George Bush photo

Interview With Members of the White House Press Corps

November 29, 1989

The President. I'm delighted to take questions. I just had a long telephone conversation with [West German Chancellor] Helmut Kohl -- very interesting. Maybe Marlin already told you about that.

Mr. Fitzwater. I did mention that you'd made a call.

The President. He called me, following his suggestions on the German question. And I feel comfortable; I think we're on track.

I've been in close touch with our allies -- in fact, talked to every single one, as I said yesterday, in NATO. And I've talked to [Prime Minister] Kaifu in Japan, talked to others around that aren't exactly tied into this, and I'm feeling very well prepared.

We've had a series of briefings at the Cabinet level and expert level, outside specialist level. And so, I've still got a little more reading to do and talking to our team that will be there, but it's taking proper shape.

I'd be glad to take some questions.

Eastern-Bloc Reforms

Q. Mr. President, as you look at the events that have transpired in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union -- the upheaval, if you will -- do you think the period of greatest danger for the West has now passed, or does it still lie ahead?

The President. Of greatest danger?

Q. Of greatest danger in coping with this. The risk of -- --

The President. Well, I haven't seen danger in coping with it up until now. Maybe I misunderstand your question. I mean, what we've done is to certainly rejoice in the rapid change, but I haven't seen threats at this moment to reverse the change. In other words, I think Gorbachev has said that he's not going to intervene in this change. He's taken a very broad view of it.

And so, we haven't felt imminent danger in what has transpired so far, but what I think you want to do is to conduct yourself in a way that you don't inadvertently contribute to an atmosphere of danger or create a danger where one need not exist. And that would mean avoid some of the more flamboyant posturing that has been urged on me from time to time. That's not a way you conduct the foreign affairs of this country.

And I'll tell you what's reassuring on that, Jerry, is the reaction again from our allies. They've been rather complimentary of the posture of the United States, as they see it.

Soviet Reforms

Q. Mr. President, if Gorbachev -- as a result of strikes and famine, say, in the Soviet Union this winter -- felt the need to crack down sharply, would that be the end of perestroika? Would it be the end of the warmup in relations and a renewal of the cold war?

The President. It would be dumb for me to respond to such a hypothetical question. I'm not going to do that -- I'm simply not, and I've taken that position steadily. I get asked that, and I simply am not going to take that position.

Clearly, I think everybody would know that we would take a very dim view of military force to change the course of events, and yet I would compliment Gorbachev for not taking that action. So, for me to hypothecate that he's going to do that, or speculate on what happens -- I simply would respectfully ask not to be pursued on that because I'm not going to answer.

Meeting With Soviet President Gorbachev

Q. Mr. President, I was told that during some of your sessions with experts one of the things you wanted to know from them was what they thought Gorbachev's goals would be for the summit and, if they were you, what their goals would be. As a result of all your preparations, have you formalized concrete goals for yourself for the summit? And if you have, can you share those with us?

The President. No, we've got some objectives, but the goals remain the same: an open agenda meeting where we discuss a wide array of issues. And I'll raise some. I talked about one yesterday that clearly everybody knows I'd raise -- let me just reassert it here -- the question of Central America and Soviet -- --

Q. But, sir, your personal -- --

The President. Put it this way, Maureen: There's been no change, in my view, as to what this meeting is to be about. Events have changed more rapidly since the genesis of the meeting than I thought, but there is no shift. And I've seen nothing authoritative from the Soviet Union to make me think they're looking at it differently.

There may be more of an urgency to it -- I would say that. And I would say that if we hadn't suggested such a meeting at the end of July that -- given the rapid changes that have taken place, particularly in Eastern Europe -- we probably would have gone ahead and suggested such a meeting within the last month or two. But it hasn't changed -- a lot of speculation, but it hasn't changed.

Q. Have you found a way through your people to send the word to Mr. Gorbachev that you would not appreciate any bombshell surprises?

The President. Well, we've sent the message that we don't think there are going to be any, but if he comes with something, fine. I mean, this is an open thing. He can say anything he wants, but I think he wants to see a successful meeting. And I don't think we want to go -- any side, either side -- no indication that anyone wants to go out of the meeting having a contentious feeling. Certainly we don't, and I've had no evidence from any of the contacts that have been made with the Soviet Union that they're looking for confrontation. And so, I think that it is unlikely there will be something so dramatic that it puts us in an embarrassing position. There's not going to be that -- it doesn't matter. We're part of an alliance, and we're not going to go unilaterally making commitments that affect our allies. And I obviously will feel free to tell Mr. Gorbachev that, but I also have a feeling that he is so well plugged in that I don't need to say that. He'll know it.

Europe's Future

Q. Mr. President, could I ask a post-summit question? You talked about the aspirations over the next 10 years, and at the risk of talking about the "vision thing," could you describe somewhat specifically what kind of things do you see, maybe, say in 5 years with a downsized military? What kind of adjustments will the country have to make, assuming that things go on track as they are now?

The President. Well, I don't think I can definitively answer that until we know what course the arms control agreements take. And we'll know much more about that by the time of the summit meeting which will be held next year. In terms of the "vision thing," the aspirations, I spelled it out in little-noted speeches last spring and summer, which I would like everyone to go back and re-read. And I'll have a quiz on it -- [laughter] -- because they're rather -- autographed copies and -- --

Q. Governor Sununu has given us our copies.

The President. Has he? But you'll see in there some of the "vision thing" -- a Europe whole and free. Now, that, I think, takes on a little more relevance today, given the changes that have already taken place or that are taking place. Today it's Wednesday, and I don't know what the changes are going to be on Thursday, but it's been more rapid than we saw. I think it's been more rapid than Mr. Gorbachev saw or more rapid than our allies saw. But in terms of your question, I think a Europe whole and free is less vision than perhaps reality. But how we get there and what that means and when the German question is resolved and all of these things -- I can't answer more definitively. I can't answer.

Defense Spending

Q. Are there dangers, let's say, in the "peace dividend"? Are there dangers of dislocation in American industry?

The President. Talking about a "peace dividend" -- I agree with that, I'll go back and answer your question. But when you mention "peace dividend," there's almost a -- well, there's an uncalled-for euphoria in some quarters now that suggests that events where they stand today means that the United States can recklessly -- in my view -- recklessly cut its defense spending. And we are not in that posture.

We have commitments to an alliance, and that isn't to say that we're going to always have to have exactly the same deployment of forces every place around the world. But we're rethinking all of this, but you can't make a judgment until you get some feeling as to what your allies think and some feeling as to what Gorbachev and the Warsaw Pact countries think.

I interrupted the question because I wanted to say that when I hear now "peace dividend," what that implies to me -- somebody said, well, if you cut defense spending by $10 billion, we can take that money and spend it on something else. They all have a wide array of programs. We can't do that. We've got enormous budget problems facing me. I feel very strongly about it because Darman [Richard G. Darman, Director of the Office of Management and Budget] just walked out -- [laughter] -- and when you see him walking out, I go through a period of about 60 minutes of gloom before I refocus on what else is happening out there. And now I'm back talking about Malta. But seriously, the budget problems that we face -- and all the budgeteers know it -- in 1991 are enormous, so it is premature to talk about a "peace dividend" in the sense of take volumes of money out of defense and apply it to some worthy cause. We cannot do that.

Does that answer your question?

Q. It was kind of a -- "peace dividend" was only in the sense that I was interested in what kinds of dislocations in American society do you see? I mean, if you're cutting back, let's say -- again, this is on the premise that things go on track as they are now -- but assuming that you do have an arms control agreement of some fashion -- --

The President. That permits -- --

Q. -- -- that permits downsizing armies, how do you kind of approach unemployment in the military? How do you approach the defense industry?

The President. That gets back to the fiscal side of the equation -- have fiscal policies that are so sound that America continues to grow. We've created 20 million -- you know the litany -- 20 million new jobs in the last 6 years, or whatever. But be sure that that economy grows to accommodate people.

This is one of the big problems -- back to the Soviet equation -- because as they pull back and demobilize, the impact on their economy is very, very difficult right now. They have, I am told, real concerns about dislocation: How do you treat the people coming out of the services? You've got housing problems that make ours pale in comparison.

Now, I don't mean to be mingling into the internal affairs of the Soviet Union, but I have gotten enough information to know that this is very difficult for people. I think it would be less difficult here if we have a strong economy, much less difficult. We do, right now -- pretty good. The growth isn't as robust as I'd like to see it now, but we're still moving, still growing, still creating jobs.

El Salvador

Q. Mr. President, a moment ago, you said that neither you nor Mr. Gorbachev is looking for a confrontation at Malta. And yet, from yesterday, we learned that you planned very early in your talks to tell Mr. Gorbachev your concerns through Oscar Arias [President of Costa Rica] of the introductions of weapons through Cuba. If you do that, isn't that apt to, one, create some tension in those talks and, two, perhaps cast a pale over the improving relations with the U.S.S.R.?

The President. No. I don't want to surprise him, and I would surprise him if I don't raise that subject. No surprises. And he knows how strongly we feel about it -- that was discussed at the [Soviet Foreign Minister] Shevardnadze meeting. I believe that it's been represented to the Soviet Union by Nicaragua that they are not sending arms into the FMLN. And I will be prepared to discuss with keen definition exactly what our complaints are against the Nicaraguan support for FMLN, and I will accurately replay to him what Oscar Arias asked me to replay to him -- his concerns about Cuba's role in all of this.

So, it would be a surprise to him if I didn't raise it. I don't think it has to be contentious because they've already made certain representations to us about not supporting the FMLN.

Q. And on El Salvador, it's been -- --

The President. What I'd like to do, see, what I'd love to do, is see them swing further over. They're talking about choice and free elections and all these things -- I mean, let's apply that to this hemisphere. I don't think it has to be raised in a way that's going to blow something up, John. I think they expect to talk about it, and we expect to talk about it.

Q. On El Salvador, it's, I believe, been more than a week since we sent some experts down there. Are you assured in your own mind that forensic tests are going to show that there is absolutely no government involvement in the slaughter of the Jesuits, and convinced that the Cristiani government is playing on a level field with us?

The President. Well, I believe Cristiani when he says he wants to get to the bottom of it. He's asked for some technical help, he's gotten some, and it is absolutely essential that we keep insisting that the Cristiani government get to the bottom of those killings.

And having said that, I would like to express, lest the question not arise, my concern about the wanton attack by these FMLN guerrillas on the residences of Americans serving in official capacity there in El Salvador. That is unacceptable to us. And what I can do about it, I don't know.

So, get to the bottom of those who killed the priests, absolutely, and they owe us and the rest of the world an explanation on that. The killers must be brought to justice.

Secondly, the FMLN ought to stop shooting up civilian population and trying to undermine an elected government that's been through certifiably free elections. And I am outraged by the attacks on the lives of Americans -- holding Americans in hotels, attacking Americans' residences. And so, I have outrage on both accounts.

NATO's Future

Q. If I could go back to Europe for a second, Mr. President. It's clear that the changes of this year somehow are going to alter the definition of what NATO and the Warsaw Pact are all about. Do you have some ideas or some thoughts about the longrun future of the alliances and how they ought to change to meet these new circumstances that you want to get across to Mr. Gorbachev?

The President. One of the things that is responsive in that area is, we began talking at the last meetings of NATO's role and concern on economic problems and on other global problems. That isn't to say that suddenly the mission changes one day from an alliance with strong military component to some economic structure. But I think as threats change, roles change, definitions change. And so again, it's too early to predict how all this will play out, but clearly it's moving in the right direction, and clearly it's moving in a way that should result in a permanent reduction of the tensions that have been the hallmark of the cold war days.

So, I think there's dramatic progress. But I'm sorry, but I still think there's reason to be prudent and cautious. Some others may label it differently, but those are the words I elect. And I have a funny feeling -- I feel more strongly about that, Jerry, today than I did even 2 or 3 days ago before I started talking to our NATO friends and allies.

Eastern-Bloc Reforms

Q. I was just going to ask quickly about Czechoslovakia because that's where the latest changes have taken place. In your view, has enough happened there to begin the kind of integration and Western aid process that you've had in Poland and Hungary?

The President. Not yet. I think you have to see more development. It's obviously exciting. I'll try to be exhilarated here as I -- this so -- [laughter] -- cameras aren't here, but I want you to report -- [laughter] -- --

Q. You look exhilarated.

The President. Marlin told me the other day, "Lean forward -- show that you're interested in all of this." [Laughter]

Q. Put on your glasses.

The President. Do something. Don't just sit there. [Laughter] I've taken the hits on being -- --

Q. So has Marlin.

The President. Well, he sits on your side, somebody's side, the camera's side. But where were we before I got off -- --

Q. Czechoslovakia.

The President. Events are still a little behind where they are on some of these others, but they're moving so fast. And I certainly like what I'm hearing, but I think -- in answer to your question -- the election process is, I'd say, inevitable, coming along. I mean, they're moving.

You take a look at someplace like Romania -- I mean, my God, I'd like to see some action there. My heavens -- correct that -- I would like to see some action there. I'd like to see them come into the new world and not deprive their people of a chance to be independent and free. I mean, I don't know when that's going to come. We've sent a new Ambassador over there who is a friend of mine, and I sent him there because he is strong and tough and he knows of my conviction about democracy and freedom. I think Punch Green left yesterday, and if anybody can represent our viewpoint -- mine, the President's -- on this matter to Mr. Ceausescu, I believe it's this man. So, we'll be trying, but it's so difficult there.

Czechoslovakia is ahead of that now. Moved faster than we think, but not as far along as certainly as Poland. Maybe in an economic sense, they're better, Jerry. They may have problems -- in fact, they do -- but I would say that they've got less scale, their problems are less intense on the economics front than Poland's. I mean, in my bet. Everyone thinks they've got -- --

Q. Get through the winter.

The President. -- -- these horrible problems.

So, there we are. But, no -- and all of this, I think, will be discussed. And it isn't like I'm going with suggestions to do this about Czechoslovakia and that about Hungary. I want to know what Mr. Gorbachev thinks about this, how he sees it as affecting the Soviet Union itself. I'm one that's been around the track enough to know that there is no fine lines between intervening in the internal affairs of a country and having a frank discussion about the problems facing that country. And I hope Mr. Gorbachev knows that I know the difference, but I want it to be as free and full of discussion as possible. And I'm more concerned about his economic problems, not in some put-down sense or not in trying to be -- hey, we've got a good economy and you don't -- I mean, a one-upsman sense.

But how do we interact? What kind of reforms can the Soviet Union do so we can do more in terms of investment? Shevardnadze said the other day -- somebody asked him about -- I think the question was rather rudely put, I think -- said something about, do you want the United States to bail you out? And he reacted as he should have reacted, with a certain sovereign pride, and said, "Wait a minute. That's not what this is all about."

So, we're not going there with an arrogance. I'm going in the spirit of inquiry and findings ways that we can help and be sure that everything moves forward so this change that the West has been advocating, and clearly the United States has -- change towards freedom and democracy and the people governing themselves -- I mean, it's all moving in the right direction, and we want to keep it going. And Gorbachev has played a very, very constructive role as these events have developed in Eastern Europe.

Arms Control

Q. I just wonder, Mr. President, if there's any chance that -- or what your thinking is now on the possibilities of a CFE treaty next year and START treaty the following year? Do you think -- --

The President. I think we've got to push for them, and I will be obviously bringing those subjects up. I mean, the concept of our wanting to go ahead and conclude agreements there -- and throw in chemical -- I still am very much interested, and I think they are. I've gotten back from them a real interest in moving chemical forward. And it's not just our fault or theirs. We've got other parties that are very much interested in what we do, obviously, in chemical and CFE -- I mean, these are multilateral. And some of the problems on the CFE are alliance problems -- not just shifting the blame to the Soviet Union. So, we can talk about those things, and maybe we'll get some ideas as to how to move them along.

Q. Do you expect to sign something next year?

The President. I hope so. I think that should be our goal, absolutely.

World War II Peace Treaty

Q. Mr. President, do you think there needs to be a peace treaty formally ending World War II?

The President. Maureen, eventually, but these matters can all be discussed.

Q. Do you think there should be some sort of conference to work it out or something like that?

The President. We're having a conference at Malta to talk about not that subject per se but to talk about a wide array of subjects that will have an eventual bearing on this. I'm not one who believes that the status quo in Berlin, for example, or in the Germanys or in Western Europe, wherever else, has to always be that way. Status quo forever? No.

Q. You realize, of course, that Gorbachev is going to be in a state of grace, having just returned from the Vatican. [Laughter] He may take advantage of that. John knows what the state of grace is all about. Catholics -- [laughter] -- --

The President. Look, Mashek, I want to tell you something. We're trying to separate church and state here. [Laughter]

Q. This is my first time wearing glasses. That's why I came -- --

The President. You've got good ones -- no bifocals.

Q. It's a sure sign of age.

The President. What do you need them for? For close in?

Q. No, distance, I think.

The President. You don't need them for reading?

Q. Not yet.

The President. Wait until you get a little mileage on that old body.

Q. That's soon enough.


The President. Are you going? Are you guys all going?

Q. Yes.

The President. Where do you stay?

Q. Yes, that's what they tell us.

The President. I thought the island was only 17 miles long, from end to end.

Q. We're at the other end.

The President. Do you want to borrow my boat on Malta so you can -- --

Q. It doesn't sound like you're going to see much of Malta.

The President. No. The Prime Minister [Eddie Fenech Adami] sent me a beautiful book on Malta. It has marvelous pictures.

Q. How did you happen to think of it? Just because it's so close to Italy?

The President. Close, logistically close, and we'd had good reports from our little mission that my brother was on that went over there. I've met the Prime Minister. They are a small country respected by both parties. Certainly, I have a favorable feeling about what they've tried to do, and it seemed like it lends itself very nicely to this concept of a meeting aboard ships. We have some nice anchorage there. Nobody is going to be throwing up. [Laughter]

Q. Always a good point.

The President. We're thinking of the journalistic profession.

Q. Churchill -- didn't he call it a tiny island of history and romance? Which is -- --

The President. Who said that? Gorbachev?

Q. No, Winston Churchill said it about Malta.

The President. Is that right?

Q. I think; I'll have to check the references, but that was it.

Governor Sununu. The President is very partial to falcons.

Q. Yes. There is a sign -- --

The President. I said to somebody, "Is there any fishing over there?" I thought I'd get a chance. And they said, "The best fishing in Malta is in the harbor where you are." I said, "You've got to be kidding. These ships, these great big ships?" He said, "Absolutely. This is where people go." So, I've got to figure out -- I don't want to look frivolous. [Laughter]

Q. The portholes.

Q. CBS will catch you.

The President. CBS, are they still picking at you guys for coming in here?

Q. No.

Q. But that's good. [Laughter]

Q. This must be the first time you'll be sleeping on a ship in a while. Since your Navy days?

The President. No -- well, it couldn't be since the Navy days -- it may, it may be. Bar and I went on a cruise and -- no, I've slept on a boat going down, with my son, down the Potomac River, taking my speedboat around to the Eastern Shore.

Mrs. Bush

Q. And your wife is not going on this trip?

The President. No.

Q. But Mrs. Gorbachev apparently is going.

The President. Yes. I don't know what the role will be. But Barbara has the Kennedy Center Honors, which is something that they -- and it's a shipboard meeting, and it didn't seem to lend itself quite as much to the events, things of interest to her, literacy and all that, as other -- where she and Mrs. Gorbachev might constructively interact on their interests. So, it didn't work out.

Q. But Mrs. Bush is okay?

The President. Oh, she's fine, thank you. No, she is. She got a good review yesterday. And she's still got it, she's still -- this Grave's disease. But I said to the doctor, I said, "Is there any secret agenda on this? I mean, it just lags on?" He said, "Absolutely not." And they've got now Bethesda and Walter Reed and Mayo, and it's just a question of getting the proper balance with the drug or radiation or time. So, thank you for asking, but she -- [inaudible] -- --

All right, gang. See you in Malta. I'll try to wave to you.

Note: The interview began at 11 a.m. in the Oval Office at the White House. Participants included John Mashek of the Boston Globe, Tim McNulty of the Chicago Tribune, Maureen Santini of the New York Daily News, Jerry Seib of the Wall Street Journal, and Jerry Watson of the Chicago Sun-Times. Marlin Fitzwater was Press Secretary to the President, and John H. Sununu was Chief of Staff to the President. The interview was released by the Office of the Press Secretary on November 30. A tape was not available for verification of its contents.

George Bush, Interview With Members of the White House Press Corps Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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