Interview With Eleanor Clift, Jack Nelson, and Joel Havemann of the Los Angeles Times
June 23, 1986 Arms Control
Q. Mr. President, Senator Paul Laxalt, your old friend, said that early on in your administration, not long after the assassination attempt, that he told you he thought that the Lord saved you out there on the sidewalk, not so much to save the economy but to save the world, and that what he meant by that -- to reach some sort of an arms control agreement with the Soviets. And he said you didn't disagree with that. Now, you've recently in the speech at Glassboro said that you are firmly committed to an arms reduction. I was just wondering, the Soviets have made a proposal now for deep reduction in offensive weapons in return for some restraint on deployment of the space-based defense. Can you accept that in principle?
The President. Well, almost all of them in principle -- there have been, you know, like the figures and so forth, talking of the weapons. I think because of the mix that each of us sees, we have chosen a different way to go -- with what we call the triad -- than they have. They've placed more reliance on the intercontinental. And so, there are things that have to be negotiated and worked out. Now, we're still in the process of studying their latest proposal. But I am encouraged because -- not only this one but the first proposals that they began making -- it's, to my knowledge, the first time that the Soviets have ever proposed actually reducing the number of weapons.
Q. Well, you may be able to accept that in principle, then -- that proposal?
The President. Yes, but don't pin me down on this, because, as I say, we're still studying this and -- --
Q. Yes. The other thing is just what kind of priority do you give -- I mean, how high a priority do you give on arms control or arms reduction? Would it be possible, for example, to raise the level of the Geneva talks from ambassadorial level to the level of foreign minister to accelerate the progress there?
The President. Well, I don't know. Our negotiators there, we think, are very capable, and I assume the Soviets think theirs are, too. But whatever way is necessary to get an agreement, we'll do. Eventually, of course, it has to come back to the top. And, therefore, if the General Secretary and I could in a forthcoming summit arrive at some agreements there, and then hand it over to our negotiators to put it down on paper and work out the details -- but we agreed, as you say, in principle, then, on all the major elements -- that would probably help shortcut it, instead of waiting for something to come back to us and then having to go through it, dotting every ``i'' and so forth. As I say, this has been my belief and my goal long before I came here. The previous efforts at arms -- which have literally only been a kind of legitimizing of a continued arms increase -- I've been critical of those. That was why I spoke as harshly as I did about a couple of those stories.
Q. Is it your highest priority for a second term?
The President. I think that this could be as important a thing for the world at large. If anything is to remove this menace -- for the world to sit here with the MAD policy, as it's called -- and it is mad, even though it means mutual assured destruction. The idea that we're going to base our hopes for peace on each being able to destroy the other and, therefore, hoping that no one will suddenly go mad and push the button.
Q. Mr. President, I would like to see if I can't get you to be a little more specific on what it is you don't like about the latest Soviet offer. Is it the level of reductions? Is it the link to the ABM treaty? Is it verification? Can you tell us what is -- --
The President. It's things of that kind that have to be ironed out, that are not specific, and that we might, in some instance, find ourselves in disagreement. We've announced our willingness several times of changed figures to approximate theirs in which we're willing to buy any substantial reduction as long as we both are aiming eventually at the total elimination.
Q. So, you do have problems in all of those three areas -- with the link to the ABM treaty? I mean, that's a crucial part of their latest offer.
The President. As I say, we're still studying those things. And I'm waiting for some of the people who are dealing with the exact terms -- for us to get together and sit down and see what our positions really are.
Q. As a matter of principle, is some sort of hold-down on SDI, some sort of delay in the deployment of the SDI -- is that acceptable as part of the package?
The President. We know that this has been of great concern to them -- the SDI. On the other hand, we believe that this is one of the most hopeful things that's come along in a long time: with the idea of making it possible for us mutually to depend more on defensive systems than on just the threat of overpowering offensive systems. And we have some ideas about that, too, which we think will be forthcoming when we start responding to their latest proposal.
Soviet-U.S. Summit Meeting
Q. I just want to ask you, on a sort of a lighter note: If the summit with Mr. Gorbachev comes off, what it is you would like to do with him? Do you want to take him to the ranch? And what would you like to see in Moscow? Have you thought about that?
The President. Well, when we made the agreement, standing out in the parking lot in Geneva, which is where he and I made it all by ourselves, he had opened the subject by saying that there were things he'd like to show me in the Soviet Union. And knowing he had never visited our country, I said, ``Well, there are some things I'd like to have you see.'' So, I said, ``Why don't we have the 1986 summit in the United States, and I'm hereby inviting you.'' And he said, ``I accept.'' And he said, ``And there are things, as I say, that I would like you to see in the Soviet Union. And then we could make the '87 summit in the Soviet Union.'' And I said, ``I accept.'' And we went in to our respective teams and told them that. And I think they were astonished, because they thought it was going to take a lot of debating and arguing and hassling to get agreement on future summits.
But he hasn't seen anything in America, and I think there are an awful lot of things that I'd like to have him be able to see in our country, just as I would like to see things there. But I worry. I feel a little frustrated, because how, for example, can I show him how Americans live and this sort of thing, without there being a suspicion that it's a Potemkin village, or it's been created as a display for him to see? How can we convince him that we're not staging something for him, that it's -- --
Q. Maybe let him pick his spots.
The President. Yes. Oh, I've thought of that. And then they're going to have to do it right away so there couldn't be any time lapse in there in which he would think, having chosen the spot, we are now doing something about it.
Q. Would you take him to the ranch?
The President. We've talked about that. We don't know now what the time constraints would be and whether we could or not. But since he comes from an agricultural background, we have thought about his seeing our countryside and maybe the ranch.
Q. Mr. President, if I can take you back to arms control for a moment. On the SALT treaty, you and your top advisers have used a variety of euphemisms to declare the treaty dead, but you've never quite said so in so many words. Are you prepared to say that the SALT II treaty is dead?
The President. You know, when you keep asking for things like that -- I spent about a quarter of a century in labor management negotiations for my own union, the Screen Actors Guild, and for much of that time I was in charge of the negotiations. I think I know something about negotiations, and now you have a kind of a built-in instinct. And I just am reluctant to come out with some of the declarations that many of you want to hear, either way, because, in a way, you commit yourself in advance to things that may become issues in a negotiation. So, yes, I have tried to avoid that. But, in effect, what I was saying with regard to SALT II, the proposal, I understand, came from the Soviet Union prior to my arrival in office about observing the constraints even though our Senate would not and never has ratified that treaty. The treaty was only for a temporary period of time, and we've gone past that time. So, it would've outlived itself by now.
But the Soviets were very choosy about their own observance of the constraints of SALT. Some things they did abide by and observe, others they ignored and violated the terms of SALT to go forward with their own arms buildup. We found ourselves the only one that unilaterally was observing the constraints that were laid down in the SALT treaty. Well, we can't go on doing that. We don't seek a military superiority over the Soviet Union; we seek a deterrent. But it must be a deterrent that is practical and real.
Q. Well, would the setting of a firm date for the summit, Mr. President, together with the latest Soviet arms control proposal, maybe persuade you that you should not exceed the SALT II limits, as you've indicated we might do near the end of the year?
The President. We are in the process of a modernization program, long overdue and way behind theirs. Both sides have been modernizing, not just expanding in numbers but exchanging now for superior versions of these weapons. They are way ahead of us in that. We're playing catchup, and we must go forward with that program if we are to have an assurance that our national security is solid.
Soviet-U.S. Summit Meeting
Q. Are we going to have a summit this year, Mr. President?
The President. I believe so, and he has given every indication that he wants to have a summit.
Q. So, it probably will be in November or December?
The President. Well, now, here again, we made a proposal. It obviously was too early for them because of their great national congress [27th Congress of the Communist Party] and so forth and a new administration just taking over. So we've recognized that, and we have expressed our feeling about ourselves and the problems of our own election coming up -- that it would be better following that. And, frankly, I'm waiting to see if he has a particular date that he could suggest. I'm quite sure that when it comes to '87 and they start inviting, they could very easily hit upon a wrong date for us because of our own commitments here. And we would come back with an alternate suggestion. So, whether they suggest one or whether they're waiting for us, we'll work that out, and we'll have a summit.
Q. U.S.-Soviet relations seem to have been sort of up and down in your administration, as in a lot of other administrations. How would you describe them now?
The President. I think they're on a more solid footing than they've been for a long time, for one thing, because I think we've made it plain to the Soviet Union that we are realistic. We see them and what their goals are, and we're not deluding ourselves in any way. And I think in the past there has been a tendency to see them in a mirror kind of image and think, well, if we just are nice, they'll want to be nice in return. They've got some practical goals of their own. Some, we probably disagree with -- be opposed to. And based on Geneva, he and I did have hours of talk together, and we got right down to basic fundamentals and found out pretty much what each other believed. And so, as I say, I think that it's on a solid basis. When you say it's been an up or down thing, you have to remember for most of my first term here we had Soviet leaders, one after the other, that were almost incommunicado because of health reasons, and they kept dying.
Q. Are you betting that the Soviets will not respond to the abandonment of the SALT treaty with an increase in their arms buildup because they can't afford it?
The President. I think they've got some very real economic problems. And this, again, is one of the reasons why I'm hopeful about our getting together. We've all got problems, one kind or another, and they have some very real economic problems. So, I think that the -- well, let me put it this way, I don't think that either one of us wants to engage in an arms race. I have made it plain that there's no way we're going to sit back and allow someone else to build a great superiority. And I believe that they have other problems that they think might take precedence over a continued arms buildup at the rate that they've been doing it in the past.
Q. So the time is right?
The President. Yes.
Libya and Terrorism
Q. Mr. President, if I might ask you just a quick question on terrorism: There have been reports that Colonel Qadhafi is in a very bad mental state since the bombing of Libya. Do you have any information yourself on what sort of situation he's in now and whether he's beginning to lose his grip on his own country?
The President. Well, we've seen these rumors and there have been reports, sometimes conflicting. But we are aware that he has not made any public appearances as he usually did. I don't think that one television speech could count as out with the public as he's done in the past. He's been keeping a very low profile. And we do know that -- from some reports -- that sometime back, shortly after our attack, there was fighting in the streets in his country. And I have to say, I think it's apparent that his Arab neighbors, while they dutifully said some things at the time, are more or less keeping their distance.
Q. Do you think the bombing of Libya has had anything to do with the drop in terrorism in the country or in the world?
The President. I'm almost afraid to answer that. If I answer it, it might challenge somebody to perform some acts just to prove me wrong.
Q. But there has been a drop since -- --
The President. Yes, there has. Yes.
Q. Mr. President, I'd like to switch to South Africa. It's been reported that you made a personal plea to South African President Botha to lift the current state of emergency and that he turned you down. How do you feel about that, and what do you do next?
The President. Well, yes, we think that things would be better and that we would be closer to -- or they would be closer to getting to some kind of negotiations without this. We've made it plain that we disagree with this as the move that he's made. We think that, first of all, that the Botha government has shown its willingness to take steps and has even expressed its desire to rid the country of apartheid. At the same time, he is faced, as anyone in his position is -- as I am here in our government -- with a faction in his own government that disagrees and doesn't go along with what he's trying to accomplish. But he has made some gains, the pass laws, single citizenship, a number of, well, things having to do with racial mixing in marriage and so forth, labor unions, black labor unions, that have been permitted there.
So, I have to believe in his sincerity, that he wants to find an answer to this problem. We think the answer has to come from negotiation with some of the recognized black leaders. Right now, the big setback is -- and this is where I think his most recent action could aggravate it rather than ease it -- and that is the literally civil war in the black community, where they're now fighting each other. And -- --
Q. Yes, but, Mr. President, when you single out the fact, I guess, that, you know, blacks are fighting each other and you point out the advances that Botha has brought, some people think that you're expressing sympathy with his government. And while you have called apartheid repugnant, your administration has taken very few concrete steps. And you have sanctions against Nicaragua and Libya, and there's a feeling that you've treated South Africa with somewhat of a kid-glove approach.
The President. We have sanctions also against South Africa. But they're not the kind of sanctions that, for example, were being talked about up on the floor of Congress the other day. Because what would happen with those is you would punish the very people we're trying to help. There would be great unemployment there. There would be a terrible economic situation. But at the same time, we then would have removed ourselves. We would be on the outside and no longer able to communicate and try to persuade and talk, as we have been all this time.
Take, for example, the idea of American firms being ordered out of South Africa. They have an employment policy that was written out by a very estimable black clergyman in this country, Reverend Sullivan. They followed that. They have set a standard for South African firms in that their treatment of employees is different than it has been anywhere else in South Africa -- their promotion to supervisory positions and so forth of black employees. Now, what we think would be truly counterproductive and disastrous is for us, out of sheer pique or anger, to just remove ourselves and lose all contact with that government.
Q. Then how do you deal with the perception that you're somehow sympathetic with this regime, and what do you do instead of sanctions?
The President. Well, may I cite some of the statements that I've made publicly about actions there and that the Secretary of State has made -- our disapproval of various things? That, too, is a part of negotiations -- and to disapprove as well as to try to be helpful.
U.S. Supreme Court and Social Issues
Q. Mr. President, if I can turn you to the domestic side of government: I wonder if you could tell us how you'd like to see the addition of Judge Scalia to the Supreme Court and the elevation of Justice Rehnquist affect the Court's rulings on the social issues like abortion and school prayer and so forth.
The President. Well, I have never given a litmus test to anyone that I have appointed to the bench, nor did I in this instance. I feel very stongly about those social issues, but I also place my confidence in the fact that the one thing that I do seek are judges that will interpret the law and not write the law.
We've had too many examples in recent years of courts and judges legislating. They're not interpreting what the law says and whether someone has violated it or not. In too many instances, they have been actually legislating by legal decree what they think the law should be, and that I don't go for. And I think that the two men that we're just talking about here, Rehnquist and Scalia, are interpreters of the Constitution and the law.
Q. You didn't ask Judge Scalia how he stands on abortion, for example?
The President. No.
Q. Mr. President, [Assistant to the President and Director of Communications] Pat Buchanan has said that if you got two appointments to the Supreme Court it could make more difference on your social agenda, in achieving it, than 20 years in Congress. Do you agree with that -- that it could?
The President. Yes, I think there are a great many things, particularly these social things that Congress has debated off and on and over the years and the interpretation of the law, for example. You mentioned abortion. Let me state just unequivocally what I feel about it. And I don't feel that I'm trying to do something that is taking a privilege away from womanhood, because I don't think that womanhood should be considering murder a privilege. The situation is: Is the unborn child a living human being? Now, every bit of medical evidence that I have come across says that it is. Then you're taking a human life. Now, in our society and under our law, you can only take a human life in defense of your own. And I would respect very much the right of a prospective mother if told that her life is endangered if she goes through with the pregnancy. Then that is an entirely different situation. But until someone can prove medically that the unborn is not a living human being, I think we have to consider that it is.
Q. Well, there've been suggestions, though, by people in your administration that while you feel strongly about these subjects -- abortion, school prayer, busing, and so forth -- that you haven't pushed them as much as you might have because of the other more pressing matters of taxes, budget, and so forth, and that you've almost given up getting them through Congress, but you expect the Supreme Court appointments, if you get them, to help achieve that social agenda. Would that be accurate?
The President. Well, you have found that Congress has been unwilling to deal with these problems that we brought up. Prayer in schools -- I was struck the other day when Chief Justice Burger was speaking about a subject of that kind and the separation of church and state and the interpretations that have been placed upon it. And he said there are only 16 words in the Constitution, and those 16 words are very simple and plain. The Congress shall -- I may not be able to quote it accurately -- the words of the Constitution -- but Congress shall make no laws or provisions -- whatever the word is used there -- regarding the establishment of religion or the prohibition of the practice of religion. And whatever it is, it comes out to just 16 words, and that's it. Well, now, if you tell somebody they can't pray, aren't you violating those 16 words? And are you violating those 16 words with regard to establishment of religion if somebody's allowed to pray? And the funny thing is, it was Benjamin Franklin that uttered the statement in the Constitutional Convention that finally got them to open the meetings with prayer. And the Continental Congress, before there was the present Congress and the Constitution, always opened with prayer. And to this day the Congress opens with prayer. And on our coins it says, ``In God We Trust.'' And to me, the decision that prevented voluntary prayer by anyone who wanted to do so in a school or a public building is just not in keeping with the Constitution at all.
Federal Judicial Nominations
Q. Mr. President, I think the predictions are that Judge Scalia and Justice Rehnquist will sail through their confirmation. But you've had a couple of other nominations that have been stalled on the Hill. And in the radio address you attributed it largely to partisanship. If the ABA [American Bar Association] has given both [Daniel A.] Manion and [Jefferson B.] Sessions the lowest ranking possible in terms of their Good Housekeeping Seal, so to speak, I mean how can you call these distinguished appointments?
The President. Because I have appointed 281 judges to the Federal bench. All of them have been approved, usually by that rating of ``qualified.'' Now, the issue they are raising with Manion is that -- well, the next rating below ``qualified'' is ``unqualified'' -- that they're marked as ``unqualified.'' And I've never appointed anyone who was termed ``unqualified,'' or tried to nominate anyone that was unqualified according to the court. But Presidents Carter and Ford, between them, appointed 555 judges. And 282 of those were judged ``qualified'' by the same bar association. As a matter of fact, two Presidents in the recent past -- very recent past -- each appointed three who were declared ``unqualified'' by the bar association.
Q. So, you think ``qualified'' should be good enough?
The President. Yes, and in this one particular case right now, I think there've been -- well, one Senator openly and in the committee meeting expressed himself to my nominee as that he respected his ability and his character, and so forth, and would vote against him, however, only because he disagreed with his political views. Well, now that is not the prerogative of the Senate. This should never have been said, and that should not be their reason. But I was in this same position as the Governor of California that I am in now as President of the United States. And there I had a legislature of the other party in the majority. And you'd be surprised how difficult, as it got down toward the last couple of years, it was for me to appoint anyone requiring senate confirmation in the State -- to get them qualified. Because they just decided they'd wait -- outlast me now and let all these things remain for -- if their fellow got elected.
Q. So you have to make a stand against this or you could be relegated into lameduck as far as -- --
The President. Yes.
Q. I want to ask you about AIDS. Mr. Speakes. You're out of time. You can get that one in. I think maybe it might be a good idea to revisit this -- U.S.-Soviet except in principle, and be sure you've got the President's thinking.
Q. Okay, but if you will, Larry, we did have a couple of important questions we'd like to get to the President. One of them is on AIDS, if you don't mind.
The President. All right.
Q. The Public Health Service has projected some pretty scary figures about AIDS, and it says that it will strain the existing health resources of the nation. I mean, first of all, do you think of AIDS as kind of public health enemy number one? And do you think it's time for a stepped-up government effort?
The President. Well, we have been spending a tremendous amount of money on AIDS research. You know our financial problems. I don't know how much more leeway there is for us, but we've been doing all that we can do because of the threat that this represents. As a matter of fact, why don't some of you in the media start suggesting to people, because of another problem -- and that is, the problem of blood donors and so forth. You know there's a practical answer to that if someone would just announce it. Why don't healthy and well people give blood for themselves? And it can then be kept in case they ever need a transfusion. They can get a transfusion of their own blood, and they don't have to gamble on -- --
Views on the Vice Presidency
Q. Mr. President, can I ask you one very quick political question? You one time said that the Vice Presidency reminded you of an old rule of dogsledding: Only the lead dog gets a change of scenery.
The President. Yes.
Q. Now, you've had Vice President Bush as your Vice President for all these years. Do you still look on the Vice Presidency that way? Is that it's -- --
The President. Well, you know, I said that in talking about -- well, actually I was talking about the -- well, I know, I was talking about that as well as my own Lieutenant Governor. But I've done here the same thing I did with the Lieutenant Governor in California, and that is, our dogsled -- we're running double harness. The Vice President is a party to and part of every decision and every meeting that we have.
Q. If both he and your good friend Paul Laxalt run for the nomination, what are you going to do?
The President. I'm going to do -- even without that -- what I'm forced to do, and that is, as titular head of the party, until the party has decided on a nominee -- and then I will support that nominee all out. I cannot take sides in a primary.
Q. Let me go back and ask you, since Larry suggested it, Mr. President, is we get straight how you feel on the arms control process with the Soviets. Do you accept in principle what the Soviets -- --
The President. Well, let me define principle. As I've said, for the first time they are -- as representatives of the Soviet Union -- are proposing actual reductions and have even announced their desire that these lead to an eventual elimination of such weapons. That principle, yes, I agree on. That was my goal long before they said it in 1982. I made the proposal, and I'd still like to see happen -- of the intermediate-range weapons that were based in Europe, aimed at each other -- that those be just totally eliminated, that threat be taken away. The principle of starting meaningful reductions of weapons and with the ultimate goal of eliminating them entirely -- yes, I agree wholeheartedly with that.
Strategic Defense Initiative
Q. But if the Soviets insist on linking that with some sort of a constraint on SDI deployment?
The President. Well, you know, there's one thing about SDI that I think all of us should look at. First of all, research is not violating any agreements or treaties. If research develops that there is such a weapon, wouldn't there be a practical reason then to say to all the world, ``Here it is and why don't we have this?'' Just as when, after World War I, we ruled out gas as a weapon of war. But no one threw away their gasmasks, because you've always got to think that you know how to make it. The world cannot forget that it knows how to make a ballistic missile. And someday there could be another madman, as there was in Germany that came along, and this other madman -- he could decide. But if you've got this and it's practical, then you can all go to sleep and rest easy at night, knowing that if somebody tries to cheat, it won't work because you have that system.
Q. But going back to what you said earlier, this also could be part of your negotiations on arms control, generally, right?
The President. That's right, yes.
Q. In that answer, you addressed research and not deployment. I believe Mr. Gorbachev now has taken a position that he'll allow research to go ahead.
The President. Yes.
Q. It's the next step that seems to be the sticking point.
The President. All right. But now allow me to hold back on some things, because, as I said before, I'm in the position of having to negotiate.
Q. Mr. President, thank you very much. You look hale and hearty.
The President. Well, my pleasure.
Q. I was going to ask you a health question, but it didn't do any good because you're obviously in very good health since Friday.
Note: The interview began at 11:31 a.m. in the Oval Office at the White House. Larry M. Speakes was Principal Deputy Press Secretary to the President. The final question referred to the President's postoperative examination at Bethesda Naval Hospital on June 20.