Clinton Q&A: The Presidential News Conference
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KWAME HOLMAN: Before the president took questions, he outlined several education initiatives he will send to Congress next week as part of his budget proposal.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: The budget will help to renew our public schools. It will expand Head Start, help rebuild crumbling classrooms. It will double funding for public charter schools, giving parents more choice in how they educate their children. It will increase funding for Goals 2000 by 26 percent, and it will help our students to reach high standards and master the basics of reading, writing, math, and science. But it increases by a third our investment in partnerships and teachers and industries to develop quality educational programming and technology. In short, the budget will connect our children to the best educational technology in the world. Altogether, these proposals will move us much closer to our clear national goal, an America where every eight-year-old can read, where every twelve-year-old can log onto the Internet, where every eighteen-year-old can go to college, where all Americans will have the knowledge they need to meet the challenges of the 21st century. I am very proud of this budget.
KWAME HOLMAN: The president went on to reiterate his call for campaign finance reform legislation. Financing of the president’s last campaign became the focus of the first questions of the news conference.
HELEN THOMAS, United Press International: What do the American people think of a presidential campaign in which a day at the White House is sold for $250,000 a couple, and the Republican Party sells a season ticket of access to Capitol Hill for $250,000?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, first, let me say I dispute a little bit the characterization there. I can’t speak for the Republicans. They can–they will have to speak for themselves but the people who were there on the day in question were not charged the fees. Some of them were our contributors, had contributed in the past. They’ve raised money for me in the past. Some of them have not. And so I don’t think it’s quite an accurate characterization, but I will say this: If you look at the money that was raised and spent not only by the parties and their respective campaign committees in the Senate and House, but also by all these independent and apparently independent third party committees, and you look at the exponential cost of the campaigns related to communications, surely, we can use this opportunity to make something positive come out of this. I mean, I think that all of us–as I said again–every one of us who has participated in the system, even if we did it because we thought we had to do it to survive or to just keep up, has to take some responsibility for its excesses. And I take mine.
TERENCE HUNT, Associated Press: Why are you attending a million dollar fund-raiser tonight? What kind of an image do you think this leaves, and why do these donors make these big-money contributions? What do they get in return?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, first of all, under all conceivable campaign finance reform scenarios, it will still be necessary for the parties to raise some money. And there is–neither party has the capacity to raise all their money from direct mail campaigns and contributions of $100 or less. I, frankly, have been very appreciative of the fact that these folks have been willing to come and help us, and that we have increased the ranks of the particularly younger, more entrepreneurial people in the Democratic Party supporting us. So I think it’s an important thing to do. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with raising money for the political process. The problem is, it is the volume of money, the amount of money, the time it takes to raise, the inevitable questions that are raised. Now, I can tell you what they get from me. You’d have to ask them what they expect. What they get from me I think is a respectful hearing if they have some concern about the issues. I think it’s a good thing that contributors care about the country and have some particular area of expertise they want to contribute. But nobody buys a guaranteed result, nor should they ever. They should get a respectful hearing, and the president should do what’s right for the country.
RITA BRAVER, CBS News: Last week the White House put out a list of coffees. It showed that at one coffee that included the controller of the currency, the secretary of the treasury, there were people, bankers who contributed something like $325,000. You attended that coffee. There was another coffee with another regulator of the Consumer Products Safety Commission, something like $500,000 was contributed by people who were at that coffee. And I wondered if, in retrospect, you had any feelings about, number one, regulators being at political coffees, and also your own participation. Obviously, you’re not going to be doing this again for your own re-election, but is this something that you have decided you will continue doing?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I think it is an appropriate thing. It can be a good thing for the president and for the secretary of treasury to meet with a group of bankers and listen to them, listen to their concerns, and if they have certain issues to explore those issues. I can tell you categorically that no decision ever came out of any of those coffees where I or anyone else said this person is a contributor of ours, do what they asked us to do, but if–I think those meetings are good. I think the president should keep in touch with people. I think he should listen to people. I never learn very much when I’m talking, and I normally learn something when I’m listening. So I think that they’re good. In retrospect, since the DNC sponsored it, I do not think the controller of the currency should have been there. I agree with Mr. Ludwig, and he should have been told who was sponsoring, and he would have been better had he not come, I agree with that.
KWAME HOLMAN: The questioning then turned to foreign affairs, including the health of Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
GENE GIBBONS, Reuters: How will Yeltsin’s health problems affect the timing and location of the next U.S.-Soviet summit which had been set for March?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, first, let me make the most important statement I think I can make to your question, which is, I have no private information that is inconsistent with the public statements of the Russian government on President Yeltsin’s health. I have no reason to believe based on any information I have that his condition is any different from what the Russian government said it is.
KWAME HOLMAN: The president also was asked about progress on human rights in China.
REPORTER: Your annual human rights report is about to come out this week. It’s reported that it will say there are no active dissidents in China; they’re either all exiled, or they’re in jail. Does this mean that your policy of constructive engagement has failed to get the kind of results you wanted to get on China’s human rights behavior?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: It means that we have not made the progress in human rights that I think that I had hoped to make, yes, but it does not mean that if we had followed a policy of isolating ourselves from China when no one else in the world was prepared to do that, that we would have gotten better results. And I think–I still believe over the long run being engaged with China, working with them, where we can agree, which helps us on a whole range of security issues that directly bear on the welfare of the American people, like the problems on the Korean Peninsula, and continuing to be honest and forthright and insistent where we disagree has the greatest likelihood of having a positive impact on China. Keep in mind, the time horizon here for how we judge them has to be broadened a little bit. They tend to look at things on a long-time horizon. They’re going through some significant changes, themselves, within their country, economic and political changes, and I believe that the impulses of the society and the nature of the economic change will work together along with the availability of information from the outside world to increase the sphere of liberty over time. I don’t think there’s any way that anyone who disagrees with that in China can hold back that, just as eventually the Berlin Wall fell. I just think it’s inevitable. And I regret that we haven’t had more progress there more quickly, but I still believe that the policy we’re following is the correct one.
KWAME HOLMAN: In this, his first news conference of his final term, the president took questions longer than expected, spending 55 minutes with reporters.