Ronald Reagan picture

Interview with White House Newspaper Correspondents

April 28, 1987

Arms Control

Q. Mr. President, I'd like to ask you the first question on arms control, and it has two parts to it. To what extent do you think Secretary Shultz' opinion that we ought to take the Russians at face value when they say they're talking seriously about arms control, because they want a less threatening and less nuclear world—he said that when he came down to talk with us at Santa Barbara-after you. That's the first part.

The President. Well, I think that since they—and literally for the first time in history—have actually volunteered a willingness to reduce weapons—if you look back in history, this has never been true of them before—I think, yes, that you say—but that doesn't mean—I know exactly how George feels about this other—that doesn't mean that you don't insist on verification and the safeguards that we must have in such an agreement or treaty. I think that he was simply saying that as long as they've said that, yes, we're going to negotiate with them. But it doesn't mean that you're going to roll over and just give in to something without protecting yourself.

Q. So, you're going to take them at their word that they want a less threatening nuclear world. The other half of it is how can you retain General Rowny as a negotiator when he's basically broken away from your own declared position on INF and says that we're focusing on the wrong thing publicly?

The President. Well, I think the only thing I know is that the general perhaps thought that some of us were too optimistic in this. And basically most of us have tried to keep from expressing an optimism other than, well, expressing a hopefulness, rather than optimism. But, no, you have to recognize that I expect diverse opinions in the shop and among the people and the Cabinet and everything else. And I've always been that way. I want and encourage those other opinions, because I have to make the decisions, and I make them on the basis of everything that I hear from those who counsel me.

Q. Even after you've made the final decision?

The President. Well, I always know that there are some people who don't give in; but I also do know that once I've made the final decision, no matter how they may have felt about it, right or wrong, that they'll carry it out.

Q. Mr. President, General Rowny essentially endorsed the Nixon-Kissinger position, and former President Nixon says you could end up creating what he called the most profound crisis in NATO history unless you demand that all INF weapons be eliminated worldwide and you link U.S. withdrawals to fixing the conventional arms imbalance. You haven't insisted on either of these points, so how do you respond to President Nixon?

The President. Well, it isn't exactly true about what we've done and how we feel with regard to those points. I have always believed, and have stated many times in our meetings, that if and when we succeed in reducing what I think are the most destabilizing weapons, the nuclear weapons-and my ultimate goal has always been elimination-but that then must recognize that you cannot proceed with that to the point that their conventional superiority is increased and leaves an imbalance. That would have to be taken into account, and that is true with what we're talking about presently. We recognize that we must keep in mind the conventional balance, and as a matter of fact, ever since I've been here, we have been, as you know, in negotiations with the Soviet Union on that matter of conventional weapons. So, it's wrong to assume that we're not aware of that and that we're not dealing with it.

Now, you had something else there that you said—another point that was made.

Q. Well, whether or not you can go ahead and allow the Soviets to retain 100 SS-20 warheads in Asia when it might be very hard to verify them and so on?

The President. Well, no, verification is going to have to be solid on that or any other part of this agreement. As a matter of fact, I don't speak Russian, but I did speak Russian to Mr. Gorbachev in one of our meetings. I had learned a little Russian proverb: Dovorey no provorey. It means trust, but verify. And, yes, that must be a definite part of this. So, yes, we would like to have it be global, and we'll seek that in negotiations. But I'm not going to say what value I place on the other except that if it comes down to a small number maintained in another part of the world, so long as we will be in a position to have a deterrent capacity, which we would in this case—but as I say, no, we're going to seek a global balance. We'd prefer that.

Moral Values

Q. Mr. President, in Los Angeles recently you expressed concern that "something should be done about value-free education." You said the country has stopped teaching on the basis of moral principles. We now see in the newspapers and the press day to day a society which has produced Ivan Boesky, investment bankers being traipsed down Wall Street in handcuffs because of drug charges, television evangelists swapping charges on adultery and homosexuality, and even prominent individuals within your administration having been charged with wrongdoing and considering using drug impairment as a potential defense. In looking at some of these things, all together, what is your view about the condition of the society's values; and as you consider the legacy you'll leave, what do you hope will be the imprint that you have on these values and getting back to the basics?

The President. Well, I hope that the imprint would be left on one of high morality. And I fear, as many people do, that there's a kind of cynicism abroad, particularly among our young people. But there again, there have always been wrongdoing in the world; that's why we have laws and policemen and so forth. But if we have a system of education in which—in a retreat from in loco parentis, which teachers did resist long ago—the idea in loco parentis means that when the child leaves home and comes into the school, then the school becomes, for that period of time they have them, the parent and must decide on right and wrong and so forth.

Teachers were always—or, there was always a kind of a movement among teachers, let me say, that they kind of resented that, figured that was a responsibility that shouldn't be theirs. But in recent years, we have had a wave of what is called value-free education, that a teacher must not impose their judgment of right or wrong. Just recently there was a case involving a counselor that came to our attention. And the story had it that the counselor asked the students before him if they found a wallet with a thousand dollars in it and an address and name of the owner, what should they do with it? And when the consensus turned out that it would be stupid to give it back, the counselor was asked, "Well, then what did you say to them? .... Oh," he said, "I wouldn't impose my opinion on them." Well, what's the purpose of a counselor if it isn't to impose an opinion on them as to right and wrong?

I think that we've carried this so far—I remember one of my own children coming home one day, and a discussion came up about something, and I suggested the moral principle of right and wrong. And a warning bell should have rung then when that child said back to me, "Ah, yes, but whose moral standard?" Well, right is right and wrong is wrong. And there may be differing opinions about right and wrong, but to teach what we're teaching in schools today without any attention to morality or the right and wrong of things—this is absolutely wrong. And with things such as you've pointed out going on in the world, then how are the children going to judge? They're just going to accept, well, it's all right f you get away with it.

AIDS and Sex Education

Q. Well, to follow on that point, your Domestic Policy Council next week will be coming to you with some proposals on AIDS. You, when you've commented on AIDS, have talked about how you should teach the children abstinence. When you go back to what you were saying about you must teach right and wrong, where do you think that this should come into the schools with such tough issues as AIDS?

The President. Well, I'm sure that when you—AIDS is probably going to somewhat tie in with the prevalence of sex education in the schools today. And I have been very disturbed that under this same theory of no values being taught, value-free education, that how do you start talking about sex to children and to young people without the moral side of that question being brought up? Just treat it like a physical thing, such as eating a ham sandwich? And too much of this is going on. So, when it was proposed that such things as preventives and so forth should be recommended to the children, I said that along with that should go the moral teaching of what has always been a part of morality, and that is abstinence. There is one of the Ten Commandments that deals with that particular problem. And at the same time, recognizing that there are those who are not going to abstain, all right, then you can touch on the other things that are being done. But I would think that sex education should begin with the moral ramifications, that it is not just a physical activity that doesn't have any moral connotation.

Q. Should churches issue condoms, Mr. President?

The President. I was shocked when I read that that was happening. Yes, I've since heard some things about that particular instance. As I understand, it was one clergyman in one church and that there have been evidences of other expressions or procedures there that are not quite in keeping with most other religions.

Iran Arms-Contra Aid Controversy

Q. Mr. President, as you know, next week Congress opens hearings on the Iran-contra matter. Are you worried that when your former national security adviser, John Poindexter, testifies that he won't some way implicate you in the knowledge of diversion of funds to the contras?

The President. No, John Poindexter's an honorable man. And since I was not informed—as a matter of fact, since I did not know that there were any excess funds until we ourselves in that checkup after the whole thing blew up, and that was, if you'll remember, that was the incident in which the Attorney General came to me and told me that he had seen a memo that indicated that there were more funds. We had gotten our $12 million dollars back for the weapons that we had provided. I have no way of knowing why or how. I can speculate as to how there was additional money, but we had no indication of it until that time. And that was at 4:30 on a Monday afternoon. And first thing Tuesday morning, he and I met with the joint leadership of the House and Senate, told them what we had learned, that there evidently was something of this kind, and then went before you in the press room and told all of you. And that, as far as I know, factually, that is all I know. I am still waiting to find out exactly how did there turn out to be more money and where did that money go.

Q. Have you thought about how it was possible that a close adviser who you saw daily, a career military man, failed to notify you of something so important in advance? The President. Well, this is what we're waiting to find out in both instances. Apparently, he told more to Admiral Poindexter, who was my national security adviser.

Q. Do you mean Colonel North?

The President. Yes. And I assumed that's because those were the only two military—

Q. Well, I mean, how is it possible that Poindexter, who you describe as an honorable man—

The President. Well, that I don't know.

Q.— and who saw you daily and is a military man—

The President. Maybe he thought he was being, in some way, protective of me. I don't know. But that's what we're continuing to investigate to find out. Q. Protective of what? The President. What? Q. Protective of what?

The President. Well.

Q. Possible wrongdoing?

The President. Well, I don't know. Apparently-and on such things as the Tower commission has come up with and others so far—apparently, there were some go betweens on the Iranian side who, meeting the problem of did we deliver weapons before we got the money or did we get the money and then deliver the weapons and so forth, arranged some bridge loans so that a postdated check and so forth could be given and that money could be handled in that way, the transfer. Now, as I said before, the only thing I knew was the weapons were delivered and we received $12 million by way of what's called a sterile bank account, which I understand is the way of transferring money across the ocean. And the only thing that, apparently—from what has been learned so far in these investigations—that, evidently, those with this bridge loan, evidently, put a retail price instead of our wholesale price for the weapons. And thus there was more money paid than we had asked for.

Now, that's where my knowledge ends. Who got that, who handled it, what did they do with it, and who was involved in that extra money?

Q. Mr. President, in your early years as President, you were credited with restoring faith in government and in the power of the Presidency. But since the Iran affair, polls have reported that people are deeply concerned about who is in charge of the country and where the Nation is headed. Now, this lack of trust in government is widespread according to the polls, and I'm wondering what you can do now to reverse that and restore confidence.

The President. Well, I don't think the mistrust is justified. I do think that the manner in which the whole thing when it—it was a covert operation to begin with. And when the information was leaked through that rag in Beirut and then picked up worldwide—if you will remember, my first reaction was, "Please, don't. You can get some people killed."—meaning the people that we were dealing with on the Iranian side and possibly our hostages. And [former hostage] Mr. Jacobsen when he came home, f you'll recall, made the same plea publicly, and for the same reason. But I know that this has been created on the basis that the people have been led to believe I'm covering up, that I do know all about the money and I'm somehow covering.

I was interested in one poll that went a step further. It asked another question of the people. And that was did they think it was all right for me to be covering up. And that poll was taken just of the people that believed I was covering up. And about Two-thirds or more of those people said, yes, there are times when a President has to keep his mouth shut and not tell people certain things.

But, no, as I say, I didn't have any more knowledge than that. And I do hope that we can restore to them their faith in government, because we have not betrayed the people of this country in any way nor would I, nor would I permit it.

Q. But is it possible that Admiral Poindexter and Colonel North got the idea that you approved of their actions and that they were acting with your authority? Is that possible?

The President. I wouldn't see how, no. No, the things that—now, there again, we don't know their involvement with that money thing, as I said that it was done-that some of the go-betweens put up a bridge loan to enable the transaction to go through with. We don't know the extent of their knowledge of that and why there was extra money or whether they even participated in that in any way or agreed to it.

The other thing that the Tower commission report revealed to me was that contrary to what our purpose had been, you know, in other words, to establish that contact and see if we could not get a basis for a better relationship between our two countries, that we, in return for their asking, as a measure of good faith on our part for this-really it wasn't much more than a token sale of weapons—that we turned around and said, "Because of the support by Iran of terrorism, we can't do business." They protested that they were opposed to terrorism themselves and would never have—remember, we were talking not to Khomeini, as so many of our colleagues have indicated, we were talking to people that had sought a meeting with us on the basis that they were thinking of the government that was going to succeed the Khomeini. And this is why it had to be covert, because they were kind of sticking their necks out. And we went along with this, and then we put as a condition that said: "Well, you can prove this antiterrorism procedure or provision on your part if you can seek to impress on the [radical Shi'ite terrorist group] Hizballah, who sort of have a relationship with Iran, to start turning—give us our hostages back." And the other thing that did develop, then, was that somehow the whole thing just began to deteriorate into a hostage sale thing. And suddenly they were demanding more arms and more deals as to what would be necessary for the hostages and so forth.

Well, I wasn't aware of that. We had made an arrangement based on the two things: Yes, all right, we'd break our practice and provide those arms. They in turn would do their best, and they did deliver some hostages to us. And so, the whole distortion of the picture, that we were dealing with the Khomeini, and that in spite of all that he had done to us, and we weren't. We thought we were going around behind his back with some of his people. And therefore, I don't think there was anything wrong to have accepted the proposal by people from Iran who wanted, apparently, to talk a better relationship with us in the government yet to come. And as I have often said, I didn't think it was trading arms for hostages when the hostages—or the kidnapers weren't getting anything. We were doing business with these people in Iran.

And as I say, there is more yet to come, out now as to who was doing what and how much of it was being known. I do know that from the Tower commission report that at one point Bud McFarlane was demanding-now, we know this afterward in their report—demanded that they get away from this just straight bargaining about hostages and arms trading and get back to the process of the better relationship. And when they refused to do that, he walked away and wouldn't negotiate any further.

Arms Control

Q. Yes, if we could go back to the arms control question and the concerns about the imbalance in Europe because of the Soviet Warsaw Pact conventional force advantage. At what point do we draw the line and say the conventional forces are too far out of balance, we cannot remove any more nuclear weapons, we can't afford to? Where do we say that?

The President. Well, remember that, contrary to what has been said too many times, this is not a denuclearization of Europe. And first of all, we're in touch with our allies in NATO, and we want their feelings on this, too. But remember that even if the short-range and the long-range weapons—and a deal is made, there are still thousands of warheads left in nuclear weapons on our part—airborne tactical-type weapons and so forth. So, those are not a part of this negotiation at all.

Q. You're talking about strategic?

The President. We're talking strategic and the short-range missiles. We're talking missiles. There are nuclear weapons.

Q. We haven't heard anything about strategic in some time now. Has that gone by the wayside, you know, with the whole push to get a medium-range agreement?

The President. Oh, we won't ever give up on that except that we always had those delinked, even in Reykjavik. And this, since the Soviet Union came back with their willingness to discuss what had been our original proposal back in 1981—in fact, it was at the National Press Club that I think I made the statement about seeking zero-zero in Europe. And to start with that, I've always believed that if we could begin by getting some actual reductions, then we can continue—and what we call our START proposal—this is the one that we'd had an agreement on that in Reykjavik on the starting of reduction of those weapons until they tied the SDI to it. I think that broke things up.

Federal Reserve Board Chairman

Q. Mr. President, all the economic reporters out there are concerned whether you are going to reappoint Paul Volcker.

Mr. Fitzwater. That's a trick question. [Laughter]

The President. No decision has been made.

Soviet-U.S. Relations

Q. What do you make of glasnost now? This is the evil empire and all of a sudden we're seeing glasnost. Has that turned things upside down at all for you?

Q. Does Gorbachev have iron teeth or doesn't he?

The President. No, but I think it is very obvious that he is faced with a tremendous economic problem, and a great deal of that problem has been aggravated, made worse, by their military buildup. And I don't think you have to look for a change in philosophy of someone so much as—if it suits their practical ends to have some arms reduction and it suits our policies also, then let's get together.

Q. Sounds like glasnost at the White House.

Q. So, you think people that live in glasnost shouldn't throw stones? [Laughter]

Note: The interview began at 2:34 p.m. in the Oval Office at the White House. Participants in the interview included Jerome R. Watson, Chicago Sun-Times; Owen Ullmann, Knight-Ridder Newspapers; James R. Gerstenzang, Los Angeles Times; Jeremiah O'Leary, Washington Times; Julie Johnson, Baltimore Sun; and Thomas J. Brazaitis, Cleveland Plain Dealer. The reporters' questions referred to Ivan F. Boesky, who had been convicted of stock market insider trading; John Poindexter, former Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs; and Oliver North, a former member of the National Security Council staff Marlin Fitzwater was Assistant to the President for Press Relations.

Ronald Reagan, Interview with White House Newspaper Correspondents Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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