Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With the Members of the Center for the Study of the Presidency

March 25, 1988

The President. Thank you very much, and welcome to the White House. I know you don't think you're in the White House, but somehow—you know Washington. They call it the White House complex. Washington is complex. [Laughter]

Well, I can't think of groups that are more welcome here than those sponsored by the Center for the Study of the Presidency. For more than two decades, the center has contributed to our understanding of the high office that for a brief time the American people have entrusted to me. Under the leadership of Gordon Hoxie, the center has helped both the country at large and the men who've held this office to see more clearly the institution and the challenges of the day that the Presidency and its trustee face.

The modern Presidency is, like everything else in our system, the product of both the founders' design and later practice. I remember this every time I give a press conference. Perhaps you know that historians date the Presidential press conference back to our sixth Chief Executive, John Quincy Adams. Before that, Presidents didn't have press conferences. But it seems that every morning before dawn, Adams would stroll down to the Potomac River, take off his clothes and take a swim. [Laughter] And one summer day a woman—not a man—of the press followed him to the river. And after he'd plunged in, she popped from the bushes, sat on his clothes, and demanded an interview. [Laughter] She told him that if he tried to come ashore before she was finished, she'd scream. So Adams held the first press conference up to his neck in water. [Laughter] I know how he felt. [Laughter] By the way, the reporter's name was Anne Royall. I don't think it's true that she's the great, great, great grandmother of Sam Donaldson. [Laughter]

I'm told that this weekend, at the center's 19th annual student symposium, you will be examining "Congress and the Presidency in Economic and Foreign Policy." One of the most important tools that the President has, both in economic policy and in foreign policy, is the veto. From the very beginning there were repeated attempts to get around the intent of the framers when they gave Presidents this tool. The entire scope of the veto was challenged.

As Edward Corwin's classic study, "The President," points out: "Naturally the veto power did not escape the early talent of Americans for conjuring up constitutional limitations out of thin air. People said the veto was solely the means furnished the President for carrying out his oath to 'preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution' and was not validly usable for any other purpose. They said that it did not extend to revenue bills, having never been so employed by the King of England, and that it was never intended to give effect merely to Presidential desires." But these challenges to the plain and straightforward meaning of the Constitution all failed.

Today we're facing another challenge to the use of the Presidential veto. In recent years, Congress has unjustifiably diminished the veto's utility, particularly when it comes to the budget. You may remember that I had a costar when I delivered the State of the Union Address this year. It was that 1,000-page continuing resolution that Congress sent to me last December and gave me only 10 hours to study and then sign or shut down the Government. I've been reluctant-as I believe any President should be—to allow the Government to stop functioning. So, for the second year running, I signed a single monster bill that funded most of the Government. But as I told Congress in January, never again. Next time I veto, and they can choose whether to shut the Government down or not.

But the question I would ask you is: Doesn't the new practice of creating gigantic continuing resolutions require a new and better response? Can anything but enactment of a line-item veto provide the leverage we need to curb wasteful and unnecessary spending?

In the mid-seventies, Congress shoved the President aside in the budget process. It legislated major shifts in the checks and balances of budget-making power. And the results came immediately. Before that, Federal deficit with inflation taken out had been steady or falling for a quarter of a century. Since then, it's been in a steep climb.

In my years in the White House, I've seen one Member of Congress after another call for lower deficits and less spending and then go out and vote for more spending. Some, of course, just want more spending, but many are sincere. They are caught in what scholars call a "prisoner's dilemma." If nearby districts or States get Federal dollars, they feel they have to match it or look bad to the folks back home.

The fact is that there is only one way, once and for all, to stop them before they spend again. And that's to restore the role in the budget process of the only elected official who speaks not for local interests but for the interest of the entire Nation: the President. And the way to do that is with the line-item veto.

You know, we say that the States are the laboratories of democracy and have been since our earliest days. Is there any provision of government that has been more successfully tested on the State level than the line-item veto? Forty-three Governors have it. When I was Governor of California, I used it 943 times and was never overridden once. I found that somehow things got in the budget that just couldn't live in sunlight, and that's all the line-item veto is—a way for the President to let some sunlight into the dark, dank caverns of the budget process.

Well, I've just about used up my time. You know, there's a story about one of my favorite Presidents—Calvin Coolidge—who, as you know, was famous for using a few, a very few, well-chosen words. He'd just made a campaign speech when a woman ran up to him and exclaimed, "Oh, Mr. Coolidge, what a wonderful address. I stood up through it." Coolidge said, "So did I." [Laughter]

Well, thank you all, and God bless you. And I'm going to take a few minutes here—I know I don't have much time, and I hope that some of you won't mind if I limit this to the students present—that they must have, as a part of your meeting, a few questions still about the Presidency. The reason I'm shutting out those of you who might be on the faculty is, I had trouble with questions from you back when I was in college. [Laughter]

As a matter of fact, two from my alma mater, Eureka College, are here today. Twenty-five years after I graduated, Eureka brought me back and gave me an honorary degree. And all that did was compound the sense of guilt I've nursed for 25 years- [laughter] —because I thought the first one they gave me was honorary. [Laughter]

Well, does someone have a question that they—

Civil Rights Legislation

Q. Mr. President, I would like to thank you for vetoing the recent so-called civil rights legislation recently sent through Congress. After your veto, why do you think you had problems getting enough Senators or Congressmen to help you sustain your veto? And if you would have had the lineitem veto, what specific aspects of that civil rights legislation do you think you could have vetoed?

The President. Well, the things that I would have changed with the line-item veto are what made me veto the bill. I'm not against the whole purpose of that bill. As a matter of fact, I sent up a bill that called for it—virtually what was in this one—except for the provisions that were in there that would now give the Federal Government regulating control over everybody down to a farmer or a morn and pop grocery store or anything else. That's what I had against the bill. I'm not against extending civil rights. But it was so written that if—well, as I said in one of my statements, if a church or a group of churches, for example, put together, as many of them do, a summer camp, and if that summer camp happened to, let's say, be located on Federal land or surplus land or anything of that kind, automatically, all of the churches involved in that would be subject to Federal regulation.

And thus they would be—well, I can tell you what that excess regulation can do, and maybe there are some here from the—physicians in the colleges and universities—that know. It was not too many years ago in the Federal Government—we've been trying to get the Federal Government out of things where it doesn't belong and get them back to local and State control and so forth. I actually learned of a college like that that many of you go to. The college's average cost for administrative overhead was $50,000 a year. Federal regulations imposed brought that up to $500,000 a year just for the administrative overhead and the paperwork that was required of the Government rules. And I don't think it improved education a bit.

Foreign and Domestic Spending

Q. Mr. President, hello. I'd first like to say thank you for providing a renewed sense of unity and patriotism to American citizens. The President. Thank you.

Q. But what I'd like to ask you is: Do you anticipate a decrease in foreign aid and perhaps an increase in domestic aid throughout the United States?

The President. Well, actually, there has been a decrease now mandated by Congress on foreign aid. And frankly, it has set us back a great deal. Foreign aid isn't just a charity that—for example, it includes security features, also. And it helps other countries provide for their own defense where, because of our own national interest, if they can't do that, we have to. And ours is more expensive than their own homegrown variety. So, we're trying to reverse that.

I just met with another President of one of our Caribbean nations today, and this hit them very hard. And their economy is virtually strapped because of cutbacks that were made by the Congress. So, I think we've got to look with—it's so easy to say, well, we've got so many problems, what are we doing helping these people over here? Well, we do live in the world with them, and you can't be isolationist anymore, and certainly not a country like ours.

So, I hope that we can reverse this trend and begin to restore some of that. With regard to aid throughout our country, let's get something straight. For example, aid to education, we've always believed, is a local and State responsibility. And it was not too many years ago that under the New Deal-Federal Government decided to get itself involved. But the Federal Government only contributes 7 percent of the total cost of education. But for that 7 percent, the Federal Government gets greedy and wants a lot more privilege and authority over education than they've bought for 7 percent.

But with regard to need—here we're looking at welfare reforms, also. Because again, I once found a program when I was Governor, a Federal program, that the administration overhead was $2 for every $1 they got to a needy person. We believe that some reforms are needed to make it more practical than that. And right now, the most effective aid to the people is coming from what I call the private sector. Last year, private individuals and groups and organizations raised $84 billion for charitable causes for the needy.

Someone—I better—young lady right back there?

The President's Legacy

Q. I just was wondering, now that you're in your last year, what do you think is your greatest accomplishment, or one of your greatest, and what would you like to be remembered for in history books? [Laughter]

The President. I try not to think of the history books— [laughter] —very much about that, contrary to what a lot of people say. I think it's—I've always looked at this job, as I indicated it in my remarks—you don't become President, you are given temporary custody of an institution called the Presidency. And you don't have any right to go around changing its traditions or rules or anything else, as some have tried to do. But when we came into office, we were in quite an economic bind. Inflation was in double digits, unemployment was up—well, we really were in something of a recession. Interest rates—the prime rate was 20.5 percent. And we set out to make some economic changes.

Maybe one thing that I'll remember with joy—I don't know whether anyone else will—having gotten my degree in economics, that makes me able to tell ethnic stories about economists— [laughter] —I had always believed, and put it into practice over great opposition—and that was the most important part of our economic reform—was the reduction of the marginal tax rates. A man named ibn-Khaldun, a few centuries ago said that at the beginning of the empire the rates were low and the revenue was high. He said at the end of the empire the rates were high and the revenue was low.

Well, over all the objections, we cut the marginal tax rates, and that has been the most important part of our economic recovery. We have the highest percentage of the potential labor pool in America employed that we've ever had in our history. We have had the longest economic expansion that we've ever had in the history of our country. And, I can tell you that when you look at the revenues for the tax rates, they have vastly increased all the way across as we reduced the rates. At the lower rates, more money is coming into the Government. Well, I'd always believed that back from my days in school during the Great Depression, and so I think I'll remember that with great pleasure.

But I think what you mentioned a little while ago, also—after all of the rioting and the cynicism that came out of the Vietnam experience, and the campus riots and all, I found that a great many of our military wouldn't dare leave the base without getting into civilian clothes. And I decided that maybe we needed a change of attitude in this country. And today, we have it. I think our country has once again discovered a pride in being an American. And I can tell you there's nothing I'm more proud of than the young men and women—your age-who are in our military today, and they're volunteers. And they wear the uniform; they don't take it off to go out among us civilians anymore. And I'm very proud of what has been accomplished there.

But you continue, and then I think I'm getting to the place where I have to quit.

Tactical Nuclear Weapons

Q. Hello, Mr. President. My question is that in a TV documentary I saw that we have nuclear weapons in Europe that a single person can carry and which are effective over a 1-square-mile area. If such weapons fall into the hands of terrorists, how could we prevent them from smuggling them into the country when we cannot do enough to stop the drug trafficking and the entry of illegal aliens to our southern borders?

The President. Well, all I can tell you is that we have a very elaborate program of security for anything nuclear, including even the plants where things like that are constructed. And I think it is as effective a program as we possibly can have. I think, also, you're probably talking about a type of nuclear weapon that is not included in the INF agreement where we've gotten rid of a whole system for the first time of nuclear weapons.

I'm speaking of the tactical battlefield weapons, which would be what you were referring to there. Those weapons we cannot start trying to reduce until we engage the Soviet Union in reduction of conventional weapons. They have such a great superiority that the only thing that evens us out in the NATO line are those tactical nuclear weapons. If we got rid of them, we would automatically put the Soviets in a tremendous superiority with the conventional. And I've already notified the General Secretary, and he's expressed a willingness to sit down and talk about them. So, once we can get this START treaty on top of the INF, then we'll go after the conventional weapons, and when those are equal, then we can go after the short-range tactical nuclear weapons.


Civil Rights Legislation

Q. Hello, Mr. President. My question is in regards to your veto on the civil rights legislation-excuse me—[ laughter]—legislation. I, in fact, was not in favor of your veto; however, you did express that you had an alternate plan. I'd like to know some of what that involved or detailed.

The President. Well, it was the thing we've been trying ever since to reverse the Grove City ruling, and so it was basically what was the most apparent thing in the program that I vetoed, or the bill that I vetoed, except that they added, as I've said, all those other things of controls in there. Well, virtually, there was a Senate bill on the floor about the same time that the one that I vetoed had been on the floor, and that one was defeated in favor of this other one. And my bill was very similar to that Senate bill. So, in trying to persuade some legislators to vote to sustain my veto, I reminded them that their record showed that they had voted for that other bill and then voted when they didn't get that, voted for this one. And I said, I'm giving you a chance to vote again on the same kind of bill you wanted to pass before as that Senate bill.

And I think there was a concern about some of them that they would appear to the folks back home as if they were against civil rights. Well, I want to tell you, I have—long before the term was ever coined—I have been a devotee of civil rights. I grew up in a family—one brother, my mother and father, and we grew up with the belief that the ugliest sin in the world was discrimination and prejudice. And so, all my life has been over on that side. I had to be, or I'd have been laced. [Laughter]

But I've tried to explain there; it was only those other factors that they gave the open door for excessive government regulation. For example, when I said, all the other people—well, this grocery store—if people came into that grocery store with food stamps, that automatically made them subject to Federal regulation and things of that kind that were never intended. And that's all I wanted cleaned up.

So, I've just talked to our people. Now, since our veto wasn't sustained, I've talked to them. But why don't we pick out one-by-one those things now that are in that legislation that's been passed and introduce legislation one at a time to get those other things canceled.

Q. So your bill has approximately the same elements, however, you didn't want

The President. That's right—the main feel of the bill that I vetoed, yes.

Q. Thank you.

The President. Well, could I take just one more? [Laughter] You ought to know I'm late. I've got somebody waiting to- [laughter] . I can't take any more after this one.

Iran Arms and Contra Aid Controversy

Q. Mr. President, you once referred to Oliver North as a national hero. Now that he has been indicted, are you going to pardon him and Poindexter?

The President. Now, wait a minute, I'm having a little trouble hearing.

Q. You once referred to Oliver North as a national hero. Now that he has been indicted, are you going to pardon him and Poindexter?

The President. I still think Ollie North is a hero. And at the other hand—and any talk about what I might do or pardons and so forth—I think with the case before the courts, that's something I can't discuss now. But from my—I just have to believe that they're going to be found innocent because I don't think they were guilty of any lawbreaking or any crime.

I've got to take a second and tell you something that— [laughter] —you know. The whole so-called Iran scandal—I find it hard to think of scandal in connection with it. We were contacted by some individuals, not the Government of Iran. And these individuals-there was great talk at that time that Khomeini was maybe not going to live out the week. They knew that there would be factions striving for leadership. These individuals wanted to discuss with people from our side how to establish better relations with the United States.

Well, we, behind the scenes, have been trying for years to get an end to the Iran-Iraq war, for example. So I said, yes, we'll meet with them. Incidentally, they came through a third country in the Middle East and that country recommended them to us as being dependable people. Our people met with them. It had to be secret because, obviously, they were risking their lives for doing such a thing. They'd be—I don't know that they haven't been executed. I've never heard of them since this whole thing blew up in the press. But our people met with them. And then the word came back that those people asked if we could make a kind of token sale of arms to them, which they would turn over to the military. And this, they said, would first of all confirm that our people really were representing the top in government, but also that it would give them a prestige they might need when the day came that they were going to try to redirect the Government of Iran.

Well, I had told our people when the word came to me to go back that we had a rule that we didn't do business with countries that practice terrorism, and Iran practices terrorism. Well, they came back with the statement that they wouldn't and they didn't, and they gave some individual incidents to show their opposition to terrorism.

Well, I thought about it, and there was a lot of objection among some of our people and all—and debated. And I knew that the Hizballah [radical Shi'ite terrorist group operating in Lebanon] has a kind of philosophical relationship with Iran. So, I said, all right, to prove their credentials—the Hizballah are holding our people hostage—tell them, yes, we'll do this if they will use their influence to see if they can't convince the Hizballah to release our hostages. And it was a token shipment of arms, and they were sent. I didn't put it on there that they don't get the arms unless—we delivered the arms. And they were delivered then by somebody to the—from the other side of the ocean into Iran. They were given to the military, and we got our money back—exactly what we had asked for. At the same time, we had two hostages released, and we were supposed to have in 48 hours another two. And that was when that leak in a newspaper in Lebanon revealed this secret operation of ours, so we never did get the other two hostages back.

And it wasn't until then that our Attorney General discovered a memo that seemed to indicate that there was more money than we had received, although we had received the price we asked. And I immediately took him and went before the joint leadership of the Congress and told them what we'd discovered—we had no explanation for it, but were going to try to find out; that I'd asked for a special investigator and also that I had appointed a commission to look into this and see what was going on because this money was supposed to be in a Swiss bank account.

Now, that's the whole extent of the so-called scandal—what our intent was and what happened. And you know something? After all the investigation, today I still don't know who got that extra money or where it came from. I'm hoping to find out.

But I didn't mean to get into that long an answer. But I wanted you to know that I have some definite reason for still thinking that Ollie North is a hero.

All right. Thank you all.

Note: The President spoke at 2:25 p.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With the Members of the Center for the Study of the Presidency Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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