Ronald Reagan picture

Interview With Bruce Drake of the New York Daily News

July 08, 1986

Former Philippine President Marcos

Mr. Drake. The first question I wanted to ask you, Mr. President, was about Ferdinand Marcos. And I wonder whether you feel, in the light of the events of the past months, whether he's abused the hospitality that you offered to him?

The President. No, I don't think so. And I can't put out of my mind the fact that—and nor should any of us, I think—that his leaving the islands was preceded by his denial of permission to the military, in that time of turbulence and street fighting and so forth, to take action, because the one thing he did not want was bloodshed or civil strife of that kind. And so, he left rather than permit that. And so, it still holds that he's welcome here as long as he wants to stay and can move on if he prefers.

Mr. Drake. Well, is he welcome here if we see that he's continuing to involve himself in the politics back in the Philippines?

The President. Well, now, we'd face that if it comes. So far, no evidence has been shown to me that he has done anything of that kind.

Mr. Drake. Well, as I recall, at about the time that you met him in Hawaii and you spoke to him by phone that very same weekend—

The President. Yes.

Mr. Drake.—he had placed a phone call back to a rally in the Philippines, and said what some people considered to be inflammatory statements. But you don't feel that he's—

The President. Well, at that time, and when I talked to him, he feels that he was elected President under their Constitution. The election was then certified by the legislature-as I say, as their law called for. And he was talking in terms of hoping that there could be another test of this, another election in which he felt that he would be reestablished then as having been elected the President.

Mr. Drake. You don't believe that, in view of contributing to the stability of the Philippines, that he should absent himself from involvement there, or a long distance?

The President. Well, as I say, I don't know to what extent—I haven't seen evidence to any extent that he's doing anything that has brought forth the little abortive coup that took place the other day.

Mr. Drake. Well, one final question on that. The statement that was officially issued by the White House yesterday seemed to be critical of him—that what he had been doing in the past was inconsistent with the way he should be comporting himself in the country—

The President. Well, I think the State Department made a statement that was more to that effect. And, as I say, that was one of the reasons why we tried to be helpful at the time when he left. We don't want the Philippines to descend into civil strife.

Arms Control

Mr. Drake. Let me switch to developments with the Soviet Union and the arms talks. In the last few weeks, ever since your SALT II decision, you and other White House officials have been fairly upbeat about what you consider to be the Soviets' attitude—that they were being more serious and so forth.

The President. Yes.

Mr. Drake. And yet there doesn't seem to be any instances where you or officials have cited specifics. Can you share any specifics, either from Gorbachev's letter or from some of the specific proposals that we've seen from them recently, that gives some basis to this optimism?

The President. Well, yes. The very fact that here is, to my knowledge, the first Russian leader who has actually proposed reducing the number of weapons and who has also voiced the opinion that our goal should be the total elimination of nuclear weapons. Well, that's been our goal for years. In fact, I was campaigning on that in 1980—that I supported and would support and hoped that we could see the end of nuclear weapons-total elimination. So, obviously there's more reason for optimism in this.

Now, as to specifics, let me point something out. The mix of weapons and all is such that you can have an agreement on an ultimate goal, like, for example, the proposal to cut the weapons by 50 percent. But then you can have disagreement on how do you best keep both sides equal while you're arriving at this with regard to the different mix. It isn't as if you're just talking about one specific kind of weapon. And let me point out that when we, in November, proposed an arms plan in response to some of his statements about the overall decrease in weapons, it took them until May to come back with their specific answer. Well, now, it's May, and—no, it's only July yet, and we are working very hard on our response to his latest arms proposal. And we're very hopeful that we're coming closer to eliminating some of the differences under which we can say it's time now to come together on this.

Mr. Drake. Well, you've been making the point about Gorbachev being the first leader to express his desire for some time, and even prior to May when you announced the SALT decision. Is there anything in the last few weeks in the offers that they reportedly tabled? Is there anything that really stood out to you in the letter that you received from Gorbachev that gives a more concrete basis to this hope, rather than a general—

The President. Well, yes, in that they are actually talking specific percentages and so forth of weapons. And this is unusual. This has not taken place before. And certainly we're going to give them the benefit of any doubt that they wouldn't be saying these things if they were not expecting us to come back with—meeting that, as to whether we saw eye to eye with them on numbers and so forth. And, as I say, we're in the spirit of negotiation. That's what we're doing is framing our answer now.

Mr. Drake. Well, for instance, one of their reported offers—in what some people seem to think is a fundamental change—would permit research on SDI. Is that one of the things that we find promising, or is there a feeling here that that really isn't offering us a great deal?

The President. Well, we know that there are probably several years to go in the research that's carried on, and that is within the framework of present day treaties—to conduct that kind of research. They have been doing that for much longer than we have, and we're aware of that.

Mr. Drake. So, you don't consider that much of a concession?

The President. Well, it is a concession to the extent that it is a step forward from just their one-time, flat declaration that we must give up that research.

Mr. Drake. What about the other proposal, that to some people stood out, as far as the Soviets' latest offer, was their proposal concerning forward-base systems and forward-base weapons—the bombers and fighters on carriers within range of the Soviet Union and not counting them. Is that something that you consider an important departure for them?

The President. Well, yes. But this is what I mean about that mix of weapons that we all have. And we have felt—now, maybe we'll have to change our mind on this—we had felt for a time that the most destabilizing weapons were the intercontinental ballistic missiles—that this is the one thing that when we say destabilizing, that when people think of nuclear war, they think of a button being pushed and 30 minutes later their world blows up. And so, we had thought if the approach could be to try and get at those weapons and arrive at some agreements and then take up the others-because they have the other kind, too, just as we do. It's true they have placed greater reliance on the ballistic missile and we have placed more of ours on a triad, of having the submarine-launched, airborne, and the ballistic missile.

One of the reasons why the others are not as destabilizing is we are accustomed in the recent wars of weapons carrying—or, I mean, submarines, ships, airplanes, carrying weapons that they can then launch or drop at the enemy place. And we know that there are defenses against those craft, that antiaircraft can shoot down an airplane or fighter planes, interceptors, can bring them down and so forth—antisubmarine warfare.

I am very happy to be able to talk about that for this few seconds here, because for several years now every once in awhile I am hung out to dry by some critic who still says that the first time I ever talked about that particular subject—some of you in the media misinterpreted and have declared that I claimed that you could call back a bomb or a submarine missile once it had been fired and never did I ever—

Mr. Drake. Oh, I think that's an old story. The President. Oh, just recently somebody voiced this in a criticism of the whole thing in talking—and, no, it never was. I was saying that the same destabilizing fear that people have of the, as I say, push the button and something blows up, does not apply to weapons carried by conventional craft. That's, in effect, what I was saying.

Mr. Drake. Well, I was curious whether in the letter you got from Chairman Gorbachev whether it was pretty much a formal document outlining their latest offers or whether there was anything of a personal nature that spoke to you?

The President. Well, no. All I can say is it was a very extensive letter and went into great detail, and we're treating it in that way.

Soviet-U.S. Summit Meeting

Mr. Drake. One of the things I was curious about with the timing of the summit, if one happens, is that if it slips into 1987, as there has been some speculation, whether you would still be committed to going to Moscow in the same year?

The President. If it timed out that way. I am hoping, still, that the meeting will be held in '86. That was what we agreed to-that an '86 meeting here and an '87 meeting in Moscow. If there are things that come up that make it impossible to have the meeting earlier than 1987, well, then, I think that the third meeting for Moscow would sort of have to be based on whatever the time spread was necessary to prepare for a third meeting.

Mr. Drake. How does the second meeting have to differ from the first meeting in terms of expectations, in terms of the necessity to arrive at some agreement by that point that's a little bit more concrete in the past?

The President. Well, I think, first of all, now we know each other. We have met. There have been discussions on these subjects. Remember that in that first meeting, for example, arms control or arms reductions-this was just a subject in which there had been no real communication on details. At least now we would be sitting down, facing each other, with quite an experience between us of concrete offers and counteroffers to work on.

Mr. Drake. Do you think at the next summit there has to be some concrete arms control agreement?

The President. Or if you could have one before that, it's all right with me. But I would hope that we could perhaps agree upon something that then, from maybe details, we would turn over to our negotiators in Geneva that we both have there.

Arms Control

Mr. Drake. One final question on the subject of the Soviets. There's some talk that your response to the Chairman is already drafted. Is there any way you could give some idea of how you're responding to him?

The President. No, you've got to remember this is a part of negotiations. And I've never believed, in 25 years of labor-management negotiations—

Mr. Drake. I'm willing to help.

The President.—I have never believed that you negotiate beforehand in public, because that's part of the business of negotiating is to deal with the other individual.

South Africa

Mr. Drake. On turning to South Africa, there are a lot of people, including Republicans, who have been saying that we have not done enough to open ties with leaders of the black opposition there. And if the Botha government should not be able to hang on, that we would be faced with another hostile state in a strategic location. Do you think that there's any substance to that concern, and if so, what are we going to do about that?

The President. Well, no, it isn't so. And we do feel that there's a great need for communication with responsible black leaders there and have tried to bring it about. As a matter of fact, both Buthelezi, the Chief of the Zulus, the largest black group in South Africa, and Bishop Tutu—they've both been here, and I've met with them.

Mr. Drake. What about leaders of the ANC [African National Congress]? Would you favor open dealings between U.S. diplomats and leaders of the ANC?

The President. This is all right with me, on the recognition that the ANC, there is no question, has a Communist influence. But at the same time, I realize that there must be many of that organization that are not Communist. And so, it would have to be with the recognition that there is a radical element there that by its own statement and declaration wants only a violent settlement. And as long as they know that we're aware of that, yes, we could talk and express ourselves to them about how wrong we think that is. And perhaps the other elements of the ANC that don't support such radicalism would take a position themselves.

Mr. Drake. President Botha was pretty blunt when he rejected your appeal to allow public commemoration of the anniversary of the Soweto riots. What was your reaction to that? He did not really mince his words when he said that they would not accede to that.

The President. Well, there are some times when you give advice and the advice isn't taken. And from our vantage point over here, it seemed to us we were inviting more bloodshed and violence—or, to do that was inviting more bloodshed and violence.

Mr. Drake. Does the tone of his response support a contention that we're not having the influence there that your administration says we're staying to our policy to continue having?

The President. Well, at least we want to stay to our policy so that we can continue contact. Yes, there are going to be times when, and are times when, there is disagreement. We've made suggestions that we thought might be profitable. He's there dealing with the problem, and he has factions behind him on both sides—support for what he's trying to do. Because I believe he honestly is trying to take steps that will bring them closer to the end of apartheid. But he then has political elements in his government that don't want an end to apartheid. And so, he's got some tough judgments to make.

Mr. Drake. We know you've ruled out economic sanctions in dealing with South Africa. There's a lot of speculation about lesser steps. Are those a distinct possibility if we feel that the Botha regime—

The President. Well, we have taken lesser steps. There are certain sanctions—

Mr. Drake. Well, additional—

The President. But the things that are being proposed by too many people, we think, would only be hurtful to the people we're trying to help, that they would cause great economic hardship, not only to the blacks and the black workers in South Africa, but you have to remember that the frontline States, many of those solidly black governments surrounding them, their economies are actually dependent on the economy of South Africa. And we could wind up doing things that would be very hurtful to these other African States.

Mr. Drake. One last question on South Africa. When we were talking about black leaders in the country and the necessity of dealing with them, what do you think the role of Nelson Mandela should be?

The President. Well, he's sort of an enigma right now. He undoubtedly is a leader in ANC, and he was incarcerated because he openly advocated violence. Now there seems to be some word that he has indicated that he may be stepping back from that position. So, I think it would be worth talking to him, that—

Mr. Drake. Well, do you think he should be freed immediately?

The President. Well, I don't know that that's a decision for us to make. It seems from our viewpoint over here that this could, if it is true that he is advocating negotiations rather than just outright violence, that then this could be most helpful.

Libya and Terrorism

Mr. Drake. I'd like to ask you a quick question on Qadhafi, who we haven't heard from for some while. Do you believe—to use the phrase that Secretary [of State] Shultz once used—that all the actions we've taken have "put him back in his box"?

The President. Well, I don't know. But he has stepped back and sort of disappeared from, you might say, public life. And you have to depend on just some observations in trying to get intelligence on that. There is an impression that the Government is more of a collective now, that there are other leaders of prominence surrounding him and having more of a voice in government than they previously had; although there's no evidence that he's been removed from the top spot in government. But there is no question he has not been active.

Mr. Drake. What evidence have you seen about his state of mind? There's been a lot of speculation about that.

The President. Well, I don't think we have anything more than the things that have been visible in his appearances, where he has seemed to be somewhat changed from his previous bravado.

Mr. Drake. What is your feeling about the extent to which this threat seems to have subsided? It is—

The President. Well, we can't help but recognize that it has and that the original fears that there would be an immediate outbreak of widespread terrorism has not taken place. But at the same time, we're not going to sit back and get overconfident. Terrorism is still present. Terrorism is still there and must be dealt with. I do think that we made some progress in Tokyo at the economic summit, where all of us agreed that we were going to work closer together on this matter.

Religious Fundamentalists in Politics

Mr. Drake. I wanted to turn to domestic politics for a minute. This year, more than previous years, the religious right is making its presence felt in the Republican Party. And there's even a possibility that a television evangelist might be a Presidential candidate. As a practiced politician, do you have any fears that other voters who do not share fundamentalist taste might be turned off by this if this wing becomes a dominant element of the party?

The President. Well, I would hope not. And I haven't seen any efforts they've tried to dominate our party in any way. But I just have to go back to a time when there were people that felt that there was something wrong with an actor seeking public office. And my answer then and my answer now is that I don't think that any legitimate trades or professions should be barred from participation in public life. That's the meaning of democracy. You shouldn't judge someone by how they make their living.

Mr. Drake. Well, just as a practical vote-getting matter, though, wouldn't it be a concern that mainstream voters, for lack of a better word, for whom religion is not the prime motivation, would be uncomfortable with, for instance, an active candidacy if Robertson should win the Republican nomination?

The President. Well, let's go back to another time when religion was an issue. There was a man running for President, nominated by his party, no member of his religion had ever served in the office of the Presidency. And he took his case directly to the other religions and spoke to them in their meetings and their gatherings and opened himself up to their questions and all. And he was elected President.

Mr. Drake. Do you really think that's comparable—somebody for whom it just became an issue as opposed to somebody who's—

The President. No, but I think it's indicative of the American people and their broad-mindedness when they're faced with the problem. And suddenly religious prejudice disappeared as an issue in that campaign. And I think the same thing is true today. I have confidence and trust in the people. They're the ones who will make the decision.

Plans for the Future

Mr. Drake. Well, speaking of 1988, I was curious as to whether you've done much thinking or whether you do much thinking about how you're going to spend your time. You're 2 years away from that date. Have you decided what it is you're going to do with yourself when you're out of this office?

The President. Oh, there are all the usual things. But, no, I don't think that I'll have any problem of having nothing to do.

Mr. Drake. Well, I mean, do you see yourself in the model of former President Nixon, who has become very active in speaking out on political matters, or sort of, Eisenhower, who retired and wasn't heard from all that much?

The President. No, but Ike had a health problem. I would think that once having done this you'd be active to the extent that you can be legitimately helpful. And I think you have an obligation to the things you believe in and to the party to not just withdraw and say, "I'm not going to lift a finger." Now, I will remain neutral in primaries. I think as titular head of the party that's required, but I'm going to be very active and do everything I can for candidates that I believe in and causes that I believe in as long as I'm able.

Mr. Drake. Well, now I notice that the First Lady has a contract to write a book. I notice that Mike Deaver has a contract to write a book about you and the First Lady and the Presidency. Are you going to write a book?

The President. There are people talking to me about that.

Mr. Drake. Are you holding out for a big advance?

The President. No, I haven't even discussed that. Having done a book once, I know something of what a chore it is. So, I can't say that I'm bubbling over with the delight at the prospect. But at the same time I suppose there is a responsibility to seriously consider such a thing as—there'll be so many others that are writing about that and always are writing about their view. Maybe it is proper that the person they're writing about has a say.

Mr. Drake. What kind of book were you thinking of?. More of a personal reminiscence or would it—

The President. I haven't let my mind dwell on that.

Mr. Drake. But you have talked to publishers about that?

The President. No, I haven't talked to publishers, no.

Mr. Drake. You've talked to someone.

The President. No, I mean that people who surround me here—other people of that kind that have thought that it was an obligation for me to write a book and have talked to me about it.

New York Gubernatorial Election

Mr. Drake. Let me turn to some matters of interest in New York. When you were in New York on Saturday, you told Andrew O'Rourke, the man who's running against Governor Cuomo—at least according to him—that you were going to make a point of coming up to campaign for him. Do you think, considering what Governor Cuomo represents, is in your mind a high priority in beating him in '88—excuse me, this year?

The President. Well, having been a Governor myself, I have very strong feelings about the importance of the governorship. We are a federation of sovereign States. We have been through a half a century or so in which there was prevalent a widespread movement in Washington to try and minimize the States and reduce them to administrative districts of the Federal Government. I think that that movement has been halted, at least for a while. And, no, so, as I say, I feel the statehouse is a very important part of our democratic process, and, yes, I would like to be helpful if I can.

Mr. Drake. Well, does the fact that the resident is Mario Cuomo make any extra difference or—

The President. Well, I think that in our basically two-party system there is a difference in the philosophy of the two candidates. And I support the philosophy that is carried by Mr. O'Rourke, which is one of, as I say, the sovereignty of the States, the reduction of government and impact on the people and its intrusiveness and all. These are things I believe in, so—

Mr. Drake. I guess I can't make you rise to the bait.

The President. What?

Judicial Nominations

Mr. Drake. I can't make you rise to the bait of Governor Cuomo, so—let me, on one thing that relates to something another New York politician said, in your radio address a few weeks ago you said that the people in the Senate who are opposing the [Daniel A.] Manion nomination were mostly doing it because they were liberals who couldn't swallow his philosophy as a conservative. And last week Senator D'Amato, who is basically one of your own, said that he, too, thought that Manion did not have the highest legal qualifications and that he would hope that you would not press it. Does that sort of undercut the argument you made?

The President. Well, I'll have to have a talk with him because maybe he's heard some of the things that are being noised around about my nominee. I will never send a name up there that I do not believe is fully qualified for the position. And I will send names up there of people that I believe look upon the judicial process as one of interpreting the law, not writing it, and not trying to impose their social views on the people. We've had too much of that on the part of too many judges over recent years. And I think the attack against Manion is unfounded. As a matter of fact, it's been based on a number of outright falsehoods.

And this making something of the fact that the bar association only rated him as "qualified"—there have been a couple of Presidents in fairly recent years who actually nominated people who were reported as "unqualified" by that bar association. And their judges were approved—or their nominations approved. They say that it was because it was only "qualified." Well, the last two Presidents before me—between them there were a total of 282 judges that were appointed who were rated "qualified" by the bar association. I believe that the attack on Manion is nothing other than a disagreement with his political philosophy. And one of the most outspoken opponents in the Senate told him that to his face—now is seeking to back away from that, but said that he had no quarrel with his qualifications or his character or integrity or anything of that kind—he just disagreed with him politically.

Aid to the Contras

Mr. Drake. Let me wrap up with a pair of questions on Central America. Now that you have won the aid that you wanted to send to the contras, and it's not only our prestige behind them but our money, what happens now if they get beaten or defeated by the Sandinistas? What is the next step?

The President. Well, that next step would be based on what the followup would be. And if the Sandinistas are unchecked, that would be another Cuba. That would be a totalitarian, Communist State intent on spreading its revolution across other borders to other countries. And I think whoever was in this chair here would have to take appropriate action. And whatever that might be, you can't predict.

But I just believe that by giving the freedom fighters the tools they need to become a force—this will provide the leverage that hopefully can bring the Sandinistas to the negotiating table to then discuss the democratization of their country and the goals which they, themselves, pledged to support in the revolution against Somoza: that they were supportive of the idea of a pluralistic, democratic society with freedom of speech and press and all those other things. And there can be no doubt, no question at all, but that the Sandinista government, once in power as the strongest faction of the revolutionaries, threw the other revolutionaries out and created a totalitarian, Communist government, which totally contravened the promise that they had made during the Somoza revolution.

Mr. Drake. One last point on it that I'm curious about. In retrospect, do you think-it didn't matter because you won the contra vote—but in retrospect, do you think that you should have called Tip O'Neill to ask him for that opportunity to go to the House rather than having your Chief of Staff do it?

The President. No, I think it was pure routine for it to be done that way. And very frankly, I think that it was unprecedented for the response that we got. Other Presidents have made the same request and have been granted permission to appear before one House of the Legislature, and several of those were Democrats.

Mr. Drake. Well, thank you, Mr. President. I appreciate your having me in today.

The President. Well, pleased to be here-or have you here.

Mr. Drake. I'm glad there were no Rose Garden events this week.

The President. So am I.

Note: The interview began at 2:35 p.m. in the Oval Office at the White House. The interview was released by the Office of the Press Secretary on July 9.

Ronald Reagan, Interview With Bruce Drake of the New York Daily News Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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