Q: What makes a great mayor? Does Koch qualify?
Jonathan Soffer:: A great mayor must be a great citizen, whom other citizens see as willing to make sacrifices for the whole. A great mayor must be managerially competent and driven by the desire to improve the life of the city and all its citizens and to stand as a symbol for the city. Koch qualifies on these counts. Being great and being loved are not the same thing, of course. Fiorello LaGuardia was loved by many and is almost universally thought to have been a great mayor. Koch was more divisive in temperament and had a knack for making lifelong enemies, but at the time he still managed to be “America’s Mayor.”
Historians disagree radically about Koch. Some think he is up there with LaGuardia, and others think he is a horror, citing racially divisive actions, the scandals that plagued his third term, or lucrative subsidies to big business while cutting other budgets to the bone. In my view the proof is in the pudding. Koch restored the credit and morale of a desperately strapped city and then borrowed to rebuild the city’s physical plant and working-class housing. He returned control of the government from a board of the city’s creditors to its democratically elected officials. And in many other areas he created many of the basic government structures and policies that his successors used to run the city in more prosperous times. What he achieved is stunning in its dimensions, especially considering the fiscal and political obstacles he faced.
Q: Your title implies Koch rebuilt the city. Isn’t that giving him too much credit?
JS: I don’t think so. It is hard to exaggerate the calamitous decay of the city when Koch became mayor. In the Bronx alone, more than 108,000 dwellings were lost to arson in the 1970s. Every borough had high-crime areas full of burned-out buildings and trash-filled vacant lots. In the South Bronx and parts of Brooklyn, you could go for blocks without passing a single inhabited building. One film crew even used the Bronx as a set for a movie about the firebombing of Dresden. Koch created task forces that stopped most of the fires. Ten years later, the bombed-out city no longer existed, because those neighborhoods had been restored and new communities were thriving there.
Koch managed to pull it all off with local money, despite the antigovernment ideology being pressed by Reagan and conservatives, who dictated that after restoring the city’s credit, Koch should have paid down debt and reduced taxes. Instead Koch courageously decided to use the city’s restored credit to borrow prudently and rebuild the city, spending money on restoring dangerously decrepit infrastructure and building housing for working people in former wastelands through partnerships between City Hall and NGOs. This decision was in the tradition of FDR, and was not one every mayor would have made. None of this could have happened without the feat of restoring the city’s credit. Koch told the press, “Somebody deserves credit, it might as well be me.” Many bridled at his raging ego, but in this case, he was right.
Q: How did you gain access to so many key players and develop your insights into city politics?
JS: I’m from Albany, and as a teenager worked on campaigns and joined the staff of my local assemblyman. In the 1970s, before Koch was mayor, I attended Columbia and was very active in Democratic reform politics on the Upper West Side, which meant I met some politicians who became leaders in the Koch years. I remember shaking Koch’s hand in those days, and feeling the intensity of his physical presence—he’s over six feet tall and stands out in a room—but I didn’t know him. I left New York in 1978, when Koch became mayor, and didn’t return until the mid-’80s, so I lived in New York during his last term. I wasn’t personally involved in the fights that made a lot of my politically active friends very angry at Koch in his first two terms. In the early 1990s I became an interviewer for the Koch oral history project at Columbia. Through this project, I met and interviewed members of his inner circle and got a feel for the complexity of urban policy in the period. I had no idea I would later spend a decade writing on Koch and the city; at the time I was bent on finishing my first book. But these interviews and contacts were of course highly useful to me later. Since this is an authorized biography, Koch later helped by putting me in touch with some of his closest aides, and also with some people who had once been his harshest critics. But he’s kept his agreement to allow me absolute control of the manuscript.
Q: Koch is legendary for his temper and his outsized personality. Did you develop a friendly relationship with him or keep your distance?
JS: I interviewed him several times, but I maintained a distance, and so did he. He could be a handful, no doubt about it. Once we had a rip-roaring fight over my criticism of a radio show he ran on WNYC called The John Hour. On this show the names of customers of prostitutes were read over the airwaves. I saw it as ruining lives, punishing people far out of proportion to the harm they did; he saw it as a way of preventing crime, and still does. He says today he wishes he had kept doing it.
Another problem I’ve had is that historians want to study and reflect, but Koch just keeps on producing news and playing power broker. His actions since 1989 are basically irrelevant to my book, but they affect me anyway. No one can be a coolly dispassionate academic all the time, and I lived with this book for ten years. When Koch endorsed Bush in 2004, I was pretty upset, which made it difficult to concentrate on the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, I found myself demonstrating outside the convention, staring up at the face of Koch on a poster, welcoming the Republicans into the city and telling New Yorkers to “Be nice.” I was not in the mood to be nice.
Q: What were Koch’s worst mistakes as mayor?
JS: Probably his most profound error was failing to build trust and working alliances with black leaders and communities in the city. He seemed tone-deaf on this crucial point, even though black votes could make and unmake mayors. His missteps and insensitivity on divisive issues such as the closings of black hospitals, police brutality, and black protests against racist killings made him lifelong enemies among blacks and many progressive whites. He infuriated Harlem politicians in his first term by breaking a promise to keep Sydenham Hospital open. When a moderate politician like Charles Rangel compared Koch to Bull Connor in the course of the Sydenham closing, the image was indelible. Koch sealed his fate in his last term by saying, “Jews would have to be crazy to vote for Jesse Jackson,” which turned many blacks and whites against him and built a broad organized coalition.
Koch also made disastrous errors in judgment. The scandals of his third term showed that his relationships with the regular Democratic leaders had become too close, and he should have been more cautious. In his early years as a young reformer, he probably would have assumed these regulars were crooks. When he became mayor he said, in essence, “Well, that’s a naïve assumption,” and overcompensated. Though Koch was never implicated in the scandals over corruption and graft by machine Democrats, including Donald Manes, Stanley Friedman, and Meade Esposito, the fallout was so damaging that Koch considered suicide.
Q: What is your book’s take on the shift in New York’s political economy during the Koch years?
JS: New York turned from an orientation sometimes termed, with mild irony, “socialism in one city” because of its comprehensive health, education and welfare programs, to one more completely dominated by its bourgeoisie. Seizing their chance during the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s, conservative intellectuals and government officials, such as Treasury Secretary William Simon, tried to block federal aid to the city to force an end to its social democratic ethos.
By the time Koch became mayor in 1978, deindustrialization was irreversible. Conservative leaders, including Simon, Ronald Reagan, and many of his backers, treated deindustrialization and deregulation as the inevitable results of impersonal economic forces rather than as deliberate policies that consolidated the power of financial elites and sacrificed national economic interests in order to win the Cold War. And they mythologized corporate capitalism as a “free market” panacea while promoting government policies that redistributed wealth to the rich. Some, such as Citibank chair Walter Wriston, were also members of the Emergency Financial Control Board, which effectively governed New York City from 1975 until Koch took over in 1978.
Denied the large-scale federal aid that the city had received under the New Deal, New York had nowhere else to turn but to Wall Street. Koch’s administration encouraged the new domination of the city’s economy by the financial sector, providing lucrative subsidies to the “free market” to stay in New York. But the promotion of the financial industry as the city’s main economic engine delayed the long-term recovery and stabilization of city services, as city revenues bounced up and down with the stock market. It was easy to argue for austerity, because the city needed improved management. But austerity undermined the city’s infrastructure made city agencies less efficient and effective, and hurt the city for decades to come. Austerity cost more than it saved in the long run.
Q: You just brought up austerity, which is a political football today. What other aspects of the Koch years shed light on current issues?
JS: The story of the fiscal crisis is relevant, as we are facing another era of basic and painful changes in the structure of our economy. And the lesson I would draw, though many disagree, is that while it’s important to manage government well, that government has an important role in economic growth and in building a just, moral, egalitarian, and free society. Spending for health care for the uninsured was a key contributor to the city’s fiscal crisis. If the U.S. had federalized health care costs in the 1970s, as was debated at the time, New York City never would have reached the brink of bankruptcy. The city’s dire housing crisis also bears on the situation we face as a nation today, with foreclosures and abandonment of housing reaching critical levels.
Q: Koch has swung from left to right and back again a few times over the course of his long career. Would you call Koch a liberal reformer who turned into a neocon?
JS: The term “neoconservative” is slippery, especially when you are viewing it through the lens of the Bush administration. In the late ’70s it does signify a group of formerly liberal intellectuals who, like Koch, are mostly distinguished by their strong support for the Cold War and for Israel. Koch fits that definition in that time period, but some of that group, like New York Senator Pat Moynihan, moved in a more liberal direction especially on domestic issues, while the neocons’ foreign policy agenda drove them to the right on domestic issues as well. Koch remained a domestic liberal throughout his mayoralty, more in the Moynihan stamp. Even when he endorsed Bush in 2004 he claimed to have done it because he believed in Bush’s antiterrorism policies, though he fiercely disagreed with every single Republican domestic policy. Temperamentally, Koch loved to reach across the aisle, but most always to the right—he was prone to endorse conservatives with whom he had serious disagreements, and less likely to support liberals and leftists he disagreed with. While Koch criticized liberals who imposed litmus tests about issues such as affirmative action, he had his own supreme litmus test: a politician’s support of Israel. He tended to define people as friends or enemies according to the warmth of their support for the Jewish stateQ: .
Q: Does Koch seem at all concerned about how posterity will judge him?
JS: Now in his eighties, Koch has carefully cultivated the image of elder statesman, keeping in the eye of the media, and enhanced his credibility by never seeking higher office or personal gain from his political projects and making peace with former opponents, such as the Rev. Al Sharpton and Andrew Cuomo, whom he had blamed for the “Vote for Cuomo, Not The Homo” street signs put up during the 1977 mayoral campaign. Most recently, he spearheaded a nonpartisan campaign to reform the state government.
Koch is trying to revive his reputation as a reformer, which was tarnished by the scandals that tainted his third term. The most important involved the corruption of the city Department of Transportation. Koch appointed and protected its commissioner, Anthony Ameruso, as a favor to Democratic county chairs such as Donald Manes, Meade Esposito, and Stanley Friedman, and over the objections of his own screening panel, who found Ameruso unqualified. Koch denounced the reformers’ suspicions of Ameruso and of his ties to the party chairs as provincial Manhattanopia, but it turned out that it was Koch who was naïve. In 1986, Manes committed suicide after revelations that he masterminded a bribery scheme, and Friedman and Esposito were later convicted of federal crimes. Ameruso himself resigned because he had lied to a grand jury about an otherwise legal investment he had made in a parking lot in Jersey City with some very embarrassing people, including the alleged head of a major organized crime family.