Interview With USA Today
Q. I'm going to start out with a couple of Central American questions and see how I do.
The President. All right.
Q. Are you happy with the $30 million you got from the House today?
The President. Not completely happy. The cup's half full. We need the full cup, and we will go back for more. On the Senate side, I understand they did pass the full 60 that we'd asked for.
Q. I think a lot of Americans wonder if you are getting us into another Vietnam. I think that's the general worry there—something that's secret, and we quietly slip in before we realize we're there. Are we?
The President. No. And there is no comparison whatsoever in this situation and Vietnam. And I will be speaking more about this tomorrow night to the Congress. But there is no, and never has been any thought or discussion of sending troops any place here in the Americas, nor are they asked for or wanted. And three-fourths or more of all the aid that has gone down there has been economic aid, and less than one-fourth of it has been military aid.
Q. But Vietnam started similarly in our country, saying that we had no intention of sending any troops there; we weren't going to get into it. And because of all the debate over secret operations, I think there's a great concern. Do you think there's a point where you can tell Americans more about what we're doing in Nicaragua, for example?
The President. Well, no, look what we had in Vietnam. We had a place that wasn't even named that. It was named French Indochina, and it was part of the decolonizing that began after World War II. And at a meeting of the leading nations, the Western World, in Geneva, it was decided that there would be a North Vietnam and a South Vietnam, and the two countries were created. All sorts of provisions were made as to how they could determine where they wanted to go and so forth. And the people of one country or the other were supposed to be allowed to change if they wanted to. North Vietnam—when a million people crossed over into South Vietnam, preferring that to the Communist rule that existed under Ho Chi Minh in North Vietnam-they shut the borders, contrary to the agreement, and so forth.
But you had there an assault on one country by another. But the advisers that were in there were in there because it was a new country, South Vietnam. They were, for the first time, going to have to have things like their own defense, there own military, and so forth. And we were simply in there trying to help them establish all the things that go with being an independent state. And the invasion from North Vietnam really started—while most people portrayed it as a Vietcong, a domestic revolution it wasn't at all. We know now that they were sent in deliberately; they were North Vietnamese forces.
But the whole thing was on a totally different basis—to say nothing of being 10,000 miles away—than the situation here of a duly elected government that is being attacked by guerrilla forces that are sponsored by outside countries.
Q. But it's the situation in Nicaragua that, I think, right now is causing so much concern because of the secrecy of what's going on there. Do you think there's a point tomorrow night or some point along where you can describe more fully what we're doing there, beyond the trying to intercept the arms?
The President. Well, no, what I think I will point out is that the difference between El Salvador and Nicaragua is that Nicaragua is a revolutionary government that by force took over the governing of Nicaragua. But then you had the internal fight in which many of the revolutionaries were east aside, and the promises that had been made as being the goals of the revolution were never carried out.
Our country had tried to do—been trying to get along, negotiate with Nicaragua. But our interest there is because the arms and the training and even the direction of guerrilla military movements are all centered in Nicaragua. The arms are coming into El Salvador by way of Nicaragua. We know that the operations of the Salvadoran guerrillas are directed by radio from the capital of—near the capital of Nicaragua.
Q. Well, you said in your last press conference that we wouldn't do anything to violate the Boland amendment. How would you feel if the guerrillas themselves said that their intentions are to overthrow the government there?
The President. Well, we can't control what they're saying. What we're interested in is preventing this continued military supply and training and—
Q. Well, can't we control what they're doing without arms, though?
The President. What?
Q. Can't we control what—if they're saying that they're trying to overthrow the government, can't we control that?
The President. Well, as I say, we're interested in making it more difficult—in fact, impossible for Nicaragua to continue to arm the guerrillas in El Salvador.
Q. I'll jump for a minute to taxes, another of your favorite subjects. Howard Baker said yesterday that—I think it was earlier today—that he thought that the Republicans would have to go from about $8 billion to $10 billion in new taxes in order to save the third year of your tax cut and your indexing. If they structured that in such a way that it wasn't an income tax, do you think you could buy it?
The President. I just have to say that I think that right now, with this recovery at the stage it has reached, no one should be talking increased taxes. This would be a good way to set back or cancel out the recovery.
Q. But if both the Democrats and Republicans are, and you've got the choice between what the Democrats are trying to do, the 30 billion, which could mean no third year tax cut, no indexing, couldn't you accept something to save that?
The President. If they attempted it—
Q. Or would you go along the road and veto it?
The President. If they attempted it, I would veto that.
Q. Even—no amount at all? Not a cent, not a nickel?
The President. No.
Q. Mr. President, could I ask you about the—your Commission on Educational Excellence today made a report saying that there was a tide of mediocrity sweeping American schools. And implicit in what they said, I think, is that there will have to be more money spent for longer class hours, better paid teachers, and so forth. Would you be inclined to support more Federal aid to education if that's what it took to have the kind of crash program that they're talking about?
The President. Well, yes, we've talked about that, but providing there would not be any increase in Federal administration of those funds. We think there is a parallel between the Federal involvement in education and the decline in quality over recent years. What is more needed than just throwing money at education—we're right now spending more money than any other country in the world; we're spending $215 billion on education in this country. We think what has happened is—well, the report speaks for itself, that we have let up, we are not actually taking the students to the limit of their ability. We think we need more required courses. This is what the Commission has come up with.
And I know that today a question was asked of David Gardner as to the one thing that was lacking in the report was the demand for a big Federal program. I thought his answer explained it very well when he said, "No, we are trying to improve the quality of education, and that doesn't take a big Federal program."
Q. You don't think there's any need for additional Federal aid, excluding administrative costs?
The President. I have not had a chance to read the full report yet. But, no, I don't see any need for—
Press Coverage of the Administration
Q. Mr. President, in connection with your visit with the newspaper publishers tomorrow, yesterday Senator Moynihan told the publishers they should "roar like a tiger," I believe he told them, over press restraints on coverage by Congress and the administration. Do you think the press has anything to roar about in terms of covering Washington in your administration?
The President. Well, now, how did he just mean that?—that they'd roar like a lion?
Q. Well, he said that there was a montage of restraint, no major problems, but he referred to the Secret Agents Act. He referred to the appellate power of the Supreme Court. He referred to several incidents, and he said there is a montage of restraint, and the press should be more vigorous and noisy about protecting its political coverage.
The President. I don't see that, and I don't think so. I think the press is free to print those things that should be printed. I think to suggest that we should declassify things with regard to national security would be ridiculous. I think the press would feel that way, too.
Q. Do you think the public has anything to complain about in terms of what it is getting in the way of news out of Washington in your administration?
The President. Yes. I'd like to see the press complain about that they're getting too many leaks. [Laughter]
Q. I guess that's your complaint about them.
The President. Yes.
Q. You've said before, frequently, that one of the reasons that you're not getting as much support as you should on some of your policies is because the public doesn't understand them. Do you think the public is not getting a full account of them?
The President. Well, now, I'm trying to think of a specific here in what we're—
Q. I think defense was one.
The President. Pardon?
Q. I think it was the defense buildup that most recently was complained about.
The President. Oh. Well, yes, I think there has been a perpetuation of an image, of a perception, that somehow defense is the cornucopia from which you can get all the revenues you need for anything else that you want to do, and that it doesn't have any bearing on our national security. And people have been led to believe that, well, it's just larded with fat, and so you wouldn't really be hurting the muscle fiber of our security if you took more money away.
And what I guess I suggested recently was that to talk about defense spending, the defense budget, and to talk about—"Well, let's take $5 billion off or let's take $10 billion off of the budget"—there is no way that you can budget militarily that way.
Those of us who are responsible for security, we don't go at how much we want to spend. We go at, "What do we need to meet the strategic plan that we have that we believe is necessary for our security?" And then you add up, "What is that going to cost?" Now, the only way that you can look at the defense budget is not by way of just counting dollars. The man who says, "Let's reduce the budget by $10 billion," should be made to come in and look at that defense plan. And then we say to him, "Okay. Where do you think—what would you do away with there that would save $10 billion? And how much does that increase the insecurity of our country if you do that?"
Q. Do you think, then, that the public generally just doesn't understand this process? Because the polls still show that—even though you gained some back in recent weeks on this defense spending issue, the polls still show that people believe there can be—that they want a defense buildup, but not necessarily as much as a defense buildup that you want.
The President. But they've been told that over and over again. Do you realize that when I was campaigning, during the campaign, it was exactly the opposite? Everyone in this country was prepared to believe, and did believe, that our defenses had, as they have, been neglected, and that we were in a very risky situation. In fact, much of it was obvious. When ships couldn't sail, naval vessels, because they didn't have enough crew or didn't have spare parts for the machinery, the public knew something was wrong.
Since that time, I think the constant drumbeat about charging that there is excessive spending is the thing that has turned the public around. They've been told over and over again that there is waste and extravagance.
Q. By Republicans or by the press or by Democrats or what? Who's telling them that?
The President. Well, it's a combination.
Q. Well, your own—your Senate Budget Committee, run by your Republicans, think that the point has come where we have to go for a little bit less of an increase—not a decrease, I understand that—but less of an increase than you want.
The President. Well, except that they-even including the chairman of that committee, are going to wage a fight on the floor—
Q. But for—
The President.—for more money. They knew they could not, in the committee, they could not get a majority vote.
Withholding Tax on Interest and Dividends
Q. Turning to a topic that is a little, maybe less complex, what about Senator Dole's comment yesterday that he doesn't think the public understands the issue with the bankers over withholding tax?
The President. Well, I think there, that there was a perception built among millions of people that this was a new tax; that somehow, something that had never been levied against them was going to he levied. They did not understand how many of them, the great majority of them that wouldn't even be touched by this, that they would be exempt on the basis of their income or the size of their savings accounts. And this generated probably the most successful lobbying effort that I've seen in many years. And.—
Q. Will you veto the way it's—
The President. What?
Q. The way it's structured now, a 4-year delay, would you veto that the way you would veto a—
The President. Well, I'm going to wait, before I make any comment of that kind on whether I'll veto or not, till I see what eventually arrives out of the Legislature. But the plain truth of the matter is, this is not a new tax. It's a tax that people are presently paying. And all that we wanted to do, the same as we do with wages, with withholding, was to be able to head off several millions of people who are cheating on their income tax and are escaping payment by not paying on dividend and interest earnings.
Q. Do you think the press has failed to explain this, or do you think it's the fact that the public doesn't want to understand it?
The President. Well, I don't know that I've seen that carried very much. I think I've seen the news carried of the lobbying, the news carried of the resentment of this, but I've never really seen an explanation of it.
Q. But the editorial writers were with you. I don't think I read an editorial anywhere in this country that was not on your side on this.
The President. The editorials. But then, as we all know, only 10 percent of the readers read the editorials— [laughter] —but 90 percent were reading something else in the same papers. No, I was surprised at many of the papers that normally don't editorialize in my favor who were in this one.
Q. Could I ask you a couple of questions about '847 Without expecting you to announce while we're sitting here—
Q. But you can if you want. [Laughter]
Q. One of the State chairmen who was having lunch with you last Thursday, when he left the White House he told some friends in the Republican National Committee that during the lunch you had leaned over and said to him, "Don't worry. I'm going to go again." And I was just wondering if he was telling the truth. Have you told anybody that?
The President. I did not tell anyone.
Q. You haven't told anyone that?
The President. No.
Q. You're still saying you haven't made up your mind?
The President. I haven't said that to anyone. Really.
Q. Even Nancy?
The President. What?
Q. Even Nancy?
The President. Not even Nancy.
Q. Secondly, one of your, sort of, supporters, Terry Dolan, from NCPAC—occasional supporters—I don't know if you have heard about this or not, but they are running television commercials now, saying that the press is slinging mud at you and is trying to drive you out of running for a second term. And they are actually collecting money, and they're asking for contributions to NCPAC on your behalf for running for reelection. Are you aware of this, and do you condone
The President. No.
Q. —or encourage this kind of activity?
The President. This is the first that I'd ever heard of it and, no, I couldn't condone it, because the election laws are very strict about that sort of thing.
Q. Do you feel that the press is trying to get you out of the campaign for running for reelection?
The President. No. I mean—[laughing] just think, you wouldn't have all those things to pick on if I weren't here. [Laughter]
Q. In that connection, Mr. President, you have commented that there's an imbalance of bad news over good news. Lately, since the economic news has been brightening, I haven't sensed that feeling quite as much. Do you feel that the news has gotten better or the coverage has gotten better?
The President. Well, for one thing, the news has gotten better. But, no, I think I was probably speaking more there of the media, the TV news, that I think sometimes is interested in—well, you know, show business is based on the audience having an emotional experience, and so the sad stories were appealing, and so forth, and there seemed to be a great emphasis on this.
For example, just the other day, though-let me—the use and non-use of figures. The other day, there was a little note—and I can't recall, so I'll be honest, I can't recall whether it was a columnist or whether it was a news story—to the effect that someplace they were setting a record of 500 businesses going belly-up every year, and this year there will be 500, and so forth. But no mention was made of the fact that new businesses are setting records in starting; that in the same period when several thousand businesses were reported as closing, I guess in the year of 1982, 600,000 businesses started up.
And the same was true for a long time. Every week, faithfully reported, was how many people signed up for unemployment insurance. But each week, the same source of information gives the number of people that go off unemployment insurance. Now, admittedly, maybe not all of those go back to work, maybe they just come to the end of their term. But for many weeks, the number of people leaving unemployment insurance has been greater than the number of people going on.
Q. You know, speaking of the good economic news, some experts think that part of the beginning of the recovery is due to Paul Volcker's loosening up a little bit on the money supply. Why do you want to get rid of him now? [Laughter]
The President. The way you asked that question, you can't get a yes or no answer to that. [Laughter]
There's never been any discussion over here of this. I know that's an appointment that comes up down the road a ways. There's never been any talk here.
Q. You mean, when you're saying "here," you mean yourself, not your senior aides? Or are you including in your senior aides on that?
The President. Well, there certainly has never been any involving me, or no one has ever broached the subject to me.
Q. So if they're saying that—as I've seen reported—that they're almost unanimous in thinking you should get your own man in that job, that's their opinion and not necessarily yours?
The President. That would be their opinion.
Presidential Advisers and News Leaks
Q. Speaking of the aides, just one more. Do you intend to do anything about the feuding that's going on among some of the senior levels on your staff?.
The President. Yes, I am disturbed about it, and I think there, again, this comes under the subject, generally, of leaks. And I think it's time to put a stop to what I think is incorrect information. If leaks are honest, that's one thing. But incorrect information has added to this whole atmosphere.
Q. How are you going to do that?
The President. Well, I've thought of the guillotine. [Laughter] But I'll stop short of that.
Q. Is it incorrect, the reports that Clark and Weinberger or Clark and Weinberger and Baker or—is it incorrect that, for instance, the defense people and Jim Baker and his staff are not communicating as well as they should?
The President. Well, whether someone in a lower-down echelon thinks they're doing a service for their own shop in putting out this kind of talk or not, that's what I aim to find out. But, no, I think some of the attacks that I have seen recently, both ways, are reprehensible and do not portray the situation.
Q. So, they're not true?
The President. No. Maybe some of this comes from the way I chose to do business. It's the way I did it in California for 8 years. I understand that in the past, Cabinets, for example—each person had his own turf and no one else in the Cabinet would talk about a decision affecting the turf of that one Cabinet member.
I don't do business that way. Ours is more like a board of directors. I want all the input, because there are very few issues that don't lap over into other areas. Can you talk about farm exports without being involved with the Department of Commerce, and the Treasury Department, and so forth.
So, I want everybody's input. I want to hear all the views and all the input, and then I make the decisions. The only thing different from a board of directors is I don't take a vote. I know that I have to make the decision.
Q. Well, one of the problems is that there was a feeling that you could've gotten a better deal out of the Budget Committee if the issue of what your negotiating position was going to be—as in all negotiating, you didn't want to say too soon. Well, it appears that it may have come too late. Do you.
The President. No, what really happened was I had asked for more time to see if, number one, if the Commission that was studying the MX and all—they had not come in—whether what they came in with might change the figure that we had put in in the budget. Also, the swift drop in inflation, we thought, had made some changes. And it takes time.
There again we come back to—you can't just discuss money, you've got to discuss "What are we talking about, what are we talking about doing away with that won't cost as much and so forth?" And frankly, I had asked for time because I believed that we could have some flexibility, that our original figure could be changed.
And the committee was in markup and meeting. And I asked for more time again, and they wouldn't give more time. And the only reason I was asking for more time was it took longer than we thought. They were working on it over at the Pentagon. And they came in with a figure, and it was a lower and a compromise figure. But it was too late. They had passed their figure. Now we're going to try to get our figure—which isn't as low as theirs—we're now going to try to get it considered.
Q. The 7.5?
The President. What?
Q. The 7.5 percent?
The President. Yes.
Q. Mr. President, you mention a show biz and an emotional experience. Does that suggest that you distinguish between the coverage you get in print and on television?
The President. Well, I think I'd be quoting an awful lot of newspapermen if I said that there is a flavor of show business more to TV news than there is to the front page of a newspaper.
Q. Does that bother you?
The President. What?
Q. Does that bother you?
The President. Not when it's in my favor. [Laughter]
Q. If I could get back to Mr. Volcker just for a minute, I think it was the chairman of General Motors who said yesterday that this thing shouldn't be left hanging, that it could have a powerful effect on Wall Street, you know, the way they perceive what's going to happen here to the Federal Reserve.
Most people assume that nothing around here happens by accident. Was it an accident that some of your aides set the tone for perhaps pushing Mr. Volcker out? Does that concern you?
The President. If they did, and if those leaks—they actually were leaking this, then it had to be. As a matter of fact, I told Mr. Volcker just the other day after all of this flurry appeared that there had been no decision made nor no conversation of any kind carried on here in the administration about this. And I hope he won't mind my telling you his answer. His answer was to laugh and say, "I've been around Washington a long time. Don't worry."
Q. Well, usually, as Don was saying, it's because you're trying it out on the public. I mean, you know, there's leaks and there are leaks. And some of them help you, because you get policies across—
The President. Well, these
Q. This one wasn't one of those?
The President. Believe me, these would not have been—what you're talking about aren't leaks, they're trial balloons.
Q. Yes, okay.
The President. No, there were no trial balloons. Because if it was a trial balloon, I would have had to know about it.
Deputy Press Secretary Speakes. You all want to get one more?
Q. Mr. President, I'd like to make a pitch that you and your associates consider sending your message on leaks and news coverage to the convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. I expect you don't want to visit with two newspaper groups in 2 weeks, but we hope somebody from your administration can visit with us, and I'll leave this with Mr. Speakes.
The President. Oh, all right. [Laughing] Okay.
Q. Thank you.
Note: The interview began at 5:08 p.m. in the Oval Office at the White House. Participants in the interview were John C. Quinn, president of Gannett Newspapers, and Ann Devroy and Don Campbell of Gannett News Service.
The transcript of the interview was released by the Office of the Press Secretary on April 27.
Ronald Reagan, Interview With USA Today Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/262847