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Public Papers - 1989 - December

Question-and-Answer Session With Students at John F. Kennedy High School in Denver, Colorado

1989-12-08

The President. Thank you for coming. You've been singled out -- fairly or unfairly, I shall have my part in making the determination and you can decide -- as the best and the brightest. I don't know whether that's fair, but that's what they've told me about you guys. So, what I wanted to do, really, is to get some questions from you -- any thoughts you might have on anything -- be glad to field them. And if I don't know the answer, I'll give them to Tony. [Laughter] And if he doesn't know the answer, I'll give them to Pat or to Bill Bennett. You've got it.

Alcohol Abuse

Q. I'd like to know: We focus on drugs like cocaine, crack, but I believe we're getting away from the most abused drug, which happens to be alcohol. What is the Government doing about that?

The President. I think we are giving full support -- I'm going to let Bill Bennett add to this -- but to a myriad of programs across the country. The one that comes to mind that I think really deserves a lot of support is this MADD, the Mothers Against Drunk Driving. But, Bill, do you want to add something to that? I mean, there's a wide array. Of course, you have laws on the books that need to be vigorously enforced, and we are trying to give encouragement to the law enforcement officers that are out there. What do you want to add to it, Bill? His major role is the other substances that are abused. But go ahead.

Mr. Bennett. We do have an important responsibility in regard to alcohol when it comes to prevention education. And, in fact, the laws that we are putting in place and funding that is put into place insists on attention to alcohol in the educational programs and the prevention programs. And often, you've got alcohol and illegal drugs mixed; lots of people use both of them. I think the question we have as a society is not whether we have alcohol or not -- because that's been decided, we're going to have it -- the question is do we want legalized alcohol and, as well, legalized marijuana, cocaine, et cetera, et cetera.

We know the problems alcohol has caused -- as the President said, Mothers Against Drunk Driving. But it is an illegal drug if you're using it underage, so it needs to be treated that way.

AIDS

Q. Mr. President, I'd like to know the money that you've set aside for the AIDS program -- education programs, if they're doing any good, and if so, will you fund more money for that in the future? And if not, will you just deplete the education for AIDS totally, or -- --

The President. No. Most of the Federal Government funding is for research -- very active program at the National Institute of Health under a guy named Dr. Tony Fauci, who is really -- I singled him out last year as a hero -- he really is a hero in this program he's involved in. I think the amount is about .4 billion -- somebody -- well, I think it's around that, and there will be an increase, modest increase in the budget. The researchers might be able to use more research money, but they've been relatively well-satisfied with that from the Federal Government. And then you've got to add to that what's going private.

We've got to find an answer. It's a virus. There will be an answer found. But I think we ought to give great credit to the National Institute of Health and to the private sector. My own doctor was on the AIDS Commission, Dr. Burt Lee; he's not with me on this trip. But he tells me that people can be sustained, their lives can be sustained, for far longer today than when we really first started fighting this drug [disease] a few years ago.

So, the Government will keep up its interest, private sector will, and hopefully, we'll find an answer. But for those interested in that general subject, you know, I said to him, well, why can't we get a breakthrough and get something that defeats this? And he said, well, if it was that easy, we'd end up -- nobody would have a common cold. It is a virus. And we haven't been able to do that with all the medical knowledge we've got.

Eastern European Reforms

Q. Good morning, Mr. Bush. My name is Albert Carrillo. I'm a senior. I was wondering, what are your thoughts on the recent fall of the Berlin Wall? And do you see the possible unification of Germany into one nation as a threat to the U.S. or to the NATO alliance?

The President. Albert, I look at the changes in East Germany -- convinced me that the people's quest for freedom knows no bounds. Obviously, we'd hoped that this would happen and that the people would, indeed, get what others have had, which is the right of self-determination. But it's happening faster and in so many different countries and in so many ways different than we predicted.

And so, what I've been trying to do as President of the United States is to welcome the change, but to conduct ourselves in conjunction with our allies in a way as to not encourage any force in any of the Eastern Europe countries or the Soviet Union to react in a bad way. By that I mean I would hate to see any kind of reversal to this change.

I am convinced that we will see a Europe that is whole and free. This is one of the subjects that I was discussing with Mr. Gorbachev a week ago from -- well, tomorrow I guess we started our talks. And it was about the change in Eastern Europe. I think it will continue.

In terms of the German question, the alliance position has been self-determination -- let the people decide. This gets a little technical, but the Helsinki Final Act talks about the permanence of borders unless people elect to change them peacefully. But you're onto something, in a sense that there is concern in some of the countries. There's concern in Poland; there's concern in some of Western Europe; there's concern, obviously, on Mr. Gorbachev's part about the rapidity of change and the way the change plays out for the future.

But the U.S. position is, that's a matter for the German people to determine. But we ought not to be trying to set the pace for them as how rapid that change should come about. Underlying it all -- freedom, democracy, pluralism, right to choose your own future. And if you said to me 2 years ago, can you, sir, predict that in 2 years from now Germany will be doing what it's doing, throwing out totalitarian leaders and groping to find a way to a more democratic system -- no, I wouldn't have seen that. But it's happening, and it's going fast, and it's moving in the way that our country has stood for -- freedom and democracy.

So, let's hope that by the time you all finish here, finish college 4 or 5 years from now, you'll see a different kind of a Europe. And you'll see the United States interacting with Eastern Europe in a way that we haven't done since World War II.

Women's Issues

Q. I was wondering why the Bush administration is not advocating more social programs that would help women in need, like pay equity and equal rights amendment and child care and child support laws, but they do advocate the abolition of abortion?

The President. Well, I'm not -- of course, I don't view that as antiwoman; I view that as prolife. We could have a fascinating discussion. I might be in the minority here. [Laughter] But you know, I looked at our adopted grandchild the day she was baptized, the day she was christened, and I said to myself, like any parent or grandparent would, well, I'm glad this child was born. Now, she's surrounded by a lot of love, and so, there's a difference here. And I know that a lot of women look at it differently and men look at it differently.

Child care -- I want to see child care. We made a proposal, I think a bold and good proposal, to the Congress. They got one, some of the people that control the Congress -- opposition party, they've got a different way of looking at it. They want more centralized restrictions and regulations, and I want more choice in child care. I want parents to be able to make a determination.

I don't think that a church-affiliated child care center should be discriminated against if they're doing a good job. I think families that are poor and elect to have neighborhood groups get together -- let them have the money go there. They don't have to have some bricks and mortar downtown where the Federal Government tells you.

So, I think I've tried hard to get child care legislation through, but I want to get it through in the way I told the American people that we'd have it when I ran for office. It's hard to do when you have the Congress controlled by -- there was another part of your question. Day care, abortion -- oh, equal rights amendment. I don't think that that thing's gotten off; I don't really see much steam behind it now. I think we have existing laws to protect the rights of women, protect the rights of majorities and minorities, and I don't think that it's particularly needed at this point at all.

Defense Budget

Q. My question concerns the defense budget next year.

The President. Yes?

Q. Assuming that we were to save money because of, like, cutback in arms and closing of some bases, what are you proposing to do with that money? And is one of your options to pay off some of the Federal deficit or to train the unemployed military for civilian jobs?

The President. It's to pay off the deficit in this sense: If there are large savings in defense, defense has taken a hit for 5 years in a row. And even though the change that Hector talked about -- or is it Albert -- Albert talked about -- that change, the Eastern European change, is very exciting and can lead, through arms control agreements, to agreed lower levels of defense -- even though that's happening, I think it would be imprudent to make reckless cuts in our defense and think everything was just perfect in the world. It isn't. And I wouldn't be doing my job of guaranteeing the national security of this country as President if I acted like it was perfect.

And so, I will fight for what I think is a reasonable defense level. But to the degree defense is less than has been projected over, say, a year ago or 2 years ago, the money will go to -- as I am compelled to do under the law -- to meet what's called Gramm-Rudman targets in what you asked about, deficit reduction. That doesn't mean we don't have a lot of money going into social programs -- we do.

But you know, there's some crazy -- maybe it's idealistically good, but there's a lot of wild speculation that Congress is going to go in and take dramatic slashes in the defense budget and then take the money in what's called a peace dividend. And I will not acquiesce in that. By that, it means spend the money -- go out and spend it more. My problem is that the best answer to poverty is a job. And the best way you have a job is to have a strong economy. And so, you have to get the deficit down, and that's where, under the law, I'm required to do it, so I'll keep fighting for that.

POW's/MIA's

Q. Mr. President, I'd like to ask you what the Bush administration is doing to resolve the issue of the POW's still in Southeast Asia?

The President. Doing everything we can. We've got a former general officer who was in charge of all, the Chief of Staff of the Army and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Vessey, and he is a special negotiator for the President. He just came back from Vietnam. To give them their due, they are being more cooperative about the remains of the missing.

It's a brutal kind of a field where you think you have to bargain to get the remains of the dead back. This is what kills me about this Middle Eastern situation, where that -- Colonel Higgins, showed his body. And the brutality of people who will not return the dead is hard for us to fathom in our culture, but what we are doing is negotiating with the Vietnamese at very high levels, trying to get a total accounting.

Now, General Vessey is not convinced that people are alive still and held against their will, but he is a great soldier and a great patriot, and he is going to motivate himself as if they were. By that I mean, only when everybody is accounted for fully can we really lay back and figure that that assignment has been taken care of.

War on Drugs

Q. I was wondering if any legislation will be put forward in support of capital punishment for convicted drug dealers?

The President. Yes, and I favor that. It's controversial and I don't know the exact state of it, but look, just as in the question Anna asked, there's a lot of emotion on both sides of it. I happen to believe that drug dealers who take the lives of our law enforcement officers and corrupt the lives of our kids should pay with their lives. And you can define what a drug kingpin is, and I support it.

And the intellectual debate that you'd get -- maybe you have it in this classroom -- is that a deterrence? does a person have a right to take a life? -- get back to your subject. And you get into all of these questions, but in my view, there's a difference between protecting innocent life and protecting the life of a person that has done violence to the life of another. And I do think a prompt enactment of that final penalty would indeed inhibit not all but some of the excessive behavior that is dominating this horrible, horrible narcotics field.

Q. Mr. President, I'm very interested, if the situations were reversed and you were involved personally with the Colombian cartel, would you advocate any positive changes in their government? And if you would, what would they be?

The President. You mean, if I were Escobar and I had something to say about the government?

Q. Yes.

The President. I'd say I hope that you don't give Colombia the support that the United States wants to give Colombia, because they're going to get me someday. And they are. Was it Escobar that was running out in his underwear out through the jungle the other day? We almost nabbed him. And I will continue to support President Barco of Colombia.

Let me tell you something. We got problems in this country -- we got terrible problems when a police officer goes out and lays his life on the line to help, I'd say, all of us when someone in these gangs get going on narcotics. But let's put ourselves, as you suggested -- and a very good question -- into the shoes of the President of Colombia, not the drug dealer. And here he is, courageously standing up and saying: I'm going to get you. I'm going to stop this. I'm going to save my country from the scourge of these narcotic traffickers -- kingpins, you see.

Then the response by the drug dealer, into whose shoes you ask I put myself -- says, I'm going to show you how we feel about this -- hire some thugs, they plant a bomb, and they kill 100 innocent people standing outside of an office building -- it could well be a school like this, it could be anyplace. Retaliation, brutality, threatening, killing judges -- it's a good way to get fewer judges is to kill about 10 or 12 -- hey, who wants to volunteer to be a judge? Not so many volunteers.

And yet, in spite of this, this guy Barco, the President, Virgilio Barco, has decided, look, I don't care what it costs; I don't care how much the threat to me; I am going to do something. Because he knows that the majority of the drugs come in through -- processed and come in through Colombia. If I were the drug kingpin, I'd be hoping that it would go away -- I would be hoping that I could intimidate Mr. Barco so he would give up on the fight, and I'd be hoping that people in the United States would look the other way and say forget about it. I would be hoping, if I were him, that I could negotiate with the Government of Colombia -- you read something about that -- well, we won't extradite and the Government will make peace with the narco traffickers.

But let us hope that Virgilio Barco and others around him keep that courageous stance. And let us determine that the United States, without intervening into the internal affairs of Colombia, will do what we can to support him in his effort. It is vital, these Andean countries -- Peru, Bolivia, Colombia -- that we stand with them as they try to knock this stuff out at the source so your little sister isn't going to be approached at age 12 and get hooked onto some of this substance. And that's a big part of what our drug czar, Bill Bennett, is doing -- working with these countries, assuring them of support, and trying to shore up those south of us that are willing to help.

Hey, listen, I could do this all day long. I learn from your questions, and I'm very grateful to all of you for taking the time. And I will follow our leader, though. She says shut up -- I'll shut up. [Laughter]

Note: The President spoke at 12:51 p.m. in the choir room at the school. In his remarks, he referred to Tony Dorsett, a player for the Denver Broncos football team, and Pat Bowlen, owner of the team; William J. Bennett, Director of National Drug Control Policy; and students Albert Carrillo, Hector Sanchez, and Anna Valdez.

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