Public Papers - 1989 - September
Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session at a Luncheon for Regional Editors and Broadcasters
The President. Well, welcome to the White House. And before taking your questions, which I'll be glad to receive, I just wanted to say welcome. I hope that your briefings this morning were interesting, and I'm delighted to follow on. I brought some experts along in case I stumble and fall -- not an unlikely happening in this highly complicated world we're living in. But I'm pleased to have several of our very top advisers with me at this lunch.
Two items of immediate administration interests -- and hopefully national interest: Drugs and education have the highest priorities as issues of concern to the American people. And we've laid out a national drug strategy. We had a chance to talk about it a little at our table here, to deal with the scourge of drugs over the long term. And it's a complex strategy in which all pieces fit together in a reinforcing way. We're attacking the use of drugs, the supply of drugs, the law enforcement problems, and then the international aspects of this question. In addition, we've suggested a funding program of about billion -- making it an billion effort. And we believe that we've accommodated this kind of spending, which incidentally is a substantial increase, without jeopardizing either the national security interests or without having to raise taxes on the working men and women of this country.
Under Bob Dole's leadership up in the Senate, we are about to engage in detailed discussions with the Democratic leadership in the Congress. And as I said earlier, we're flexible in terms of the funding method, but I strongly believe that we must retain the integrated elements of this drug strategy, which took more than 6 months to develop. And we can't afford to sacrifice our military preparedness. And you know what I mean by that. Whenever there's a demand for more funds, somebody says we'll simply take it out of the Defense budget. And we're in complicated times; we're in interesting times vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. And we've got a good national security budget, and we've got a good national security strategy. And I view protecting that as a prime responsibility of the President of the United States. So, our military, incidentally, is an integral part of this drug strategy -- drug effort.
The other issue is this education summit that will be convened on September 27th and 28th in Charlottesville. We've invited the Nation's Governors to come together for a 2-day period to focus on the educational system, a system which is not -- in spite of the money being spent per capita -- is not making the grade. And in a recent comparison of 13-year-old students in the United States and 11 other countries, the United States placed last in math and near the bottom in science. And we're spending more money on education than most other countries and, frankly, getting less in terms of our investment. So, in summary, the results are not there. And the educational system is basically well-fed, but it's undernourished. And we must find innovative, accountable ways to improve performance.
I was asked here, why the Governors, and what about the role of these professionals that are quite knowledgeable? But in my view, the Governors are the most knowledgeable political leadership in terms of education experience. And I am looking to share new ideas in a number of areas, including teacher recruitment and retention; how to instill a drug-free and crime-free environment in our schools; increasing choice -- I'm a great believer in increased choice for parents and students -- and the role of the Federal, State, and local governments in meeting the educational needs. All these topics will, I'm sure, be discussed. And we're going to have some roll-up-your-sleeve meetings. Hopefully, the outcome will be new ideas that can help us develop national educational goals and objectives. I'm not sure we've had that before.
And let me just say that before coming over here, and I don't know that you -- maybe you've been briefed on these. There were some new economic statistics released today. Good news! Producer prices declined in August for the third month in a row. The principal reason was a decline in energy prices. And the PPI dropped .4 percent in July, .1 percent in June. Industrial production rose .3 percent in August -- some rebound in the coal and auto industries. And then the merchandise trade deficit -- which continues to plague us -- but that deficit declined in July to .6 billion. And that was the smallest deficit since December of 1984. Imports fell billion, while exports were off .6 percent.
So, on the net basis, the situation was improved. And I would add that the economy continues to go forward. I think in October it will be the longest expansion, if you will, in the history of the United States. And so, I'm not totally relaxed on all corners of the economy -- on all quarters, but basically, why, it continues to produce jobs for the American people.
Now I'll be glad to take questions.
War on Drugs
Q. Street agents in the DEA, FBI, ATF, and so forth tell us that they've developed good working relationships in the fight against drugs, but that frequently their efforts to do a combined effort are hampered by the conflicting investigative priorities of the various Federal law enforcement agencies. What do you see being done to try to pull that effort together on a policy level among various Federal law enforcement agencies?
The President. One of the roles of the drug czar, Bill Bennett, is coordination. And we have had meetings around our Cabinet table to try to cope with bureaucratic competition that exists. I can't tell you we've got it whipped. I can tell you we've made progress. But I think from a management standpoint the drug czar, with the full confidence of the President, offers the best hope to be able to have us minimize, if not eliminate, the rivalries that sometimes have adversely affected the concerted effort.
But I do think it's a little better. I know it's not solved, because even in my line of work you hear directly from some of the various agents in the various Departments. So, I know we've still got some work ahead, but the answer would be the drug czar office. But to get that to work, because he is not statutorily in the Cabinet, he has to have the full support of the President.
Q. We have treatment programs in Columbus who are very anxious about this money -- if and when, assuming it does come through -- for treatment programs. But some of them are worried about the future. Will this money actually come through? If the Nation, as you say, is so concerned about drugs, why wouldn't the people be willing to go for a tax increase to pay for this, to know that the money is going to come year after year?
The President. Well, I touched on that a little bit because of my desire to see the economy continue and to have more and more jobs for people. And I think a tax increase would be counterproductive in that objective.
But we had this discussion here at this table not on that economic side but on the involvement of others. The Federal Government is not going to solve the treatment problem by itself. Yes, I think the money will be forthcoming, and it won't be enough of it to solve the treatment problem in every community in the country. And so, what does that leave you? It leaves you local government, State government, and involvement of citizens in the lives of others.
And I mentioned -- I don't want to bore the people that drew the bean that had them sitting here having lunch with me, but I told them about visiting D.C. General Hospital the other day. And there was a ward full of what they call boarder babies -- boarder in the sense that they're boarding, not coming from the border, boarder babies. And that ward was paid for not by the local government, not by the Federal Government, but by ten black mothers that got together. They had been blessed by having things a little better than the mothers that had given birth to these children, and they were taking care of it.
So, It's going to be an all-out effort where, in addition to the Federal Government doing its thing, people are going to have to help.
Q. You don't think people care enough, though, to pay a higher tax?
The President. Well, I don't think it's a question of taxes. I think people want a fiscal policy that is going to keep this recovery that I mentioned going. And I don't know of any economists who would argue that an increase in taxes would encourage the continuation of that. And so, I think we have to do both. We have to have proper revenues -- and I think we're getting them -- that we can bring to bear on this problem, and then I think we have to involve ourselves in the lives of others.
But you could go out and ask a question: Would you be willing to pay more taxes if you knew it would solve the problem of drugs? I bet you people would say yes. Would you be willing to pay more taxes if you knew you would never have the threat of nuclear war again? -- probably say yes to that one. And so, it depends how you ask it.
But we've designed a national strategy that doesn't have to adversely impact the lives of the American working man and woman by raising taxes. And I don't think that there's a great cry out there in the country for more taxes. And they've got a President that doesn't want to raise taxes and is going to work against it, and you've got a President who believes deeply that we've got to stop this drug problem.
Q. Mr. President, I'm Jackie Hayes from WADE-TV in Louisville, Kentucky, where a madman went on a rampage yesterday and killed seven people and then himself. He had an arsenal of weapons, including an AK - 47. I know they say guns don't kill people, people do; but why do we allow people to get hold of these weapons and massacre other people? What would you tell those families in Louisville, Kentucky, who don't have a dad, a brother, a mom after what happened yesterday?
The President. I'd tell them I feel horrible about the loss of life. I would tell them I'm from Texas, and I remember in that Texas tower a mad person grabbing, in this case, not an automatic weapon but a hunting rifle and killing a lot of people. And I would tell them that we must do everything we can to enforce laws that are already on the books. I don't know whether Louisville has antiautomatic weapon legislation on its books -- a lot of communities do. I would tell them I don't think banning weapons is going to be the ultimate answer or could ever safeguard against that kind of tragedy.
If you have somebody that is deranged -- and I don't want to prejudge this poor soul -- but if he was deranged, I'm afraid you're going to have incidents like this. And it is terrible, and the loss of human life is horrible; but I have seen no evidence that a law banning a specific weapon is going to guard against it.
So, my view is: Do everything you can in terms of education, do everything you can in terms of enforcing your laws that are on the handbooks. And let me diverge for 1 minute, because I remember back in the sixties, when I was a Member of Congress, and I took my arsenal down to be registered down here at the DC police headquarters. And the guy looked at me like I'd lost my mind. And it was the second-to-last day of registration. And I had a .22 and .410. And I'm a hunter, and I like that. And I gave them the serial numbers, and I said, ``How many people have registered?'' He said, ``We estimate about 11 percent.'' This was the day before. And I said, ``Well, are you getting a lot of criminals to turn their guns in?'' He said, ``No, it's a bunch of suckers like you from Northwest Washington.'' And it made a profound impression on me.
War on Drugs
Q. Mr. President, speaking of finding funds for the drug war, an independent group of the National Governors' Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures just reported that primarily, that money is coming from -- as a diversion from other grants to States and localities for public housing, immigrant training, EVA programs, and juvenile justice. If that's the case, then aren't we essentially paying for the drug war by taking money away from other important needs?
The President. I don't think it is the case, and I don't think we're paying for it by other important needs. You see, I still am of conviction that there are ways to make the Government more efficient in terms of spending. And we spend a tremendous percentage of our gross national product, a high percentage of our GNP, on Federal. And I think it is much less productive spending in terms of enriching the lives of people. So, what we tried to do is suggest certain offsets, and some of them we said we're flexible on this. We're very flexible on how you, the Congress, decide you want to pay for this; but here's our suggestions. And I don't think any one of them would have decimated the quality of life of the individuals in this country.
Q. Mr. President, the mayor of Philadelphia and other local elected officials are facing a possible million deficit within a budget they've already slashed by million. They took a look at your drug war and said, ``It's a great plan, but if you're counting on us for any money, this plan cannot work.'' Many other good city mayors facing similar budget problems have expressed the same concern. How much of this is going to be passed on to the States and the cities? And if it's a good chunk, as the local officials are saying, how can it work when they have no money?
The President. Well, you're talking to a President who's facing a rather substantial Federal deficit, too, so tell the mayor we're in this thing together. We both have enormous deficits. And I am bound under the law to reduce the deficit, the law being Gramm-Rudman-Hollings. And I can't give you the specific figure -- maybe somebody can help me with it -- that's to be passed on to the States, but there are funds to go to the States and municipalities. But it isn't going to be solved by the Federal Government alone. It is the first time we have had a national strategy. It is aimed at the four categories I told you about. We will do everything we possibly can to help, but the message is: Everybody has to be in this together. And the Federal Government is facing an enormous budget deficit.
Q. But their answer to that is, ``This can't work.'' Do you -- --
The President. Well, that's the answer of the cynics. That is the answer of some of the cynics, the reflex critics that say the first time out of the box, raise taxes. That's what some say to every problem we face in this country. And I took the case to the American people last year on that, and I don't think the American taxpayer is undertaxed. And we made a proposal that was received enormously well by the American people -- some 70 percent saying they supported this national strategy. And so, we can't do everything we'd like to do. I'm going to protect the interests of the working man and woman in this country by not going out and raising his taxes and still having a strategy that I think is unique and imaginative and will take us an enormous way down the road to solving this drug problem.
Prison Construction Costs
Q. Mr. President, in the State of Illinois, they have spent a half a billion dollars to build 11 prisons -- 4 more under construction. The county jail in Cook County is fined ,000 a day for overcrowding. Aren't you saying, sir, that we're going to have to build more jails out in Illinois, but it will have to be paid by raising taxes in Illinois and in Cook County?
The President. Well, I've talked to Governor Thompson, who incidentally signed a rather comprehensive drug bill the day after I announced our strategy -- and to me, they dovetail rather nicely. But as you know, the Federal Government has certain responsibilities for Federal prisons. And included in our recommendation are substantial amounts of money for increased prison capacity. And, yes, the States and localities are having to step up themselves and do stuff.
Q. Raise taxes to do it?
The President. Well, that's up to them. I'm not going to criticize a Governor or a municipality that has to do something on the revenue side. I'm going to try to hold the line as President of the United States on Federal taxes.
NATO Defense Spending
Q. Mr. President, on drugs and taxes, we're currently paying 0 billion to 0 trillion a year to defend Europe. And the congressional panel estimates that's a lot more than the other 15 NATO countries put together. Since the standard of living is higher in other countries and in Europe than it is here now, and since Gorbachev is offering deep cuts in the Warsaw armed forces, why not halve our contribution to the NATO forces and put that money in on the drug war?
The President. Because we have a very realistic approach to the Soviet Union, and I am delighted to see the changes that are taking place there. And I've heard a lot of rhetoric, and I welcome it. And I hope we can move forward on strategic arms and chemical weapon reductions in accord with the innovative proposal that we made and that NATO supported for conventional forces. But I'm like the guy from Missouri: Show me, and take your time, and do it right. And Europe has had peace for some 40 years now; and if you look at your textbooks, why, you'll see that that's a long, long time in an area of the world that has been troubled by conflict, in an area of the world that has involved us in this century in two -- where we've been involved in two massive wars, that, overnight, expenditures went right through the roof, if we're talking about it in terms of money.
So, what I want to do is work -- first place, keep the alliance strong; secondly, prudently deal with the Soviet leadership. And I'm looking forward to sitting down with [Foreign Minister] Mr. Shevardnadze next week. I'm looking forward to the substance that will be talked by [Secretary of State] Jim Baker and Shevardnadze out in Wyoming following the meeting with me. But not taking gambles and gambling on the outcome by making universal cuts in our commitment to a strong NATO. We have got to keep that alliance strong. And I know there's almost a euphoria in some quarters that there are no risks in the world anymore. Well, I don't believe that. And if you look at the Soviet Union modernizing its nuclear arsenal at a rather ferocious pace, I'm prudent enough to say, why? What's happening here? Why are they doing this? Why, if it's all euphoria and everything is rosy, nobody has anything to worry anymore about, how come? And so, let's not let down our alliance guarantees because we are more optimistic about peace.
I can look at my grandkids today and say I am much more optimistic about their growing up in a world where they don't go to school worried about nuclear conflict -- much more -- but how we handle our end of the equation I think has a lot to do with that.
Q. But the American taxpayer, sir, is paying twice as much as the European taxpayer to defend Europe.
The President. Well, I'm not sure of your numbers. I've never heard that statistic before. But I'm doing what I think is in the national interest of the United States. And part of that is our participation in an alliance that has kept the peace for 40 years, and so that's the way I would look at it. And look, if you're asking me would I welcome any country in the alliance doing more, the answer is yes. And that wouldn't extend just to the NATO alliance -- it would be every alliance we have.
Legalization of Drugs
Q. Mr. President, there have been many good efforts through the years to interdict drugs and solve our drug problem that way. Do you envision a day when we might throw in the towel and treat it like we did prohibition and say let's shift our money from law enforcement back toward education, accept the legalization of drugs and try to fight in a more academic way?
The President. No, no. I don't visualize such a day.
INS Director McNary
Q. A local question: You recently nominated St. Louis County Executive Gene McNary to be the Director of Immigration and Naturalization. There are some people, even some admirers of Mr. McNary, who say there doesn't seem to be anything in his background that shows a sensitivity, perhaps, to work with minorities and so forth in that job. What did you see in Mr. McNary that led you to make the appointment to what is a growing -- a job that has a growing responsibility?
The President. Extraordinarily capable manager. And that job is a major management job, and Gene McNary will do a first-class job in it.
Drug Testing for Public Officials
Q. Mr. President, today, at this very hour, there are three candidates for mayor of Cleveland taking urinalysis tests to prove that they do not have a drug problem. Has our drug problem in America gotten to that extent where even elected officials now have to prove that they're not a part of the problem, but part of the solution?
The President. No, I don't know that it's gotten to that case. I am one who favors testing in certain categories. And there's a certain lack of dignity that goes, I guess, with that in some ways. Having said all that, I guess you'll remember that a couple of years ago President Reagan and I submitted ourselves to that, what some thought was indignity. But if you believe in a drug-free workplace or the drug-free Armed Forces, certain testing is involved in that. I don't know the context of the Cleveland race, so how much of it is -- I just leave to others to assess how much of it's political and how much of it sets a pattern or sets a standard for others. But I think we've come to the point in this fight on drugs that people should be a little less concerned about testing than they have in the past.
And again, I don't live and die by polls. If I did I wouldn't be standing here as President; we all remember that from about a year ago. But I would say that I think there is a shift in public opinion and people are much more serious about this fight on drugs. And I think there's much more support for a drug-free workplace, and I think there is much more support for testing.
Q. I'd like to talk about a chemical of a different sort. You campaigned as an environmental candidate. Agricultural chemicals are more and more being discussed now as a major pollutant and a major concern. I'm wondering how aggressive your administration is prepared to be in either helping or pressuring Congress to reduce chemical use?
The President. I think we have a responsibility under our Environmental Protection Agency to look carefully at the realities of agricultural chemicals, because it does get into the food chain and -- if there's abuse. But I also think that you need a balance in it, and EPA's looking at it right now. So I'd have to wait and see what recommendations they make and try to do our best. But we can't overlook that because of the controversy that it's caused in the agricultural community. And that's a little broad in general, but that's the only way I know to respond to that one.
Drug Use in Rural Areas
Q. Your drug strategy is often seen as an urban, inner-city initiative. How pervasive do you feel the drug problem is -- I come from rural Minnesota -- and how much of a priority is dealing with drug education and interdiction and helping law enforcement in rural areas?
The President. Well, I think in terms of interdiction, it's national and the effect of it is national. In terms of the international affairs component -- for example, support for Colombia and what they're trying to do -- it will impact favorably if we can encourage them on rural America and on city America.
I think you have to look in terms of treatment and in terms of impact of Federal money for education on those areas that are where the most heavy use is. And I think we have to do some vectoring of funds to the highest impact areas, and I think you'll see that when the program goes forward. But in terms of education and the need to have kids understand the risk, it is totally national, and it cannot be confined just to metropolitan areas.
War on Drugs in Washington, DC
Q. I've been in Washington a few days. There's two things that seem to be on people's minds. The first one is why Joe Gibbs [head coach, Washington Redskins] went for ``Pass the ball'' in the third-and-two situation. [Laughter]
The second thing that comes to mind is the drug issue. We all come from across the country, but in our Nation's Capital it's a pervasive problem that has intensified for the past 4 years. Coming from across the country, we sometimes look to DC as a symbol of what's going to happen. What do you see your drug plan doing for the people of the Nation's Capital and the inner city?
The President. You mean with -- --
Q. What the drug plan is doing for the people who live in the inner city -- DC.
The President. Raising hope. I see it raising hope and, if we follow through, helping solve the problem. It isn't going to solve it alone. It's going to need those 10 black mothers in the D.C. ward. It's going to need the schools involved with their local control and their local ability to go into their communities with a sensitivity that the Federal Government will never have.
But I see the President using the bully pulpit of the Presidency to stay on it, to encourage and to exhort and to help financially through this national strategy where we can. But I got to keep making the point: The Federal Government isn't going to solve it. But you're asking about inner cities? But you can get the job done and do it in a lot of different ways, including involving ourselves in the lives of others.
And I don't care how much grief I get -- and it's not so much anymore because people are beginning to understand it -- about the Thousand Points of Light. But it is one American helping another, it's a teacher who cares, it's a foster parent, it's those 10 black mothers in the D.C. Hospital. And it's on and on and on. And that is how the problem, along with the municipalities and the State governments and the Federal Government are going to solve this problem. But the President, I think, has a disproportionate responsibility to have a strategy which we now have and then to -- not forget it -- to follow up on it.
And I do believe that in the final analysis we can whip the problem. I was encouraged, and I expect others were here, too, about the decline in casual use of cocaine -- off 30 percent. And that's a good sign. Now, how do we do the same thing for the crack user, instead of having it go the wrong way? And I don't see as much on the media, for example, and the entertainment media, in terms of condoning that which we now condemn. You don't see that much about it any more. It used to be the joke. And I keep citing -- I hope without prejudice -- the scene in ``Crocodile Dundee'' with the guy in his tuxedo and it was humorous, the use of cocaine. Today you don't see that. It's because the industry itself has moved in.
I cited in my drug speech the efforts of a man named Jim Burke, who was the former chairman of Johnson Johnson. He's guaranteeing, to the best of his ability, that million a day will be spent -- billion over the next 3 years -- on reaching out in education, you know, changing a whole condoning culture into a condemning culture. And so, I am excited about the potential, provided everybody pitches in together. And so what do you say to a kid in the city? There's something better for you, and we've got to prove it.
Last, says Marlin.
War on Drugs
Q. Your last question -- you mentioned your grandchildren a while ago, and this is kind of a personal question, maybe putting this in perspective for us. How do you feel as a human being and as a grandfather about the drug scourge? Are you afraid that your family members, your grandchildren, your friends, relatives, the people in the White House family are going to be seduced by drugs? Do you identify with the grandparents across the Nation?
The President. Yes, I worry about it -- of course I do, about these kids. Peer group pressure -- enormous. Declining, I hope, but enormous. And so, when I stand out there in the garden with the D.A.R.E. program that teaches these kids out of the efforts by police officers all across this country to turn their back and how to resist peer pressure, I can identify with that -- perhaps more than if I didn't have these 11 grandchildren.
But I'm not pessimistic about it. I think America is waking up, and we are beginning to condemn that which, let's face it, we've condoned. We condoned it in my theory in a kind of a post-Vietnam period, or even in the Vietnam war period. We have got to understand the pressures that lead one that wants to escape. Now we see that it was wrong. We see that in condoning it, for whatever the reason, should have been condemned. And I think as those national mores change, then I think you're going to find that the future of not just my 11 grandchildren, but the others, is far brighter. And mine, you know, are blessed with not having some of the pressures of a neighborhood where there are high incidences of cocaine use.
But, now we've got to take these changing mores and have inner-city America, highly impacted America, understand. And of course that has to, in my view, be coupled with opportunity -- opportunity to work, have an honest living instead of one where you're a lookout at 0 a crack for some drug addict. And so, we've got a big educational job to do.
But I do worry about it, and I don't think any kid is immune from this peer pressure. But I'm absolutely convinced it's changing. You know, you embark on something like a war on drugs and people say, yes, yet another war, and you have your cynics out there. And I can understand it because there have been efforts made, and they've gone off the radar screen. But this one isn't going to go off the radar screen. And what I've got working for me in this timeframe in which I'm serving as President is this changing feeling in the country that we've got to do something about it. It's not just the administration, it's not just a handful of teachers or some parents group -- it's the country itself. And that is very different, and that is working for us.
And so, this gentleman doesn't feel I'm giving him the brush-off. You see, I think if we then go out and legalize drugs, we work just the opposite from what I'm saying are the appropriately changing mores in this country, and that's why I strongly oppose it. And as long as I'm President, there will not be any Federal Government-level consideration given to the legalization of narcotics. It simply is counterproductive as we try to help in this whole field of education.
Q. In Detroit we have severe drug problems, but we also have other problems: blight, abandoned housing, and decay. UDAG [Urban Development Action Grant] monies and block grant monies have been decreased significantly over the past few years. Will those monies be returned in some capacity, and how does the Bush administration propose rebuilding America's inner cities, including Detroit?
The President. We've got a brand-new Secretary of Housing who is aggressively going after tenant ownership and changes in the housing programs. I don't want to mislead you. I don't think you'll see a change soon on revenue-sharing or increased UDAG's, for example, you asked about. But I think we've got a program that emphasizes tenant ownership, helping to clean the existing projects from narcotics' reach, and then I come back to jobs -- jobs. And it's got to be the economy that is going to lift people up. A job in the private sector is the best poverty program.
And you look at the demographics -- and we again bored you all at lunch about this -- but they're changing. And in the year 2000 -- and what, Roger [Roger B. Porter, Assistant to the President for Economic and Domestic Policy], somebody help me -- 2010, there are going to be more jobs than there are people looking for jobs. And that says then to the Federal Government, the State government, the government in Detroit -- train people, job retraining -- training them for jobs that will exist. And that, of course, gets back into what we were talking about at our table, about educational excellence. So, it's education, job retraining, all of which impact in this question of housing. If a person has a job and a reasonable salary, he hopefully can afford to have an apartment or make a down payment on a house.
All right, she was very persistent, over here, screaming in outrage because I boycotted the table. This is the last one.
Q. Thank you very much.
The President. I'll say ahead of her question that I've always learned that the last question is the one that gets you in trouble. So, let me see the seams on this one. [Laughter]
Q. In Pittsburgh, we are arresting drug suspects, and they're being turned loose from the Allegheny County jail because of overcrowding. A Federal court order has mandated a certain population cap. Across the river, still Pittsburgh, our State prison facility has been ruled an overcrowded firetrap by another Federal judge. My question is: Our Allegheny County commissioner has written you asking you for permission to open military bases, underused or closed military facilities, to house some of these prisoners, especially the drug suspects that we're letting go. How will you respond to -- --
The President. I'll respond to this as being given serious and active consideration. You talk about closing a military base now -- come on out and try it sometime. [Laughter] Even though the law prescribes it, and even though we have a sound program up there right now in the Senate, some people are challenging the closing of these bases. And it isn't much fun to have to go to a community that's been dependent on a base and say we're going to close your base.
Every Congressman wants to close bases in somebody else's district -- or every Senator, but in someone else's State. And we have a program to do this, and part of it might well be active consideration being given to a concept of using these facilities for jail space. There's some existing bases where we might be able to do that. There's some trading where you take prisoners from one jurisdiction and boarding them in somebody else's jail. They're innovative programs in terms of jail construction of lease backs. And so there's a lot of new thinking going on, including the proposals that are in our strategy of -- and this doesn't get directly to your question -- of more Federal prisons.
But I think the man, whoever -- this fellow suggested this -- is on to something, and we will try to be very cooperative in that regard.
Q. How soon might you respond to him if he's written about a week or two ago?
The President. Well, tell him to get in line. I get about 100 -- let's see, how many -- I'll tell you, one of the great -- they were asking me the joys of this job at the table. One of the frustrations is the mail, and the volume is horrendous. But your having raised it, I trust somebody will -- he will be hearing from him sooner than he might have. But we've got to be responsive on these -- [laughter] -- it's an understandable frustration when somebody asks. And I would simply take this opportunity to ask for forbearance and to say we will endeavor to do our very best.
When I left for summer vacation, the backlog on our mail was something like 100,000 letters. It was down to 9,000 when we got back -- somebody else doing all the heavy lifting, obviously. But we do want to do better on it, and especially when somebody is crying from the heart for help on a problem of this sensitivity. But we'll look into that one and see when he -- and hope he gets a very positive response. I expect -- your having brought it up -- he will.
Listen, thank you all very, very much.
Note: The President spoke at 12:57 p.m. in the State Dining Room at the White House. Marlin Fitzwater was Assistant to the President and Press Secretary.