I was born in Crotona Park East. I only lived there until I was 8, and then we moved to Newark, because it was the Depression, and my father was a furrier, and people stopped buying fur coats in 1931. I entered CCNY in 1941, and I was drafted in 1943. When I got out of basic training, I went into the Army’s Specialized Training Program, and they sent me to Fordham to learn German. I landed in France, in Cherbourg, in September 1944. I saw people die. A friend of mine had his foot blown off by a mine. It was a defining experience, but it wasn’t the defining experience.
I became a lawyer in 1949, before I moved to the Village. Shortly afterward, I began my political career. I became a City Councilman in 1967. It was my first race and nobody thought I could win, because that had been a Republican seat for 38 years. Then, in 1968, I became a congressman. That seat had been Republican for 34 years.
After a few years in Congress, I had a defining experience. I was called by a guy from Citibank, and he said he had something very important to tell the congressional delegation. I called a meeting to hear this speaker, and very few people came. What he said was that New York City was on the edge of bankruptcy and the banks were no longer going to lend money to the city. And nobody believed him. But I believed it, and, of course, very quickly it happened. I became a student of government, and I thought, Maybe I could do something about this. It was in 1973; Beame was going to run, Lindsay was still mayor. I said, “I know more than he does.” So I ran. All I could raise was $100,000, and so I got out of the race. But the idea of running entered my head for the first time then.
The next time I ran for mayor, in 1977, I couldn’t have been elected without Rupert Murdoch’s support. He wanted to support Mario Cuomo. But Cuomo was unwilling to take on the unions. I remember I got the call at seven o’clock in the morning. The phone rings and the voice at the other end says, “This is Rupert.” And I say to myself, “Rupert? I don’t know any Ruperts. Rupert’s not a Jewish name.” He says, “Congressman Koch, we’re coming out for you this morning on the front page of the New York Post, and I hope it helps.” I say, “Helps!? You’ve just elected me!” You see, people liked me. But very few thought I could win, because I was an unknown. Murdoch gave me credibility. Suddenly, I was mayor of the city of New York.
As mayor, I did three things that were unique. One, I brought fiscal stability back to the city and gave it back a balanced budget, which it hadn’t had for fifteen years, and nobody thought it could be done. Two, I gave people back their pride, because New Yorkers were so ashamed at how far we had fallen, and in particular of a cover of Time magazine that showed Abe Beame in a beggar’s costume holding a tin cup. And three, I rebuilt the Bronx with my housing program.
I think my personality was helpful in this job. I always had a great sense of humor, though I am also pretty reserved personally. I mean, I don’t go to chichi parties; never did. I don’t like going to dinners other than small dinners at the homes of people. But I realized that if I was to harness the energies of the people of the city of New York and give them back their pride, I would have to become bigger than life. And I did.
Anytime you are mayor, you have critics, and one of the most persistent was Larry Kramer, who happens to live in my apartment building in the Village, and who ran around screaming that somehow I could have prevented AIDS. And the fact is, I did more on AIDS, and more to promote civil rights for gay people, than any other mayor in the country. Kramer’s thrust was that I was afraid that if I showed concern, people would think I was gay. He wasn’t the only one who said that, of course.
Listen, there’s no question that some New Yorkers think I’m gay, and voted for me nevertheless. The vast majority don’t care, and others don’t think I am. And I don’t give a shit either way! What do I care? I’m 73 years old. I find it fascinating that people are interested in my sex life at age 73. It’s rather complimentary! 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.
For me, the most terrible period in my years in office was when Donald Manes and Stanley Friedman, two people who were friends, turned out to be crooks. It was devastating. I went into a depression for a couple of months. I’m not sure that many people could have come through. But what was important was that everybody knew I was honest. I mean, even my enemies said, “Oh, money doesn’t mean anything to him. What corrupts him is power.” I mean, you can’t win. But for the most part, being mayor was a lot of fun.
In 1982, I decided to run for governor. It was a stupid lark. I went to Spain for a vacation, and when I came home, I found that Rupert Murdoch had been publishing ads urging people to write for me to run for governor. I didn’t really want to. I loved being mayor. But I did it to see whether I could win. And quite correctly, people understood that I didn’t have my heart in this. Mario was very smart. He ran a television ad that said, “Why not have the best of both worlds. Keep Koch mayor, make me governor.” Mario was always a clever adversary.
I supported Dinkins after he defeated me. I was defeated because of longevity, not because Yusef Hawkins was murdered six weeks before the election – although that was a factor. People get tired of you. So they decided to throw me out. And so help me God, as the numbers were coming in, I said to myself, “I’m free at last.”
The stress shortens your life. I had a stroke in office; that came from the depression I went through as a result of Manes and Friedman, and I was so overwhelmed by the tragedy of it for the city. Dinkins could not have been elected without me. He won by only 2 percent. I had 42 percent of the vote. He was a terrible mayor. But a nice man. We’re friends today. But at the end of his term, after the pogrom in Crown Heights, I thought to myself, The city can’t live through another four years of Dinkins, so I will support Giuliani.
Then I had a falling-out with him. I was upset with his driving Ramon Cortines out of town, driving Bill Bratton to quit, and politicizing the selection of judges. I mean, his hubris is enormous. He’s a very able mayor. It’s just his personality. He is the prisoner of his personality.
I think you have to like people. I’m not sure Giuliani likes people. You have to be genuinely appreciative of having been elevated to this extraordinary position, and never, ever, believe all of the nice things that are said about you. Because people tend to tell you what you want to hear. You have to understand that there is no other job that will allow you to leave a positive mark on the life of this city comparable with being mayor. Use it! I tried to.
Interviewed by Maer Roshan