Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Regional Editors and Broadcasters

March 11, 1985

The President. Good afternoon, and welcome to the White House. It's an honor to have you join us today. And if I may say so, it's also refreshing. You are the editors and broadcasters who shape and reflect concerns in the place that is most important to every citizen -- not far-off Washington, but hometown America. I welcome this opportunity to get to know you, to thank you for your service to our country and through you to speak to your readers and listeners -- the people who live beyond the Potomac, in what I still can't help thinking of as the real America.

By the way, our administration has quite a few members who've spent part of their careers working with you on regional stations and newspapers, among them is our new Communications Director, Pat Buchanan, who was an editorial writer for the St. Louis Globe Democrat. There's another fellow who -- one who started as a sports announcer on radio station WOC back in Davenport, Iowa, who remembers his broadcasting days as some of the happiest in his life. I think you know his name, and -- [laughter] -- as an old radio man, I view welcoming you here as an honor.

Today we've learned of the death of the head of state, Konstantin Chernenko, and I've sent my condolences to the Soviet leadership and people. I want them to know that we will deal with Chairman Chernen-ko's successor with an open mind and will continue our efforts to improve relations between our two nations -- to settle our differences fairly and, particularly, to lower the levels of nuclear arms.

Tomorrow in Geneva, American negotiators will sit down with their Soviet counterparts to begin the most important arms talks in which our nation is likely to participate for the rest of this decade. I'm pleased that negotiations will begin as scheduled. Weeks of painstaking preparation have now been completed, and although in the interest of confidentiality I can't go into the details of our negotiating positions, let me assure you of this: Our team stands ready to put forward concrete and constructive proposals. And they will in turn respond to good-faith Soviet proposals with flexibility and an active interest. We earnestly hope that the Soviets are equally prepared for serious give-and-take.

Our short-term goal at Geneva will be to reduce American and Soviet offensive nuclear forces, systems which are already in place, whose use would prove a calamity to tens of millions of people.

Our goal for the medium term, if research goes as we expect, is to discuss how the United States and the Soviet Union can move away from sole reliance on the threat of nuclear retaliation toward greater reliance on defenses which threaten no one.

Our long-term goal: the complete elimination of nuclear arms.

As our negotiators begin their work in Geneva, we at home must remain firm in our resolve to maintain an adequate deterrent to war. Our negotiating flexibility must be coupled with firmness and resolve if it is to be effective in producing the outcome we all desire: radical reductions in nuclear weapons, as a step toward the ultimate goal of eliminating them.

We're realistic about the differences between ourselves and the Soviets. As we pursue arms control, we will at the same time press forward on a worldwide respect for the dignity of man.

In Geneva we face a long and difficult road. To travel it, we'll need strength, patience, and allied unity. The effort will be great, and the final destination, which will so heavily depend on the Soviet intentions, is uncertain. But the road before us is the road of peace, and on that we dare not hesitate or falter.

So, I'd just like to close by saying: Let us travel it together, Americans united as never before. We have sent a congressional delegation, Members of the Senate and the House over there of both parties, for the sole purpose of impressing on the Soviet Union that when it comes to the water's edge -- we aren't Democrats or Republicans, we're Americans.

So, thank you, God bless you, and -- --

Soviet Government

Q. Mr. President -- --

The President. Yes?

Q. -- -- what changes do you foresee under Gorbachev? [Mikhail Gorbachev, a member of the Politburo who became General Secretary of the Communist Party upon the death of Konstantin U. Chernenko on March 10.]

The President. I think it's very hard to predict anything of the kind when you realize that the Soviet policy is really determined by a dozen or so individuals in the Politburo. They are the ones who chose him. It is a collective government. And while an individual once chosen by them can, undoubtedly, influence or persuade them to certain things that might be particular theories or policies of his, the government basically remains the same group of individuals.

Cuba

Q. Mr. President, the question of Nicaragua and Cuba is in the minds very much of people from south Florida, as I am. If, for any reason, sir, if in Cuba there would be a change of that leadership, for instance, try to change the leadership of the regime of Cuba by overthrowing Castro, would the United States help that new government to give freedom a chance in Cuba?

The President. Well, I think all of us dream of a Cuba that will one day recognize that it should be once again a member of the American states in the Western Hemisphere and not a satellite of the Soviet Union.

Now, there have been statements by Castro at one time or another to the effect that he wanted to talk better relations with us. We followed up on those every time, and every time there's been no substance, only sound.

So, we'll continue to hope. I don't know what the result would be. I'm rather hesitant in my position now to say something that might -- if you're looking far afield -- might bring about some abortive undertaking that would cause great tragedy to a lot of people. But just let me say that we believe that Cuba belongs back in the Organization of American States, and it can only get there by becoming a democracy instead of the totalitarian government that it is.

Funeral for Soviet President Chernenko

Q. Mr. President, we were told this morning, sir, that you considered going to the funeral of Chernenko and then you decided that the Vice President should go. What were the pluses and minuses of you going personally, and why did you decide not to, sir?

The President. Well, no, as of 4 a.m. this morning, I started thinking about it after the phone call came. And no, I had a feeling -- first of all, there's an awful lot on my plate right now that would have to be set aside. I didn't see that anything could be achieved by so going. And we discussed it in the office this morning. But, no, I leaned the other way, that we have heads of state coming here; I have at the end of the week -- I'll be leaving for Canada for a meeting that's been set up for a long time there, things of that kind. And I didn't see where I could do it. And the Vice President is already in Europe, so that it would seem very logical for him to do that.

Nicaragua

Q. I thank you very much for this opportunity. Under the new Soviet leadership, do you think the Nicaraguans will say uncle at this point? Will there be any shifts, do you think, in Nicaragua's situation as it relates to us?

The President. Well, we have to believe that there will be a change. And this is one of the reasons why we're hoping we can still persuade the Congress to support us in our desire to support the contras that I call freedom fighters there, because these are people who are participants in the revolution that overthrew Somoza. And then they were thrown out of the revolution that they had helped bring about.

They did much as Castro did in Cuba in the beginning -- the Sandinistas, I mean. They simply took over that revolution, and they have violated their promise to the Organization of American States. They asked for help from the Organization in getting Somoza to step down. And he did step down at the request of the Organization, and that ended the bloodshed. And in doing that, they had promised the Organization of American States that their goal was democracy: free elections, free labor unions, freedom of the press, observance of human rights, as should be in a democracy. And they have violated every one of those promises with a totalitarian form of government.

Now, I believe that it is our place to lend help to those people of Nicaragua who still want the original revolution and want a democracy there. And we're going to con-tinue to try to help them.

Q. Mr. President -- --

The President. I thought I would go a little further afield -- I'm kind of concentrated here.

U.S.-Soviet Relations

Q. Mr. President, are you anxious perhaps to meet with the new Soviet leader to get to know him a little bit?

The President. Am I anxious to meet -- --

Q. Anxious to meet with him?

The President. Very much so, and I was with the previous three also. [Laughter] I was ready to have a meeting -- and as they themselves said, at such a time as you could have a legitimate agenda and not just have a meeting to get acquainted.

But I'm looking forward to this, and -- I can give you one figure that would kind of spell out what my problem has been, because there have been some who've wanted to criticize me in contrast with previous Presidents.

In 48 years, of 8 Presidencies prior to mine, there were only 3 leaders over that span of 48 years and 8 Presidents of the Soviet Union. Well, we're coming up the fourth in mine, and I've just started my fifth year, and there were 3 of them in a little over 3 years.

So, you know, you have to wait for a new man now to get in place and establish his regime, and then I'll be more than ready because I think there's a great mutual suspicion between the two countries; I think that ours is more justified than theirs. And I -- at my own table here I spoke of -- reminded of the fact that when World War II ended and we had the monopoly of the nuclear weapon and our industry was intact and had never been bombed into rubble as it had in most of Europe, if we really were the aggressor the Soviets accused us of being, we could have taken anything in the world then, and no one could have stopped us. And we didn't do it, instead we went abroad with the Marshall plan to help everyone, including our erstwhile enemies.

And, on the other hand, we see their expansionism -- we see it in Afghanistan and Ethiopia and Angola and yes, in Cuba and Nicaragua. So, I'd like to have a talk and see if some way we can't some day have a meeting of minds and recognize that we -- well, that delegation that's just going home from here -- I asked the leader of that delegation when they were going to go to Texas and California to see if they couldn't look at the American people -- the people around them, the working people of this country -- and ask themselves if they thought there was any way that Americans would rather be in a war than living the way we live. And they didn't get much time to look at that.

Q. One more?

Terrorism

Q. Mr. President, what is the government doing, if anything, to regain release of the hostages in Beirut?

The President. I can't tell you in detail what we're doing, obviously, because those four lives are at stake. So, everything we're doing is trying to find where they're located. We have appealed to others that we believe have some influence with the terrorists who kidnaped them to begin with, and particularly since the one escaped. And we're doing, as I say, everything that we can. We can't give details on that. We must not do anything to endanger their lives. But terrorism is a new form of warfare, and all we can do is try to meet it with intelligence efforts -- to find out, if we can, where retaliation can take place, but, also, to work closely with our allies and other countries in the world because it's becoming more and more evident that there are some sovereign governments who are backing this terrorism. And if that's the case, then we would know exactly where to retaliate for terrorist deeds.

I've just been told that I can't take any more questions here, and you thought that I was the most powerful fellow here, didn't you? [Laughter] No, I'm sorry. It's just like a press conference. But I want to tell you, your questions were great, and I appreciated them very much. And if any of you had one particular one and you wanted to get it -- drop a line and we'll send it to you in writing. But what she means is I've got another hundred people from State legislatures that are waiting for me over in the Executive Office Building. So, I'd better run and get there.

Thank you all very much.

Note: The President spoke at 1:06 p.m. at a luncheon for the editors and broadcasters in the State Dining Room at the White House.