Remarks to the American Society of Newspaper Editors
The President. Thank you all very much. John, thank you -- please. Well, I'm delighted to be here and look forward to taking a few questions. I've been getting such a ribbing about my highly stylized prose; I thought it only appropriate for me to share a few recent headlines with you. [Laughter] I'm sure nobody here would write things like this, but -- "Dentist Receives Plaque" -- that was one -- [laughter] -- "Actor Sent to Jail for Not Finishing Sentence" -- [laughter] -- and "The Rest of the Year May Not Follow January." I'm tempted to gloat. If that's the standard, I'm not doing too bad. [Laughter]
Adlai Stevenson said: "An editor is a person who separates the wheat from the chaff and prints the chaff." [Laughter] So, I know I'm probably responsible for providing my fair share of chaff, but after all, I am the guy that said during the campaign, "A kitchen in every pot" -- [laughter] -- and also that "America's freedom" -- I was reminded by some of these back here -- "America's freedom is the example by which the world expires." [Laughter]
So, let no one miss the message: As editors you uphold a certain ethical standard in your newsrooms, and you've got to do that because a newspaper is only as good as its word. And I think this is no less true of government. High ethical standards are central to this administration, and we're going to enforce them strictly, comprehensively, fairly, and to the letter and spirit of the law.
And we've got to work together to reform a public code of conduct that at times appears to be in disarray. And it's not logical or fair -- a code -- it's both too harsh and too lenient. And it elevates detail over substance, precept over principle.
And so, today I want to talk to you about some proposals of our administration, because such a system as now constituted ultimately breeds cynicism and contempt for the law. To truly reform it, we must remember that standards of trust and honesty are not dictated from regulations written in Washington, DC. Ethics in public service derive from the natural integrity of the American people. They are to be found in the everyday conduct of working men and women, in the postman checking up on the elderly resident at home or in the cashier who runs after the customer that's been overcharged. The millions of Americans who meet their obligations honestly and teach their kids to do it the same way see nothing extraordinary about asking the same of their government. The American people are troubled when they hear of officials in every branch of government, at whatever level of government, who show a brazen contempt for the letter or spirit of the law. And the American people do not understand why certain behavior is considered criminal when committed by an executive branch official -- are perfectly legal when committed by someone in another branch of government. Is not a crime a crime? Should there not be an underlying standard of integrity for all?
And as President-elect, I heard about talented men and women who, though perfectly honest, declined to come to serve in government out of fear -- fear of the sheer complexity of Federal ethics laws, fear that a simple, honest mistake could lead to a public nightmare. And these concerns led me to issue an Executive order [No. 12668] creating the President's Commission on Federal Ethics Law Reform. And I asked its members to recommend steps to foster full confidence in the integrity of all Federal public officials and employees.
And on March 9, as you may remember, this Commission filed its report and its recommendations. It was chaired by Judge Wilkey, co-chaired by former Attorney General Griffin Bell. In fact, the legislation now resulting from their recommendations and other ideas that I have -- the legislation is being sent to the Congress today. And just this morning, I issued an Executive order [No. 12674] announcing ethical principles for the conduct of executive branch employees.
Both actions seek a common end: to raise ethical standards, to avoid conflicts of interest, and to ensure that the law is respected in fact and in appearance.
There are those, of course, who say that public ethics and values cannot be legislated -- and I'm inclined to agree. You're never going to legislate away impropriety or through legislation guarantee that everybody lives beyond the, you know, perception of criticism -- but these values and ethics can be encouraged, respected, and adhered to in government. Public service must reflect the best values of America. And let me add that most public servants, in my view, do that. And I have served in the Congress, and I have served in the executive branch as well.
Jefferson said: "The whole art of government consists in being honest." And yet too often, simple honesty is not enough. Government rules have worked at cross-purposes. Our regulations have been complicated and unequally applied. Our laws have been contradictory and unclear. And we've spent more time trying to understand Federal ethics laws than we have trying to live by them.
My ethics program seeks to remedy these defects. How? By setting four objectives: first, to establish clear ethical principles; second, to ensure uniform standards among all three branches of government; third, to insist that these standards be fair and reasonable; and fourth, to ensure that these standards attract, not drive out, talented men and women to government.
My ethics program first insists that ethical standards must be exacting enough to ensure that officials act with the utmost integrity, for the public's confidence is not ours to inherit. We must earn that confidence, and it must be constantly renewed. With this in mind, I have placed a ban on outside income for noncareer Presidential appointees in the executive branch, including all employees in the immediate White House Office. I am proposing expanded financial disclosure for all three branches of government. And I have instructed my staff to perform a comprehensive review of Federal campaign finance laws.
Regarding the last, I have already reached one determination. Congress should extend for all Members the prohibition against the conversion of political contributions for personal or office use. Political donations should not become a sort of individual retirement account for Members of the United States Congress. And I call on Congress to close this loophole, and to close it this year.
Modern democratic government works best when organized by strong political parties. And yet we've allowed our parties to become weakened and overshadowed by special interests. And we can best restore the role of the parties by limiting political action committees. PAC's weaken the parties, restrain competition, and deaden the political debate. And I believe we should eliminate contributions to candidates by political action committees, and I'll be consulting with the Congress about that. And I also oppose Federal funding of congressional campaigns. My legislative proposal also strengthens the rules against abusing the revolving door for private gain at the expense of public trust. These rules must not make Government service a bar to productive work in the private sector, but they must prohibit the appearance of profiting from Government service, and this must include the legislative branch as well.
I'm proposing a 25-percent pay raise for Federal judges, while restricting their acceptance of honoraria. I also believe that honoraria for Members of Congress should be banned. And I believe Congress should have a pay increase. And I will not make a formal proposal on Congress until after I consult with the leaders of Congress on the issue of congressional pay. There is no point, absolutely no point, in putting Congress through another traumatic bashing like the one just completed. And I will include in those consultations the question of a pay increase for certain executive branch positions, including specialized jobs like those out there at the National Institute of Health. And I will strongly support pay increases for these jobs which are so important to this country.
My ethics program's second goal recognizes that ethical consistency demands equitable standards across all three branches of government. And under our Constitution, every branch of government is equal and none warrants preferential treatment. The same standard that applies to a staff person at HUD should also apply to housing subcommittee staff on Capitol Hill. And a practice is either ethical or it is not. And if Washington is to be a level playing field, then every player should be treated the same. And therefore, I am proposing that we must extend the independent counsel statute to cover the Congress. I am also proposing that the Federal statute that prohibits employees from taking actions that enhance their own financial interest be extended to cover legislative and judicial branch employees. There should also be an independent ethics office for Congress, to be headed by a clearly nonpartisan official, confirmed by both Houses. And I ask that the existing 1-year postemployment cooling-off period for the senior executive branch employees also apply to the legislative and judicial branches.
And then there's the third objective of this ethics program. It insists that standards be reasonable and reflect good old-fashioned common sense. Some financial interests, for example, are too minor to create any meaningful conflict of interest at all. So, I want the Office of Government Ethics to have the authority to issue regulations authorizing waivers from these conflict of interest statute. But at the same time, we're urging tougher penalties when intentional violations of criminal conflict of interest laws occur. We're asking officials from all three branches to simplify the forms that must be completed by prospective appointees. And I'm also requiring mandatory annual briefings on ethics for Presidential appointees.
My program's fourth objective is to attract and keep the best people in government by keeping Federal ethics laws fair and balanced.
An ethics law is not a weapon -- a blunt instrument with which to pound a public servant. It's not a gag with which to silence the outspoken. It's a tool to ensure a government as honest as the American people. We must not allow overly restrictive requirements to be abused or to keep talented people from entering public service. And that is why we have carefully crafted new postemployment restrictions. And that's why we want to allow persons who are required to divest assets to defer their tax liability.
My ethics program shows exactly where we are going and why. We seek to attract and keep the best and brightest in government. And by helping others, by building a better America -- honorably, ethically -- we seek to show how public service is not the sum of our perks or possessions but a measure of how we conduct ourselves and what we achieve.
Come to think of it, this is a good code for all occupations, from high school to the highest callings in journalism and government. I am delighted to have the opportunity to present to you the principles of this ethics package and obviously -- I don't want to see this powerful crowd escape without a pitch -- I'd like to have your editorial support for the objectives that I've outlined here today.
Thank you all very much, and I'd be glad to take your questions.
Minorities in the Presidency
Q. Mr. President, my daughter thanks you for the autograph you gave us last week, and I'm asking this question on her behalf. She is a 12-year-old 6th grader -- and I'm a little nervous here -- 12-year-old 6th grader at Shepherd Elementary School. And she asked me after I left the White House, "Daddy, will I ever be President? Will I have a chance to be President like Mr. Bush?" She's black and also female. Do you envision, sir, a time when this country might be prepared to elect a black and/or female as President?
The President. Yes, I do. I'd say to her: If I can make it, she can make it. But nevertheless -- [laughter] -- no, but seriously, Ben [Benjamin Johnson, Jr., managing editor of the Columbia-Missourian], of course we're in changing times here; and the great thing is that she might, by her question, aspire to be President. And I hope that I can keep alive, for at least the time I'm in the White House, the concept -- the honor of public service, the obligation to put something back into the system, and also the fact that if you get into the arena you get a very different perspective than when you're sitting outside.
I'll always love what Sam Rayburn said. And this is a little off your question for your daughter. But as he was listening to some debate with a bunch of staffers, I think it was, up on the Hill, he said, "Well, the problem is they never ran for sheriff." And it makes a difference. So, I hope that the question means she is interested, and I hope that the progress this country has made and will make in the future will guarantee that a black teenager today, female, might well be President of the United States.
Secretary of Defense-Designate Tower
Q. How do you square that excellent program you've just outlined to us, sir, with the Tower nomination and your support right to the end?
The President. I see no contradiction whatsoever. As you know, I don't want to relive the Tower question, but I believe that judgments should be made on reality, not on perception. I didn't like what happened, and I don't think that it is any conflict at all with any of the four points I made here today. So, I'd simply -- and nothing convinced me from the hearings of that, because I don't think that there was anything that was pointed out to definitively -- that conflicts with what we've talked about here. So, I just would respectfully disagree with the conclusion that the United States Senate reached. And I'm going to work with them. We're going forward now. And they promptly confirmed Dick Cheney. But I just don't see any there at all.
Q. Mr. President, this week the House committee reported out a bill which most of the people in this room think would severely limit and hamper the first amendment. It would pass into law the so-called fairness doctrine. The head-counters say that it will probably go through both chambers quite comfortably. Will you stand with your predecessor in vetoing that bill should it come to you?
The President. Well, I don't want to indicate a veto would be necessary, but I will stand with the previous position that I was a part of in the last administration.
Press Coverage of Presidency
Q. Mr. President, since you've taken office, you've greatly increased the access to the Presidency on the part of the press, and you've taken such initiatives as hosting small dinners in your private residence with reporters and editors. This has sparked some debate, and if I can frame it, if you'll permit me to frame it in the spirit of our morning session with Morton Downey and Geraldo Rivera [television talk-show hosts] and others: Is he trying to woo us, and may he succeed in seducing us? Mr. President, if you would explain your philosophy to press coverage of the Presidency and the relationship with your administration? I realize that some of the debate is probably our ability to complain, no matter what kind of access we get. But I'd like to hear your views of your relationship to the media.
The President. Well, in the first place, when Barbara and I invite a reporter and her spouse or a reporter and his spouse to the White House for an upstairs dinner, we're doing that not to seduce the press -- [laughter] -- treating them as human beings. And one of the reasons -- you've asked my press policy -- one of the reasons I don't take questions over the sound of the helicopter blades out there is: I want to treat the press with the dignity to which it is entitled. And if you have to get your question answered by screaming at me when I don't want to answer it, you don't look very good. And I don't think it's very good for the White House.
And so, what I've tried to do is have enough availability. In fact, I'm going to cross this one up as a press conference for the record. One more notch so I can go to those doubters -- [laughter] -- and say, look, we want to be accessible. But I would separate out -- you know, I don't know what we'll do at Christmas. So, what Barbara and I try to do at our house is say, hey, you and Joan and Gene, or whoever it is, come on to the Christmas party -- and not have to have it all categorized and so afraid that somebody thinks I'm trying to seduce some reporter that you have to be treated as something so different than anybody else. And so, availability -- don't get mad when they ask stuff you don't like, and treat people as you would whatever walk of life or whatever occupation they come from. And if it's misinterpreted, fine. You don't have to come.
And so, I understand. I remember back a few years ago when one of the great news organizations said, "Okay, we're no longer going to be used. We're not going to any backgrounders or off the record." It lasted about 30 seconds, and those reporters came trooping back in. [Laughter] But I respected that if they want to do it; but please believe me that when we do it this way, it's what we feel is appropriate. And if it's not, I'll sure -- I think we'll take a hit, but I'm unpersuaded by the gentle logic of Morton Downey -- [laughter] -- and whoever that other guy was that was here.
Speaker of the House Wright
Q. Mr. President, since you've announced this ethics program for the executive branch, I'd like to ask your comments about another situation involving ethics.
The President. Oops. Nice try, Jack [Jackson B. Tinsley, editor and vice president of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram]. [Laughter] Go ahead.
Q. That is the long running Ethics Committee investigation of House Speaker Jim Wright. The Washington Times reported this morning that the findings of this committee would be turned over to the Justice Department for investigation of possible Federal law violations. And also, there is a belief by some in Texas that since the rejection of John Tower as your first nominee for Secretary of Defense, that there might be an attempt by the Republican Party to retaliate against Speaker Wright. Would you comment on that, please?
The President. Well, let me comment on the last part first, and I know of no such retaliatory action. I think it would be impossible to do anyway. And it would be wrong, and certainly I would condemn anyone in our administration that had any hand in anything of that nature. Secondly, there is nothing in this ethics package -- when I call for an even playing field -- Congress, executive branch, and judicial branch do have the same standards that should in any way, directly or indirectly, be interpreted as intervening in the matter now before the House Ethics Committee. And surely, Jack -- and I know there's this interest, particularly in your area and in my State. And I think it's wider than that now in the matters that are going forward there. But the last thing I want to do is involve myself in any way.
And please believe me, there is no -- on my view, I answered the first question as frankly as I could about the John Tower matter. But in terms of getting even or something of that nature by unfairly intervening into a process that is now being handled by the Ethics Committee in the House, I simply wouldn't condone that at all, and I would condemn it. So, I want to separate out what's happening there from this package, and certainly, in response to your question, from any politics of retaliation because of my view that the Tower matter was not handled the way I would like to have seen it handled.
Q. At this point in time, would you call Ollie North a real American hero?
The President. Anybody that gets a Purple Heart and sheds his blood fighting for his country deserves to be called an American hero. And it was in that context that I made those claims, and in that context that I will repeat them. And the last thing I want to do is intervene in that matter that is now before the courts. But that's how I feel about those who risk their lives to save this country.
Q. In view of the fact that there's a program on the table to put a space establishment in Houston and the supercollider is going to be built in Jack's backyard, or has been selected to be built in Jack's backyard, and two or three of the top administrative officials are from Texas, is there a real backlash developing because of that? We saw the Georgia Mafia. We saw the California Mafia talked about by the press. Is this going to happen? And is it going to hurt your program?
The President. No. [Laughter] No, we've made appointments that are excellent in my view, men and women of standing. And the fact that some of them come from my home State -- hey, what's wrong with that? And the supercollider decision was made by President Reagan. It's a good decision. I want to support it. The space center was made by -- I guess when President Johnson was in office, or maybe under President Kennedy -- I'm not sure. And it should have strong support. But I don't see any risk of backlash at all, provided you get people that measure up. And that's what I'm trying to do.
Q. Mr. President, I apologize. I've neglected the far left, which some would say is out of character for me. [Laughter]
The President. Note that he said that, not I. [Laughter] Go ahead.
Alaskan Oil Spill
Q. Mr. President, I live and work in a State with a 2,500-mile coastline, a coastline that includes an oil terminal as well as the village of Kennebunkport. I'm wondering why it took so long for the Government to move on the Alaskan oil spill. Why didn't the Government -- the Federal Government -- move more boldly, more quickly to clean up the spill?
The President. I think the Federal Government moved much more quickly and more boldly than it gets credit for. I consider the United States Coast Guard a part of the United States Government. And the Coast Guard moved very rapidly. What we did not want to do -- and I'm convinced now, even in retrospect, that this decision is correct -- was to relieve the Exxon Corporation of its liability by federalizing. And when I promptly sent our able EPA Administrator [William K. Reilly] and our head of the Coast Guard, Admiral Yost, and Sam Skinner, the Secretary of Transportation, up there, they came back with the unanimous recommendation that federalizing wasn't appropriate. The Federal assets -- we have moved forward now on the cleanup. The first was containment, and now it's mainly in the cleanup phase, although there still are some containment problems.
Subsequently -- and maybe I should accept some criticism on whether I should have done this a week before we did, or something of that nature; I'm giving you the reasons -- but I think that the Federal Government is properly involved, but we should not have done what some are urging upon us: federalize that whole cleanup. And you know, it's a tough one. I do know the corner of the Maine coast you're talking about and something about the pristine nature of Prince William Sound. And I do have a great concern about the environment. I want to do better. I want to do better and set higher standards in the environment. But I also happen to believe that the national security needs of this country are served by having a production offshore and by producing oil from the North Slope. And it is awful hard to guarantee against a contingency in a 10-mile-wide channel after thousands and thousands and thousands are -- put it millions of barrels have gone through there safely, and now, apparently, what human error seems to have caused this aberration. It's hard to have a contingency plan against that.
And the other day, they asked me about that and said -- well, you know, because there were some saying, "Well, you ought to shut down the oil coming out of Prince William Sound, coming out of the Port of Valdez." And I said, "Well, to guarantee against what happened, should shut down all the production off of Louisiana and Texas." I'm not sure I understand the difference. And I think we have got to do everything we can to learn from this. We've got to do everything we can to have a plan that is based not on a third of this bill but on the totality of this bill in terms of recovery. But I simply do not want this disaster to -- this isn't all your question, but projecting a little -- to weaken the national security interest by making us further and further dependent on foreign oil. We're about up to 50 percent now, and that is not a good enough standard. So, let's learn from this; let's do better in protecting the environment. If there's a lesson here that one agency or another might have moved faster, I will be the first to learn from that. But we've got to keep a certain perspective.
And I am very pleased that the Federal Government is as involved as it should be now. I also would like to see more volunteers involved. And therein, I would make a pitch for strong support for revision of our liability laws. Some, I am told, in volunteer groups, are kept from helping out -- maybe not on this one but in many other areas -- because of the fear -- outrageous liability claims. So, this is a good -- we can maybe learn that much from this disaster up there. But I think maybe we should take some blame. But I think we've had prudent action, and I hope it's been timely.
Iran Arms and Contra Aid Controversy
Q. Mr. President, when the North trial is over, will you tell the American people if you were the so-called discreet emissary sent to Honduras during the Iran-contra affair and, if you were, give a full accounting of what you did there?
The President. I think I've given a full accounting. I would refer you, sir, to what -- incidentally, in today's paper -- to what was said by Ambassador Negroponte [U.S. Ambassador to Mexico] and also Tony Motley [former Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs], who sat in on that meeting. And having said that, every attorney that advises the President has advised me not to do something that inadvertently would cause a mistrial or would disturb the process that is underway. And so, I don't like reading charges that I happen to feel are untrue, but I have to stand on that. And that just goes with the territory. And I am confident that the process that has gone on, and the process that undoubtedly will go on after this trial is over, will say that anything I have heretofore said is correct. But I do not want to be pushed into doing something for self-aggrandizement that would be ruled by some judge to have aborted a trial that is underway.
Well, thank you all very much.
Note: The President spoke at 1:35 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom at the J.W. Marriott Hotel. He was introduced by John Seigenthaler, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
George Bush, Remarks to the American Society of Newspaper Editors Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/248251