Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Students of John A. Holmes High School of Edenton, North Carolina
May 13, 1986
The President. Thank you all, and welcome to the White House, and thank you for coming. I want to congratulate all of you from John A. Holmes High School in Edenton, North Carolina, on your great achievements this year and on your upcoming graduation. And a special greeting to Rob Boyce, the principal of this fine school.
As you know, my remarks are being broadcast live over radio and television to high school students throughout the country. While I was in Tokyo at the economic summit, I found myself thinking about all of you, and I decided that when I got back it'd be good to report to you -- share some thoughts that I've been having about the future.
In general, conditions in our country are about as bright as this very bright afternoon. I was worrying when I put that line in there that it might start to rain, and I'd have to say something else. [Laughter] We've been working to take an economy that was in bad shape and get it moving and growing again; take our national defense and make it first-rate again after a long period of decline; and to restore reason, respect, and reality to our foreign policy. And I think it's fair to say that we've made a good deal of progress.
Only 5 years ago our economy suffered from high inflation, high interest rates, mushrooming government spending, and steadily increasing unemployment. A lot of people couldn't find jobs, and people on fixed incomes were finding it harder to buy the basics, such as food and shelter. Well, we got inflation down, interest rates down, and our economy created over 1\1/2\ million new jobs just last year alone. The poor are now increasingly able to dig themselves out of poverty, and that's been good economic news.
The good news in defense is that our Armed Forces, which were suffering from neglect and low funding, have now made a comeback. Morale is up in the services, and the quality of our men and women in uniform has never been better -- and I mean never. As a matter of fact, we have the highest percentage of high school graduates in uniform today than we've ever had in the history of our nation, even back when we had the compulsory draft. In addition, our nation has encouraged a more realistic sense of defense needs.
In foreign affairs we've kept our friends close and the lines of communication with our adversaries open. We've tried to give the world the sense that the United States has a coherent and logical foreign policy that reflects our respect for freedom and our opposition to tyranny.
The point is that all we've done has had, and will continue to have, a direct impact on your lives. And the fact is, it's your future, not ours. And all that we've done, we've done with an eye toward how it would impact you. We want to make your future better, because tomorrow belongs to you. And since you're the leaders of tomorrow, I wanted to talk to all of you as a friend about the things you'll have to do to ensure a prosperous nation and a peaceful world. And I'm sure that peace and prosperity must be at the top of your agenda for the future.
You have some special responsibilities ahead of you -- very important responsibilities. America is back, yes, but we still face major challenges in the world. And it's your generation that will have to accept the primary responsibility for tackling these challenges. It's important that you're fit for the future and that you be all that you can be. So, go for it! In the area of education you have a responsibility to try to learn and care about scientific and intellectual inquiry. The world is an increasingly competitive place. And if we're to compete, we'll have to do it with brainpower -- your brainpower. So, keep learning and hit those books.
We have to remain economically competitive, and that means being aware of two things: first, what makes economies tick, and second, what works in other societies. We've been trying very hard in Washington to make America even more economically fit by really overhauling our entire tax structure. When we came into office, the top personal tax rate that the Federal Government could put on your income was 70 percent. Now, you can understand, I think, that if you were getting up in those brackets -- there were 14 different tax brackets, depending on the amount of money in each bracket you earned. And when you could look and say, "If I earn another dollar, I only get to keep 30 cents out of it,'' you can imagine the lack of incentive there. Well, we lowered it to 50 percent, and the economy really took off. Now we're trying to lower it yet again so that families can keep more of their money and so the national economy will be lean and trim and fit for the future.
And it's your generation that will defend freedom from its adversaries. The biggest contribution you can make to that quest is to become a good citizen. Good citizenship is vitally important if democracies are to continue. Good citizenship means trying to understand the issues and great questions of your day. It also means voting. To vote is to take part in this grand experiment called democracy in America. It's your right and your responsibility to take part. Good citizenship also might mean considering going into teaching as a profession. There's a teacher shortage, as you may know. You could help ease the situation and give to others the advantages you've been given if you become a teacher yourself. And it's also important that you stay in school. That diploma counts. And I just want to personally congratulate those who have overcome some disadvantage and who stuck it out and will graduate this year.
And part of being a good citizen, part of being fit for the future so that you can meet America's agenda for the future, is seeing to it that you live your life with a clear mind and a steady intellect. And that means saying no to drugs. Nancy has traveled across the country talking to young people like you. And many of them have talked to her about the allure of drugs, about the drug culture, and the kind of peer pressure that you come under to experiment and try out drugs. But when you come right down to it, drugs are just a dead-end street. They have nothing to offer you. I think you also ought to remember we only get one set of machinery. If you wear this set out, you can't take it and trade it in someplace for a used one or a new one. So, what you do now and early in your life decides how able you're going to be to enjoy yourself when you get to be my age.
And I want to tell you, I'm enjoying myself. I've talked to young people from China to Europe to the islands in the Caribbean. And let me tell you, they're incredibly bright and talented, and they're going to create quite a future for themselves. And you can't keep up or catch up if you allow your mind to be clouded by drugs.
Well, that's more or less what I wanted to say to you today. I'll be talking to many young people over the next few months, and I'll be expanding on certain points and amplifying certain themes. But for today, before your questions, I just want to let you know that I have been thinking about you very much. You are a special generation, and you're facing special challenges. And the biggest is to be ready for a future that will prove to be demanding and exciting. Soon, we'll enter the 21st century, a time that'll have more than its share of great wonders. The next 10 or 15 years may well be the most exciting and challenging in the history of man. There's the continuing revolution in technology, the possibility of curing diseases that have stalked us from the caveman era. There's the marvelous conquest of space, a rich frontier whose riches we've barely glimpsed. And there's the struggle between the democracies and those countries which are not democratic.
All of these possibilities bring with them questions. And it's your generation that will have to answer them. That makes you all very important, indeed. You have much before you. And all I can say is that you've begun brilliantly. Continue to pursue excellence. Be proud of your country and its heritage, and be proud of yourselves, as we are proud of all of you.
Now, that's all I had to say in terms of prepared remarks. What I really want to do is take your questions. And I understand that Rob Miller will be asking the first question. So, Rob, step up to the microphone, and we'll begin.
Q. Mr. President, my name is Rob Miller, and I expect to attend East Carolina University next fall. Before I start, I'd like to say that I wish you could run for a third term so I could vote for you next time. [Laughter]
The President. Well, thank you very much. They kind of fixed that with the 22d amendment. [Laughter]
Views on the Presidency
Q. My question is: What do you enjoy most about being President of the United States?
The President. Oh, there are so many things, and many things that you don't enjoy, also. I think the greatest is that every once in a while something comes to your attention -- maybe it's something you read in the paper about some unfortunate person, or you get a letter that someone managed to get through about some problem that, evidently, there isn't any regular program to solve, and you find that you can solve it. And I know of one case of a baby that had to have a transplant, and we were able to arrange that. And then, just a short time ago, I had the pleasure of seeing that little girl who had been a baby at the time of the transplant, and she came here with her parents to the White House. But it's things like that where you find that being in this position enables you to reach out and touch and get something of that kind done. And you go home feeling 10 feet tall and very happy.
Q. Thank you, Mr. President.
The President. Thank you.
Q. Mr. President, my name is Stacie Self, and I will be studying mechanical engineering at North Carolina State University. Many of us are planning to continue our education and go on to be doctors, lawyers, engineers. However, very few, if any of us, are planning to become teachers. Does this concern you? If so, what measures are being taken to encourage more people into entering this profession?
The President. Well, we have been doing some things. As you know, I appointed a commission to come up with a report on excellence in education, and they brought many suggestions. And since the Federal Government does not control education -- it's controlled at the State and local level -- we, then, sent our missionaries out to tell the States and to provide this report to them. Some of them had to do with this very problem of teachers. And the result is that many States now are putting in merit pay for teachers -- that, in addition to a set of classified salary scales for teachers, that teachers who rise above the norm and do exceptionally well can be rewarded as they would be in any other business or industry with an increase in pay. We also have made quite a considerable sum available to stimulate the teaching of instructors in math and science and so forth. So, we are working toward that end. I can't recall when we've faced a shortage of teachers as is facing us in the near future. And they are all important. So, we're going to continue doing everything we can to encourage going into that profession.
Q. Thank you, sir.
Q. Mr. President, my name is Saundra Roundtree, and I'll be attending North Carolina Central University this fall to have a major in computer science. Most of us are getting ready to start paying Social Security. Do you think we will be able to receive it when we retire?
The President. Social Security? Yes. When we came here I was very disturbed, and I got myself in a lot of trouble, because in an election year some people sort of distorted what I was trying to say. But Social Security was in trouble. As a matter of fact, we knew when we came here that, as far as we could see, Social Security by July of 1983 was going to be bankrupt in the way it was going. And when the election year of '82 was over and it was no longer a political issue, then we put together a bipartisan commission made up of representatives of the Congress, the Government, and the private sector. They did a study and came back with a recommendation for a complete reform. And as far as we can see now, Social Security is on a sound financial basis as far as we can see into the next century. So, yes, it will be there.
Q. Thank you, sir.
Q. Mr. President, my name is Martha Felton, and in the spring I plan to attend Johann College to study journalism. My question is: First of all, we've seen, all of us, the specials and news reports concerning the financial status of the American farmer. And I was wondering, could you explain to us what you think the future holds for the family farmer?
The President. Yes, for one thing, we have to get farming back into the marketplace, instead of under the Government regulations and subsidies and programs that we've had for the last 50-odd years. This isn't a purely American problem. At the Tokyo summit, the representatives of the seven countries around the table -- all of us recognized that governments were, in a sense, subsidizing the overproduction of food in the world. We've been so used, over the centuries, to calling it a hungry world; but today virtually every country that once was an importer of foodstuffs is now an exporter.
So, one of the things we decided, after lengthy discussion, was to put together an international team of experts and see how we could meet this particular problem. But I can't help but call attention to the fact that in our country a large part of farming was never in the government farm programs. And that part of farming has not had the troubles that we see now among our farmers. And so, we have to recognize that government has to bear a responsibility for part of what has happened. And we're trying to find a way out, but with compassion for those people who must not just be allowed to wither on the vine. But our main problem is that we have induced overproduction; we're producing more than there's a market for. And we've got to find an answer to that, and yet an answer that does not suddenly hurt some individuals.
Q. Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.
The President. All right. Incidentally, for those that wonder whether we're doing anything, in the last few years we've been spending more on the farm program than has ever been spent in our history.
Q. Mr. President, my name is Robert Keeter, and I'll be attending East Carolina University next year. I would like to know what do you feel has been your greatest achievement as President?
The President. I'm delighted to answer that one. There are a number of things that I've thought we did rather well and was proud of. But right now, the fact that both the Senate and the House have passed tax reform legislation for the income tax -- meaning that when we can get those two together -- one of their programs they passed, I don't like at all. The other one's pretty good. But both of them can be improved. This, I think, would be the greatest achievement. We have had an income tax system that was passed in 1913 and has grown to be such a monster that virtually -- well, the main part of the people in our country have to hire professional help to find out how much they owe the Government. And the tax is such that if you make a mistake, the Government then comes back and penalizes you and charges you a fine for having made a mistake. At the same time, the Government has warned you not to seek advice from their own employees, because their own employees don't understand the law. And, therefore, you'd be penalized for their mistake.
Now, as I told you, 14 brackets in the income tax and -- all the way up to 50 percent. When I was in motion pictures -- and as you know, motion pictures do pay a little above the average scale if you make a go of it -- you'd come to a time the top bracket was 90 percent. Well, you'd come to a point in which you were in the 90-percent bracket. And somebody would offer you a fine picture, and you'd just love to do it. But you said, ``I'm not going to do that picture for 10 cents on the dollar.''
Well, today this tax that the Senate -- or bill that the Senate has passed has only two brackets: 15 percent and then 27 percent. Meaning that there would always be an incentive, even if you're in the 27-percent bracket, because you're going to get to keep 73 cents out of every dollar you earn no matter how many dollars those are. And it's been simplified to the place that you won't need a public accountant to tell you how much you owe. You can figure out your tax yourself. It's fair. There will be about 6 million people at the bottom of the scale who'll be dropped from having to pay any income tax at all. And about 80 percent of the people will be in that 15-percent bracket.
So, I think the fact that we have finally gotten the Congress of the United States to deal with this problem of tax reform is the greatest achievement. And I'm going to be riding herd all the way to see that we finally get it through.
Q. Thank you, sir.
The President. All right.
Q. Mr. President, my name is David Rosenblatt, and I'm currently trying to gain admission into the United States Naval Academy. My hope is to graduate from the Academy and become a career officer, United States Marine Corps. Mr. President, what do you recommend to my generation -- what steps do you recommend that we take to avert the possibility of a future nuclear war?
The President. I think the path that we have -- trying to be on -- and if we can persuade our Soviet counterparts to go with us, is the path. And that is to start a program of mutual reduction of nuclear weapons leading to, as soon as possible, the total elimination of such weapons. As you know, we have the most stupid policy today. We inherited this from years back. It's called mutual assured destruction. And because the Soviet Union had built up such a massive force, then we built up a deterrent force. What do we mean by deterrent? Well, we know we're not going to shoot the first one. But if they attack, then we must have enough so that our retaliatory blow will deliver unacceptable damage to them. And that's supposed to keep them from shooting the first missile at us.
Well, doesn't it make a lot more sense, instead of living under that threat that some madman might push that button, let's get rid of those weapons? But then, over and above that -- what we're trying to do -- let's get rid of the mistrust between the East bloc and the West bloc so that there's no need for any war. Someone has wisely said that nations don't distrust each other because they're armed. Nations arm themselves because they distrust each other. So, if we can eliminate that -- and that's what we're trying with these summit meetings and so forth. But may I wish you well in the career you've chosen and tell you that of all the things I'm proud of in this job, I'm more proud of the young men and women in uniform than I can say. I'm bursting with pride. They're doing such a great job.
Q. Thank you very much, Mr. President.
The President. You bet.
Q. Mr. President, my name is Laura Bond. I will be attending North Carolina A&T State University to major in industrial engineering. As high school seniors, many of us will soon be seeking employment. What do you feel is the employment status for us next year?
The President. Employment in the United States? I have to say the prospects are good, because while we still show, say, a 7-percent unemployment rate, that is based on considering everyone, male and female, in the United States between the ages of 16 and 65 as the potential work force. Today we have the highest percentage of that sum total work force employed ever in our history: 110 million people working. And in the last 40 months we have created 10 million new jobs. And we're going on still at that same rate, as I said a million and a half just in the last year.
So, yes, the prospect for you is fine. And can I just take a second and tell -- when you said ``industrial engineering,'' that means the people that design the assembly lines and everything. I was once visiting a plant where they made lightbulbs. And I watched these people sitting, as down one line came the glass bulb, and down the other came the brass fixture, and they would take them and put them together. But I noticed one elderly woman working there. And she was crossing arms and doing it. [Laughter] And that looked pretty complicated to me. And later on I was talking to some of the executives of the plant about that and calling attention to her. And one fellow's face began to get red. And finally, I noticed them all laughing, and I said, ``What is it?'' He was the one that had decided they should change that line. The glass used to come down this side, and the brass used to come down this side, and for some reason he thought they ought to change the two lines. But she'd been doing that for 35 years, and she wasn't about to change. She crossed -- [laughter]. So, watch out for that.
Q. Excuse me. Mr. President, my name is Geordie Robison, and I will be attending Hollins College to study political science. What advice can you give a young high school student who is hoping to pursue a career in politics and possibly seeking the Presidency? By the way, I'm a Republican. [Laughter]
The President. Well, I want to encourage you. Let me just say that about this. First of all, you want it not just for the job; you want to be sure that there are things that you believe deeply in and that you would like to try and see are done for the betterment of our nation and the people. And then, I would suggest that first of all you get involved in helping in politics -- your local or county headquarters. When election year comes along, volunteer to help to go door to door, to do all the things that need to be done in an election. And in that way, you learn where it is that you think would be the best way for you to start.
Now, there are two ways of going into government. There is that, running for office and then seeking the next opportunity to go up. The other is not the elective process, but to look at the career possibilities in government, of becoming a government employee. And many times that also then leads to elective office. But the opportunities are there. But as I say, you must want, inside of you, to do things for the public good, not just say, ``Oh, that looks like a nice job. I'll try that.'' So, I think you'll do it the right way. And, as I say, your postgraduate course can be volunteering and helping. And thus you get acquainted, and you understand how the process works, and you get acquainted with the people that would help you get elected to an office. And it also helps if pretty soon, instead of you having to volunteer, somebody comes to you and says you ought to run for -- and then you grudgingly give in.
Q. Thank you, Mr. President.
The President. You bet.
Note: The President spoke at 1:01 p.m. in the Rose Garden at the White House. His remarks were broadcast on the Instructional Television Network.