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Public Papers - 1989 - February

Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Reporters Prior to a Meeting With William J. Bennett

1989-02-08

The President. Let me say this. This is not what we call a normal photo op. It's somewhere in between a press conference and what we call a press availability. We'll try to define that for you later on. But the purpose of this meeting is to visit with our new czar, the antinarcotic czar who has come in here, I'm told, with a million ideas, which is typical of him and what I want him to do as we start spelling out how this administration is going to do what this country wants; and that is to fight against and win the fight against narcotics.

And Bill Bennett has a big assignment -- a big one. And a lot of it is coordinative. The law is very unclear on how we use his imagination and ability to bring together all agencies of this government in this fight. So, that's what the meeting is about; that's what we're about to start on.

And I'd like to just take this opportunity to say that this isn't a question of whether the law spells out specifically how he does the job -- can't get bothered with those details. He is shoulder-to-shoulder with the President as the top official charged with this responsibility. And we're going to figure out a way to live under the drug czar law -- and to make it work. And so, we've got a big job ahead. But that's what this little meeting is all about.

Now I'd be glad to take a couple of questions. Then we've got to get on with that.

Secretary of Defense-Designate Tower

Q. Could you comment, Mr. President, on the controversy surrounding the Tower nomination?

The President. Which controversy?

Q. The fact that some of the committee members -- --

The President. Can you qualify that for me a little, because yesterday when I had a press conference, or last week when I had a press conference, they were asking me about some allegation on national security? And the question was phrased, ``Would you be concerned if this hypothetical charge against Tower proved to be true?'' And I said I don't like to deal in hypothesis, but subsequently, that charge has been looked into -- found to be without validity. And that has happened to this man over and over and over again. And I have seen nothing, not one substantive fact, that makes me change my mind about John Tower's ability to be Secretary of Defense, and be a very good one. And so, I have to ask you, because there's always some other allegation. And to my knowledge, each one of them has been reviewed and shot down in flames. So, what's fair? What is fair in the American process? That's the question I would rhetorically ask in defense of my nominee.

Now, if somebody has some hard information, if somebody has something other than rumor and frenzied speculation, please get it to the FBI, or get it to the White House staff, or certainly get it to the committee in the Senate. But let us be fair enough that we do not deal in rumor after rumor.

Q. What about the question -- --

Q. What about Senator Nunn's comments today? He said he believes that Senator Tower may still have an alcohol problem and he fears it might impair his running the Department of Defense.

The President. And if he feels that way, they should do exactly what he is doing: look into it. But it ought not to be tried in public by people that don't have any evidence at all to support the fears that Senator Nunn appropriately expressed. If he's got those fears, I have no problems with his expressing them. And I know him to be a fair man, and I know that he will look into that and satisfy himself or not satisfy himself. But it doesn't help for me to speculate on something when there's no evidence that's been presented to me.

Q. What about these new allegations that surfaced yesterday afternoon that have now held up the investigation? Could you tell us anything about these, the seriousness of them?

The President. No, I think I know what you're talking about. And the problem you get is that some allegations are laid to rest, and then in another form, they come back again, but without any foundation in fact that I know of. But look, the process has to be thorough. I'm not agitated about that, just as long as it's fair. But what I think has been a little unfair is that people are asked across the country to make up their minds without the evidence, without the facts. And so this, I will confess, troubles me some. And yet I'm not challenging the integrity of the people that are seized with properly doing the hearing work for the United States Senate. They've got to do their job.

Q. Sir, how do you explain the fact that Senator Nunn presumably has reviewed the same information that you have and he and some of the others have expressed reservations and say that this evidence presents enough of a question in their mind that they couldn't support Tower? And you're saying that having reviewed -- --

The President. But then my appeal would be: If you've made up your mind, let the process go forward; let's have the vote. Each Senator has a vote; there's 100 Senators. On this committee there are fewer, but they have an obligation to vote their conscience, to look at the facts and vote their conscience. Now, if your question is to me, have I seen any facts or has anything in the FBI report made me want to change my mind as one who would be concerned about insobriety or about failure to be ready for duty 24 hours a day, the answer is no, I have not. But if somebody else sees the evidence -- --

Q. But yet you've seen the same facts.

The President. Yes, and if somebody else has seen some evidence that they want to interpret differently, that's not only their right but their obligation. But I don't think it helps for us to sit here discussing allegations in any detail, where none of the American people have had access to the facts. And I have had access to the facts.

Q. Why do we have -- there are so many allegations?

The President. I don't know. I'm troubled by that, and I just don't know the answer. So, my plea would be for prompt fulfillment of the responsibilities of the Senate committee, prompt action by the United States Senate, and then a broad appeal for fairplay. Put yourself in the position, each person, if you were charged with certain of these charges out there with no evidence to substantiate it so the American people could fairly make up their mind. Then let's err on the side of fairplay. That's all I'm saying.

Q. Apparently, you will not get a vote this week. They've recessed for the week. Is this going to hurt if it's going to be this delayed?

The President. It doesn't hurt my confidence.

Q. Do you object to the fact that the Senators have spoken out in public on this matter?

The President. I have no objection at all.

Q. Has the investigation gone too far? Personal standards and morality not appropriate?

The President. Well, what's gone too far is allegations that the Senators themselves would agree are totally unfounded to have been floated around for a long period of time and damaged the integrity and honor of a decent man. And that is not good. And I don't know what you do about it, but it's not good. And everyone here knows it's not fair. And so, I don't know what you do about it. But when there's a new allegation -- look, the Senator has an obligation; the Justice Department has an obligation to follow up if it has any substance to it. And so, some of the allegations have been looked at and found nonsubstantive.

And I would urge you to go back and look at the transcript of the last press conference I had -- that's the full-blown job we do over on the other side there -- and there you will see that one questioner raised a question to me about some alleged security violation. I heard Senator Nunn today say that he had no evidence of any kind to substantiate such an allegation. And yet I think it's fair to say that because that very question was raised publicly -- and maybe it was my fault in responding to it and everybody else's discussing it -- there's been an allegation floating around Senator Tower that, in one way or another, he was less than prudent in terms of national security matters. And I don't think it's fair. I do not think that is fair.

So, how you do your business, and to go the extra mile to get the facts out there, you've got to sort that out. And how I conduct myself in even discussing this, I've got to sort it out a little more clearly because I may have contributed -- even though I think I refused to answer this guy's question -- by even taking it, to this frenzied air of speculation that does not help anybody. It doesn't help the national security of our country. It doesn't help Senator Tower. It doesn't help the standing of the United States Senate. It might not help the way this President is viewed because I do not want to be out there as less than fully supportive of my nominee. And that's where I stand. And thank you, and this -- --

Q. Are you mad?

The President. Not mad -- I'm calm and contained. I don't get mad easy anymore.

Hey listen, we've got to get one drug question, please.

Q. Secretary Bennett, have you given up smoking?

Mr. Bennett. I won't comment on that allegation. [Laughter]

Q. Are you thinking about sending U.S. troops to Latin America?

The President. Is that a drug question? Nobody's discussed that with me. And you're talking about one who is very wary of committing U.S. troops overseas. But I said in the campaign, that there could be times, working cooperatively with leaders in the hemisphere, that American assistance would be sought and American assistance would be granted in wiping out insidious factories that send poison in to poison our kids. And it has happened in the past. You recall U.S. choppers were used in cooperation -- I think it was either Bolivia or Peru -- Bolivia, I think, and it was effective. So, you don't rule something out.

But I think in reply to your question -- stems from some planning that supposedly is going on that we make some big strike somewhere. And I know nothing about that and would be very reluctant to prove some -- until I've given it a lot of thought.

Thank you all very much.

Note: The President spoke at 2:25 p.m. in the Oval Office at the White House. William J. Bennett was National Drug Control Policy Director-designate.

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