The President's First News Conference
THE PRESIDENT. I told Pierre a little earlier in the morning I was going to buy coffee later in the day, and I didn't really know how much coffee I was going to buy. He has more friends than I anticipated.1
1 The President referred to a conversation with Pierre Salinger, Press Secretary to the President, in preparation for the news conference. The informal conference, at which coffee was served, was attended by 25 reporters.
Q. More people work on Saturday than you think.
Q. It is a new administration, too.
THE PRESIDENT. If there is anything you would like to ask me, I would be glad to answer.
[1.] Q. will you be here today? 2
THE PRESIDENT. Yes.
Q. This will be your first night here?
THE PRESIDENT. Yes.
2 At the White House. Until December 7 President Johnson had continued to live at his residence at 4040 52d Street NW.
Q. How do you feel about it?
THE PRESIDENT. I feel like I have already been here a year.
Q. We didn't hear that, Mr. President.
THE PRESIDENT. I feel like I have already been here a year.
[2.] Secretary McNamara has been in all morning. We have been going over the budget and over the military assistance program. I have asked him to go from Paris to Saigon next week to represent me and look over the situation out there. He will be there for a day or two.
I told you this. I did not tell him I was going to, but he is out there and he is prepared to discuss with you two or three other matters, and I told him we would not be long. You may want to ask him at that time about his trip.
Q. Is the Secretary on a specific mission or are you just asking for a general report on the picture in Saigon, Mr. President?
THE PRESIDENT. He is going to be in Paris anyway,3 and it won't take him too long. He can go there pretty quickly and we want to have him make a few checks out there, not anything to be concerned about, but just to be sure that we are getting maximum efficiency.4
3 Secretary McNamara was going to Paris to attend the ministerial meeting of the North Atlantic Council, held December 16-17.
4 On December 21 the White House released the following statement by Secretary McNamara:
The members of my party and I returned this morning from South Viet-Nam. We have just completed our report to the President of our observations. We observed the results of the very substantial increase in the Viet Cong activity, an increase that began shortly after the new government was formed, and has extended over a period of several weeks.
During this time the Viet Cong have attacked, and attacked successfully, a substantial number of the strategic hamlets. They have burned the houses, the fortifications, and in many cases have forced the inhabitants to leave. The rate of that Viet Cong activity, however, has substantially dropped within the past week to 10 days.
This rapid expansion of activity, I think, could have been expected. It obviously was intended to take advantage of the period of organization in the new government, a period during which there was a certain amount of confusion--confusion that you might have expected would result from the replacement of the province chiefs and other key administrators in the government.
We reviewed in great detail the plans of the South Vietnamese and the plans of our own military advisers for operations during 1964. We have every reason to believe they will be successful. We are determined that they shall be.
I made a reference to it the other day in my statement on the Hill, and in a statement to the State Department employees.5
5 See Items 11, 26, above.
[3.] I am going to the United Nations to speak on December 17th at 12 o'clock.
Q. December 17th?
THE PRESIDENT. December 17th, 12 o'clock, at the United Nations. We just told Mr. U Thant that we will go up that morning to make a brief appearance and meet with the delegates before they go back to their respective countries. It will not be a long speech. I don't want to play it down, but there won't be anything shocking to you, but I do want to establish an acquaintance with them and know some of them personally.
[4.] What I have really tried to do in the first 10 days here is to establish a continuity in Government, and we have asked the Cabinet to stay on to the man, and we have the staff staying on to the man, and we have gotten the Congress to cooperate very helpfully in several fields. We have their announcements that they are going to open hearings in January on the civil rights bill, and we are going to try to conclude the hearings and vote on the amendments on the finance bill where we will have it reported in early January.
We think that we have made very good progress in showing the continuity in our transition. We have tried to, second, give a sense of unity in the country and in the world. We have met with the leaders, some 90 of them from the various nations in the world. We have immediately set up more detailed discussions, although we had reasonable discussions with some 20 or 30 of them, and brief discussions with all of them, and lengthy discussions and somewhat longer discussions with Lord Home and General de Gaulle and Chancellor Erhard.
We plan to see Erhard in our home and we will have him there, and a very small part--a crew of all of you, and the rest of you can go into Austin. It is a very delightful place this time of year. Mr. Schroder 6 can go in there and brief you regularly, and Pierre.
6 Gerhard Schroder, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Germany.
Then we will be seeing the President of Italy and Lord Home in the months of January and February.
We think we have answered all of their cables and have assured them there is continuity and there is a sense of unity in the country, and with the people and with the policies, and I think that is reflected in our speech to the Congress, in our Thanksgiving speech, in our speech to the Business Advisory group, in our speech to the labor group, and in the speech to the independent agencies.
I have talked to the Cabinet and the National Security Council, and had talks with the Negro leaders.
We think that all Americans, regardless of their party, their race, or their region, or their religion, have been very helpful in helping us establish that sense of continuity.
Finally, I think we have made it pretty clear that we have embraced the programs that we helped to fashion which are now pending before the Congress, what they are, and we have inaugurated some new ones.
[5.] At this time of the year, in connection with the formation of our budget, we try to get a dollar's value for a dollar spent, and be sure that we spend all that we need to, but not that we spend any of it wastefully. We are just engaging in a good deal of introspection in that field, and the Secretary will have some detailed remarks to you, but he is going to spend several hundred million dollars less this year in his Department than he did last year, and he has been reviewing this in the last few days.
He brought us a program this morning to cut back 25,000 of the 997,000 civilian employees who are now employed by the Department.7
7 Secretary McNamara's program was outlined in a White House release dated December 7. The release pointed out that the cutback to 997,000 would be completed by July 1, 1965, and that it would be the first time Defense Department civilian employment had fallen below one million since the early months of the Korean war in 1950. The release also stated (1) that a reduction of 15 percent had been directed in personnel assigned to overseas headquarters staffs, (2) that in a move to effect greater economies in the administration of the Military Assistance Program the Secretary had directed a reduction of 10 percent, or well over a thousand, military, U.S. civilian and indigenous personnel abroad, to be effective July I, 1964, and (3) that there would be a reduction of 15 percent in the number of foreign nationals employed by the Department by the end of June 1964, including 9,000 direct-hire foreign national employees.
Q. He took off 29,000?
THE PRESIDENT. 25,000.
[6.] Q. Mr. President, you failed to mention President de Gaulle. There have been reports from Paris that this trip now is in abeyance in contrast to, say, 2 weeks ago when De Gaulle indicated that he would come to the United States.
THE PRESIDENT. We have no definite plans yet, and when we do, I will make them available to you.
[7.] Q. Sir, have you made up your mind about the format and nature of the press conferences you will hold over the long haul?
THE PRESIDENT. No. I want to communicate with the American people, and I want to maintain accessibility, and I want there to be a free flow of information to the extent possible, and limited only by security. And I should like, of course, after the period of mourning, to try to determine just what would be the most effective way, with your counsel and cooperation.
[8.] Q. Mr. President, as you take hold of foreign affairs, have you received many invitations yet to make visits overseas to Britain, Japan, the Philippines, any other countries which Mr. Kennedy was thinking of visiting?
THE PRESIDENT. I would say in our discussions with the leaders that most of them expressed an interest in a possible visit at some time or other. Some were more definite, but I would say a goodly number. It is my own feeling at the moment that there could be a change, of course, but my own feeling is that I will be pretty much tied down here and I will not be leaving the country.
[9.] Q. Some of the leaders you have spoken with in the past week said that you dealt with the unemployment problem. Can you tell us anything about the expansion of the retraining program?
THE PRESIDENT. Yes, we are very concerned with the unemployment problem. It is much too high. We are going to make intensive drives to reduce it, reduce unemployment. We are considering the extent of those in our new budget that is now being formulated. President Kennedy had some plans for them. In reviewing those plans, we hope to have early passage of the tax bill. We think that will encourage investment and create more jobs and reduce unemployment. We think it is very, very important that we get that bill passed as early as we can. We think it very important, when the bill is passed, that it be retroactive to January 1.
I have met with Senator Dirksen, Senator Mansfield, and all of the Democratic leaders on three or four occasions, two or three here at the office. They had dinner with me the other night, too, and we have reviewed our plans, the necessity for making that bill effective January 1.
I have also talked with Senator Byrd at lunch and he has agreed to that. I have also talked to Senator Dirksen, and he has agreed to do that. We think that that will add considerably to our economy for the next year.
I have had since November 22 about 106 appointments, which runs almost 10 a day, but they have been with people like Secretary Harriman, Speaker McCormack, Congressman Halleck, Senator Mansfield, Senator Dirksen, Senator Smathers, Senator Morton, Secretary Rusk, Cabinet members, the Attorney General, Mr. Bundy, CIA-Mr. McCone--Secretary McNamara, President Eisenhower, and Mr. Lodge, and on through the list--Professor Goldman, Professor Melman, independent agency heads that I am not listing, and a good many of the Senators, individual Cabinet members.
[10.] Q. Are you shooting for a particular budget figure, Mr. President, that you can say?
THE PRESIDENT. I saw a good sentence this morning. Jack,8 give me that sentence that I asked you to get for my next speech. I think it rather explains my view on the budget.
8 Jack Valenti, Special Consultant to the President.
I want to spend everything that is necessary to spend to keep moving our country forward progressively. In order to do that, I don't want to waste a dime.
Last year we spent the proposed budget and expenditure of $98.8 billion. In addition to that, we have $1,800 million written in that you have to add to it, like civilian retirement and interest on the national debt and military retirement, and I have a breakdown of those.
Jack, if you will get me that figure, I would like to have it. It is on my desk, on the budget, on the top.
In addition to that, you have $800-odd million that will have been legislated. We anticipate it will be legislated for Health, Education, and Welfare, approximately $300 to $400 million extra for Labor, manpower retraining.
There is a one-line note there on the top of my desk, Jack, from the Director of the Budget, that has the chart on it. That makes $1.2 billion over the $1.8 billion, so that gives you $3 billion, and there is probably $500 million or $600 million more that are not in Labor or Health, Education, and Welfare.
To just run down it quickly: military pay increases, $300 million; military pay, retired, $130 million; civilian pay, $200 million; interest on the public debt, $250 million; contracts already awarded by NASA, $583 million; Alliance for Progress loan, $150 million; Federal Aviation, supersonic, $47 million; urban renewal contracts, $50 million; veterans' compensation, $48 million; public assistance, $42 million. That is $1.79 or $1.8 billion right there--$1,800 million.
There will be some reductions that we can make, but in addition to that, you have $800 million in the Health, Education, and Welfare, and you have approximately $400 million in Labor, or it is up from $492 million to $724 million--about $300 million in Labor.
You have the National Science Foundation which is up from $260 million to $335 million. There will be a good many like that which you can't do anything about. So, I would figure $1.8 billion, $1.2 billion, and another $500 million, $3.5 billion onto the $98.8 billion. That is what you have to start from. We will try to reduce anything we can there.
We don't want to just be a tightwad. Our feeling is we waste as much by doing nothing as we do by doing too much. But we do want to see that money is prudently ex?ended, and if Secretary McNamara can effect a reduction of 25,000 employees by the ceiling he has had, it will be helpful.
We are also making a review of all of our installations in the country. We have come to no conclusion on it, but seeing what can be consolidated.
We are talking over with each Cabinet officer and each independent agency, each one of the Joint Chiefs, each one of the Service Secretaries. I plan to go to the Pentagon to talk to them personally next Wednesday,9 talk to the Service Secretaries, talk to the Joint Chiefs again, then talk to the top people in the Pentagon, as I did in the State Department.
9 See Item 37.
So finally, we have tried to show the continuity in office and we have tried to show the programs we are going to have embracing the programs of the previous administration, and we have tried to show the unity in the country, and our response from the country and the world has been very good.
[11.] Q. Do you expect to be spending Christmas at your ranch?
THE PRESIDENT. That has not been determined yet.
[12.] Q. Mr. President, sir, can you tell us your thoughts about whether the report which is in the Justice Department now, and I take it has either been given to you or will be given to you, should be made public, or a summary of it?
THE PRESIDENT. That is a matter which I think would go from the Justice Department to the blue-ribbon commission that was appointed, and it will be a matter for them to review. 10
10 The reference was to a report on the results of an FBI investigation of the assassination of President Kennedy made prior to President Johnson's appointment on November 29 of a Commission established for that purpose.
[13.] Q. Mr. President, can you tell us at the end of your first 2 weeks in office what you regard as the biggest single problem facing you as President?
THE PRESIDENT. Being President.
[14.] Mr. Salinger: May I say a couple of things ? In listing the foreign leaders coming here, Prime Minister Pearson of Canada is coming.
THE PRESIDENT. Also, you can mention I am going to invite the President of Mexico to come.
[15.] Q. Are you going to be spending weekends in the country?
THE PRESIDENT. I expect I am going to be at this desk pretty much straight through.
Helen Thomas, United Press International: Thank you very much, Mr. President.
Note: President Johnson's first news conference was held in his office at the White House at 12:05 p.m. on Saturday, December 7, 1963.
Lyndon B. Johnson, The President's First News Conference Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/239236