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Question-and-Answer Session With Reporters in Malta

December 03, 1989

Meeting With Soviet Chairman Gorbachev

Q. Are you still talking to Bucky?

The President. Bucky Bush? You mean because of the weather? Yes, yes, because I think it worked. It didn't work to perfection because of the weather, but the meeting worked. So, I'm still talking to him.

Q. You came here setting out goals for yourself to have this informal, unstructured meeting, as you said you did out there. But I'm curious if you feel that you achieved the goals you set out, the more ambitious goals you set out in your Thanksgiving speech, where you said you wanted to come and Mr. Gorbachev join with you in tearing down the barriers and ending the cold war.

The President. I didn't say we were going to do all that at Malta. But, yes, I think the meeting was very productive and constructive. It worked exactly the way I visualized it when we took the initiative, which he confirmed, to set the meeting. Indeed, at one moment, I actually did put my foot up. And I say that because there were no subjects off the table, there were no tensions as any subject was raised on either side. And I have a very positive feeling.

And yet we have not solved all the problems that exist between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, nor all the problems that have existed over the years between Western Europe and the rest of the NATO allies and Eastern Europe. But I understand better where he's coming from, and that, I think, is very important. And he understands our priorities. He understands the concerns, for example, that I feel about Central America because we really had a good, frank discussion.

Q. But if I can follow up on this goal, as I say, you set for yourself, at least toward moving toward ending the cold war. He said an epoch has ended. How do you feel about that?

The President. I think it's a major step towards understanding and in trying to tear down any remaining barriers that shot up because of the cold war. There's no question that the conditions today are far different than at the depths of the cold war -- no question about it. I haven't even heard anybody argue to the contrary.

NATO and the Warsaw Pact

Q. Mr. President, what do you think of NATO and Warsaw Pact evolving to political organizations and really moving out of the military mode?

The President. Well, if we make the progress that I hope we'll make on various arms control items, and if tensions continue to go down, as they have, inside the Soviet Union and in terms of relations with the United States and in Eastern Europe, who knows where the change will take us? But obviously I have a certain responsibility for keeping NATO strong, and nothing here has altered that desire. But as you see the historical changes taking place -- I think it's fine to envision a group of countries that spend a lot more time worrying about the economic side and less on the defense side. We are not there yet. We're not there.

Meeting With Soviet Chairman Gorbachev

Q. What will you tell the NATO leaders?

The President. Well, I'll wait until I get there to decide that. I'll give them a pretty good report on what went on, considerable detail -- not all necessarily -- because some relates to the U.S.-Soviet equation. But we'll have a good, frank discussion, and I think they will be pleased at what the results of the meeting are.

Q. Mr. President, other than the weather, were there any disappointments? You seem to still be at odds very much so on Central America. And was there anything Mr. Gorbachev told you that especially surprised or pleased you?

The President. No, no surprises. But as I say, Michael [Michael Gelb, Reuters], we cannot -- in 10 hours of discussion, or whatever it is -- solve all the problems that exist between the United States and the Soviet Union and the way we look at different areas. But it would be euphorically optimistic to think that a meeting like this would solve all those problems. But it's better; we understand more. I've got some areas where I can now go back to him -- various areas, but there were no surprises. It was a wide discussion. I'm not sure we left out any subjects, in a geopolitical sense. But we covered a lot of -- --

Q. No specific disappointments? Something you wish he was more forthcoming on?

The President. No particular disappointments, no, because I think the goal now is to go forward, as we have wanted to anyway, and demonstrate everybody's commitment to CFE talks, everybody's commitment to chemical weapons reductions, eventual elimination, and, of course, the START agenda.

Q. Mr. President, you talked about now having a better understanding of Mr. Gorbachev after this meeting. Could you tell us what you know about him today or understand about him today that you didn't know?

The President. Well, I know that he's perfectly willing to have very frank discussions, even if I'm on the opposite side of a question from him. There was no anger, there was no vitriol. It was a very constructive set of meetings in that regard. And so, I saw a man who is confident. I saw a man who is calm in his presentations and responded as factually as he could in some of the questions I raised. And so, I'm convinced that the concept of getting it together for a no-agenda meeting was very, very sound.

Soviet-U.S. Relations

Q. Do you think that the United States and the Soviet Union now are dealing with each other more as allies than adversaries?

The President. I wouldn't say allies, but with far less misunderstanding and with far more common goals.

Q. What do you think of the adversarial relationship, or the nature of the relationship now?

The President. Well, as I say, I think it's vastly improved; tensions reduced -- not eliminated, but reduced. We still have different ways of looking at certain questions, but I think the answer is "improved," Terry [Terence Hunt, Associated Press].

International Terrorism

Q. Mr. President, relatives of the Pan Am 103 bombing were going to have a ceremony at the harbor today -- drop flowers into the harbor -- as part of their attempt to have both you and Mr. Gorbachev work together in fighting international terrorism. Did this come up specifically this weekend, and could you talk a little bit about that?

The President. Yes. Not 103 per se, but you're talking about anti-international terror -- yes, it did -- and also in the antinarcotics efforts. There's more we can do. We didn't discuss it specifically, but I'm thinking about certain kinds of intelligence interchange that can prove to be beneficial.


Q. What was the conversation he was referring to on Governors Island?

Q. In the car?

The President. No. No, the car was in Washington. You remember when we rode from the Embassy over to the meeting at the White House? And in New York -- he did refer to Governors Island, and I think what he was talking about is that he opined that some people in our country wanted to see perestroika fail and that it wasn't going to fail and that it is irreversible. And I told him back then that I didn't think there were any serious elements in the United States that wanted to see perestroika fail. So, that's probably what he was alluding to. I missed that part.

Central America

Q. Secretary Baker, before you came out here a couple of weeks ago, said that the Soviet role in Cuba, Central America, was the primary obstacle to a more beneficial full-scale relationship between the two countries. You disagreed here, but did you advance the issue at all? Can you say -- --

The President. I don't know if we advanced it, but I was very, very clear in telling him how strongly I feel about that. And it did build on what Jim Baker had talked to Shevardnadze about out in Wyoming. So, there is no doubt in their minds that their assistance to Cuba and their lip service for the Sandinistas give us a considerable amount of difference with them. So, it's very clear -- well, until we see a free Cuba, self-determination and the people deciding what they want, Cuba will stick out until that date as a tiny country that's swimming against Mr. Gorbachev's own tide. And I made that point to him.

Q. How did he respond to that?

The President. Well, I'll let you ask him first chance you get.

Arms Control

Q. Could I ask you a question on arms control? Did I understand President Gorbachev to say that you hope to have a framework agreement in late June, but not an actual START treaty?

The President. I think we should shoot for a START treaty. I'm advised by some of the pros that that's complicated, but look, I think we ought to go forward and try to get a START agreement. And I think most everybody would like to see that happen. I don't see any resistance to it. We'll get some technical problems involved, but let the experts discuss, not me. So, if he said that there wouldn't be -- I mean, if the implication that you got was there won't be a START treaty in the summer of '90, I didn't get that feeling from him.

Q. So, you still think it's entirely possible or likely?

The President. It's possible, but we're going to have to drive the system.

Q. Is it likely, do you think?

The President. It's hard to quantify my feeling on that one. But I really don't see a reason why it can't happen.

Q. What about SDI in that context? Did you talk about SDI?

The President. Just a wide array. You can just be sure that defensive was talked about as well as offensive, rockets as well as people. It was a wide array of discussion on that general -- yes?

Q. Was the procedure for our troop cuts beyond CFE I discussed?

The President. Yes, he is very much interested in seeing troop cuts beyond CFE. He knows I'm part of an alliance and not going to go off on some unilateral attack on that. But I think in fairness to the man, he did raise that. But I think we both agree that the immediate goal is to push the system on both sides so we can get a CFE agreement.

Back to Terry's question: I think that's entirely possible. It should be, and I'm going to be driving our bureaucracy and discussing it at NATO because I think it's a very important step.

Defense Budget Cuts

Q. Well, in that respect, are you going to cut the defense budget?

The President. Not in that respect. We've already cut the defense budget.

Q. Well, [Secretary of Defense] Cheney certainly has been talking a lot about -- --

The President. Listen, he's doing exactly what I want him to do: go back and question and see how things can be restructured. And if there is a way to prudently save money and not weaken the common defense of NATO or not weaken the ability of the United States to protect our friends around the world, fine. That would be acceptable to me, but we're simply not going to go out there and make draconian cuts in defense so I can solve this Gramm-Rudman problem.

Soviet-U.S. Relations

Q. Well, do you believe him when he says he won't start a hot war?

The President. I think he has no intention of starting a hot war. I mean, where he said attacking the United States interests? How did he phrase it? It was something like that.

Q. A hot war against the United States.

Q. The question was about a cold war.

The President. Yes. I have no evidence that there's anything other than the truth in that statement.

Mr. Fitzwater. We're going to have to go. We'll give Frank [Frank Sesno, CNN] a final one here.

Meeting With Soviet Chairman Gorbachev

Q. May I ask you a personal question? Just some personal thoughts coming here after all the preparation and some of the criticism of being too timid, or whether -- --

The President. Yes. I'm not interested -- let me interrupt once to editorial -- wasn't it interesting the way he used the word "caution"? And I didn't put him up to it, either, but go ahead.

Mr. Fitzwater. He said prudent at one time, too.

The President. Did he really? [Laughter] Go ahead.

Q. What was it like for you? What did it feel like, sitting across from this man and, in many ways, discussing the shape of the world that cannot really be forecast?

The President. Well, inasmuch as I had met him before and had a couple of private conversations with him before, it was probably less formidable than if I'd never met him. And given the changes that he's advocating, in terms of self-determination and Eastern Europe changing without any threat of force from them, the climate was easier because of those things. But there still was a recognition on my part: one, that this was serious business; and two, that we have got to find ways to work for peace constructively.

And sitting across the table from me was a person that can have as much to say about that as any other individual in the world, given the superpower defense status of both countries. So, there was a recognition that this was important. And yet the climate in the meetings was without rancor and without hostility. I remember a time when I first met Mr. Gorbachev and we talked about human rights, and he became visibly agitated with me for raising it. And I think there's been a great evolution in his thinking on that question, and certainly on his relations with the United States, just as there had been an evolution on my thinking. You may remember, I was the one who was against the very kind of meeting that I decided was necessary, because I think as these changes take place, this kind of meeting can be helpful.

So, the emotional part of it, Frank, is hard to describe for me because I'm not the most articulate emotionalist. But I just can't have asked for a better ambiance, a better feel from the meetings, even though the differences are acute in some areas. But you get the feeling he really wants to work with us. And he knows that I'm cautious. And you heard him talk. He used the word "prudent." I'm sure that was deliberate on his part. I do think this: that 6 months ago there was probably a misunderstanding on his part about the intentions of this new President. And I think one of the good things is I don't think he has any feeling that I'm going to be unforthcoming in situations where I should be. I don't think he has me down as a total negativist at all, and I certainly don't have him down. And as I see the reception he gets in Italy, I can talk to him about why that emotional response, his identity with change.

So, back to the personal side: The events helped; his own personality helped. I'd like to think he thought I knew what I was talking about, so we could have a good exchange without having to go to the experts or go to the notebooks. And it worked. And now we've got to move. Now we've got to move forward, and I think we can, in a lot of ways. I think we can on the economic front. I'm convinced we can, and must, on the arms control front.

Q. You're going to report to NATO tomorrow. How are you going to report to the American people on this summit?

The President. I don't know whether we're having a -- we may well have a press conference when we get back.

Mr. Fitzwater. At some point.

Q. Early?

Mr. Fitzwater. At an unspecified time.

The President. That's the best way to do it.

Q. In an Oval Office speech or -- --

The President. Well, I just did one just before going, and I don't want to -- --

Q. Press conference is good. [Laughter]

The President. -- -- abuse the hospitality of the airwaves. But I think we can get the message out by responding to questions.

Q. Did you ever lose your temper?

The President. No.

Q. You said that he had no rancor himself.

The President. No, I don't lose my temper.

Q. Did you get seasick?

Q. What?

The President. I don't.

Q. Come on.

The President. I don't.

Q. You hit the ceiling a lot.

The President. I keep it all inside.

Q. No, that's how you get ulcers.

The President. No, no, that's where I think your reporting has been a little off. [Laughter]

Q. Keeping it all inside?

The President. What was the -- that they got on Marlin about saying "He hit the ceiling." What was that, a few months back -- which was untrue.

Q. On somebody -- one of the -- --

Q. Some leak. [Laughter]

The President. Some leak -- probably Reuters.

Q. Any seasickness from either superpower?

Q. That's how you got that ulcer. You kept it in. You don't do that anymore.

The President. No, but I don't have to. I'm matured. And the answer is: Don't worry about things you can't do anything about. That's a little advice I got from the doctor in 1960, and it works. So, why blow up at Helen [Helen Thomas, United Press International] if she asks a question I don't like, or this one over here?

Q. Well, we've seen you go up in smoke sometimes.

Mr. Fitzwater. Okay. This is getting into a difficult area. [Laughter]

The President. Not really. You think it's smoke? You ought to see me. If occasionally I do go up in smoke, it doesn't relate to this line of work. It's other things.

We'll see you guys -- see you on the plane.

Q. Are you going to come back and chat?

The President. Are you going out to the Bois for dinner? It's marvelous. What's that restaurant in the woods?

Q. Dinner?

Q. To dinner? [Laughter]

The President. Did you have lunch?

Q. No.

Q. No.

Q. Some people haven't had breakfast yet. [Laughter]

The President. I haven't either.

Q. Thank you very much.

Q. Thank you.

The President. All right. Thank you all. It was good. Thank you for coming in.

Q. We're glad it went well.

The President. I think it did.

Q. For the world.

The President. I really mean it. Yes, and I look at it that way -- grandkids, all of that. Very important.

And let me just add one thing. Mrs. Gorbachev went out of her way to greet me inside before we came in here. And she couldn't have been more pleasant. I sent her a little note from Barbara, a tiny little souvenir. And she was most gracious and most, I would say, pleased with the way the meetings had gone and all of that, which is a nice touch, a very nice touch.

Q. She sat there smiling.

The President. I didn't see her facial expression, but I know that when we chatted earlier it was positive, quite positive. Nothing other than in keeping with the whole mood of this meeting.

Q. Did the President exchange any gifts?

The President. I think we did, but we didn't do it personally.

Q. A piece of the wall? Did you give him a piece of the wall?

The President. No, I did not have a piece of the wall.

Q. Do you regret that Mrs. Bush didn't come?

The President. No. It wasn't planned from the beginning, and she had the Kennedy Center Honors, which the President should -- or family should participate in. And the setting at sea was such that it didn't lend itself. But I know Barbara's looking forward to getting up with Raisa. I'm sure of it.

Upcoming Soviet-U.S. Summit

Q. Where is the next summit? On the barge?

The President. No. Not set.

Q. In Washington?

The President. On the barge. [Laughter]

Q. Texas?

The President. No, probably Washington, but we didn't actually set the place.

Houston Economic Summit

Q. I'll bet the Houstonians are glad about the economic summit.

The President. Well, I haven't seen any press. I thought they would be, but maybe it got good -- --

Q. You made the announcement from here, that's why.

The President. Yes, it may -- well, did we, or -- --

Mr. Fitzwater. On the way.

The President. -- -- on the way over, yes. But I haven't had a chance to see the reaction. But it's appropriate, it's good, and I'm glad, obviously, that it's going to be there.


Q. Anything on Mrs. Aquino?

The President. No more word today. No more word. It was quiet last night, our time, thank God.

Mr. Fitzwater. Okay.

Q. When's your next summit?

The President. I don't know. I don't know. These are available for $1.50 each. I don't know whether anybody's interested. [Laughter]

Q. Next week they'll be down to a quarter. [Laughter]

The President. I'm going to mail them. I'm sitting here now, sending them to friends.

Q. Did you get a first-day issue stamp?

The President. Yes. Well, that's what we got for these.

Q. We have some of those.

The President. And you put them on the other things I sent. I had a very clever note that I wrote out before I got here. Real clever -- and funny. Oh, you'll die. [Laughter] It's a whole new emotional humorous side to this President. But I can't share it with you.

Q. Secretive humor.

The President. If you can find 1 of the 25 people that received it, you're going to break up and say, "What have we been missing in this guy all this time?"

Q. Give him my address.

The President. Too late. No, this is the letters that I sent -- cards. Unlike this, however.

Q. What did you say?

The President. Can't tell you any more, Helen, honest. Personal relationships, you know how that is.

Q. Thank you.

The President. You've spent a lot of time out in the cold.

Q. Not too bad.

The President. Sorry you didn't get on the ships because it was so nice. Actually I enjoyed last night, we stayed up and watched. We're not going to leave you, if that's what you're getting at.

Q. Leave orbiting?

Mr. Fitzwater. Thank you all.

Note: The President spoke at 2:47 p.m. on the Soviet passenger liner "Maxim Gorky" in Marsaxlokk Harbor. In his opening remarks, he referred to his brother, William Bush. Marlin Fitzwater was Assistant to the President and Press Secretary.

George Bush, Question-and-Answer Session With Reporters in Malta Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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