February 29, 1984
Good afternoon, and welcome to Washington. I'm delighted to have you here today, because I'm a long-time admirer of the National Alliance of Senior Citizens. Under the fine leadership of your president, Mrs. Virginia Aubrey; your national vice president, Colonel Barry Taylor; your board members, and you, the State and regional leaders. The National Alliance of Senior Citizens skillfully represents its 1.4 million members and works tirelessly to make this a better country for senior citizens and for all Americans. You've given this administration your firm support, and I want to let you know how grateful we all are.
You know, I've been around awhile myself. [Laughter] One of my favorite quotations about age comes from Thomas Jefferson. He said that we should never judge a President by his age, only by his work. And ever since he told me that -- [laughter] -- I've stopped worrying. And just to show you how youthful I am, I intend to campaign in all 13 States. [Laughter]
But in our society, senior citizens play a vital role. Senior citizens provide invaluable skill, talent, and wisdom that can come only with years. I always remember that Winston Churchill was almost 65 when World War II broke out, but he carried England through all those bitter years and on to victory. And I think, if I remember correctly, that Adenauer, when he was bringing about economic recovery in West Germany after the war, was 80 or better.
Now, I know you're having a number of briefings today, but if I could take just a moment, I'd like to speak about some of our accomplishments. And maybe some of those who are going to do the briefing here will have to scratch things out if I say them first. [Laughter] Don't do it. It bears repetition.
Just 3 years ago, we inherited the worst economic mess in decades. Big taxing and spending had led to soaring inflation and interest rates. In January of 1981 inflation was in double digits, the prime rate hit its highest peak since the Civil War, and growth was disappearing.
The broken economy hit senior citizens especially hard. Many live on fixed incomes and found the purchasing power was eaten up by inflation. Like all Americans, senior citizens found jobs becoming more and more scarce. And senior homemakers found that 12\1/2\-percent inflation made it harder to buy groceries and pay bills.
Our administration went to work, as we said, to make a new beginning. We reduced the growth of Federal spending. We pruned needless regulations. We reduced personal income tax rates and passed an historic reform called tax indexing, a reform that means that government can never again use inflation to profit at the people's expense. And now, today, less than 3 years since we set our policies in place, our nation has one big program to help every American, young and old. It's called economic recovery.
The prime rate is almost half of -- [applause] -- thank you -- of what it was when we took office. Inflation has plummeted by two-thirds to about 4 percent during the past year. And that lower inflation rate makes the average retired person's private pension benefits worth about a thousand dollars more in purchasing power than if inflation had stayed at the 1980 levels.
But all the economic indicators -- factory orders, retail sales, and housing starts -- are up. The stock market has come back to life, and the American worker's real wages are rising. Unemployment is still too high but is dropping fast. Last year more than 4 million Americans found jobs, the steepest 12-month drop in unemployment rate in 30 years.
And just this morning we saw a picture of the future of our economy, and it looks good. A strong gain in January's leading economic indicators means this recovery isn't about to fizzle; it'll keep going strong -- just like America's senior citizens. The index of leading indicators is a combination of different activities in the economy, and it rose by 1.1 percent. The index shows the direction the economy is headed in future months. So, send away the handwringers, because today's good news marks the 16th rise in the last 17 months of those indicators.
Now, there are those that claim that we've cut social security and medicare benefits, and I have to tell you whenever I hear that, it sort of touches my temperature control. [Laughter] Nothing could be further from the truth. Our budget for this year provides for $238 billion in programs that affect the elderly, which averages out to $17,000 for every senior couple in America.
Since we took office social security benefits for the average retired couple have gone up about $180 a month. Medicare benefits are higher than ever before. Even after adjusting for inflation, our administration is giving America's senior citizens more social security, medicare, and other benefits than they've ever received, and we will not betray those entitled to social security or medicare benefits. And just as we put social security on a firm footing, we'll also put medicare on a sound financial basis. So, the next time you hear someone claim otherwise, you tell them an Irishman named Reagan says they're full of blarney. [Laughter]
Just as we're turning the economy around, we're bringing a new sense of purpose and direction to American foreign policy. In Grenada we've set a nation free. In Central America we're working to defend democracy and advance economic development. Events in Lebanon have been painful, but we're determined to do all we can to promote stability and peace in the Middle East. And one thing's for certain: Our presence in Lebanon has prevented far greater destruction and loss of life than would have otherwise taken place.
In Europe the NATO alliance, which was kind of trembling for a while, has held firm. And as for arms talks, we hope the Soviets will come back to the negotiating table soon. And when they do, they'll find American negotiators waiting for them, ready to come to equitable and verifiable agreements. In the meantime, we and our NATO allies will remain steadfast in the defense of our freedom and the protection of world peace.
Permit me to close by mentioning two vital matters that are now before the Congress. The first is a subject of special concern to senior citizens -- crime.
Every American should be able to walk the streets unafraid and go to bed at night without worrying that the next sound might be the footsteps of a burglar or a rapist. But, tragically, we still can't do that. Think of all the senior citizens who don't visit their families or see a doctor because they're afraid they might get robbed or mugged on the way.
The reason crime is so bad is no mystery. For too many years the scales of criminal justice were tilted in favor of the criminals themselves. Those in charge forgot, or just plain didn't care, about protecting the rights of law-abiding citizens. We came to Washington determined to restore the proper balance to our criminal justice system. And we've begun to get results.
In 1982 the crime rate dropped by 4.3 percent, and that was the biggest decline in a decade. But we still face a tremendous challenge. One of the most important steps we've proposed is the comprehensive control act and the most sweeping anticrime bill in more than 10 years. Recently, the Senate passed the crime control act and several important related crime bills. But in the House, instead of giving those bills the priority they deserve, the leadership has bottled them up in committee.
Now, let me give you some examples of the reforms the House leadership is blocking. One reform would widen the powers of Federal prosecutors to go after mobsters and drug traffickers by seizing their profits. It could be a knockout blow against the drug syndicates that are poisoning our country. Why should any right-minded person oppose this?
Another reform involving the so-called exclusionary rule would allow evidence obtained reasonably and in good faith to be used in a criminal trial. It'd be a big step toward making sure criminals don't go free on technicalities. Who in good conscience could object to that?
Let me give you an example, because I know a great many people aren't completely familiar with the exclusionary rule and how it employs. Several years ago in California, San Bernardino, on the suspicion that a couple living in a home were peddling heroin, narcotics agents got a warrant and had enough evidence to get that, went to this house and then searched the house for the heroin, and they couldn't find any. And on the way out, just on a hunch, one of them turned back to the baby in the crib and took off its diapers, and there was the heroin. It was thrown out of court and couldn't be used, because they said the baby hadn't given its permission to be searched.
Well, these crime bills that we're talking about should be above partisan politics. And I urge you to help me tell the American people what the House leadership is doing. If we hold a few feet to the fire, certain Members of the Congress might finally realize that the American people want action. I've said repeatedly, you don't have to make them see the light; just make them feel the heat. [Laughter]
Now, the second issue is school prayer. From the early days of the American colonies, prayer in school was practiced and revered as an important tradition. Indeed, for nearly 200 years of our history, it was considered a natural expression of our religious freedom. And then in 1962, the Supreme Court expelled God from America's classrooms. Well, I happen to believe that if the Congress can begin its day with prayer, then so can our children. And along with you, all the people, or most of them, agree. Polls show that by a margin of 4 to 1 Americans want prayer back in our schools.
The Senate will soon vote on a constitutional amendment to permit voluntary vocal prayer in our schools. If the amendment passes in the Senate, we'll have to work to get a vote in the House. But neither will happen without our support. If ever there was a time for the people of this country to make their voices heard, the time is now. I urge you to support the school prayer amendment in your home States and to tell your Senators and Representatives where you stand. I think it would be nice to show the world that America is still one nation under God.
Strength in the economy, a firm sense of purpose in foreign affairs, the will to combat crime and seek God's help -- it all adds up to a great national renewal, a reaffirmation of the fundamental American values of hard work, family, freedom, and faith.
And I have to interject something here. You know, our generation -- and I don't think many of us realize it -- is a very unusual one in the history of man. Only occasionally back through history have there been single generations that presided over a great period of transition and saw a great change, and ours was one. We literally in our lifetimes have gone from the horse and buggy to space travel and landing on the Moon. And we've seen four wars in our lifetime. We've seen a Great Depression that certainly made us look on the recent recession with a little more ease than some of the people who had never experienced that Great Depression.
And I have to just tell you a little experience. When I was Governor, back in those days of the riots on the campus and all that was going on, I wanted more than anything to be able to go to the campus and talk to some of those young people, but if I went I started a riot. I was the establishment. And one day some of the student leaders in our university system in California demanded a meeting with me. Well, I was delighted.
And they came in and, as was the custom of some in that day, in torn tee-shirts and some of them barefoot, slouched into their chairs, and then one of the spokesmen teed off, and he started in on me. And he said, ``You know, Governor, it's impossible for you to understand your own children.'' He said, ``Your generation cannot understand ours at all.'' Well, I tried to pass it off. I said, ``We know more about being young than we do about being old.'' [Laughter]
And he said, ``No, I'm serious.'' He said, ``When you were our age, when you were growing up,'' he said, ``you didn't have instant electronics, computers figuring in seconds what it used to take months and weeks or days to compute.'' He said, ``You didn't have jet travel. You didn't have space exploration.'' And he went on like that. And, you know, usually you only get the right answer after it's over and you've gone home, but he talked just long enough that the Lord blessed me, and I thought of the answer. [Laughter] And when he paused for breath, I said, ``You're absolutely right. We didn't have those things when we were your age. We invented them.'' [Laughter]
So now, among other things, there's one more thing we can do and that is build an America to pass on to our children and grandchildren with pride.
Thank you. God bless you all.
Note: The President spoke at 1:03 p.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building.