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Public Papers - 1990

Remarks and an Exchange With Reporters Prior to a Meeting With Former Hostage Robert Polhill

1990-04-30

The President. Well, let me say that the purpose of all of this is simply to welcome Mr. and Mrs. Polhill to the White House. I just had a chance to tell him how pleased we are that he is free. And of course, this comes at a very special moment because Mr. Reed is now free, and I expect to be talking to him as soon as he finishes that initial contact and debrief over there, hopefully within the next hour or two.

But I do want to take this opportunity to thank Syria for its role in not only bringing Mr. Polhill home but its role in the Reed release; similarly, to thank Iran for its role; and simply to say that I hope this is a forerunner to the release of the other American hostages and the others from other countries held against their will. Things seem to be moving on this.

Mr. Polhill, welcome to the White House. I just can't tell you how overjoyed Barbara and I are to have both of you here.

Mr. Polhill. Thanks very much, President Bush. I feel very badly that I can't talk to you quite as well as I'd like to be able to, because there are a lot of things I want to say to the American people. But the most important thing, I think, now to say is to reinforce what President Bush has just said: that I am at this moment truly as happy for Frank and Fifi Reed as I was 8 days ago for Ferial and myself and for both families.

I sincerely hope that Frank is step two in what will be a continuing release of hostages and to bring us all back, from American hostages through all of the other countries who may be involved. The warmth and sincerity of the welcome I've received everywhere I have been, from Damascus to Wiesbaden to Washington, has been truly thrilling. Frank Reed is going to feel the way I felt because the American people are behind us and have been behind our families throughout this ordeal. And we're deeply grateful to you for that.

I'm not going to try to say very much more because I know even with the help of this device you're not going to get very much more. So, I'll just -- even though I'm a bit of a ham, you see. I'd like to be able to do better, but you'll have to work with my sons, I think. Thank you so much.

Q. Mr. President, has Israel now cut a deal for the remaining Shiite prisoners?

The President. I have no knowledge of anything of that nature.

Q. Why do you think this is happening now, Mr. President? Why do you think that Iran and Syria are cooperating at this point?

The President. Well, because I hope there's a realization that holding people against their will is not the way to effect political change. I'm not suggesting in reply to your question that Syria and Iran are the ones that are holding the remaining hostages. But I can't explain the rationale, but I can express a certain gratitude that things seem to be moving. And what I feel in my heart about the return of now these two Americans is, in a sense, overwhelming. But I don't think any American can totally rejoice until the rest are free. And indeed, we can't limit our concern and our feelings to just the Americans, in my view.

So, we will just keep on track; and when, as now, there's a reason to say thank you, certainly we'll do that. But beyond that, I just hope that the process -- this is a process -- I just hope it continues. I don't want to make Mr. Polhill speak again, but I feel confident I speak for him and for his wife. You heard what he said beautifully about Mr. Reed. We feel that way about all the rest of them, too.

Q. Mr. President, is there any way possible at this point to return the good will gesture?

The President. As I've said, we can't, in terms of overall relationship between countries, expect normalcy or expect vast improvement until all Americans are freed. We're not in a piecemeal basis: bidding for one human life, holding out hopes, only to have them dashed, to one American family or another. That is not the way I see, certainly, my responsibilities. But when a step is taken that goes toward that day when all hostages are released, I should say thank you. But beyond that, I can't say that I can be happy. I've tried to put myself in the place of the other families and say, hey, how about my loved one? So, this is a tough business. I just want to conduct the policy of this country in a way to facilitate the continuation of this process if, indeed, it is a process. I don't know that, and I don't expect Mr. Polhill knows it, either.

I've got time for a couple more, and I don't want to keep this tired man -- make him even tireder.

Q. Mr. President, can you tell us what it is that Iran did that you're thanking them for and whether you've had any further information on whether they aided in Mr. Polhill's release?

The President. We did hear from Syria that Iran had been helpful, and it is that that I'm saying thank you for.

Q. Is it time for Israel to perhaps make a deal to release Sheik Obeid or the 400 Shiites? Or would you object if they did?

The President. I don't -- certainly no objection, and that is a matter for others to determine. I've stated that holding people against their will is not a way to facilitate political change or any other kind of change. So, that's it. Last one.

Q. Sir, then are you rejecting or ruling out any type of a good will gesture towards Iran or Syria at this time until all the Americans are released?

The President. I've said that we cannot have normalcy as long as any American is held against his will, and I think everybody understands that. But in terms of expressing appreciation to those who facilitate the release of Mr. Polhill or the release of Mr. Reed, certainly I'm prepared to do that. I've done that here today. But I can't say that that's an overwhelming expression of good will because I have on mind those other six Americans that are held.

But, look, if it's beginning to work and if, indeed, there's a process, I expect I speak for all Americans when I say I rejoice in that. But that's about where we've got to leave it, Ellen [Ellen Warren, Knight-Ridder Newspapers]. We've got to see every American returned, and that's the way it's going to be. And I'm very pleased that this Polhill release has been facilitated. And you heard him express his joy for the Reeds, and all I'd say to that is: Amen. Thank God.

Q. Sir, do we still regard Syria as a terrorism-sponsoring state?

The President. Listen, I can't take any more questions. I can't do it.

Q. A question for Mr. Polhill. A question for Mr. Polhill. Mr. Polhill, do you think there's anything that can be done to return the good will gesture at this point?

Mr. Polhill. No, I'm not conversant -- you may be surprised, but I really don't know very much about what was going on around me. So, I don't think I can offer a lot of help to anyone. The only thing I can suggest is that the American people continue to show, as hostages continue to be released on a regular basis, how much we are wanted back. And I think that message might get across very clearly.

The President. That's a good point. That's a good point.

Q. Are you carrying a message to the President?

Q. Are you carrying a message from the hostage-takers?

Mr. Polhill. They said I was.

The President. Listen, I deal with these guys; you'll be out here all night. [Laughter]

Note: The President spoke at 5 p.m. on the South Lawn at the White House. Robert Polhill, an accounting professor at Beirut University College, was kidnaped by pro-Iranian terrorists in Beirut on January 24, 1987. In his remarks, the President referred to Frank Herbert Reed, the director of the Lebanon International School who was kidnaped by members of the Organization of the Islamic Dawn on September 9, 1986; and Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid, the senior Moslem cleric and Hizballah leader who was abducted from his home in Jibchit by Israeli forces in southern Lebanon on July 28, 1989.

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