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National Archives

Public Papers - 1989 - February

The President's News Conference in Tokyo

1989-02-24

The President. I've got to get a ruling on whether this is a -- this is not a photo op. This is what we call a press availability, and I'll be glad to take two or three questions -- not many because we're late. But let me make a little comment, if I might, Helen [Helen Thomas, United Press International]. And then I'll be glad to take questions. This has been a very moving day in a lot of ways, and I simply want to thank our Japanese hosts, who managed this complicated logistics and put on a marvelous pageant in honor of the late Emperor, beautifully staged and beautifully carried off, on schedule, working against the elements, but nevertheless with a dignity and a ceremony that was appropriate. And I have great respect for what they did and the way in which they did it, and I am proud to have represented the United States of America here today.

Now, Helen.

Secretary of Defense-Designate Tower

Q. Well, on the question of Senator Tower, it looks like he's going down the drain. Are you going to continue to back him, or do you think he ought to pull out?

The President. I'm going to strongly continue to back Senator Tower, and I do not believe he is going down the drain. Nobody has challenged his ability and knowledge to be a good Secretary of Defense, and I'm hoping that the debate that will follow next week will clear up any questions that the Members at large may have. And so, I wish the committee vote had been different, but I have not considered any options. I stand strongly with John Tower. I know of nobody else whose knowledge in defense matters can equal his, whose knowledge of how the Hill works can equal his? So, he is my choice, my only choice, and I am standing with him.

Q. Do you still think Sam Nunn [chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee] was fair?

Q. Why would the end result in the Senate be any different than the result in committee?

The President. Because I think they're going to have a lively public debate in the Senate.

Q. What plan do you have, sir, for trying to bring that debate around to your side?

The President. Well, I think the Republican leaders -- Bob Dole is already contemplating what to do on the Senate floor, but he knows, because I've talked to him, that when I get back -- and I will be back before the vote -- he knows that I will do whatever I can to talk to individual Members and have them know how strongly I feel about it and hopefully persuade some who have looked at evidence so far and may have a different opinion. So, there's no animosity; it's simply a question of fighting for something I believe in.

Q. Is this purely politics in your opinion, and is Sam Nunn responsible for this personally?

The President. I wouldn't say that.

Q. Do you still think he's been fair?

Q. Is it party line? I mean, is it partisan? Is it politics?

The President. Well, is it party line when all Democrats voted one way and all Republicans voted another? I suppose without acrimony it could be said that that was a party line vote. But do I suggest that there's no chance to pick up Democrats next week? No, I don't. I believe that I can do that, and I believe that the Senators that are for it -- --

Q. You haven't got them yet.

Q. Is the honeymoon over, Mr. President?

The President. No, the honeymoon's still going fine, and I'm not going to get total agreement on every issue. I hope I can get agreement on this question. But I've never expected -- nobody's suggested they were going to do it just my way. But this one's important; it's important to our country. And I want somebody in that Defense Department that has Tower's expertise and who knows the defense mechanism as well as he does, and he's the only one that comes to mind.

Q. Mr. President, why would there be such a difference -- interpretation between -- --

Q. -- -- Senators to break with Sam Nunn?

The President. I don't know. Go ask the people that voted. I'm halfway around the world.

Q. Don't you risk an even more damaging defeat by taking it to the Senate -- --

The President. I don't look at it as defeat or victory. I look at doing what's right, supporting somebody I believe in and looking at the facts. And that's exactly what I'm doing.

Q. Do you still think Senator Nunn has been fair?

The President. I am not going to challenge Senator Nunn's motives at all. I never have, and I've never expressed anything other than my strong support on the merits after reviewing the information for Senator Tower. And that's the way I'm going to continue to do this.

Q. Have you talked to Tower at all?

The President. Since I've been over here?

Q. Since the vote.

Q. Well, since all of this has happened today.

The President. I talked to him the day before we left, but I haven't talked to him since then.

Q. Senator Nunn says that -- --

The President. I've got time for one or two more, and then I've got to go clean up and warm up and go to the next reception and keep working this diplomacy that I thought you all would be interested in.

Q. How much of a problem -- --

Q. Senator Nunn says that Tower -- --

The President. Wait just one minute, I'll just be right over there. Can't see, but I'll be there.

Q. How much of a problem has the delay in getting Senator Tower or somebody to run the Defense Department created for your review of foreign policy and your conduct of foreign policy?

The President. Well, the review is going forward. I would like to have the Secretary of Defense in place. There's no question that the Department needs a new leader. But it isn't interfering with our challenge to the Department to participate in these reviews. In fact, we've ordered a certain number of reviews -- they're going to be started. But I'm not going to mislead you. I want my Secretary of Defense in place to further these reviews, to enhance the studies that are going forward, and to have our input on these studies, to input the person that I select to be Secretary. In the meantime, I'll have to credit Will Taft, who I told the other day, I said, ``Will, you are doing a very good job, and it isn't easy.'' But he is doing -- yes, Lesley [Lesley Stahl, CBS News], and then please, I must go forward.

Let me get down here so I can hear this.

Q. Thank you. Senator Dole said that this vote was a real kick in the teeth to you while you're off representing the United States abroad. Do you see it that way?

The President. I see it as the Senate expressing themselves. And inasmuch as I want this man confirmed, I can't say it's a pat on the back. But on the other hand, I have no acrimony about it. I'm convinced that when the Senate gets into full debate on this that reason and logic are going to prevail. And so, I can't say I'm happy with what the committee did because I would like to have seen the same kind of approval given John Tower's nomination that was given to [Secretary of Health and Human Services] Lou Sullivan. It was widely reported that Dr. Sullivan was in serious trouble -- I've seen that over and over again. And he gets universal approval, one abstention -- very good, and I thank the Senate for that.

Now I hope that they give this due deliberation in the full Senate and they do what's right. In this instance, I think approving my nominee is right. But I have no acrimony, and I'm not going to be drawn into name calling or a political accusation here. I'm not going to do that. I've got to work with the Senate on a lot of issues. But I want them to know how strongly I feel. And I feel it's not a personal win or lose; it's what's right: who best to run the Defense Department. And that's what's at stake.

Q. Aren't you whistling in the dark?

The President. And I'm going to win this battle.

Q. Mr. President, so much of this seems to depend on different interpretations of that FBI report.

The President. It does.

Q. Obviously that'll be a factor in the Senate debate. If you see it as being in your favor and your side's favor in this, is there anything you can do to make that public, sir?

The President. Well, I'd like it to be as public as possible, the debate, because I think then there will be plenty of Senators that will want to defend Senator Tower against these allegations which I feel have been -- and I'll use the expression again -- ``gunned down.'' Now, clearly some have looked at the evidence, and I'm sure in their opinion they differ with me on that. But that's what a good, lively debate can do on the floor. And Senator Tower is entitled to that kind of debate on the issues -- not on hearsay. Nobody will be able to sustain an objection based simply on hearsay or on some rumor. So, that's why I look forward to a fair, open debate. And let the Senators who've made up their minds in opposition to what I'm advocating spell out for their constituents and for the country why they feel as they do. And I expect others will stand up and take a different side. That's what our process is all about. So, I don't fear it; I welcome it. I welcome it.

Q. If that report is still secret, though, sir, how are people to know who is right about it?

The President. Well, it's not secret from the Senators, and how much they refer to it, I don't know. We'll have to look into that when I get back, Brit [Brit Hume, ABC News]. I don't know what the ground rules are on how much people can refer to those reports. But the more open it is, the better I like it. Now, whether what precedents are set, I'd have to think very carefully about that. But we're not worried about this debate.

President's Physical Condition

Q. Are you tired?

The President. I thought I'd be more tired. No, I feel like a spring colt, ready to charge.

Q. Ask us.

The President. No, now come on! [Laughter]

Note: The President's fourth news conference began at 6:30 p.m. in the U.S. Ambassador's residence.

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