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St. Petersburg, Florida Interview With Hugh Smith of WTVT-TV.

October 10, 1980

MR. SMITH. Thank you, Leslie. We are here live at the Princess Martha Hotel with President Carter. Mr. President, welcome to the Tampa Bay area.

THE PRESIDENT. Well, I'm glad to be back. This is one of my favorite places in the world.

MR. SMITH. We're very pleased to have you here.



MR. SMITH. Mr. President, as you know, both you and your opponent, Governor Reagan, have been giving a good deal of attention to the issue of social security. At his Tampa appearance this morning, Governor Reagan said, and this is pretty much a quote, the elderly are the prisoners of your inadequate leadership. The Governor said, "I will preserve and strengthen social security," but that you want to tax social security benefits. How would you respond to that?

THE PRESIDENT. That's completely false. As long as I'm in the White House, social security benefits will not be taxed. No one in my administration has advocated that they be taxed, as Mr. Reagan well knows. As a matter of fact, on four different occasions in the past, Governor Reagan has called for making social security participation voluntary, which would bring social security to its knees. I understand this morning—I haven't seen the exact quote—that he's even advocated now paying social security benefits to millionaires, which would really rob the average American retired person of a chance to keep the social security system sound.

One thing that I heard everywhere I went in Florida when I was campaigning here in '75 and '76 was that the social security system was on the verge of bankruptcy, which it was under the Republican administration. Now we've made social security sound. It will not go into bankruptcy, and it will be kept sound as long as we have a Democrat in the White House.


MR. SMITH. Mr. President, Governor Reagan has also said while he has been in Florida that you are playing what he calls "retirement roulette" with people's pension plans, through your proposal that pensions would be invested in companies having financial problems.

THE PRESIDENT. It's difficult to respond to ridiculous things like this repetitively, but I think it's necessary for me to do it since you've asked the question. What has been proposed is that American workers' pension funds, which are enormous, billions and billions of dollars, be used in the future to invest in increased productivity of American industry to provide jobs for America. Lane Kirkland, who's the president of the AFLCIO, came to me and made this proposal personally. He will respond to Governor Reagan's silly statement later on

today, but what President Kirkland said was that the workers' funds now in retirement areas are being invested in foreign countries in different ways through the large banks, without contributing to the increased stability in our own country and job opportunities for Americans.

One point that Governor Reagan deliberately overlooked is that these funds would be guaranteed by the Federal Government. There would be no chance for workers' pension funds to be lost. You know, this is a kind of a typical response by a Republican to proposals that would help the average Americans who come from working families or who might be on insecure grounds.

I remember that when Medicare was proposed as a program that Governor Reagan led the fight against it. He went all over the Nation making speeches against Medicare, calling it socialized medicine, saying that the doctors would be, in effect, servants of the Federal Government. I just happened to read a quote from him. As part of his effort to kill Medicare Governor Reagan said, "It's very easy to disguise a medical program as a humanitarian project" He said, "It would be just a short step before the Government was telling the doctors where they could practice and who they could treat." Mr. Reagan predicted that soon this would be expanded to all Americans until, and I quote, "Pretty soon your son won't decide when he's in school where he will go or what he will do for a living. He will wait for the Government to tell him where he will go to work and what he will do." This is what Mr. Reagan predicted would happen if Medicare passed.

You know, it's obviously without foundation and obviously an exaggeration, and it was a rightwing kind of Republican response to a Medicare program, which they opposed just as they opposed, by the way, social security when Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Congress passed it.


MR. SMITH. Mr. President, the race at this point is said to be very, very close—


MR. SMITH. Not only here in Florida but in other parts of the country. How do you assess it at this point? Let me ask you, sir, if the election were held today, who would win?

THE PRESIDENT. It's hard to say. I think it is close. In my judgment the next 3 or 4 weeks will be a time when Americans are brought to the realization that the outcome of the election on November 4 will indeed affect the future of their country. It will affect the future of every single person, every family, everyone who's loved in this Nation.

I don't recall any election in my lifetime when the differences between myself and my opponent or the Republican and Democratic platforms have been so stark and sharp as they are in 1980. The only possible exception is when Barry Goldwater ran against Lyndon Johnson in 1964. But with that one exception I've never known any differences to be so sharp. And as the American people begin to see how deeply the issues are divided between me and Governor Reagan, I think they'll come to the conclusion that November 4 can be a turning point in their life.

I'm determined that we'll continue the progress that has been made under myself and previous Democrats who served in the White House in meeting the legitimate needs of the American people.


MR. SMITH. The Reagan people have said more than once, Mr. President, that you are planning some kind of October surprise which would benefit your candidacy. If in fact you are, is that a domestic kind of surprise or something having to do with foreign policy?

THE PRESIDENT. It'll be a surprise to me too.

I don't know of anything planned. Every day a President has to deal with very important issues that are important to everybody in the country, indeed, the entire world. As I sit in the Oval Office and make those decisions on potential crises, if I make the right decision the American people never know what I've done. If I should make a misjudgment or make the wrong decision, that potential crisis could affect adversely the life of every American or every person in the whole world. So, each day in the life of a President you have that enormous responsibility of trying to answer questions that couldn't be answered anywhere else and dealing with problems that can't be dealt with anywhere else.

The difficulty of the job is that if a question can be answered easily it's answered in the life of an average citizen or within the home or in a county courthouse or a city hall or perhaps a State legislature or Governor's office. But if the question's so complex and so difficult that it can't be addressed in any of those places, then it comes to the Oval Office, to the President's desk.

And there's no way to contrive some sort of a false surprise to be sprung on the American people just before an election. Obviously every day I try to do the best I can for this country and for the people that elected me to serve them.


MR. SMITH. In talking about the so-called October surprise the Reagan people have mentioned the American hostages. Are there any signs of a breakthrough on that at all? And do you think, Mr. President, that the fact that these people had been held captive almost a year now is an indication of this country's inability to deal with the situation, or has it became a symbol of that?

THE PRESIDENT. Never a day goes by, never an hour goes by that I don't think about those hostages, and I pray for them every day. It's been one of my most serious problems as President, and I hope they'll be returned as soon as possible. There's no way I can predict when.

I've done two things from the very beginning, and I've never changed our policy as a Nation or myself as a President. One is I've protected the interests and the integrity and honor of my country, and at the same time I've done everything I could to avoid making a statement or an action that might endanger the lives or the safety of those hostages or put an obstacle in the way of their returning home to freedom. I'll continue to do that in a very cautious way.

It's a serious mistake for any candidate, Governor Reagan or myself or anyone else, to inject the question of the American hostages into the political campaign. I think it's not good for the hostages themselves, it's not good for our relationships with Iran, and it might create an impediment to a successful resolution of this problem and the return of the hostages to our homes.

MR. SMITH. Can you tell us, Mr. President, whether there might be a breakthrough very soon on this matter of the hostage issue?

THE PRESIDENT. I have no idea. I have hoped from the very beginning of their incarceration in Iran that each week would bring some progress. We've been persistently and repeatedly disappointed.

The problem has been that there is no government in Iran with the authority to speak. We had negotiated their release, as you may remember, I think in the month of May, with their President, their Foreign Minister, the revolutionary council, even with the militants who were holding the hostages. It was announced by their President they would be released. But they reversed themselves and have not done so. Now there is a parliament, called a Majles, in Iran. They have a speaker elected, they have a Prime Minister now and a President. They don't at this time have a Foreign Minister, but most of the cabinet's intact.

We have hope—that's all—but no expectation of any release at a certain time.

MR. SMITH. Since the one military attempt failed, would you rule out any future military attempts to get them?

THE PRESIDENT. I don't anticipate the use of any rescue operation at this time or in the future.


MR. SMITH. Another problem you have to deal with, of course, is the war between Iran and Iraq, which seems to be getting more serious with every growing day. And today, according to the Libyan News Agency, Libya has declared its support for Iran. Some 10 planes per day, we are given to understand, are flying from Libya, passing over the Soviet Union to Iran. Does this concern you?

THE PRESIDENT. From Libya over the Soviet Union?

MR. SMITH. Well, at any rate Libyan support is being given, and I wonder if that's a matter of concern to you?

THE PRESIDENT. I see. Yes, it is. It's a concern to me, because we want to see that combat over. And if it should be stalemated or continued over a period of time we want to see it confined just to those two nations, Iran and Iraq. We've used all the influence that we can to discourage other nations from becoming militarily involved.

We have major naval and air forces in the Persian Gulf region, in the northern part of the Indian Ocean, that can protect our own interests, if necessary, by keeping the Strait of Hormuz open.

Libya, as you know, is a radical terrorist regime under Colonel Qaddafi, and they are unpredictable. I think they exemplify the threat of terrorism throughout the world. This is a blight on the entire universe of civilized nations, even absent a war between Iran and Iraq.

Recently we've seen, for instance, in France terrorism against people because they're Jews, attacks on synagogues. This is abhorrent to me and to the American people and to the entire civilized world. I think one of the things that we can do to hold down this terrorism in the future is when I have another summit conference with the leaders of other developed democratic nations, is to have us jointly address the question of terrorism.

Obviously terrorism in the Mideast, the Persian Gulf region, is a contributory factor to the combat that presently exists between Iran and Iraq. But stamping out terrorism all over the world, and particularly based on racism, or religious beliefs, is something that addresses me, the American people, and all civilized people.

MR. SMITH. Mr. President, you recently ordered four special surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia, and Jordan is being supplied with a number of tanks because of the war between Iran and Iraq. Do you see any parallel between this kind of American involvement and the situation which got us into Vietnam a number of years ago in which our participation in that began in a very small way and then escalated?

THE. PRESIDENT. No, we're not involved in any nation where combat is being conducted. Obviously, it's important to us to stabilize the Middle East based on the treaty between Israel and Egypt, which we hope to extend to Jordan and to Syria and to Lebanon in the future.

The Saudi Arabians on the Persian Gulf, far removed from Israel, obviously is a nation that we want to see protected and kept at peace. The four airplanes that you described, we call them AWAGS planes, it's an aircraft early warning plane. It goes up into the air with very elaborate and effective radar coverage of a large area, stays way back from the combat area, and just provides information for those who want to defend themselves in case there is an aerial attack.

So, I think that this is a peaceful contribution to prevent an unwarranted attack on a peaceful nation, Saudi Arabia. It's not an injection under any circumstances of American military forces into a combat area.


MR. SMITH. Mr. President, should you be reelected, I want to ask this question. There have been some reports out of Washington which hint at some friction between two members of the staff very close to you, your Secretary of State, Mr. Muskie, and your national security adviser, Mr. Brzezinski. Should you be reelected, do you intend to retain both of those gentlemen, or what other changes might you be making in your administration, should you be reelected?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, it's too early for me to say about what's going to happen for the next 4 or 4 1/2 years. My present intention is to keep them on, yes.

The reports about conflict between Brzezinski and Muskie, both of whom happen to be Polish Americans, are false and in any instance, highly exaggerated. I meet, almost daily, several times a week with Secretary of State Muskie, with my national security adviser, with Secretary Brown, Secretary of Defense, and also with the Vice President. We discuss the important issues around the world, 150 nations, troublespots in different parts of the world, and what our Nation should do to address it. We sometimes have differences of opinion among us.

I'd say 95 percent of the time the national security adviser, the Secretary of State agree in making a recommendation to me. On those times when they do disagree, honest disagreements, I make the judgment. But if our foreign policy is successful, the responsibility is mine. If our foreign policy is unsuccessful, the responsibility is mine. And when we are able to bring peace to Israel, when we're able to open up a billion new friends for the United States in the People's Republic of China, when we are able to see military dictatorships replaced with democratic governments, when we are able to see some of the new emerging countries in Africa who've never known us now become our staunch friends and allies who are able to stabilize international trade, those are things that are the result of a common approach. But I don't remember any of my advisers, for instance, telling me they thought that I ought to go to Camp David to meet with President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin, but I decided to go.

And I can tell you that I will always have strong advisers around me. Sometimes they are inevitably going to give me conflicting advice, but I'll be the one to make a judgment on what should be the foreign policy of our country and let it be known to the American people, consult with the Congress as appropriate, and I believe in that way, prevent the kind of serious mistakes that were made in the past when things were done secret, in a closet, like Watergate, the CIA violating American laws, and the extended and unnecessary aspect of the war in Vietnam.

MR. SMITH. Well, would both gentlemen be a part of your administration if you are reelected, sir?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, that's my present plan. Secretary Muskie has said that he's never had anything better happen to him in his life than my choice of him as the Secretary of State. My plan would certainly be that if he's willing to stay on that I would keep him on. And I have no present plans to change the members of my White House staff.


MR. SMITH. We have less than a minute, Mr. President.

There's been a good deal of talk about the calming down of rhetoric lately between you and Governor Reagan and the campaign.


MR. SMITH. Give me your assessment of Governor Reagan as President if he should be elected.

THE PRESIDENT. I think it'd be a bad thing for our country if Governor Reagan should be elected. I think a lot of his advisers are very concerned about what he would say in an open and free exchange of ideas with the American people in a townhall meeting, like I just concluded, or in an interview like this or an open debate. Your station invited me and Reagan, Governor Reagan, to meet on this station since we both happened to be in Tampa, and have a debate, as you know. I accepted immediately, as I've accepted the League of Women Voters invitation to debate and three or four other invitations for us to have a two-person debate. He's refused all those opportunities for a debate.

And I don't know what he would do in the White House, but his opposition to the SALT II treaty, his opposition to Medicare, his opposition to many of the programs that are important like the minimum wage or unemployment compensation, his call for the injection of American military forces into place after place after place around the world when diplomatic means ought to solve those problems indicate to me that he would not be a good President, a good man to trust with the affairs of this Nation in the future.

MR. SMITH. We have used up all of our time. I appreciate very much the time you have given us. Thank you, Mr. President.

THE PRESIDENT. It's good to have this one-sided part of the debate.

MR. SMITH. Thank you, Mr. President. Now back to Leslie Spencer.

Note: The interview began at 12 noon at the Princess Martha Hotel.

Jimmy Carter, St. Petersburg, Florida Interview With Hugh Smith of WTVT-TV. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/250918

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