THE PRESIDENT. Good afternoon.
Well, it's a pleasure to be back with you. The last time I was joined with this group was in the same building in a different room, and now you see what Room 450 looks like. This is where your reporters put me through a grilling on the occasions when I come over for a press conference.
Some people ask me how I react to those press conferences, and it's hard for me to answer that question honestly and on the record. But I was thinking about one of the things that Hedley Donovan1 said—one of your past associates. When he was at Fortune, he was working late at night, I understand, typing, bent over, sweating, worrying, and somebody came up and said, "Do you really enjoy writing?" And he said, "Well, let me put it this way: I enjoy having written." [Laughter] That's kind of the way with me. I enjoy having had press conferences, but I don't particularly enjoy it at the time.
1Senior Adviser to the President.
I'm delighted to be with you. This is an important occasion, I know, in the history of Gannett. You have achieved a great level of performance and, also, business success. A very reliable source I have within Gannett has told me confidentially that you're now the largest news chain in the Nation, has more readers. The same reliable source told me when he was working for me that it was very important to have a better working relationship with the press. [Laughter] I understand that Vice President Walt Wurfel 2 has put that philosophy to work since he's been with you.
2Walter W. Wurfel, former Deputy Press Secretary to the President.
I thank you for coming. I would like to say a couple of things and then answer two or three questions if you don't mind.
Our Nation is now embroiled in a circumstance in Iran that's not only difficult but also extremely sensitive and may have historic connotations for the future. I think it's demonstrated that Americans can be remarkably united, that Americans can be remarkably resolved, and that, contrary to our basic nature, Americans can also be very patient, when patience is the better part of valor.
I think we've learned, as I said yesterday in my speech to the Business Council, that it's a general consensus now in our country that military strength and also a strong nation is not contrary to the desires for peace. I think we've learned from the Vietnam war that to become unnecessarily involved in the internal affairs of another country when our own security is not directly threatened is a serious mistake. But we've also learned since then, particularly now, that a strong America, willing to exert its strength when necessary, is an integral part of the psyche of our country and also a legitimate role for America to play.
I don't know what the future will bring in the Iran situation. It's so far been handled with, I think, dispatch and also with wisdom. I've got good advisers, and we're very cautious about how we have approached this difficult circumstance.
We have emphasized over and over, not adequately yet, that there is no confrontation or schism between the world of Islam, the Moslem countries and our own country. This is not the point at all. And as far as the hostages are concerned, they are the only issue for us. It's not a proper time for us to discuss the wisdom or the role that the Shah played as a good or bad leader. It's not a proper time for us to get involved in a debate about whether he is or has been sick, or how sick, or where he goes, or to discuss the history of Iran.
It's important, and we have recognized the importance of maintaining one issue foremost in our mind and in our national consciousness in our dealing with other countries, in our dealing with Iran, in our dealing with the United Nations, and that is the early and the safe release of the American hostages. I'm very proud of the way our Nation has performed.
We do have adequate military presence in the Arabian Sea at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. We've not made idle threats; we've not had to. We've made a clear statement of our purpose and our resolve, which will be exercised if necessary. What we want is peace, and what we want is a good relationship, now and in the future, with the people of Iran. We're not trying to decide what form of government they should have. We're not trying to interfere in their own internal affairs. We think they've violated every international law imaginable—the Geneva agreements, the premises on which the United Nations Charter is based.
And we've had an additional responsibility, which has been difficult, but, I think, which has been successfully achieved so far, of keeping world opinion on our side. This even involves the less developed countries and other Moslem nations who would not ordinarily be inclined to do so. It has encompassed, as well, nations who in the past have not been our close friends. And in the United Nations Security Council vote, the three small nations, coincidentally, happen to have been and are Moslem countries.
Our presentation to the International Court of Justice by the Attorney General this week has been well received. We anticipate—I can't say for sure—that we'll have a ruling from that Court, perhaps even as early as tomorrow. I have no way to determine that accurately; that's what the Attorney General believes. And we hope it will be resolved in our favor. We're trying to keep legality, propriety, and world opinion and the right on our side.
I think we've seen in this incident a very serious additional piece of evidence that our Nation is vulnerable to our suppliers of oil. My guess is that the trend in OPEC oil production among the Arab and non-Arab countries in the coming months will be downward, not upward. And with a shorter and shorter supply in prospect, there's no doubt in my mind that prices will be going up. It would be a mistake for me to mislead the American people.
Some of the countries are producing more oil than they want to produce. Saudi Arabia is a typical example—a very good example, not typical. They would be adequately compensated, in money of all denominations and foreign holdings, with a much lower level of production. They are not the only country producing perhaps more than they would prefer to produce for their own, narrowly focused, parochial needs.
Other countries have an attenuation in their production, because their explorations have not been successful in revealing additional supplies of oil. And there are additional countries who would like to use a shortage of oil, or a reduction in their sales of oil, for political purposes. I don't know of any instance where there is an inclination among the Arab oil-producing countries to increase production.
So, we're going to see shortages, and it's a very serious problem for us in not having an adequate national energy policy. As you know, I proposed such a policy in April of 1977, after I'd been in office 90 days, and the Congress has still not acted. They've not passed any legislation, not one line of legislation relating to oil. And, as you know, there is a very difficult and sensitive problem on the Hill in passing legislation to take away the prerogatives, sometimes the exaggerated prerogatives, unwarranted prerogatives, of the oil companies.
I, in effect, represent two major and different kinds of nations. One is by far the largest oil-consuming nation on Earth, and at the same time, one of the largest oil-producing nations on Earth. And for the first time in the last 2 years, we have seen a rough equivalency between the influence on the Hill of oil consumers compared to oil producers. In the past the field was open to oil producers exclusively, and you could understand that when oil was $1.50 a barrel.
I'd like very much now to answer two or three questions of yours, if you have any, and, Al,3 perhaps I could call on you for the first question, if the others don't object. [Laughter]
3 Allen H. Neuharth, president and chief executive officer, Gannett Co., Inc.
PUBLIC OPINION POLLS
Q. In light of what's happened in the polls recently and the general tone of editorials about your administration, are you reading newspapers any more and enjoying them any more? [Laughter]
THE PRESIDENT. A few months ago I doubted very seriously the authenticity and accuracy of the polls. [Laughter] Lately my opinion of them has increased substantially. [Laughter]
But I would guess, to be serious about it, that a lot of the poll response has been because of the Iranian question, a natural desire on the part of Americans to support their President in a time of crisis or challenge. That's part of it. The other part, to be equally frank, is that I believe that the expectations that were felt among many Democrats concerning Senator Kennedy's ability has been attenuated since he became an active candidate. That was almost inevitable, and I don't say that in derogation of him. But those two factors are obviously at play.
We have a long way to go. There's only one poll that counts, as my wife said on the "Today" show this morning, and that's the final vote. But we're prepared. I think it's obvious that in 1975, 1976, that we were constantly underestimated, maybe even by some of your editorial writers and reporters. But we've got a good ability to organize, and we have a longstanding, even a lifetime commitment, at least a political lifetime commitment, to stay close to the American people. We do this through my own interrelationships and those of my staff and those of my family. And I think that sensitivity of American needs and desires and hopes and aspirations and concerns pay rich dividends.
But we know how to organize, and we are successful and have been in the past in conducting a campaign. So, I would guess that we have a good chance next year. I look forward to it with anticipation and confidence.
AMERICAN HOSTAGES IN IRAN
Q. Mr. President, you mentioned the patience of the American people. There was an instance in the late sixties when some British diplomats were taken hostage in Peking and were held for—I think it was over a year. It got to the point where people stopped talking about it and the Government of Britain stopped talking about it. They were released. Is it possible or conceivable that this situation could drag on in Tehran until we get sort of the same situation?
THE PRESIDENT. I'm determined that that will not happen, Don. 4
4 Don Campbell, White House correspondent, Gannett News Service.
We had, as you know, one of our Ambassadors who was captured in Manchuria-maybe the incident to which you refer, maybe a different one—and he stayed imprisoned for more than a year. It was during President Truman's administration. He was finally released, I think, in the fall or winter of 1949. I'm not sure about the exact date.
There, President Truman—I've re-read the history on it and even the private memoranda that were exchanged within the White House—and President Truman did ask the Joint Chiefs of Staff and others to analyze how he might, through physical action if necessary, cause the release of our Ambassador and his staff. It was not done, and eventually the Ambassador was released.
I'm determined that in this particular incident we will not forget those hostages one day and that we will continue to keep the issue of their illegal incarceration in the forefront of the consciousness not only of America but of the entire world. There are a series of steps that we can take. There are also steps that the Iranians are taking, not for the same purpose, to keep this a vivid issue in the minds of the people throughout the world.
We will not let it become a dormant issue, or we will not let the status quo become acceptable. In my judgment there has been some change, substantial change, in the attitude even among the Iranians. And if you go back and look at the early comments or statements that were made and compare them to the more recent ones, you see that there has been some evolutionary change, not always in the right direction, but, I think, in general it has.
The promise that our hostages would be tried individually as war criminals and perhaps even executed was the earliest threats made. That has, to some degree, been changed. Their early expectation that the Shah would be returned to them through blackmail—I think those expectations have now been lowered, if not eliminated altogether, and so I think that, in itself, is good.
But I will not permit this incident to become acceptable and to be dragged out. I'll do my utmost to prevent that. I don't want that to be interpreted as threatening military action. I'll do everything I can to avoid any bloodshed, provided our hostages are not physically harmed.
Maybe one more question.
Q. Mr. President, in light of your comments about the oil shortage possibility, what is the likelihood of rationing?
THE PRESIDENT. In my opinion we must do something about the excessive consumption of oil products, particularly gasoline. We made an effort in the International Energy Agency this week, as you may know. The Secretary of Energy went over there, and we pointed out to the other members—I think it's almost all the democratic developed nations on Earth, except France is not a member; 24 nations, I believe—we pointed out to them that the prospects next year are for a reduction in oil exports from the OPEC countries of about a million and a half to 2 million, maybe as high as 2 1/2 million barrels per day, and that we needed to form an alliance, in effect, or a commitment that instead of increasing our bids for spot market oil as the shortages did evolve, if they do, then we would have an arrangement ahead of time for us to lower our demand for imported oil collectively, so that we could share the shortages.
We are part of that process, and we will have another meeting in March to follow up on those tentative commitments made at that meeting this week.
Gasoline is obviously the easiest energy supply to curtail as far as waste is concerned, because Americans do waste so much. There are several ways that this can be done. One is voluntary action on the part of Governors and States—this involves a gamut of things; secondly, an increase in the price of gasoline through an imposed tax. We are considering that as one of the options. Rationing is another option that we are considering. Either one of those last two would require congressional action, and before long—I don't know exactly the time schedule yet—I'll be having some meetings on it this week-we will decide what approach to take.
An increase in the price of gasoline has shown, in the last few month% to be much closer related to conservation than we had previously anticipated. There was a guess earlier, a presumption earlier, that the elasticity factor was one-tenth, which means that if you increase the price of gasoline 10 percent, you would only have a 1-percent reduction in consumption. It's probably twice that much, which has been a fairly pleasant surprise, that we have had voluntary conservation among Americans.
This summer, for instance, we had an average, not only in gas consumption reduced, but we had an average increase in mileage derived from automobiles all over the country of 1 mile per gallon, which is a substantial amount of saving. This is because of smaller cars, more careful driving, and so forth. In addition to that, there are other factors—less use of automobiles and, of course, more sharing of automobiles as they make the trip. We have experienced lately a 7- or 8-percent reduction in gasoline consumption.
So, we are exploring opportunities. I've not yet made a decision on how to cut gasoline consumption more. We can do it without hurting our economy.
MR. NEUHARTH. Thank you very much.
THE PRESIDENT. Thank you very much. I've enjoyed being with you.