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Public Papers - 1990

Remarks at a White House Briefing for the Associated General Contractors of America


This is what we call a cameo drop-by. It means you don't have to listen very long to me speaking. But as I was walking over here, my friend Sam Skinner was out there trolling around Executive Avenue in the sun on this beautiful day, and I said, come on, let's go over and say thank you to the AGC. And that's why he's here, and that's why I'm here. And I might say parenthetically that this knowledgeable Secretary of Transportation, in my view, is doing an outstanding job for our country. And I'm very, very pleased he's here with me.

I just wanted to come over really to say thank you for the support and urge your continued support on some matters that I'd like to just briefly touch on. But here's an opportunity to visit with the national, State and, I'm told, local levels of the American General Contractors.

Before I got involved in politics -- and there are not many old enough to go back that far -- but I, too, was in business. And I earned my livelihood with the skies as the roof -- mine in the offshore drilling business. So, I have a special appreciation for the work of contractors, special appreciation for the work that you do, hard work that helps build something -- build businesses and create jobs and provide opportunity and allow communities to grow and to prosper. So, this industry, the construction industry, can be proud of its most important role in the American economy.

I can't help but note a common denominator among your firms, and that is family ownership in a lot of them. The U.S. construction industry has more than 400,000 businesses ranging from really small mom-and-pop operations to substantial companies, and virtually all are family-owned. That fact helps strengthen our families, frankly, our society fabric that I must confess that I worry about, Barbara worries about. And we are committed, this administration, as Sam knows so well, to enhancing the climate so that you'll have the ability to grow and to compete.

And I will need your help and that of all Americans to weigh in on Capitol Hill. You're effective at that. I think your Senators and your Congressman, because they know that you're community oriented, listen to you. And we need your help in enacting what I think is an ambitious agenda to build a better America. And I'd be remiss, once again, if I didn't say thank you for past support, including your efforts on this capital gains tax reduction initiative, as well as your help in bolstering a choice position, a family-strengthening position, on child care.

You know, I get hit out there from Capitol Hill on a capital gains differential as being a tax cut for the wealthy. Well, if that were the case, why does Japan have a rate of about 5 percent, Korea 0, and other major countries that are coming along 0 way of taxing capital gains? And so, they can call it what they want; I'm talking about jobs for the American people; and I'm talking about the incentive, if you will, to start businesses. And I'm going to stay with this fight. But your organization, your people here in Washington, as well as many of you, have been extraordinarily, extraordinarily helpful; and I just want you to know we're going to not back off.

I know that your organization has been very interested in its zero-tolerance drug policy. You're promoting this nationwide, I'm told, through 102 chapters; and we applaud your emphasis on health and safety in the workplace. The drug fight -- there's some encouraging signs. Cocaine use of high school seniors moved dramatically down in 1 year. But we've just really begun to be engaged in this battle. And I am very grateful to what I call the Points-of-Light approach, which is a volunteer approach to helping pitch in and educate the young people of this country, to change the ethic in the entertainment business on cocaine use and drug use generally, and then to be supportive of our efforts on the curtailment of crime approach -- being tough on these drug dealers. And you all have been with us on most of this, and I'm very grateful to you.

Some of you might recall my memorable address that kept at least a third of you awake at your 63d annual convention in 1982 -- [laughter] -- when I was Vice President. And I invoked President Johnson's memorable quote: ``We can either stand with the President or paint our tails white and run with the antelopes.'' Well, he said it a little more graphically, but I would -- [laughter] -- you can picture it. [Laughter] But the tendency around here is -- Sam, he's the guy who has to go up to the Hill, and our other Cabinet members. I don't have to do that so much. But there is this tendency when the going gets tough to look kind of like Custer out there. But you haven't done that, and I'm very grateful for the fact that you have stood with us on some of these tough issues.

So, now I'm here not as Vice President, with those memorable lines in mind, but as President to really again ask for that same steadfast support. I must tell you the number one objective domestically has got to be to keep this economy strong. And I am an environmentalist: I believe in leaving this Earth a little bit better than when we found it. But I'm also a believer that we've got to find a balanced approach so that we don't say to a young man or a young woman coming into the work force, sorry, we're in a no-growth mode today, and you don't have a chance for a job. And so, it's a balancing position, and I think this organization -- I am told by our pros around here -- understands that. So I would like to ask for your same steadfast support as we work to strengthen this economy; keep it growing; and then enact our competitiveness agenda, which will build an even better and stronger America.

And that competitiveness agenda talks about research and R D. It talks about education. It talks about leveling the playing field internationally, of course. And I think we're making some progress there with our Japanese friends. I hope so. We'll know more very soon on that.

So, I know that our work isn't done, but I also know that I am President of the United States at perhaps the most interesting time in post-World War II history. And it is fascinating, the changes that are taking place for democracy and freedom.

And I might say to those of you who are from southern climes here, and thus maybe feel a little closer to what's happening in Central and South America, it's very encouraging what's going on there. And I would like to avail myself of your ears and attention to say I hope that the Congress will move on my request for support for Panama and Nicaragua and do it soon. I asked that they do that back in March. I asked that the legislation be finished on April 5th. And tomorrow Violeta Chamorro is being sworn in as President of Nicaragua, and we don't have that.

We have a commitment now to help those democracies, and it fits into our budget. So, if you have any spare time, please call your friendly Senator and tell him to get going and get this legislation passed, because we are a symbol up here for these countries in our own neighborhood, our own front yard, if you will. And I'd like to have that legislation intact so that our able Vice President can report that to Mrs. Chamorro when he goes down there tomorrow.

End of pitch. Thank you for your help. I hope you have a pleasant meeting in Washington, and thank you so much for all you're doing. Thank you.

Double jeopardy -- you have to hear it twice. Sit down, please. [Laughter] I really do have to go, but he asked me just to say a word because I know Lithuania is on your minds. And we just completed a very interesting and, in my view, productive meeting with the leaders of the Senate and the House over in the Cabinet Room just before lunch.

It is an extraordinarily complicated situation. There are no easy calls. I am determined to make clear to the world that we have a stake, a fundamental stake, in self-determination for Lithuania. We have never recognized the incorporation of Lithuania into the Soviet Union. So, we have no problem that some have -- the Secretary General and some countries -- of considering Lithuania a part of the Soviet Union, an integral part, and thus saying any concern we express about Lithuania is mingling into the internal affairs of the Soviet Union. We don't have that dilemma because we never recognized the incorporation of Lithuania or Latvia or Estonia into the Soviet Union.

Having said that, what I'm trying to do -- and I have not made a determination exactly what I will do specifically on sanction approach that many are talking about -- what I am determined to do is to try to get a dialog going, or see that the Soviets and the Lithuanians get a dialog going, so they can talk about and then decide upon the peaceful evolution of democracy in keeping with our age-old principle of self-determination for people.

And I don't want to do something that would inadvertently set back the progress that has been made in Eastern Europe. And it's been dramatic progress, far faster than I think any of us here -- if we went to confessional -- would say we could possibly see coming up. And so, it is delicate. And you've got to look at the real options. I'm old enough to remember Hungary in 1956 and where we exhorted people to go to the barricades, and a lot of people were left out there all alone.

And so, I will continue to articulate the view that we are committed to self-determination of these Baltic countries and encourage them to indulge in a dialog, both sides, that will result in this end being achieved. Gorbachev has indicated a willingness to do this. The Lithuanians have indicated some willingness to do this. Indeed, there's a delegation in Moscow today from Vilnius. And let's hope that they can get together and start the discussion, because the progress that's been made towards democracy in Eastern Europe is mind-boggling.

We have a great stake, I think, in helping those countries in Eastern Europe. And frankly, I'd like to see the progress in the Soviet Union go forward without having some elements that are opposing Gorbachev on all of this crack down and set the clock back to a day that we all remember of a cold-war mentality and confrontation instead of negotiation in progress.

So, we're at an interesting period here, no determination having been made by your President yet as to specific action, but a determination -- and I am convinced, incidentally, that the Soviet leadership knows of our adherence to this principle and to our conviction that dialog is the way to go.

So, we will see what can happen. And in the meantime, I will make clear to the Lithuanians in this country, the most patriotic, wonderful people, whose enthusiasm for independence now I can certainly understand, that we are not going to back off 1 inch from this principle of freedom and self-determination.

So, we are in an interesting period here, and I have been gratified to have the support of the American people on this one. And I'm gratified to have what appears to be good bipartisan support from the Congress at this juncture. But it's an interesting call, and we will try to handle it so progress tries to keep going instead of inadvertently setting the clock back.

I love the old expression of Yogi Berra's: You say, ``What happened to the Mets, Yogi?'' He said, ``Well, we made the wrong mistakes.'' [Laughter] I expect in this job I'll make plenty of mistakes, but I don't want to make the wrong mistakes.

Thank you all very much.

Note: The President spoke at 1:12 p.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building.

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