Remarks and an Interview With Gannett Foundation Fellows

 

March 29, 1988

 

The President. I'm going to impose on you here this morning before taking your questions -- that there are a number of major issues being discussed on the Hill today, INF ratification and the contra aid bill. But I want to take a couple of minutes, if I could, to talk to you about the trade bill.

 

America's now in its 64th month of economic expansion. That's the longest peacetime expansion in the history of our country, and we're still going strong. Gross national product is up; exports are up. And we continue to create new jobs -- 15\1/2\ million since the expansion began. There's no time for protectionism. I could argue that there is never a time for it, but now is definitely not the time. It's not the time for mandatory retaliation against our trading partners, and it's not the time to violate our GATT [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade] agreements, and it certainly is not the time to close our borders to foreign investment while we are pressing to open other borders to U.S. investors.

 

We can pass a trade bill that will improve our current trade laws, protecting patents and copyrights, and streamlining export controls, and renewing negotiating authority that makes historic compacts like the Canada free trade agreement possible. We can have that kind of a trade bill, and I won't sign one unless we do.

 

But now, that's enough of that, and I'm pleased to see you and have you all here. Frequently throughout these last several years we've gone out and invited people like yourselves who are outside the White House press corps, or even the beltway press, to come in here, and it has always been a pleasure to take your questions.

 

Federalism

 

Q. Mr. President, we often hear local officials complain that your budget priorities force them to swallow Federal programs they can't afford, so they reach their taxing limits and cut basic services. Do you take responsibility for what California counties, for instance, called their unrelenting fiscal crisis?

 

The President. Their unrelenting what?

 

Q. Fiscal crisis.

 

The President. Well, the reverse of all of that is really true. There are some programs that we've cut simply because we've been able to make administrative improvements. I came here with a memory fresh in my mind as Governor of California of coming across a government program to help the needy in which the administrative overhead was $2 for every dollar delivered to a needy person, and set out to do something about that. Some programs, we have thought, are not proper for the Federal Government. But at the same time, one of the things that had been imposed on local and State government by the Federal Government was the usurpation of authority and autonomy that belonged at the local and State level.

 

And the Federal Government actually had acquiescence, in that over a great many years, by simply taking up so much of the taxing potential that not enough was left for local or State government for the things that they might want to do. And this then was the excuse for the Federal Government to step in with things that, as I say, properly belonged at that other level. Well, now, with our very beginning of our recovery program, it was based on tax reductions and the idea of thus reopening sources of taxation that other elements of government or levels of government could call upon.

 

Q. Are they in trouble then just because they haven't been willing to raise taxes to take advantage of that?

 

The President. I would have to see the specific case as to what that was about, but I'd like to call to your attention that the Federal -- or the State and local governments basically have, while we've been running budget deficits, have basically been achieving surpluses. As a matter of fact, if you take the total national deficit and add in local and State government -- the total cost of all government in the United States -- you would find that the deficit is not as -- well, it isn't -- there are other countries that have greater deficits than we do if you figure all of that. It's at the Federal level that we're still excessively spending.

 

And I could call attention to the fact that way back in 1932 Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for office, and part of his platform was to restore authority and autonomy to States and local governments that had been unjustly seized by the Federal Government. And we have a program we call federalism in which we're trying to restore fully that concept that the United States is a federation of sovereign States.

 

Q. Thank you.

 

Death of U.S. Marines in Lebanon

 

Q. Mr. President, if you could change one major policy decision that you've made during your administration, what do you think it would be?

 

The President. My goodness. [Laughter] Well, all of them were made in good faith. [Laughter] Changed or not -- just offhand, I can't think. Well, I can think of one that turned out so disastrously that we had to withdraw from it. And that is that we -- in company of 3 other countries -- 4 countries, in an effort to try and bring peace in the Middle East and to Lebanon -- that when we discovered that the Lebanese military forces -- well, Lebanon itself was occupied by military groups that belonged to kind of private warlords, you might almost say, and that the military of Lebanon could not go out and restore government control over the country unless there was some protection for the people left behind in Beirut. And we, in company with three of our allies, decided that we would send in, as you know, forces to maintain order. We would not be out there fighting those private armies, but our forces would be there to keep order in the city where there was no order, keep order there while the Lebanese military did what -- or the -- yes, Lebanese military did what it was supposed to do.

 

Well, the funny thing is that was working. I got a letter from a woman there who told me that for the first time in 8 years she was able to allow her daughter to go to school, that it was safe once more. But because it was successful, that's when the terrorist attacks began and the sniping of the military -- not only of ours but the others, our allies -- car bombings and so forth. And finally, that great disaster, that car bomb that brought down the building at the airport in Lebanon and killed 241 Americans.

 

It can be questioned as to the wisdom of putting them in there. They had not been billeted in that building, but it was steel and concrete construction. And out where they were, encamped around the airport, which was part of our duties, there were victims of sniping, things of that kind. And the commanding officers, having that kind of structure available, moved these men in there as a place for the nights, not thinking about a suicide bombing that simply drove a truck into the building with the explosives that blew them up. And then we had to retreat. And another reason we had to retreat and give up was it began to be more evident, also, that the Lebanese military was divided in its loyalties and were loyal to some of these, what I called warlords, to the extent that it was difficult to get them in many instances to take action against the forces they were supposed to be clearing out.

 

Oliver North

 

Q. Mr. President, last week you said you still think Oliver North is a hero, despite his indictment on conspiracy, theft, and fraud charges. If requested, will you testify on his behalf? And can you tell us why you still consider him to be a hero?

 

The President. Yes, I will tell you that. I don't know what his situation will be with regard to giving testimony or not. But I think I was too short in my remark when I answered the question. It was a specific question: Did I still consider him a hero? I should have augmented that and said why, and that is look at the record and at the honors and the medals that have been awarded him for bravery in combat. And I have to say those were heroic actions and he is a valid hero. And that was what my answer was based on, although, as I said, I should have augmented it as I did here and reminded them of his war record.

 

Q. Well, do you think the allegations of shredding documents and lying to Congressional and Justice Department investigators tarnished that heroism?

 

The President. You have said allegations, and now you come down to what is a kind of a sore point with me about a lot of the things that have been going on with regard to people in our administration. And that is that someplace along the line many of us have forgotten that you are innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. And what has happened, I think, in the case of this kind is it's just everyone is accepting guilt on the basis of accusation. And I say they've got a right to be presumed innocent until someone proves them guilty of the charges.

 

Now, I see that I'm getting a signal here. He isn't just restless. [Laughter] It means that my time is up, and that I'm supposed to leave here. But I'm going to turn this over to my Chief of Staff, Senator Howard Baker, and he'll continue to take your questions. And I'm sorry that I have to quit. I've been enjoying this. As a matter of fact, I want to tell you just something before I go. I enjoy taking your questions more than I do from the White House press corps. [Laughter]

 

Note: The interview began at 11:23 a.m. in the Roosevelt Room at the White House.