whole city economy. I also initiated the first anti-smoking law in restaurants in big cities and I created the financial campaign board which provides to this day, limitations on how much you can spend on an election and subsidies for those who are running based on the amounts they raised privately in the private sector, the City gives them additional money so as to remove the power of money, so to speak in preventing people from running.
Question: How did you justify funding the arts in a recession?
Ed Koch: I mean, if you had to justify it, all you had to say to them is, men and women do not live by bread alone. And so what I did that is remembered, is to take a congressional item of legislation which provided that a certain percentage of the capital assigned to build a building with city funds, a certain percentage should be used for artwork; a percent for art **** is what it was called. It's still in effect. It was a wonderful item of legislation because it in effect mandated in both civic buildings and other buildings that there be artwork paid for by the city government
Question: How did you enact one of the country’s first city ordinances that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation?
Ed Koch: Well, it was interesting. When the City Council had the bill in 1986, there was doubt that it could pass because there were people who said they would not vote for it. And what I did was, I called people in, Democrats and Republicans, and I said, "If you're opponent in the primary or the general, irrespective of whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, uses your vote for the bill against you, I will support you in your primary and in your general election. And I have no doubt that as a result of that assurance on my part, when people were somewhat afraid, in those days it was even more difficult than today, we ultimately got a majority. I think a majority was a majority of four. The then Speaker of the City Council, Peter Vallone, voted against the bill. He had made a commitment to me when he was running for Speaker that even though he might not vote for the bill, I did not ask him to vote for it, he would let it be brought to the floor. And that was in exchange for my support for his candidacy at the time for, in effect, Majority Leader, or Speaker, or whatever they called it then in those days. And it was passed.
Question: What are your thoughts on the New York State Senate’s recent dismissal of the same-sex marriage bill?
Ed Koch: Now, one also has to understand, this is a question of education. You can't necessarily vilify the opponents of the legislation who may be doing it as a matter of their religious conscience. You have to educate them bring them in, talk to them, and also use the power of the ballot to substitute someone who is more favorable to your point of view if they decline to go your way. But, they're not evil simply because they voted, no. Remember, the high point for those that believe in gay marriage, or the right of gay marriage for same sex couples, was seven states, and then two states got off that boat in California by way of a referendum where the people voted to rescind their support for that legislation, and Maine where a court rescinded their ability to have same sex marriages. It's a matter of education; it's a matter of politics in terms of supporting people who have your point of view and opposing people who don't
Question: Are there any trends in politics now that disturb you?
Ed Koch: Things have changed. When I was in the Congress, I would have dinner every night because I didn't have a family and there were other members of the Congress who didn't have their families there. And we went out and had dinner. Today, I'm told, it's a rarity to have people who are of different parties, that is to say, Democrats having dinner with Republicans and visa versa. And that's bad. That's very, very bad. I mean the idea that politics have taken such hold that it bars friendships.
Question: Is the current recession worse than the one that hit New York in the 1970s?
Ed Koch: Well, I think it's worse today than it was then and the reasons are very simple. We were then the only city asking for special help that I can recall from the Congress, from the state legislature. Whereas today, almost every city in America has the financial problems that we do on a lesser scale, and some may be on a higher scale. So, I believe that the current Mayor, Mike Bloomberg, is doing a magnificent job, and has problems that are greater than mine.
Question: What does New York mean to you?
Ed Koch: I am very proud of the fact that I have been on occasion referred to as the quintessential New Yorker. Why? I don't really know, except I do have a sense of humor and self-deprecating and that may undoubtedly contribute to it.
I'm proud of being a New Yorker. I'm one of the few, or I should say less than 50% of the people who live here, who was born here. More than 50% came here. And I always make it a point that you don't have to be born here to be a New Yorker. If you've lived here for six months and you walk faster and talk faster and think faster, you're a New Yorker.
But it is special and I believe that it is special because we have the sons and daughters of every state in the union and they come her to make it, of every independent country in the world come her to make it. And it is that energy, energy that distinguishes us from other places.
Question: Who are your heroes?
Ed Koch: I'm really not someone whose life has been guided by mythical or real heroes, or people that I sought to emulate. We all, who are Mayors of New York City, refer constantly to LaGuardia. Well, he's probably a myth. But we all say we want to come close to LaGuardia because he – it’s a terrific myth.
Question: How often do you go to Chinatown?
Ed Koch: Well, I used to go more often when I was at City Hall; it was only about four or five blocks away. So, now would be less than that. I go probably six times a year, maybe more. And I love Peking Duck.
What's interesting is, after I had my quadruple bypass and got out of the hospital, I lost a lot of weight in the hospital, about 26 pounds. The doctors said, you can eat anything you want, no diet restrictions until you gain back 10 pounds. When you gain back 10, then I'll put you on some restrictions. Well, I still haven't gained back the 10. I'm close to it. And so I can eat anything I want, and I do, I have Peking Duck, and ice cream are two of the items I love the best.
Question: What keeps you up at night?
Ed Koch: No. I don't -- there are a couple of nights that I am sleepless, but I think that's more medical than anything else. Certainly not because I'm worried; but I do get up at night. I keep a pad on my night table and my mind, like the minds of most people, functions 24 hours a day and your mind is working out solutions to problems that confront you in the course of the day and suddenly you are aware of the fact that a phrase you’ve been thinking of to add to one of your letters – I love writing letters, is perfect and you just thought of it and you know that you won't remember it when you wake up. So, you fight yourself awake, that's at least what I do because the body doesn't want to get up, it wants to sleep. And it beguiles you, and it says, "you'll remember it in the morning." And my response to it always is, "No, I won't." And I fight until I open my eyes. And then I write the phrase down, and then I go to sleep.
Question: What is your biggest regret as mayor?
Ed Koch: Well, I would say every Mayor before me, and myself included was told by all the experts that a hospital located in Harlem which did not provide very good medical care should be closed, that it was not possible to remedy it for a number of reasons, one of which was that the doctors there did not want to rotate through a teaching hospital because they wanted to keep their jurisdictions. That Hospital, called Sydenham had been opened during a period when black doctors were not welcome at many white-dominated hospitals and so they opened their own hospital, but not providing very good care for a whole host of reasons.
Every Mayor before me had backed off because of threats of rioting and citizen anger. I said, no, I'm going to do what is right for the people of Harlem and every other district in this city and provide good medical care where I can. We're going to close it and put in clinics; and we closed it.
I think we saved $9 million. It was the highest cost hospital with the worst outcomes according to the Budget Director at the time. And the people were very angry. And on reflection, even though I was praised for being courageous about it and doing the right thing. It was the wrong thing. We saved $9 million. So what. In those days, even $9 million was relatively small sum in terms of government expenditures. I didn't recognize the psychological impact of closing Sydenham, the pain. And so, I've told people when they've asked me questions similar to yours, that I regret having closed that. But it's done.
Question: Was it a mistake to run for a fourth term?
Ed Koch: Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense that I now believe three terms is adequate and should be the max. I think after that your energy is drained.
No, in that I would have done a very good job even with that caveat and as I said, after I lost to David Dinkins won and then people came through in regret of having thrown me out I said, part jokily and part seriously. When people said, "Oh, Mayor, you must run again." I said, "No, people threw me out and now the people must be punished." So, those are my feelings.
Recorded on: December 3, 2009
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