Ed Koch Interview: Famous New York City Mayor on Life and Politics
Image attributed to Ed Koch
Bronx native Edward Irving Koch was born on December 12, 1924. His father was a furrier, and during the Great Depression, moved the family to Newark, New Jersey. After attending City College of New York, Koch served in the United States Army in 1943 with the 104th Infantry Division and was honorably discharged with the rank of Sergeant in 1946.
Koch has had a political career spanning over 25 years beginning with being elected as the Democratic Party district leader of Greenwich Village in 1963, then serving on the New York City Council in 1965, became a Democratic U.S. Congressman for 9 years, and was elected the 105th Mayor of New York City for three terms from 1978-1989.
"I probably have another 3 to 5 years of life but I’m not afraid of death. Americans are afraid of death, regrettably. I am not."
Following his tenure as mayor, Koch became a law partner in the firm of Robinson, Silverman, Pearce, Aronsohn, and Berman LLP (now Bryan Cave LLP) and became a commentator on politics, as well as reviewing movies for radio, television, and newspapers. He also became the judge on The People’s Court for two years, following the retirement of Judge Wapner.
Koch has written numerous books including Ed Koch on Everything: Movies, Politics, Personalities, Food, and Other Stuff, Giuliani: Nasty Man, New York: A State of Mind, I’m Not Done Yet!, Buzz: How to Create It and Win With It, and a children’s book entitled Eddie, Harold’s Little Brother.
The former mayor is a lifelong bachelor and has repeatedly refused comment on his sexual preferences, writing a few years ago, “What do I care? I’m 73 years old. I find it fascinating that people are interested in my sex life at this age. But, as I say in my book, my answer to questions on this subject is simply 'fuck off.' There have to be some private matters left.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Mr. Koch, how did you get started in politics?
Ed Koch: In 1956 I moved to Greenwich Village and there was an election going on. It was Adlai Stevenson who was running as a Democratic candidate and Eisenhower was running as the Republican candidate for president.
I supported Adlai Stevenson with a local club that became known as the Village Independent Democrats. They began their support of Stevenson because Carmine DeSapio, who was the local leader and also the county leader of the Democratic Party in Manhattan, declined to support Adlai Stevenson because he was too liberal.
Ultimately the Village Independent Democrats asked me to be a candidate against Carmine DeSapio who had been beaten earlier in 1961 by one of our candidates and who was seeking to come back. I defeated DeSapio in 1963 and that started my political career.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have said you were a “liberal with sanity.” What does that mean?
Ed Koch: I’m proud of that expression. That was a description of myself in 1973. It came about because John Lindsay was seeking to impose a housing complex of 4,500 people on welfare and insert it into a community of small homes in Forest Hills and Queens.
The liberals all said, “No matter how big, you have to be for public housing no matter where.” I said, “No, it’s got to be responsible.” I described that as my Rubicon when I broke with the radicals. While I’ve never given up my liberal philosophy, I’m not an ideologue. I believe that every issue has to be decided on its own merits.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What would you say is your legacy as mayor of New York City?
Ed Koch: My legacy as mayor (as most people have written about it) point to the following:
1 – I gave people back their sense of pride being New Yorkers, which they had lost as a result of the failures of prior mayors who put us in the position of being on the edge of bankruptcy.
2 – I restored fiscal stability to the city and a balanced budget for the first time in 15 years.
3 – I created a city financial housing programs that built 150,000 new apartments and restored another 100,000 apartments … and all with city monies.
4 – I removed politics from the system of judges. The mayor of the city of New York appoints criminal court judges and family court judges. I appointed 150 such judges in 12 years and I removed any political involvement. Committees sort out the candidates and present them to the mayor, giving the mayor 3 candidates for each position. That procedure was carried on by my successors and is still in effect today under Mayor Bloomberg.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve said that the United States has become a laughingstock, losing its will to stand up to the bullies of the world.
Ed Koch: What is meant by that is that nobody thinks we’re serious. The major fight that we have, in my opinion, is the conflict of Islamic terrorism that wants to destroy western civilization. I thought George Bush was the one person in the election that understood it, whereas the democratic candidate, John Kerry, did not and didn’t have the same resolution. I believe today when President Obama talks about Iran and preventing it from acquiring a nuclear bomb … well, we have not been very successful in our efforts.
If you look at North Korea that has the nuclear bomb, we have not been very successful in our efforts to control that. At one time the world was actually at peace because the Americans imposed peace. The world no longer believes that when the president says something he is going to follow through.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You supported Obama in the last election.
Ed Koch: Yes, he asked me to campaign for him in Florida, which I did, but I’m quite disappointed as many others are in his inability to stand up to Islamic terrorism. His position is he’s simply trying to get their cooperation, but I think most people realize that this is a battle not with all Muslims and not with the Muslim religion. It is with fanatical Muslims who believe they will ultimately defeat the west and reestablish the Muslim code of fate. There is one religious leader in charge of all the countries including Spain, across North Africa, across Asia to Indonesia, to include 1,400,000,000 Muslims under one rule.
I think this battle will go on for the next 50 years probably and the question I have is whether we in the west who love life will be able to defeat the fanatical fundamentalist Islamic terrorists who love death and martyrdom.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve recently written about Helen Thomas.
Ed Koch: Well, Helen Thomas said in one of her moments that the Jews should get out of, what she referred to as Palestine, and go back to their homelands in Germany, Poland, and the United States. She knew undoubtedly, as most people do, that Jews have lived in Israel for more than 3,000 years. There were always Jews living there even after they were sold into slavery by Nebakanezer. They returned to Israel even though he Romans burned Jerusalem in 70 AD. They never left it and the ones who did returned in large numbers. But, there were always Jews who remained in Israel.
So, when she tried to convey that the Jewish people have no ties with Israel, it caused consternation because she occupies Seat One in the Washington Presidential Pressroom. Even the Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, thought what Helen said was outrageous. Her employer (Hearst Newspapers) was not happy with her, and I called upon her to resign, as did many others.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): She did apologize.
Ed Koch: Her apology was ridiculous. Her apology said that she really meant that the Jews and the Arabs should come together in a two-state solution in what she calls Palestine and that was in direct conflict with what she said.
So, you know, just simply to apologize … a true apology would be to say, “I didn’t know what I was talking about. I now have looked at the facts and I’ve come to a different conclusion.” But, to convey that she always had the idea of Jews and Arabs living in the area of Palestine and Israel is just blatantly not true.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you think that President Bush dropped the ball by not capturing Osama Bin Laden after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001?
Ed Koch: Well, I don’t know about dropping the ball, but I think there was one opportunity to capture Bin Laden with American troops. He was retracting from Afghanistan into Pakistan and we didn’t send enough American troops into the area. We depended upon the Pakistan troops who supported Bin Laden at that time. So if you want to, you can call that dropping the ball.
I believe at the time it was right to go into both Iraq and Afghanistan based on the information we had. The information turned out to be wrong with respect to Iraq. There was no nuclear bomb there. With respect to Afghanistan I’ve come to the conclusion (and I’ve said it for years) that we’re nuts to stay there.
We cannot win that battle in Afghanistan. It’s the longest running war we’ve ever participated in. The Russians couldn’t win it. They got out. It’s not worth winning. There is nothing there.
My advice to President Obama is to get out of Afghanistan today! Start getting out now. It’s not winnable and whatever you think your want to win isn’t worth winning. More than 1,000 American soldiers have lost their lives in fighting in Afghanistan. As I understand it, just within the last 30 days, 30 American soldiers have died.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you personally think that Saddam Hussein was involved in 911?
Ed Koch: Yes I did. I thought he was a threat to us because he did have, at one time, weapons of mass destruction, which included biological and chemical weaponry. But he didn’t have a nuclear bomb when we were told by our CIA that he did. So, in retrospect, it was an error to go into Iraq using that pretext because it turned out not to be true.
Going into Afghanistan was absolutely correct because the Taliban was given protection. They are terrorists and the government of Afghanistan said that they could use the country as their base. Today there are 62 countries in which Al-Qaeda operates and the Taliban is part of that network. What we need to do is withdraw from Afghanistan. We should keep our bases outside of the country. If they do something that affects the United States adversely, bomb them, but you don’t need troops in Afghanistan.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Plans are underway to build a Muslim mosque two blocks away from the 911 scene. What are your feelings about that?
Ed Koch: I believe that, unless there is evidence that the sponsors are engaging in criminal activity, that building a mosque is like building a church or building a synagogue or a Hindu temple. You have a right to do it in almost every zone in the United States.
The people who own the land and want to build a mosque should be allowed to do so. In fact, as I understand it, they can do it as a matter of right. They’re not asking for any zone changes, but have decided to nevertheless ask for local approval even though they don’t need it. If I were voting, I would vote to allow them to build a mosque.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you believe Governor Paterson should have resigned amidst the controversy of domestic violence involving his aide?
Ed Koch: He said he was going to resign, but he’s not doing that now. He’s going to finish out his term but not run for reelection. He has not done a good job and he knows it. He’s doing a better job today than he did at the beginning, but it’s too late. I believe the next governor will be Andrew Cuomo.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What has Michael Bloomberg done for New York City?
Ed Koch: I think Michael Bloomberg has done a wonderful job for the city. People think only of what he’s done for the school system by getting the legislature to give the mayor the overall control. Every mayor before him (me included) attempted to do that, but the legislature would not cooperate.
But, I say Bloomberg has a greater accomplishment and that is, changing New York in terms of racial peace. There is no animosity in the city that no longer has a white majority. I think today the white proportion is something like 36%, blacks are about 24%, Hispanics and Asians are less than that but growing quickly. There is no animosity, though, and New York is a city of great tolerance. I believe that is attributed to Michael Bloomberg.
He also has reduced crime by more than 30% over what crime had been reduced under Rudy Giuliani who was the specialist in crime reduction. He was actually in law enforcement (laughs). Michael Bloomberg doesn’t come from a law enforcement background and yet, nevertheless, reduced crime. He has done a magnificent job.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Has the economic climate also improved under his watch?
Ed Koch: I believe the city of New York is probably better poised to come out of the recession the country has experienced. One of the reasons is the acumen, the intelligence, of Michael Bloomberg who comes from Wall Street. He knows its tricks and how to prevent them from being imposed on New York City.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tell me about New York Uprising.
Ed Koch: I formed New York Uprising about six months ago. The purpose of it is to get the legislators to do certain basic good governmental things. We’re not getting involved in hot button issues like abortion, gay rights, or gun control, but rather in the good governmental issues of reapportionment not done by the state legislature so they can ensure reelection. Rarely is an incumbent legislator defeated (less than 3% in any election). That is because they draw the seats to keep them in.
Every 10 years each state in the Union is required by the U.S. Constitution to redraw the legislative districts including Congress. We’re asking that the legislators who are incumbents and the challengers who are running against them sign a pledge that they will (when the lines are drawn next year) require an independent non-partisan commission to do it.
Secondly, we’re requiring that they sign a pledge that they want our support or imprimatur, I should say, as a good government person. The second pledge would be to expand ethics reform in a way that the public will know who your clients are (if you’re a lawyer) and to see whether that has any impact on the way you vote.
The third is to require that the state of New York adopt what we call a GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) balanced budget, which prevents gimmicks from being used to balance the budget. Lots of people are signing because they want the imprimatur of New York Uprising. I think we have a very good chance of getting the legislation approved that will implement these 3 proposals and enact them into law.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you pro same-sex marriage?
Ed Koch: I am. I believe people who want to marry who are same sex have the same rights as heterosexual couples. It doesn’t adversely affect heterosexual couples and I see no reason to deprive them of that right.
There is a proceeding taking place in California now where two very famous lawyers (one on the left and one on the right) have joined together in support of that cause. They are arguing the case before the California Federal Court of Appeals, I believe, and I hope they win. But, even if they lose, this fight will go on.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you support the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell?”
Ed Koch: Oh yes. It’s outrageous that soldiers and people who want to be soldiers can only serve if they agree not to mention their sexual orientation. I think that’s an outrage and so does President Obama. Interestingly, Admiral Mullen (the Chief of Staff) takes the same position.
Secretary of Defense Gates conveys that he is for eliminating it, but he wants to have an examination conducted as to what the impact would be on the armed forces. The examination results would be made public in December. I have no problem with the examination being in place, but I believe that during this period they should cease court-martialing, dismissing, and discharging soldiers from the armed forces because they have made known their sexual orientation.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Discrimination due to sexual orientation appears to run rampant in the United States.
Ed Koch: Well, I don’t know about the United States. But, what was interesting to me was that Barney Frank, who has publicly identified himself as a homosexual, has introduced legislation that is now subscribed by 199 members of Congress. 218 give you an absolute majority. 199 members of Congress believe that you should pass legislation which would prohibit employers from discharging someone who is a homosexual or lesbian. It also would not allow anyone to discriminate against that individual in housing or in employment.
I led that fight when I was mayor. I issued an executive order preventing the local government from discriminating against individuals based on their sexual orientation in employment and housing. Then 8 years later it was more difficult. I got the City Council to impose a similar rule on the private sector.
What is very sad is that there are only 20 states in the Union where that law exists. If you got the federal law imposed you wouldn’t need state law. But, until that’s imposed people should continue to fight the fight to get the cities and states to propose a law that ends discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’d like to speak about your war experience.
Ed Koch: I served in the European Theater of Operations in the Combat Infantry.
Melissa (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You earned two Battle Stars.
Ed Koch: Those are not personal. They are for the units, but I’m very proud of them anyway. It means we fought in combat.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were involved in The Battle of the Bulge?
Ed Koch: No, I was not. I was involved in northern France and the Rhineland.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Any memorable experiences?
Ed Koch: I was someone who was able to speak Pigeon German. I had taken German in high school, which was not terribly good (laughs). But, it was enough to get me going.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It was passing, huh?
Ed Koch: Yeah (laughs). I scrounged chickens and I would go into Holland, which was part of the Battle of Northern France. On one occasion, I entered a Dutch farmhouse. There was a Dutch woman and I said, “Can I buy a chicken and would you roast it for me?” She said, “Yes. Come back in two hours.”
I went back in the two hours and knocked on the door. An American voice said, “Come in.” What had happened in those two hours was that the Captain of the company made the house his office. He said to me, “Koch, your chicken’s on the stove.” I took the chicken and went back to share it with my buddies.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’ll bet it was good.
Ed Koch: It was exceptional.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I read that you marched for civil rights in the 60s. Were you in Selma, Alabama?
Ed Koch: I didn’t march from Selma to Montgomery, but many of us from around the country flew down and met the marchers about 5 miles outside of Montgomery to march into Montgomery.
I was there and it was frightening, to tell you the truth. The National Guard had been mobilized so they were protecting us, but there were terrible words from some of the people in the crowd. That was the day a woman was murdered who was ferrying people in the car to different places. Out of that came the civil rights legislation that President Johnson introduced.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Rosa Parks was instrumental in the movement also.
Ed Koch: She did a marvelous thing. It took great courage.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When did your love of movies begin?
Ed Koch: I’ve always loved movies and I’m now a movie reviewer for a local paper (laughs). People like my movie reviews. I go see movies, not at openings, but after they’ve opened and after I’ve read the reviews. I have a television program, a radio program; I’m a partner in a law firm (Bryan Cave), I write books and commentaries. I'm a busy man, so I can’t waste time on seeing bad movies. Generally speaking about 50% of them are terrible.
I’m a very tough critic and people appreciate the fact that I tell them about the film. After all, they cost $12 in New York now. There are many people in the city who avoid going to movies that I have panned. I only use two designations; one is plus if it’s a good film and the other one is a minus if it’s a bad one.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There is certainly no middle ground there.
Ed Koch: There’s no middle ground except for the way I write. People may still want to see a movie i've given a minus to. It’s just that my standards are so high.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Would you like to see a story of your life on the big screen?
Ed Koch: Well, there’s somebody who’s out there now saying he wants to do a documentary on me and maybe it will happen. If it does, I’d love to see it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you a columnist for The Huffington Post?
Ed Koch: I put out a blog that anybody can get. If they just let me know by email they want to get it, it’s free. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. They can get the commentaries and the movie reviews free of charge every week.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You had heart surgery about a year ago.
Ed Koch: It’s actually exactly a year ago that I had surgery in the month of June 2009. It was a quadruple bypass. Two times in the 6 weeks I was in the hospital (5 weeks in intensive care which is unusual) there were two moments I was on the edge of death. But, God didn’t want me and threw me back (laughs).
I’m Jewish but have strong relationships with the Catholic clergy and have attended midnight Christmas mass for 40 years. I said to my friend, Cardinal Egan, “Your Eminence, if God wants to take me because he needs some legal advice, I’m ready to go.” He said, “Don’t worry about it. Your rates are too high.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How’s your health now?
Ed Koch: I’m good. I mean, I’ll never be perfect anymore. I’m 85 years old. I probably have another 3 to 5 years of life but I’m not afraid of death. Americans are afraid of death, regrettably. I am not. I believe that death is a part of life and I’ve had a very good life.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How do you want people to remember you when you’re gone?
Ed Koch: I want them to remember me as someone who loved the people of New York. I’m grateful to them and to the United States for giving me an opportunity to rise to the point of becoming mayor of New York City. This country allows people to rise based on their abilities. I’m just grateful to the people of this extraordinary country.
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