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Public Papers - 1990 - June

Remarks Upon Receiving a Replica of the Iwo Jima Memorial and an Exchange With Reporters

1990-06-12

The President. Well, first, my profound thanks to Mr. Felix de Weldon. A great pleasure, sir, having you here in the Rose Garden, and of course my old friend Senator Mark Hatfield. Mr. de Weldon has just presented me with this beautiful replica of the memorial, which he designed. It's of a battle in which Senator Hatfield served, the battle of Iwo Jima.

You all know the story: Early in 1945, 8 square miles of black sand and volcanic rubble, and gallant marines fought hand to hand, yard by yard; and finally, Mount Suribachi. And when the marines reached the top, six men raised a piece of pipe upright, and from one end floated a flag. And in the most famous image of World War II, a photograph was taken; and from it came, ultimately, the Iwo Jima Memorial. This memorial embodies self-expression and opportunity and democracy for all.

And, well, so does another symbol that I'd like to talk about here today: concern for the American flag and what it represents. That concern is not new. For instance, 75 years ago, President Woodrow Wilson said: ``A patriotic American is never so proud of his flag as when it comes to mean to others, as to himself, a symbol of liberty.'' He knew that the flag was more than mere fabric; rather, a mosaic of values and of liberty.

What that flag encapsules is too sacred to be abused. You all know yesterday's Supreme Court decision. It wasn't surprising. One year ago this month, many of us deeply concerned about protecting the American flag from willful desecration predicted that any congressional legislation would be declared unconstitutional. I take no joy that this prediction has been upheld.

Accordingly, I want to take the chance today to renew my commitment to the surest, safest way to guarantee that, while speech remains free, flag desecration is unacceptable and must carry a price, and, yes, a constitutional amendment to protect the truly unique symbol of all that we are and that we believe. Our constitutional amendment will preserve the widest conceivable range of options for free expression. It applies only to the flag. Its language is simple but eloquent: The Congress and the States shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.

Our forefathers, with remarkable foresight, provided a mechanism for amending the Constitution. And they wished it to be used sparingly and wisely, and it has been, and it must today. Just as the Constitution is a unique symbol of America, so is our flag.

And as Justice Stevens said so eloquently last year when he spoke of the ideas of liberty: ``If those ideas are worth fighting for, and our history demonstrates that they are, it cannot be true that the flag that uniquely symbolizes their power is not itself worthy of protection from unnecessary desecration.'' Amending the Constitution to protect the flag is not a matter of partisan politics. It's not a Democrat nor a Republican issue. I don't see it as either liberal or conservative. It's an American issue. And so, I call on the Congress to act by July 4th, this nation's birthday. I know that honest and patriotic Americans may differ on this question, but I am absolutely convinced that this is the proper course for our country. I feel it deep in my heart because the flag and what it means is carried in the hearts of all Americans.

Henry Ward Beecher once said: ``A thoughtful mind, when it sees a nation's flag, sees not the flag, not the flag only, but the nation itself.'' Through a constitutional amendment, let us honor the greatest symbol of this great country.

And now, Mr. de Weldon and Senator, thank you very much for coming to the Rose Garden, and thank you for this magnificent presentation. It is most appropriate, and I'm proud to have it at my side as I express my heartfelt support for this important constitutional step. Thank you very much, sir. Thank you.

Flag Desecration

Q. Senator Hatfield, are you in favor of this amendment?

Q. Mr. President, what do you say to those who say every country has a flag, but only we have the Bill of Rights. It's never been amended; why should we amend it today?

The President. I say that the forefathers provided for amendment of the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, and that the flag is a unique symbol. I can't speak for the other countries, but I can speak for how strongly I feel about this being the unique symbol of the United States. And it should be protected. The Congress tried to protect it by legislation; that legislation did not stand up. And it wasn't Republicans alone or Democrats alone; it was Republicans and Democrats that voted for that legislation. When it was knocked down by the Court, I feel there's no other way to go but this constitutional amendment, which was provided for. So, that's what I say. I keep emphasizing the word ``unique'' symbol of the United States of America.

Q. But isn't burning it free speech, sir?

Q. Mr. President, if it's not a partisan matter -- --

The President. No, there's some -- let me get this question right here -- because the Court has determined that there are excesses to free speech. And I would like to see one of these excesses be the burning of the American flag. So, yes, I am all for free speech, but I am for protecting the flag against desecration. The law books are full of restrictions on free speech, and we ought to have this be one of them. Shouting ``fire'' in a crowded theater is a good one for you.

Q. Mr. President, but that endangers people. Does burning the flag endanger people?

The President. Yes. It endangers the fabric of our country, and I think it ought to be outlawed.

Q. If it's not a matter of partisan politics, Mr. President, why are members of your party already gearing up to put together 30-second campaign commercials dealing with their opponents' votes?

The President. I know nothing about those campaign commercials, and I expect both sides will be talking about their position on this issue. I disagree with what I heard the chairman of the Democratic Party [Ronald H. Brown] say when he made a political comment about this. And I'm putting it in what I think is best for the United States. I feel strongly about it. That's my answer.

Any others? Yes, Brit [Brit Hume, ABC News]? I get credit for a press conference now. I've been asked more than three questions. So, I want to put this down as number 56.

Q. Senator Hatfield, could we hear your position on this issue, sir?

Senator Hatfield. It's the President's press conference, not mine.

Q. Will you be commenting on this during the election?

The President. You're darn right. I want this done now. I hope it will be out of the way by the time of the election.

Q. Will you talk about individual Member's of Congress position on this?

The President. I will talk about the fact that I think the flag should be protected by a constitutional amendment.

Palestine Liberation Organization

Q. Can I ask a question on another topic? Have you made up your mind on continuing or not continuing the PLO dialog?

The President. No, no decision on that yet.

Q. How close are you?

The President. John [John Cochran, NBC News], I can't help you on how close. There's quite a bit going on behind the scenes, but I just can't tell you. Incidentally, I had a talk with President Mubarak [of Egypt], and that subject came up today. But I'm not prepared to make my decision known on that yet.

Q. Are you giving Arafat [Yasser Arafat, chairman of the PLO] some more time?

The President. I want to see that terroristic act condemned and those who did it condemned.

Nelson Mandela

Q. We've heard reports, Mr. President, that the CIA was involved in Nelson Mandela's arrest in 1962. Would you offer him an apology when he arrives here?

The President. I don't know what I'll do about that. But I'm very pleased that he's coming here; I'm very pleased that he is free. I saw a story about that, but I cannot attest to it. I haven't looked into it yet.

Q. Was that an appropriate role for the CIA then or now?

The President. What role?

Q. To be involved in the -- essentially turning over someone -- --

The President. I can't comment on that matter.

Any other questions?

The President's Birthday

Q. How does it feel to be 66?

The President. Slightly worse than being 65, but not bad, not bad. In fact, this has been a happy birthday. I started off kind of regretting it, but along comes Mr. de Weldon. I'm not saying he says this is a birthday present, because this has been in the mill, but it's been a very good one. I feel like a spring colt. I'm ready to take two more questions, and that's it. It's been a good birthday. I hadn't thought so, but good cake, good cards, and not bad.

Offshore Oil Drilling

Q. -- -- decision on offshore oil drilling?

The President. Very soon now.

Baltic States

Q. Have you heard from Gorbachev -- --

Q. We've been hearing that a lot.

Q. -- -- on Germany?

The President. About the German question?

Q. The German question and also the fact that Gorbachev is meeting with the Baltic States representatives.

The President. I think that's a heartening development. I hope that out of that comes a further step towards self-determination for the Baltics. And I view dialog, John, as something that's very important. I've said all along that we want dialog to go forward because he knows that I have a difference with him on the status of Lithuania -- the United States never having recognized its incorporation into the Soviet Union.

Last one. Who's got it?

Nolan Ryan

Q. Nolan Ryan?

The President. Nolan Ryan. [Laughter] Well, I just hung up talking to Nolan about 1:30. I said, ``Where are you?'' And he said, ``Well, I'm out at the ballpark.'' And I think it was a magnificent performance. I loved what he said -- and it's typical of Nolan, because I've known him for a long time -- giving credits to his teammates. He told me that his wife and his son had gotten there 5 minutes before the game started. I said, ``Well, had you told them you were going to pitch a no-hitter?'' He hadn't gone quite that far. But, look, here's this guy -- what's Nolan -- 43, and just the tops, a top human being and a top performer. And it's a great symbol for the kids around this country that love baseball as much as I do. It was a wonderful moment, I'll tell you. I wish I'd been there.

Thank you all very much.

Q. Is that why you feel better about 66?

The President. Yes, that's one of the reasons.

Note: The President spoke at 4:08 p.m. in the Rose Garden at the White House. On June 11, Nolan Ryan, a pitcher for the Texas Rangers baseball team, pitched a no-hitter against the Oakland Athletics.

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