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Informal Exchange With Reporters

August 09, 1989

The President. Well, first let me welcome His Eminence, Cardinal Law, once again to the White House -- a friend of longstanding and a man for whom I think we all have great respect. But I just want to suggest that this weekend, each in our own way, that we say a prayer for the American hostages, for their family, and indeed, for world peace. I believe in prayer, and I think it would be most appropriate with the situation that we consider this. So, I would ask the churches and other places of faith to say a special prayer this weekend.

U.S. Hostage Policy

Q. Mr. President, you seem to be moving away from the Reagan interpretation of what is a negotiation. You have fine-tuned it in the Boston Globe interview. To really make it specific, is there a subtle change, any change?

The President. I don't think there's any subtle change from the report that I signed, and indeed was the father of, sponsored obviously by President Reagan. I'm not going to do anything that would put some other American, perhaps in some other place, at some other time, at risk -- and that means trading off or negotiating for hostages.

Q. But you are talking, and when you talk you obviously are -- --

The President. Excuse me, Helen [Helen Thomas, United Press International], I hope I'm openminded enough to talk and to exercise every diplomatic channel I can to free these Americans. No American is going to be content until these people are free, and I would be not doing my job if I didn't approach it in that manner.

Q. Well, isn't talking really trying to find out what their terms are and trying to persuade?

The President. I'm not talking about terms; I'm talking about talking to get people out that are held against their will. And I think I covered that pretty well in my inaugural address when I said good will will beget good will. And if ever there was a clearer signal, in my view, that's it. So, I repeat it. And if there are changes taking place and signals that are shifting, I don't want to miss a signal. The life of every single one of these people is too precious for me to be sticking my head in the sand and miss some subtlety in this highly complicated corner of the world. So, we are in touch with as many people as possible, anyone that I think can help either me or the Secretary of State or others who are in contact with them. We're going to keep on doing that.

Q. Is it possible to even discuss the question of the Iranian assets and the United States unfreezing them without encouraging the taking of other hostages?

The President. I'm not going to go into the details of the question you've asked. I've seen conflicting statements coming out of Iran on this question. And my view is to make the statements unconflicting, and my view is to do nothing that will be seen as quid pro quo for hostages.

Q. Mr. President, is it possible for you to elaborate on what you mean by that? How you -- --

The President. No.

Q. No?

The President. No, it's not possible for me to elaborate on it.

Q. After some original statements of optimism, you now seem a little bit more pessimistic about the prospects for getting the hostages out anytime soon. Why do you feel that way?

The President. Terry [Terence Hunt, Associated Press], how do you know what I feel? It's the first time you've seen me in 4 days.

Q. No, I'm looking at your comments in the Boston Globe interview.

The President. What does it say there?

Q. In which you say "I have no reason to say just over the horizon that I think that this problem will be solved."

The President. Well, so I never said that I thought it would be solved just over this side of the horizon, did I?

Q. But you just said -- --

The President. What I'm saying hasn't changed anything. I don't go up and down by some headline, some newsclip. I'm conducting the foreign policy of this country in a prudent manner that I hope will get these people out of there. But the last thing I want to do is elevate the hopes of these families who have been disappointed over and over again, to have those hopes dashed. I think that would be not a good way to behave. So, I don't know. Put it this way: I don't think, in reply to your question, that I've changed my views. I've never felt that the hostages would be here tomorrow, but I want to -- I hope they will, hope that something will happen. But in terms of my emotions, or how I view it, I haven't shifted.

Q. But "cautiously optimistic" means more hope than you seem to have had before.

The President. Come again?

Q. "Cautiously optimistic," which is the word you bought yesterday in your interview, seemed to have raised hopes.

The President. But he just said I dashed the hopes by saying it was too far away in the same interview. Come on, lighten up here. I mean, you can't have it both ways. You interpret the interview one way, he interprets it another. And I'm telling you what I think.

Q. Are the signals for Iran still positive? Are the signals from Iran still apparently positive?

The President. They're mixed, they're very mixed, John [John Cochran, NBC News]. And this is one of the difficulties. They're very mixed.

Disappearance of Mickey Leland

Q. Mr. President, do you have any late word on Congressman Leland?

The President. No.

Q. Is there anything the U.S. conceivably could do that it's not yet doing?

The President. No, we're cooperating and trying. Any late news on the Leland matter?

General Scowcroft. No late news, but the Ethiopians have asked for our help in searching for it.

The President. Well, they're getting it, and we are -- --

Q. What about the search plane they've asked for?

The President. What?

Q. What about the search plane that they've asked for?

The President. They're going to get all the cooperation we can give them. Cheney's trying to find what assets are available. Indeed, I think we've already mobilized -- --

General Scowcroft. We've sent some, and we're sending more, Mr. President.

The President. But this matter is of great concern to us.

Yes, Tom? And this is the last question.

Death of Lieutenant Colonel Higgins

Q. Mr. President, have we made any progress at all on the possible return of Colonel Higgins' body?

The President. No. And again, I'm not going to give up on it. I'm not going to say there is no hope. I talked to the [U.N.] Secretary-General yesterday, who is meeting with his representative, Goulding [Marrack Goulding, Under Secretary-General for Special Political Affairs] today. He's coming back from his vacation to talk to him, and I expect I'll be in touch if there is any reason.

I'll tell you one thing, Tom [Tom DeFrank, Newsweek], that is interesting -- out of this -- and perhaps hopeful. Some who -- don't ask me to elaborate -- some who heretofore have been ambivalent or silent in the face of Americans held hostage because of political reasons have been so infuriated or angered or repulsed by the brutality of the Higgins film and then having Cicippio come out and read under obvious duress that statement -- they've been so offended by that, regardless of their view on the politics of the Middle East or any other area, that we are finding more and more of a willingness to help. And I'd say that's a positive thing. That might offer more hope to those families that are just being so hurt by the recent revelations.

Q. You mean in the Mideast?

General Scowcroft. All over.

The President. All over in the diplomatic efforts we're engaged in people have -- there's a common thread -- look, this is too much, enough is enough. And so, maybe that -- it's just a hunch, but perhaps that will lead us to some solution here.

Cardinal Law

Q. Why is the Cardinal here? Do you have some special message? From divine providence or from anywhere else?

Cardinal Law. No.

The President. His Eminence has a keen interest in many areas in the world, including Cuba, Haiti, Eastern Europe. And as I do with a lot of people, I talk to a lot of people outside of the White House and outside of our government in order to learn, in order to see how we can help the cause of world peace, the cause of human rights. And I expect we're going to touch on those three areas here, along with others. His Eminence knows of my respect for the Holy Father; indeed, has helped me understand the dedication that the Pope has to world peace. Perhaps, through Cardinal Law, I have a more personal feeling about the Holy Father that made me feel the other day just inclined to pick up the telephone and call him and ask for his help in the return of Rich Higgins. And so, I learn from wise people.

Thank you all very much.

Note: The exchange began at 12:09 p.m. in the Oval Office at the White House prior to a meeting with Bernard Cardinal Law, archbishop of Boston. Lt. Col. William R. Higgins, USMC, chief of the U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, was kidnaped on February 17, 1988, and executed by pro-Iranian terrorists on July 31, 1989. Joseph J. Cicippio, acting comptroller at the American University of Beirut, was abducted from the campus on September 12, 1986.

George Bush, Informal Exchange With Reporters Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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