Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Members of the American Legion Boys Nation

 

July 25, 1986

 

The President. Good afternoon, and welcome to the White House. And greetings to Mylio Kraja, executive director of the American Legion; to General Thomas Turnage, our VA Administrator; to the director of Boys Nation, Marty Justis; president Gregory Orman, of Minnesota; and to your new vice president, Patrick Ungashick, of Missouri; and to a Boys Nation institution, ``Casey'' Cason. By the way, does he still play reveille on the trombone? [Laughter] I suppose it's only fitting, because after all, as far as I'm concerned, he's still young enough to call me Junior. [Laughter]

 

For a few years, we allowed our leaders to forget what a great and creative people we Americans are. And today, as I've said before on a number of occasions, today America is back. And the future rests not in big, impersonal forces, but with us, in our own choices and actions as a people. In all the long history of mankind, no nation has ever afforded its people greater liberty or depended more for its very survival upon their own diligence than our own. And you young gentlemen, in this land of the free, you only have to reach for greatness to attain it.

 

There was a Frenchman more than a century ago, came to this country -- already abroad they had seen the great progress that this young nation was making. And he came here, and he went back. His name was de Tocqueville, and he wrote a book called ``Democracy in America.'' And there's one line in that that, I guess, has been quoted more than any author has ever had a line quoted. Because he said that he had searched for the greatness of America when he was here. He'd looked at our teaming harbors. He'd looked at our great manufacturing, our farms, and our cities. And he said he did not find the secret of our greatness. He said it wasn't until he went into the churches of America that he found the answer: pulpits aflame with righteousness. And he said, ``America is great because America is good. And if America ever stops being good, America will stop being great.''

 

Well now, listen, I'm not going to go on with a speech anymore. I just welcomed the opportunity and thought -- I know I've only got a few minutes out here -- but I thought that maybe some of you must have at some time or other said, ``If I had a chance, I'd like to ask him . . .'' And you have a chance. There's a microphone right here in front, and if somebody has a question that they'd like answered -- all right. I ought to be able to do some tricks or something while they're getting to the microphone.

 

Strategic Defense Initiative

 

Q. Senator Scott Whitaker, of Colorado. I happen to believe personally that our continued research and technology and progress are one of our greatest resources. And I realize that at this time that we are pursuing the Strategic Defense Initative program. However, I also realize that these sudden Soviet bargaining attempts to reach an agreement usually involve a sacrifice in that program, and it seems to be our biggest bargaining chip. And I don't know if that's their motivation -- out of fear of what we already know or what is to come. I'm wondering, how much are we willing to sacrifice in that program to reach an agreement?

 

The President. Well, I would never let it become a bargaining chip in the sense of that if they would do something we'd give it up and not go forward. Let me just put it as simply as I can. And you'll understand, there are a lot of details that -- at the moment with negotiations to come and so forth -- that I don't feel free to say. But I have made it plain from the very beginning that I believe this concept of a defense plan, where today our only defense is deterrence. Our only defense is to say that, ``If you ever'' -- to them -- ``If you ever use those missiles on us, we'll blow you up, too, with ours.'' Well, that's not very sensible for the world sitting -- both of us sitting here saying, ``We'll destroy the world.'' So, my feeling about the strategic defense is that if and when our research reveals there is such a credible weapon, or a defensive system, that is when we should step forth to the world and say that we would be willing to use that to get nuclear weapons eliminated completely in the world. We would not monopolize and use it to give ourselves a first-strike capability. We would want it to be the cause for eliminating nuclear weapons once and for all.

 

Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev

 

Q. Good afternoon, Mr. President. I'm Mario Mancuso, from the State of New York. And I feel through media exposure we tend to get a one dimensional view of Mikhail Gorbachev. My question is, Mr. President, how -- what about Mikhail Gorbachev is real, in your meetings with him?

 

The President. I think that he, of course, has been raised in all of his entire life in that system. I think he's dedicated to the system, believes in their system. But I think also that he is a modern man in contrast to some that we have dealt with there in times past. He realizes that there are great economic problems. And I believe that he can be dealt with, that he knows that there must be some changes if he is to resolve some of the problems that are besetting them. And what our great hope is with regard to arms reduction -- and he is the first Russian leader that I know of who has ever proposed the actual elimination of some of their own nuclear weapons -- that he believes that, for the sake of their economy, that it might be in their own interest and practical for them to join in reducing these great stores of arms and ending an arms race, which is so costly to them that it has been the principal cause of their economic problems.

 

But I found him, well, completely different than others that I had dealt with. For example -- if I could just tell one little incident -- we were under the impression that if we could come back from the Geneva summit just with an agreement to have another summit meeting that the meeting would have been a success. And on the very first day, just he and I talking, and he mentions something that he wished that I could see in Russia. And I said, ``We've got a lot of things, why, I wish you could see.'' I said, ``Why don't we agree right now that the next summit in 1986 will be in the United States? You've never been there.'' And he, smilingly, said, ``Yes. And you've never seen in Russia. And in '87, we'll have the third one in the Soviet Union.'' Our people couldn't believe that it was settled that easily. So, I do think that -- I realize he's also got problems, though. He's -- just as I have -- he's not all alone and able to say this is what we're going to do and have everyone in his government there agree with him. I think he gets some arguments now and then.

 

So -- yes?

 

Tax Reform

 

Q. Senator Cook, from North Carolina. Yes, Mr. President, what exactly does tax reform mean to us, since there's been so much talk about tax reform?

 

The President. What does tax reform mean to you? I think it means a great deal for your future. You remember my predecessor once called the income tax system the greatest disgrace in our country. Here is a law that was passed in 1913, put in the Constitution, only 16 words; and it now takes a shelf 57 feet long to hold all the tax regulations and rules of the Internal Revenue Code. And that's why we've not only needed a tax code that is fairer, but a tax code that is also simpler so that most people don't have to hire legal advice to help them make out their tax. It's the only fiduciary thing that you will have facing you in your life -- or has been under the present system -- in which someone tells you that you have to figure out how much you owe. And even their own employees don't know the rules and regulations enough to help you. And then if you make a mistake in how much you owe, you've got to pay a penalty, a fine, and maybe interest in order to square yourself.

 

And so, what we're coming up with is a tax program that gets back to the beginning in which the rates were very low. Put the rates down low. And to do that, then, eliminate many of the numerous loopholes that were put in the law because the tax had become so unjust and so high. Instead of lowering the rates, they'd put in other loopholes and say, ``Well, if you spend money on this, you don't have to pay tax on this.'' And what we created were what we call some loopholes in which certain people, and even businesses, could figure out ways to avoid paying any tax or much tax at all. That won't be true in this new tax system when it's adopted. And the rates will be low, and it will be fair. As a matter of fact, we anticipate that about 6 million people at the lowest end of the scale will be dropped from the tax rolls completely.

 

Someone -- yes?

 

Drug Abuse

 

Q. Mr. President, Christopher Ortiz, from Michigan. We see drugs as becoming a great threat to our nation. What can we do to oppose this threat?

 

The President. Now, who? Becoming --  -- 

 

Q. Drugs -- excuse me. Drugs.

 

The President. Oh.

 

Q. We see drugs becoming a great threat to our nation. What can we do?

 

The President. You are right. As a matter of fact, the American people in a recent poll showed that they believe that drugs are the number one problem in the United States. They put it above nuclear war or the desire for peace or unemployment or anything else. Several times more than that -- 71 percent of the people said our greatest problem today is drugs. I can tell you now -- you know, I'm sure that my wife, Nancy, has been out in front in what I think is going to have to be the answer. We can do everything with law enforcement that's possible to try and intercept the drugs and keep them from coming in to be sold. But with a country like ours and borders as great as ours and the seacoasts and all, there's no way, no matter what efforts we do, that we can totally shut off the supply of drugs to those who want them.

 

So, the real answer is going to have to be: Let's turn the customers off. Let's persuade the customers to abandon the drugs. And as a matter of fact, we, right now, are in the midst of talking a plan. There's a great deal going on. And as you know, the organization is nationwide now among young people and children, of Just Say No. And that came out of an answer to a question that Nancy gave in Oakland, California, speaking to young people like yourselves. And someone had asked a question about what could they do. And she said, ``Just say, no.'' Well, now there's a nationwide organization young people belong to, called Just Say No. But we are, right now, planning a nationwide effort to go at this program mainly from the -- we'll continue the effort to cut them off -- the drugs -- but to go at this from the standpoint of persuading you that it is in your best interest to just say no to drugs.

 

Ms. Maseng. Mr. President, I'm afraid we have time for only one more question.

 

The President. One more question. All right. There. Sorry. You can see I'm not really the boss around here, I -- [laughter] --  --

 

POW's and MIA's

 

Q. Thank you, Mr. President. I'm Robert Tarkoff, from the great State of California. And I'd like to ask you about the recent POW-MIA controversy. Do you feel, in your opinion, that the Southeast Asian governments are making an honest effort to find any remaining, living POW's that we may have there from the Vietnam war?

 

The President. I have to tell you that I believe they've come further than they ever have before. We have had meetings with the Vietnam Government now about this, and apparently there is better cooperation than we've ever had. But we, at the same time, are making every effort that we can when there is a report, as you so often get, and someone says they've seen someone or they've seen prisoners here or there -- we still go out of our way to track those down and find out the truth about it. And we're going to continue everything that we can do, not only in meeting with them, but in this same thing, to track down and find -- get the final story on the missing in action and the former POW's.

 

This isn't the first war where this has happened. The other wars in the past -- as some of the gentlemen who sponsor this thing that brings you to Washington know -- in wars past there have -- well, that's why we have a grave to the Unknown Soldier -- never been identified in our past wars. But it is true that there has been -- they were refusing to give us information, and more and more they have at least been providing us with the information on the missing and those that can be identified as dead. But we're still going to keep on in the event -- so far, we have never been able to track down evidence when reports have been made of actual, remaining, living POW's still held there. But when we're tracking down every lead that we get to be sure that that is so. And if there are some left, we'll do whatever's necessary to bring them back.

 

I'm sorry that I can't take some more here. I shouldn't have talked so long at first. But I want to, again -- I've been familiar with this particular program for a long time. I'm grateful to the American Legion for sponsoring it, and I hope that you found it productive and haven't been too bewildered here in the puzzle palaces on the Potomac. [Laughter] Sometimes those of us who are here all the time get a little bewildered. But there are a lot of people trying very hard to make things right.

 

God bless all of you. Thank you for being here.

 

Note: The President spoke at 1 p.m. in the Rose Garden at the White House. Mari Maseng was Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of Public Liaison.