Remarks During a White House Briefing for United States Attorneys

October 21, 1985

Well, I'm delighted to have this opportunity to be with you today. Actually, I was thinking on the way over that this is the second gathering of attorneys I've addressed in the last few months. When I spoke to the American Bar Association a short time ago, I said how disappointed I was that the White House counsel wouldn't let me accept the honorarium. [Laughter] I was really looking forward to the first time I ever talked to a group of lawyers and came home with the fee. [Laughter]

Well, I'm told there won't be any honorarium this morning, either. [Laughter] But, you know, that's not quite right either, because there will be honorariums today, except this time it's the speaker who is going to be handing them out. By that I mean I just wanted to be here today to say how grateful I am to all of you, to each one of you. All of you are on the front line; each one of you holds one of the toughest jobs there is in law enforcement. You know, sometimes when I've spoken to police officers, I've reminded them to be cautious about drawing too many conclusions based on their daily work, to remember that too often they only see their fellow citizens when they've committed a crime or been victimized by one, when they're hurting or in trouble. It's easy to forget the people they don't see every day -- that great majority of Americans who are law-abiding citizens and who are proud of those in law enforcement, grateful to them and anxious to give them their full support.

Well, not only do you have to deal with the criminals and their victims every day, you also have to deal with judges and juries and other lawyers. And all of that, I know, demands the utmost in professional skill and dedication from each one of you. I'm sure there are moments of enormous frustration, and I'm sure there are times when you feel unappreciated. But I hope that in such moments in the future you'll remember the fellow who lives in public housing just across the street here and spoke to you once about your work and its meaning, a fellow who, on behalf of millions of your fellow Americans who never get the chance, wants to say to you today: We're mighty appreciative and mighty grateful to you and proud of you also. I want to underscore a point that I know the Attorney General has regularly made. You and your assistants are in large measure the Justice Department. Our job here in Washington is to support you, to give you the tools that you need to do your job.

Now, I don't want to keep you too long, so let me just touch quickly on a few items of mutual interest. As you know, there was some speculation that this second term might turn out to be a caretaker Presidency, a quiet time that saw little in the way of reform or action. And I just happen to think that the work you're doing is one bit of strong evidence to the contrary.

For example, you're cutting deeply into the infrastructure of the mob by prosecuting major crime bosses. You are not -- as one longtime crusader against organized crime, Professor Robert Blakey, of Notre Dame, said about past government prosecutions -- picking off the retired or wounded. In fact, organized crime convictions are running at a rate quadruple what they were in 1981. This means we're finally doing something about a black mark on our national history, one that's been there roughly since the turn of the century.

And you know, I've heard some people wonder about the sudden appearance of the powerful new drug rings, but no one should really be surprised. In many ways these new criminal syndicates are a result of our past failure to deal effectively with the older organized crime rings who have attempted to corrupt so much of American life. The new groups see in these older syndicates their prototype, an example to emulate, an inspiration to follow. And that's why we have to act as promptly and as effectively as we can against the syndicates, old and new.

I always steer away from questions about any kind of a personal legacy I'd like to leave America after 8 years in office. Answering questions like that sound a bit pompous, and right now, thank you very much, I think such thoughts are just a bit premature. [Laughter] But just this once I'll break my rule, and I'll tell you. Some years ago, many of us in Hollywood saw organized crime at work when it attempted to infiltrate and corrupt unions there; indeed, the union of which I later became president. And we've never forgotten. And believe me, there is nothing I'd like better than to be remembered as a President who did everything he could to bust up the syndicates and give the mobsters a permanent stay in the jailhouse, courtesy of the United States Government. The American people feel just as strongly on this issue, a fact sometimes forgotten by too many in American politics. But if you look at the careers of Tom Dewey, Estes Kefauver, John and Robert Kennedy, and others in public life, I think you will see evidence the American people have always cared deeply about this issue and approved of public officials who spoke and acted responsibly in dealing with it.

So, let me repeat what I said to you the last time we were together. We are in this thing to win. There will be no negotiated settlements, no detente with the mob. It's war to the end where we're concerned. Our goal is simple: We mean to cripple their organization, dry up their profits, and put their members behind bars where they belong. They've had a free run for too long a time in this country. And that's the end of quoting myself. [Laughter] One other thing, after due process has been done, after you're certain the defendant's rights have been protected and a fair trial has been held, should the jury return a guilty verdict and the court ask you for a sentencing recommendation, will you do me and the millions of Americans who are fed up with professional gangsters and career criminals -- do us the favor of asking His Honor to throw the book at them?

And while we're on the subject, let me bring up another area you have to deal with: waste and fraud against the United States Government, which has been unrelenting national scandal. Well, now that we've reinvigorated the Inspector Generals' program as well as instituted reforms that have uncovered items like $400 hammers, that scandal may be starting to relent, but only a bit. Believe me, we're still a long way from home. Frankly, I can think of few criminals more contemptible than those who for selfish ends would cheat our service men and women out of the best we can give them to defend America or those who for personal gain would corrupt a social welfare program designed to benefit the less fortunate members of our society. So, I encourage you to prosecute fraud against the government cases and seek severe penalties against those who seek to cheat the taxpayers by shortchanging the armed services or depriving the truly needy.

You know, about that, let me just say one thing that maybe hasn't been called to your attention. These $400 hammers and expensive toilet covers and a few things like that -- these have been portrayed generally as if our people and this administration is somehow responsible. Well, we are responsible -- for finding them. They've been going on for a long time, and every time they have come to public attention, it's because we brought them to public attention by digging them out and doing something about it. And we're going to keep on doing that, and we'll take your help whenever we can get it.

And finally, let me speak about another matter that comes up from time to time, and that's the selection of Federal judges. I'm very proud of our record of finding highly qualified individuals who also adhere to a restrained and truly judicious view of the rule of the courts -- or the role of the courts under our Constitution. The independence of the courts from improper political influence is a sacred principle. It must always be guarded. And let me assure you, it always will be guarded while this administration is in office. But as you know, the Founding Fathers knew that, like any other part of the Government, the power of the judiciary could be abused. They never intended, for example, that the courts preempt legislative prerogatives or become vehicles for political action or social experimentation or for coercing the populace into adopting anyone's personal view of utopia. So, to make sure the courts weren't misused in this way and did not set themselves up as an institution entirely removed from the society they're intended to serve, the Founding Fathers provided for checks and balances, one of which was to place the appointive power for the judiciary in the hands of those who are in office as a result of popular election.

Now, during the past two Presidential elections, I've made it clear to the American public that I felt the courts had sometimes gone too far in interfering with the constitutional prerogatives of other branches of government, even while they neglected their constitutional duty of protecting society from those who prey on the innocent. Well, this is still my belief. So, I intend to go right on appointing highly qualified individuals of the highest personal integrity to the bench, individuals who understand the danger of short-circuiting the electoral process and disenfranchising the people through judicial activism. I want judges of the highest intellectual standing who harbor the deepest regard for the Constitution and its traditions, one of which is judicial restraint.

So, again, my thanks to each one of you, and please tell all of those working with you in your offices and in the investigative agencies how proud and grateful I am. And that is just an echo of how the people of this country feel about you and the way you serve. Thank you. Thank all of you, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 11:46 a.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building.