Monday, Jan. 07, 1991

Determined to Do What Is Right

Q. We are struck by your ability to lead an international coalition for a common purpose in the gulf and your inability to lead in the same way on domestic issues. Do you have an explanation for this?

A. There is a very simple one. We don't control either house of Congress. Having said that, and in anticipation of the question, I asked [my staff] if we'd summarize whether we've made any accomplishments at home or not. I think they're rather impressive on a wide array of issues.

But the simplest answer to your question is that in domestic affairs, to pass legislation, to accomplish your ends, you've got to go to a Congress that has a different philosophical approach to many issues — most issues. In terms of achieving objectives, certainly there's an unfulfilled agenda, but there are some steps that have been taken that I think are very, very important on the domestic side. Very important.

Q. Your own chief of staff has said, when asked what he wanted to do in the second half of your term, "Not that much." Do you agree?

A. Well, we've got a big agenda — a tremendous agenda. I'm very happy that we're making the progress we're making on the antinarcotics fight. But there is a tremendous amount left to be done. I'm very happy that we've passed the most historic clean-air bill in history, but there's still plenty to do in the whole environmental field. I'm glad we've made a start on our anticrime proposal, but a lot of it is hung up in a hostile Congress, and I hope we can jar it loose. And we can just go right down the list. I'd like to see an antidiscrimination civil rights bill, but what I've got to do first is beat back what I think is a quota bill. So there's plenty left to do, and yet we've done a lot.

It is like the old Winston Churchill story. One of the Women's Christian Temperance people came in to see him. She said, "If all the whisky you have drunk was poured into this room, it would come up to here [raising his hand to his neck]." He said, "So much have I done, and so much have I left to do," as he looked at the ceiling. Well, it is true. We have made remarkable progress given the fact that we have to fight back a Congress that is committed to a different philosophical course. But to accomplish things, you have first got to beat down the Democrats. And that is not true in foreign affairs.

Q. It looks as if we are entering a period of belt tightening, to put it mildly. If you are prepared to ask Americans to sacrifice in the gulf, are you willing as President to ask them to make similar sacrifices at home?

A. What is required is that we begin living within our means more. That was one of the reasons I supported a budget-deficit agreement. And that agreement ! confines the agenda to some degree. I guess that would mean there has got to be some discipline or — if someone wants to interpret it as sacrifice — sacrifice. Because the budget agreement, controversial though it may be, says a couple of things. It says the U.S. will be into the investment markets for $492 billion less money. And it has some discipline in it that says if you are going to go forward with your big bold new programs, you have to come up with some offsets.

But I am confident that if we live within this budget agreement, and I think we must, that is the best thing we can do to enhance the recovery that I think will be coming up next year.

Q. If you could accomplish one thing on the domestic front in the next half of your first term, what would it be?

A. I would love to fulfill our education goals early. Or I would like to think that the progress being made on narcotics would be accelerated, although we have made some good steps there. And I still think we need to get strong crime legislation.

We have the kinder, gentler approach. It is catching on. They used to laugh about the thousand points of light. There are plenty of areas of this nature that I would readily concede we have got a long way to go [before we] fulfill what I would like to see done in the next two years.

Q. On the gulf, your aides have told us that you are very calm now and that you are prepared to go to war if necessary, that you've taken every last step you can think of. Have they got it right?

A. Well, I do not know that anyone has said I have taken all the steps I can take. But I have certainly tried to go the extra mile for peace. And we will continue to try to find ways to do it. But if the question is, Am I at ease with this policy? Am I convinced not only that the policy is correct but that it has got to succeed? the answer is yes.

Q. But you are at peace with yourself, having made the decision that you are willing to sacrifice American lives in this cause?

A. No, I'm not willing to sacrifice American lives. I do not like the question put that way. I do not like that formulation. What I am willing to do is to see these United Nations resolutions fully implemented.

Q. But that could be part of the cost of implementing them.

A. Well, that could be. But I do not like to have anybody say, hey, he is willing to sacrifice lives. I do not want to see one kid lose his life. Not one.

Q. Are you sleeping well at night knowing that you may have to make the decision to take this country to war?

A. Yes. Yes. And I have concluded that it is the guy who sits at that desk that makes the decision. Maybe that is why I am — I will not say relaxed, but — determined. And I am not churning about it. Because I know what has to be done. And I know the promise of a new world order if it is done right. I know the devastating effect on the world if it is done wrong, if we fail, if the United States is unwilling to back the newest, most hopeful peacekeeping mission of the United Nations since 1948. For the U.S. to be the one that says we are not going to fulfill this resolution is just not thinkable to me. We will. We will do what we have got to do.

Q. You mentioned the new world order. Isn't that just another way of saying the U.S. will remain the world's policeman?

A. Clearly, the U.S. has a disproportionate responsibility when it comes to helping secure the world. I would not call it the world's policeman because there are certain areas where we wouldn't be in a position to act or want to act. But we have a disproportionate responsibility for the freedom and the security of various countries. And a lot of what is at stake in the gulf relates to that. Not that we have to do it just so the U.S. preserves its position. People are looking to us for leadership. They are looking to us to help effect a more stable and secure gulf, for example. We have got the credibility where others might not have as much. We are still respected, and we are still looked to for this kind of leadership.

Q. You've described yourself as a strict constructionist where the Constitution is concerned. How do you construct strictly the words "Congress shall have the power to declare war"?

A. They have got it right now. I have the powers of the Commander in Chief. There are a lot of historical precedents involved in all of this. You have the War Powers Resolution, you have the fact of some 200 applications of force, five of which were solemnified by a declaration of war. So we look at history, and we talk to lawyers. We consult [with Congress].

Q. Is it a political question? Do you think you would not get a declaration or a resolution from this Congress to support the use of force in the gulf?

A. I am not sure. That was the question I asked a couple of weeks ago. We have got to see the mood that Congress is in. And if Congress wants to clearly endorse the policy of the United States Government and wants to endorse what the United Nations has done, that would be one good way to take a good step for peace. Because that would remove one of the questions that is in Saddam Hussein's mind. The question is, How divided is the country? And if they saw a Congress united behind the President, that would send a very powerful message to Saddam Hussein. But if Congress did it like the school board that voted 3 to 2 to name this elementary school in Midland, Texas, the George Bush Elementary School, I do not think that would send an overwhelming message to Saddam Hussein.

Q. What does your gut say? Will there be a war?

A. Oh, God [pause]. My gut says he will get out of there. But that flies in the face of what some of the Arab leaders tell me, which is that he cannot get out. He cannot do in Kuwait what he did in Iran. He cannot do it and survive domestically. I do not have that much of a feel. I just think that any person who has fought a war, once he understands what he is up against in terms of power, is going to have to find a way to see that he does not fight another one. But I am determined that I will do, and must do, what is called for under the U.N. resolutions, all of them. That includes every inch of territory. No concessions.

We have got to and will continue right down that path. And I hope it is the path that leads to peace. But you asked the toughest question of all. I had a Congressman in here today, and he said to me, "You know, my brother was killed in Vietnam. You've just got to wait." And I said, "You are looking at a guy that had a squadron of 15, and nine of them were killed in one way or another. I know exactly what you are talking about."

— With Stanley W. Cloud, Michael Duffy and Dan Goodgame