Ronald Reagan picture

Interview With European Journalists

May 24, 1988

Q. Let me first thank you, Mr. President, for giving us this interview on the eve of this historic and first trip to Moscow.

The President. Well, I thank you for doing it.

Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev

Q. I'm asked to ask you the first questions. My name is Fritz Wirth of the journal Die Welt, and everybody else will introduce himself when he asks his first question.

In another interview a few days ago in Moscow, Mr. Gorbachev gave a remarkable characterization of your qualities as a politician, and he praised your realism. After three meetings and many talks one-to-one, how would you characterize Mr. Gorbachev, and what do you regard as his main qualities?

The President. Well, I think he's very forthright. We can get into discussions where perhaps we're disagreeing quite firmly, and yet there is no personal animus in that with him. I think he solidly represents his country. I have suspected sometimes that he, having been raised in that particular country from childhood, believes some of their propaganda about us. But as I say, we can debate and discuss, and I think he's very sincere about the progressive ideas that he is introducing there and the changes that he thinks should be made. But as I say, even if the discussion gets, well, pretty meaningful, there is no animus. When it's over, I think that there's actually a degree of friendship between us.

Human Rights in the Soviet Union

Q. Mr. President, I am Francis Unwin of Le Soir, Brussels. According to the State Department, we are moving toward an agreement that would allow American psychiatrists to visit Soviet mental hospitals to determine if dissidents are being imprisoned there. The Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights was quoted as saying that there seems to be a genuine interest in the idea of such a visit and in bringing the problem of abuse of psychiatry to an end. Do you think that a formal agreement could be ironed out during your visit to Moscow?

The President. I'm hopeful that it can. I think that some of these things with regard to human rights is not just trying to interfere with their internal affairs at all. But in view of the fact that our country is made up of people from all over the world—and I have used the term myself previously in discussing with them that when a man takes a wife, he doesn't stop loving his mother-and you perhaps are aware that Americans all retain a feeling of their heritage, even those whose grandparents or great-grandparents first came to this country. I think when Americans get acquainted with each other the first thing they inquire is, you know, what is your background. And Americans are accustomed to saying well, I'm this or that. And as time has gone on, most of us have to name three or four countries in our heritage if our ancestors came a few generations back. And the result of that is that in becoming closer and developing a relationship between the two countries we are affected by public opinion and by people in our country who resent if they think that in the land of their heritage people are being treated unfairly.

So, this is one of the reasons why I'm trying to impress upon the General Secretary that if we are to develop relationships, and better relationships in trade and so forth, that can be done better if there aren't elements in our country that believe that somehow the country of their heritage is—the government is being unfair to the people, because they still consider they have a relationship there. And so, it isn't a case of just wanting to impose our rules on them. It is to try and impress them with the need to eliminate some of the things that have grown with their system and that are unfair treatment, that are denying human rights to their own people.

Strategic Nuclear Arms Agreement

Q. Mr. President, I'm Christopher Thomas of the London Times. Could you please assess the prospects for a strategic arms treaty with the Soviet Union before you leave office on January the 20th. And do you see any possibility of another summit with Mr. Gorbachev later this year to sign such an agreement?

The President. Well, I won't rule it out. I won't say it's impossible because it does look as if a START agreement—I don't think there's any way now that the START agreement could come to a signing point in this summit. It is a far more complex treaty than the INF treaty that we did agree upon. Now, with ratification of that, I think that this summit will advance us further in the START discussions, and those people of ours and theirs that have been negotiating in Geneva on this will continue. And I hope that it can come about while I'm still here, and I think they feel the same way just because they believe that there would be perhaps unnecessary delay then if you had to wait while a newcomer in this office settled in and got around to working with them. And so, I would hope that we can iron out the still-undecided points before I leave. And then I could see where we might decide that it should be signed in a meeting rather than several thousand miles apart in the—when the signatures take place. And I've wondered, then, if perhaps the—since we will have each been to each other's country, rather than try to choose which country to do it in, maybe we'd pick a neutral locale.

President's Political Philosophy

Q. My name is Alberto Pasolini Zanelli, II Giornale, Milan, Italy. And I want to remind you for some of your prophecies. You said very interesting things just at the beginning your first term not just about America but about the Eastern bloc. You said they are bound to be in very difficult times if they don't change the—will be going downstairs in the dustbin of history-or something like that. I think you are a very good prophet— [laughter] —but they've changed lots of things—perestroika, Hungary, Chinese. How do you feel like a prophet?

The President. Well, I didn't set out to be a prophet, but I just believe strongly that government can become too domineering and when—well, I thought in our own country that we had drifted to a point where government was, in a sense, at an adversarial relationship with its own business and private sector. And so, we set out to reduce regulations that we thought were unnecessary, to return authority to our States. We are unique in the world in that we were created as a federation of sovereign States. And much of our law and so forth was left with the States and the local communities nearest to the people, and then certain things that had to be done by the Federal Government.

But this was not new with me in feeling that the central government had gone too far in imposing itself on these other elements. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, when he ran for election in 1932—one of his platform planks was that he would restore authority and autonomy to the States and local communities that he said had been unjustly seized by the Federal Government. So, this wasn't—and he was of the opposite party. But this we have done. And I think it has been responsible for the longest economic expansion in our nation's history, which we're in right now.

And so, I could obviously see that, well, I disagreed with the whole theory of socialism and its advanced partner, communism, because that was a total imposition on the people. We set out, Vice President Bush was put in—I put him in charge of a task force to investigate how many regulations we could eliminate that had been imposed on the people and on local governments and so forth. And that commission was so successful that we estimate that we have eliminated 600 million man-hours a year of complying with government paperwork throughout the country. So, I'm still critical of that system, but again I think that's not too far away from what the General Secretary is trying to do. He has found and is advocating changes. He's getting resistance from some of the bureaucracy, but he is suggesting changes that are obviously based on improving the economic situation in his country.

NATO Defense Spending

Q. Mr. President, I am Boudouin Ballaert from the French paper, Le Figaro. And the question of whether the NATO allies of the United States are bearing their fair share of the Western defense burden has triggered an important foreign policy debate here in Washington and was raised recently in Brussels by Mr. William Taft. Mr. President, what's your view about the burden-sharing problem?

The President. Well, there is no question but that if we take it on a percentage of our gross national income we are perhaps having a higher figure in our defense spending than our trading partners are in NATO. And we have believed that since our Congress is making it more difficult for us to continue our rate of spending in defense that maybe our allies could increase their share somewhat. I don't think it is a problem that should cause any ill will between us, but we have in our meetings with our NATO partners suggested that it could be most helpful if they would assume a little bit more of the burden.

Changes in Eastern Europe

Q. May I come back, Mr. President, to Eastern Europe? We had these developments in Hungary last weekend, and we had a peaceful change of power in Czechoslovakia last year. How do you see these developments? Could this be the beginning of a process which could reach the Communist hierarchy in Romania, in Bulgaria, in East Germany as well?

The President. Well, I think that is possible that the—the most recent one—I think we can't rule out the fact that there was an age problem, that one man had been there quite a long time. And this is a younger man. I don't know exactly what his beliefs and policies are, but they seem to be somewhat, well, let's say, in the same mold as the General Secretary of the Soviet Union. And I think we have to expect that, and it probably is a good thing to see happening with those countries, that glasnost is practiced in them also.

Advice to the President's Successor

Q. Mr. President, if, as it is currently expected, the dialog continues between Mr. Gorbachev and the next President of the United States, what piece of advice will you give to your successor, depending on his name—Mr. Bush or Mr. Dukakis, presumably?

The President. The advice that I would give to my successor with regard to relationship with.—

Q. Yes, in regard to his name—I mean—

The President. Well, I would certainly try to inform him fully of all that had been accomplished in these last few years, now with this relatively new head of state. And I think I would try to convince him that this progress should continue. As I said in the first meeting, one-on-one with the General Secretary, I pointed out to him that it was rather unique that there we were in a room in Geneva, Switzerland, probably the two men in the world that had within our power to maintain the peace or to start a third world war, and neither one of us seemed to want a third world war. And there can be no denying that there is something of the "superstate" about our two nations, and we can have a bearing on the peace and prosperity of the world, depending on how we get along. And so, I suggested to him that we didn't mistrust each other because of our weapons, we had our weapons because we mistrusted each other, and that maybe what we should do is not just deal with arms and numbers of weapons but see if we could not get at the things that made us mistrust each other. And I think we've been doing quite a bit of that. And so, I would try to pass that on as a chore that the next President should continue.

General Manuel Noriega of Panama

Q. Mr. President, your Panama policy seems to be in deep trouble. You rejected a military solution to overthrow General Noriega, and your economic sanctions have so far failed to force him out, despite inflicting grievous harm on the Panamanian economy. And now Vice President Bush is saying that he opposes the dropping of drug charges against General Noriega. Where does your Panama policy go now?

The President. Well, he and I disagree on that. I recognize how it looks to some people with regard to that as a part of our effort. And I think he's aligned with this-that the goal must be the removal of Noriega from power. He is a military dictator. Here is a man who is able to actually drive the President of Panama into hiding for, literally, fear of his life. And he is an absolute dictator. Now that is the goal, and we tried to do that with economic measures. They didn't succeed. We are still in a position of negotiating. Our representatives are down there right now. I have to say the process is still going on. There had been no decision reached.

The disagreement, however, over whether we were doing business with a drug dealer or not was based on a rather unusual thing. And that is when lawyers in this country got an indictment against Noriega on the basis of dealing with the drug dealers, they overlooked—you know, when I say it's unusual, it's unusual that you indict literally the head of another state—but they overlooked the fact that the Panamanian Constitution makes it impossible to extradite this man in response to the indictment. Well, then you have to say the alternative is that he stays there in power and able to continue his drug trafficking. And if it means quashing an indictment that cannot be enforced, I would suggest that that's not too high a price to pay for getting rid of him.

U.S. Economic Recovery

Q. Mr. President, will you explain some secret of the American mind that is about economy. It is flourishing. It is booming-this 65 or 66th month [of] uninterrupted expansion, full employment, low inflation, everything looks fine. Why are still so many people talking gloom in the middle of a boom?

The President. I made some remarks about that to an audience just a few days ago in a speech of mine. It's amazing how even much of our media can—well, I described it like being in a hall of mirrors and coming up with a false image. We announce a figure that we had the highest amount of exports in our history just last week. And how do they get at that? They somehow say, well that, oh, we think inflation is coming back. They'll find some—I described it as their ability to see the dark cloud behind the silver lining. And I think the silver lining is very definitely real.

We took some practical steps in addition to those regulations that I mentioned. We had a complete overhaul of our tax system. Now, I'm not a genius that thought of this all at once by myself, but I know that if you look back through our history invariably tax reductions have resulted in an increase of revenue for the Government. As a matter of fact, centuries ago there was a man named ibn-Khaldun who said in the beginning of the empire, the rates were low, and the revenue was high. At the end of the empire, the rates were high, and the revenue was low.

Well, it happened. When we got our tax reform, that brought the top bracket in our income tax, for example, down from 70 percent on the people who could earn in that bracket. When we brought that down to-well, now it's 28 percent. But first, our first move was to bring it down to 50 percent. Well, even that resulted in a great increase in the revenues from that same segment of people. Well, now, this has to mean that those people were so busy at that 70-percent rate in tax shelters that they were seeking, or in just simply not earning any more beyond a certain point because how much was taken away from them, once you made an incentive that they could keep almost three-quarters of every dollar they earned, they started earning more dollars and stopped looking for tax shelters. And the same has been through all of the brackets. That was one of the great features, I think, of our recovery. And then the other was getting government out of the way of the private sector.

Our country, I think, probably leads the world in entrepreneurship. We have created in the last 5 years 16 million new jobs. Now, most of those jobs have been created by new or small businesses—not the great corporations with their thousands and thousands of employees, but the individual with an idea that goes into business for himself or the individual that's got a few employees and then suddenly he's got 200. Let us say that the bulk of the new jobs were in those industries that employed less than 500 people.

Well, all of this is what has resulted in what the leaders of your countries in our meetings have called the American miracle. And as a matter of fact, many of those leaders have been very frank in saying to me that they would like to be able to remove some of the restrictions and restraints on the private sector, private enterprise in your countries. And we talk about that a great deal, and maybe we're going to see some results elsewhere.

Q. The last one?

The President. Sorry.

Administration Accomplishments

Q. Mr. President, I know you are still very much in charge, of course, but next January you will leave the White House. And how would you like to be remembered, and what about the Reagan legacy?

The President. Well, I would like to feel that what I had left will be continued—the economic policies and the restraints on government. And one other thing, when we came into office, our defense capacity had been so reduced that on any given day 50 percent of our military aircraft could not fly for lack of spare parts, 50 percent of our naval vessels couldn't leave harbor for the same reason or for lack of crew. So, at the same time that I was trying to reduce the spending of government and the share that it was taking in the private sector, I had promised in the campaign I was going to restore our military.

Well, we not only did that, but at that time, there was a great wave of feeling across our country that, well, that things weren't the way they used to be, and there was a lack of patriotism. I likened it to the fact that I said I thought the people were ready for a spiritual revival. And I'm pleased to tell you that that has happened, and I get more mail and more people stopping me, if I'm out on a public appearance or something, to tell me that the thing they're grateful for is the renewal of patriotism and feeling about our country.

So, I don't know. Maybe I ought to just be happy to be remembered at all, but I'd kind of like it if those were the things they remembered. [Laughter]

Q. Thank you very much.

The President. That's it? Well—

President's Future Plans

Q. May I just give you a suggestion?

The President. Yes.

Q. When you leave office, please go on doing your Saturday message. [Laughter]

The President. Well, whether I do that or not, I can assure you, I am—I've always described it this way: that you know the business that I used to be in, and I've always described that in Hollywood, if you didn't sing or dance, you wound up as an after-dinner speaker. And so, I didn't sing or dance, and I was out on what I—all my personal appearances were out making public speeches. And I did my own speeches and talked on what I wanted to talk about. And basically, it was—even then, with no thought of ever being in public life—it was against the growth of government and the imposition.

When I was making those speeches in those days in Hollywood, the top bracket of the income tax was 90 percent. And I knew what it was like to refuse a good script and not make a picture because I wasn't going to work for 10 cents on the dollar after I'd reached that bracket. So, I can assure you, I'm going to—there are a lot of things I want to campaign for that still haven't been done. So, I will be out there addressing the people. In America—I don't know whether it's true in your countries—we have a great many private organizations, and there's always a demand for speakers. So, I'll be doing that.

And as a matter of fact, I've already picked out one topic I'm going to speak on. You know that an amendment to the Constitution came about a few years ago that limited the President of the United States to two terms; there cannot be a third. Well, now, I can't object to that while I'm in this job. It would sound like I'm doing it for myself. But as soon as I'm out of here, I'm going to try to arouse the American people to get that constitutional amendment changed, canceled, because I think it's an interference with their democratic rights. They should have the right to vote for whoever they want to vote for, for as long as they want to vote for them. And I'm going to see if I can't arouse the people to get that changed.

Q. Mr. President, may I, on behalf of my colleagues, thank you very much for this interview. We wish you a pleasant trip to Moscow and a most successful summit.

The President. Well, thank you very much.

Note: The interview began at 11:35 a.m. in the Oval Office at the White House. It was released by the Office of the Press Secretary on May 26.

Ronald Reagan, Interview With European Journalists Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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