Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With the American Society of Newspaper Editors

April 9, 1986

The President. I am delighted to have this opportunity to be with all of you today. I know the purpose of this get-together is some back-and-forth between us, so I'll try to keep my remarks short. But this is a very influential group, and what politician worth his salt would give up the chance to make a few points to you this morning?

It reminds me of a story that my friend Punch Sulzberger tells about the time he had lunch at the White House. That evening he went home and called his mother, who, as you know, is the most remarkable woman. And he said to her, ``Mother, today I had lunch at the White House with the President of the United States, the Vice President of the United States, and the Secretary of State.'' ``Yes, dear,'' his mother said dryly, ``and what did they want?'' [Laughter]

I didn't want this opportunity to go by without pointing to some of the enormous changes that we've seen in American politics during this decade. I don't have to remind those of you who report and edit the news of the scope of this change, but I do think it's a good idea now and then to take a moment and reflect on the meaning of that change and gain some perspective on a decade that is now more than half over. I'm sure you all remember that when we took office in 1981, we faced appalling economic conditions, and that's not to mention the crisis of confidence in America's military strength and her international prestige. Our program for economic recovery was much criticized, and getting it through the Congress was the first of many tough struggles to come. We also faced opposition to our efforts to restore America's military strength and carry out a foreign policy that pursued peace while it also sought to halt Soviet expansionism and expand the borders of freedom.

Much of this opposition was understandable. A number of the people in policy and opinionmaking circles had trouble dealing with the new ideas that we brought to Washington. As Bill Buckley once put it: ``Though liberals do a great deal of talking about hearing other points of view, it sometimes shocks them to learn that there are other points of view.'' But despite the parochialism of some of our critics, our programs, with the support of the American people, gain passage. I think the results achieved thus far with the revitalization of the economy, our military strength, and the restoration of our international prestige bear out the merit of our conservative ideas.

A few years back, our simple efforts to get some aid to El Salvador so a democratic government could be firmly established there met with fierce opposition. But thanks in no small part to the Salvadoran people who braved guerrilla threats and gunfire to march to the polls, we prevailed; and so did the dream of democracy. My favorite story is of an elderly woman standing in line waiting hours to vote in the hot sunshine in that first El Salvador election. And she had been hurt by the guerrillas because of her determination to vote, and they had told her that they would kill her and her friends if she went on and voted. And she said, ``You may kill me, and you may kill my family, my friends; you can't kill us all.'' And so she went in defiance of them and stood and voted. I can't help but mention the Grenada operation also in connection with these things. It was hardly under way when some of our critics took to the airwaves to denounce our efforts there as ``rampant militarism.'' But just as the people of El Salvador spoke out in their own way, so, too, our medical students and the people of Grenada provided all the eloquent rebuttals that were needed.

In a curious way, though, being wrong about the issues, whether it's the economy or Central America, doesn't seem to discourage our critics. I'd hardly gotten through my televised address asking support for the freedom fighters in Nicaragua, when some voices were questioning some of the charges I made against the Sandinista regime. For example, that the Sandinistas engaged in vicious acts of anti-Semitism, and that they'd been deeply involved in the illicit drug trade. Well, again, fortunately, some of the doubters were quickly rebutted. The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith quickly issued a strong statement confirming the truth of what we said about the persecution of Jews in Nicaragua. And on the illicit drug-trafficking charge, I was grateful to a number of publications for editorially outlining the depth and extent of the evidence against the Sandinistas. A massive report by the President's Commission on Organized Crime on the international drug trade, for example, discussed the Sandinistas' participation in the drug trade.

Extremely persuasive testimony has also come from Alvaro Baldizon, the former chief investigator of the special investigations commission of the ministry of interior in Nicaragua. And by the way, besides his descriptions of what he learned about the Sandinistas' involvement in the drug trade, Senor Baldizon's testimony called ``Inside the Sandinista Regime: A Special Investigator's Perspective.'' This is a richly detailed, harrowing look at the Sandinista regime. It's been published by the State Department, and I recommend it to you. I think your readers would be intrigued by his revelations, especially his portrait of Sandinista leaders like Interior Minister Tomas Borge and that gentleman's often successful attempts to mislead visiting dignitaries.

I hope you'll permit me one other recommendation. Jaime Chamorro, the editor of La Prensa, the heavily censored but last remaining nongovernment newspaper in Managua, recently wrote an article for the Washington Post. He put it quite plainly. He said the Sandinistas are transforming the Nicaraguan revolution, fought for by all Nicaraguans, into a revolution that serves the purposes of Marxism-Leninism. And he went on to say the Sandinistas want to use his country as -- and I'm quoting -- ``a beachhead for Communist expansion.'' He said they were filling Nicaragua with ``internationalists whose aims are the expansion of Communist influence and Soviet domination in the region.'' And he adds, ``When Latin America or much of Latin America is under the influence of the Eastern bloc, NATO will no longer be in Europe; it will be in San Antonio, Texas.'' You know -- he said that. I'm just quoting. [Laughter]

You know -- a number of people here in Washington have said that we can win the support for the freedom fighters only on the strength of the national security issue. Well, I agree with Senor Chamorro that the national security issue is very important; but, you know, sometimes I think Washington people forget that self-interest doesn't really count as much with the American people as it does in this town. But I think you know that over the long run, the American people are a little more enlightened than that; that they respond readily to what's right and what's wrong, what's good and bad, and not just ``what's in it for me?'' I think that's why support for the freedom fighters is growing in this country.

The American people are just now getting the facts about the Sandinista regime: its atrocities against groups like the Miskito Indians; its persecution of Jews and Christians; the verbal attacks on Cardinal Obando, whom we intend to prevent from becoming the Cardinal Mindszenty of this hemisphere. And the list goes on. The savageness and inhumanity of this regime is a story that is waiting to be told.

We know now that the Cubans knew and approved of Sandinista plans for their recent incursion into Honduras and that each day's delay in assisting the freedom fighters increases the chances of a permanent Soviet beachhead of aggression on the North American mainland. The Sandinistas, the Cubans, and the Soviets want a military, not a political, solution to the problem of Central America. And that's why it's imperative for the House of Representatives to approve the legislation recently passed by the Senate, legislation that provides the freedom fighters with our full aid package, especially the defensive weapons they need to protect themselves.

Now, that's been enough of a monolog, and I understand there's a dialog in the offing. So, Mr. Chairman -- --

Mr. Clark. Thank you very much, Mr. President. We will have questions from the floor. Let me remind you that members only will ask questions, and please state clearly your name and your newspaper affiliation so that not only the others in the hall but the President can understand who you are.

I'll recognize the questioners, and some I'll recognize -- Dick Smyser, Dick?

Former President Marcos of the Philippines

Q. Mr. President, I'm Dick Smyser, from the Oak Ridger in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. President Marcos said during his interview with Ted Koppel [ABC News] last Thursday night that in effect he was doublecrossed. He said that all of a sudden the administration would not answer his telephone calls. He said that when he went to Clark Air Force Base he thought he was going elsewhere in the Philippines, and it was only after he was on the plane that he learned that he was going to Guam. Would you comment on his accusations?

The President. I think that my friend, Mr. Marcos, has been misinformed by some. As a matter of fact, I had a personal representative that was meeting with him quite consistently. Our only practice, or what we did during that entire time, was to try and see that the Philippines, which historically the Filipino people have been our close friends -- that this did not degenerate into civil war. And when he himself publicly announced his refusal to order the army to fight, we were very pleased with that, and I thought it was very worthy of him that he did that. And this was all, that we just wanted to see that there would be no civil war. And we respect him for his willingness to leave the island. But as far as we knew, he was aware that his destination when he left the palace was Clark Field.

Q. And you're in effect saying that President Marcos misspoke himself or stated a falsehood when he said he thought he was going to somewhere else in the Philippines?

The President. I think maybe he was misinformed. [Laughter] Happens to every President. [Laughter]

Mr. Clark. Over here on my left.

Nicaragua

Q. Heath Merriwether, with the Miami Herald. Mr. President, diplomatically you've said you supported the Contadora peace initiative in Central America. Yet those nations of the Contadora pact have said that they don't think that aid to the contras will help their efforts. How do you resolve the contradiction between support of the Contadora initiative and your own push for aid to the contras?

The President. Well, we may disagree on whether it is necessary now to give this, of course -- and we do believe it is necessary, and I'm wondering if their view would not be the same about help to the contras in view of what just happened in the last meeting. Because once again -- and we have subscribed to their goals that they have put down as to what it is they're trying to achieve. And they know that we fully subscribe to them. But in its last meeting, it was Nicaragua, once again, the Sandinista government, that refused the proposals of Contadora and walked out. So, maybe now they'll join us in believing that there's going to have to be some pressure put on the Sandinista government to make it return to the goals of the revolution against the Somoza regime.

They announced publicly goals and informed the Organization of American States what their revolutionary goals were; and they were democracy, a pluralistic society, freedom of press, religion, freedom of speech, observance of human rights, and the right of the people to choose their own government. And that's what is at issue. The Sandinistas were only part of that revolution. And they ousted their revolutionary companions, who are mainly now the contras. Once the revolution succeeded, they took over and have established a totalitarian Communist state. And we think they're not going to -- when have we ever seen a Communist government that has achieved that totalitarian statehood -- when have we ever seen them voluntarily and without some pressure or force give up their power? So, we believe that arming the contras is necessary. And I hope maybe now the Contadora will agree with us.

Mr. Clark. Don, on the right here.

World Oil Prices

Q. Don James, Wichita Falls Times and Record News. Mr. President, the free-fall in oil prices is concerning a lot of people, particularly with respect to what it will do for exploration. Do you have any concerns about the long-term effect of a virtual halt in exploration for oil on the national security?

The President. Well, yes, and we hope that this whole thing will stabilize very quickly. We're concerned lest some major producers in other parts of the world might start playing games with this, as if in an effort to eliminate competition. And if they have such ideas -- I don't know that they do -- but if anyone does and has such an idea, of course, they would be looking forward to a time when they could then skyrocket the prices on a kind of monopoly basis. But we still believe in the free market. We know that it now is a hardship for the oil-producing regions and industry here in America.

At the same time, we can't deny that it has been of great benefit to the rest of industry in America; to our productivity, because of the importance of energy as a part of production; and a benefit to our citizens with the lower prices. But I hope that the free marketplace can adjust. I'm resistant to the idea of government trying to inject itself and, through regulation and so forth, bring about a change because that never has worked. I have always stated that the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this Earth is a government program. [Laughter]

Q. Thank you, sir.

Mr. Clark. Bill.

Press Coverage of Military Operations

Q. Bill Ketter, from the Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Massachusetts. Mr. President, as you know, the members of ASNE and the press in general were concerned when the press was excluded from the Grenada invasion some time ago. After that we worked out this situation with the Defense Department where we had these practice pools where reporters would be able to go with the military in these exercises. And recently in the Libyan encounter in the Gulf of Sidra there were six journalists that were on the U.S.S. Saratoga as part of a press pool, but when the military encounter began they were removed from the ship and flown back to Rome and were not even made aware of the fact that there was a military encounter going on in the Gulf of Sidra. I'd like to know if you can give us an explanation as to why the reporters were removed from the ship and if you could restate your attitude on reporters covering military encounters involving the United States?

The President. Well, with the Grenada situation we had found out how leaky Washington is in a number of things. We realized that for the safety of our men that that operation had to be top secret. It came about with a direct request to us from the other Caribbean island nations -- that they didn't have the power and asked us. As a matter of fact, at about 3 o'clock in the morning it was relayed to me. If George Shultz ever asks you for a quiet weekend of golf at Augusta, don't take him up on it. [Laughter] That's where I was awakened. And I knew that we had to accede to their request. And we only had 48 hours to put this operation together, and we feared very definitely that any leak would result in higher casualties for our forces. We immediately -- that we had landed -- as you know, then did provide the transportation and make possible the bringing in of the press.

On this latest one that you are asking about, I was not aware of those six being taken off. Once there were hostilities, we started trying to round up the press in Italy. But this -- in response to the reports that we deliberately went in there as a provocation -- that was the seventh such maneuver, war games, you may want to call them, that we have conducted in that same area. And we knew that we were risking it -- knowing the nature of Qadhafi -- that there might possibly be something. And I've always had one order any place we ever sent our personnel. I declared to the Navy that it was my policy that if hostilities were launched against them -- we'll never send American military personnel without the right to fight back and fire back if they're fired upon. So, that was the only rule that was in there. But we went in on what had been planned for months and months. And there will probably be another such maneuver next year.

And then, when the hostilities -- when they did launch the attack against us, why, it was my understanding that then, following that, and when it did become an operation, that we tried to round up the press and so inform them and make available to them the news.

Q. Well, it's our information that the six reporters or six journalists were removed from the ship and were not told about the military encounter that was going to occur once the ship went across the Line of Death [Latitude 32 30, which Libya claimed as the boundary of its territorial waters]. But are you saying that you think the press should accompany the military on all of its encounters?

The President. Yes, and we have had such a policy. But I think also that you must understand where we believe that there is an operation where secrecy is so all-important that you give us the right to protect ourselves against a leak of information. And that leak does not necessarily come from you. We've found that the White House is the leakiest place I've ever been in. [Laughter] So, you'd be surprised how few people knew that we were planning that operation. Not even our Press Secretary knew. Not that he's the leaker; we just kept it that close -- [laughter].

Q. Well, we'd like to be there for the leaks. [Laughter]

The President. But I'm going to look into what you said about the six.

Mr. Clark. Right here in front.

International Terrorism

Q. Mr. President, Randy Hatch, from Ogden, Utah, the Ogden Standard Examiner. After increasing terrorism and incidents of terrorism and reviewing all of the options available, do you have a specific plan of dealing with terrorism in the future now?

The President. Well, we're taking very serious -- as I've said, we're not going to just sit here and hold still. We're trying to work with our allies, and we've been successful in part with regard to cooperation in intelligence matters. Last year, thanks to that cooperation between our countries, we were able to abort 126 planned terrorist attacks throughout the world. And we're continuing to try and get more support now for action that would be appropriate in view of the greater threats that are being uttered of terrorist activities. And right now, with the most recent activities, I can't get specific with you, because I can only tell you that we are investigating and trying to gather all of the information we can so that we can actually, with solid evidence, point a finger at who is responsible.

Q. Can you indicate if it might be Mr. Qadhafi?

The President. Let us say he is definitely a suspect. [Laughter]

Q. Thank you.

Mr. Clark. Over here on the right.

President's Media Image

Q. Mr. President, I'm David Corcoran, from the Record of Hackensack, New Jersey. A personal question, if I may. I think Americans overwhelmingly regard you as a nice guy, and yet in your talk today and in talks around the country you have denounced your critics and liberals and the previous administration in a language that I think is unusually harsh for a President in the sixth year of what's overwhelmingly considered to be a very successful administration. Can you tell us, sir, why, at this stage of your Presidency, you find it necessary to engage in such attacks?

The President. Well, now, my quoting of Bill Buckley and his line -- is that what you're referring to as being harsh? I don't often quote him because he uses too big words. [Laughter] But I didn't think that was harsh. There's no question but that I am tagged throughout the world as being an archconservative, and I've always thought that I was kind of defending myself when I answered back. Back in the beginning of our economic program that started this recovery, I was aware that my critics had named the plan Reaganomics, and I knew it was a success when they stopped calling it that. [Laughter] But where have I been so -- I don't think I've been all that harsh.

Q. Well, sir, would you say, then, that your remarks about liberals and your critics in the media are just a normal part of the ongoing dialog and exchange in the marketplace of ideas?

The President. Well, I'm sorry you took that yourself. I was very careful to say critics and stop there. And there's a good share of the 535 on Capitol Hill -- and they aren't connected to press -- that are critics. And so, in front of this audience, I wasn't going to actually tag my critics as being of the press. [Laughter] No, I recognize the right, and I go along with Thomas Jefferson. I will protect and believe in a free press. I could say there is a section of the press that takes me on regularly, but it's a controlled press: Pravda and TASS. And I don't defend them at all.

Mr. Clark. Take one more question.

The President. One more.

Mr. Clark. One more question. Over here. Mike.

Press Coverage of Terrorist Acts

Q. Mr. President, Mike Davies, The Hartford Courant. It has been said that publicity in a sense is the lifeblood of terrorism. Perhaps without so much publicity, terrorist acts might diminish in scope and in number. Would you care to comment, please, on how well or how poorly you think the American media have covered terrorist acts up to this point?

The President. I know this talk about publicity and so forth, and I know that they strive for it. On the other hand, just trying to pretend that it doesn't happen and keeping quiet about it isn't going to end it. I think we all -- and I mean by all, I mean that we, in our country, plus our friends and allies throughout the free world -- have got to set down standards and make it plain that there will be retaliation and that terrorism cannot succeed, and thus part of our policy is that we will never pay off terrorists because that only encourages more of it.

I think the only time that I ever wondered about the media was in the terrorist kidnaping of a plane in Beirut, and then when Nabih Berri took away from the original hijackers our people and held them and then started negotiating for their release. I did wonder why one of the press that was present, when they could come in and out, go back to their hotels at night and then meet with Nabih Berri the next day -- and there he sat, flanked by their fellow Americans who were prisoners, kidnap victims, even though Nabih had not been the man who hijacked the plane. He hijacked it from the hijackers. And I wondered why at some time someone didn't say: ``Why, we are Americans. We've committed no crime or anything. We're going when this press conference is over -- be able to walk out of here and go where we want to go. Why can't those other Americans who've committed no crime against anyone -- why can't they walk out of here with us?'' And I would've liked to have seen the look on his face on the TV news program if someone had asked him that question at the time. So, if it ever happens again, maybe someone will think of it -- ask that question. [Laughter]

Mr. Clark. We thank you very much, Mr. President. We appreciate your being here.

The President. Thank you all very much. Thank you. Have a good lunch.

Note: The President spoke at 11:55 a.m. in the Grand Ballroom at the J.W. Marriott Hotel. Robert P. Clark, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and vice president of news for Harte-Hanks Newspapers, moderated the question-and-answer session.