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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release December 2, 1997
                         REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
                          AND SECRETARY TOGO WEST

The Roosevelt Room

10:50 A.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT: Good morning, everyone. Togo and Gail West, and Hershel Gober and the distinguished representatives of our veterans organizations -- we have people here from the American Legion, the VFW, Disabled American Veterans, Am-Vets, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Vietnam Veterans, Gold Star Mothers and Gold Star Wives, Retired Officers Association and the G.I. Forum. I thank you all for coming.

Before I begin I think it is important that I say just a few words about the tragic killing of the three high school students in Paducah yesterday. Like all Americans, I was shocked and heartbroken by the terrible news, which I followed very closely when it broke. Of course, we still don't know all the facts surrounding the tragedy or why a 14-year-old boy would take a pistol and open fire on his classmates in a prayer group. We may never know, but we must redouble our efforts to protect all our children from violence and to make sure our schools are free from violence and the means to wreak it.

I believe that I speak for every American in sending our thoughts and prayers to the parents of Kayce Steger, Jessica James, Nicole Hadley and the wounded children, and the entire community of West Paducah.

Today I have the pleasure of appointing Togo West to be Acting Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. When Congress reconvenes I will nominate him to become Secretary. I know he will bring the same excellence and leadership to the Department we saw under the stewardship of Secretary Jesse Brown and Acting Secretary Hershel Gober. These men are truly dedicated to our nation's veterans. They help us every day to do right by the men and women who have served the United States.

Togo West's entire life has been dedicated to excellence and commitment. From his experience as an Army officer, to his work in the Ford and Carter administrations, to his outstanding work as Secretary of the Army, he has always understood the special responsibility we owe to our men and women in uniform both during and after their years of service.

Three years ago, Secretary West told the graduating class at West Point, "You teach the life you life." As long as I have known him he has lived this idea, teaching all around him by his example of his devotion to family, church and country.

I'm grateful for his exceptional service as Secretary of the Army. So are the men and women in the Army. His leadership helped make the Army part of the greatest, best prepared, most modern fighting force in the world. And he's made sure we take good care of our Army families. They, too, serve with our soldiers.

Having supported our men and women in uniform, Togo West will now turn to the equally important task of taking care of the veterans whose deeds ensured the survival of America's ideals. I'm confident he'll bring a strong voice to the Cabinet on these and other matters, and that he will ably champion the enduring interests of our veterans.

Would you like to say a word?

SECRETARY WEST: Thank you, Mr. President. And thank you for mentioning those words, "You teach the life you live." Those words were first uttered by my father years ago, and though he has been long since dead many decades, I'm so happy that his words were mentioned today in the White House.

There are no words, Mr. President, to describe the honor you do me today. Four years ago when you selected me as your Secretary of the Army, I thought I had been awarded one of the best jobs in the world. And so it was. Few privileges compare with the opportunity to have daily contact with America's sons and daughters in uniform, and through them, their families and the civilians who share with them under your leadership a commitment to our nation's security.

But today, you give me more. As I have traveled over the past four years to the far reaches of the globe to visit soldiers, and to less remote but still distant lands to talk with families, I have said to them that as they stand up for America today, so also America will stand up for them. The programs administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs are part of America's effort to meet its promises made to veterans.

Mr. President, over time you have led this nation and the world in the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the conclusion of World War II, just a few short years ago. During that period, in 1995, I was privileged to travel with a planeload of veterans to join you in Moscow, where you commemorated the 50th anniversary of V-E Day. Among the veterans on that plane was Sergeant Walter Ellers, a World War II veteran of the European Theater who had been awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in combat.

Sergeant Eller said to me that we are obliged to ensure that our heirs remember that the privileges and freedoms we enjoy today were bought and paid for by generations of Americans, our veterans, who gave everything they had, and all too often, everything they were, to preserve our world.

Today, I thank you for enlisting me in those two great efforts: first, to remind Americans of the debt we owe our veterans and, second, to be part of the effort to repay that debt, to keep the promise America has made to her veterans.

Mr. President, I look forward to working with the men and women of the Department of Veterans Affairs, with the Deputy Secretary Hershel Gober, in a Department once led by Secretary Jesse Brown. I look forward to consulting with and meeting with the veteran service organizations who form the first line of watchfulness for our veterans' interests and to prod us in government to attend to our responsibilities to our veterans. And I look forward to working with the Congress, with both Houses, in a partnership as we seek and do what is right for our veterans; and in working as well with the Senate in its constitutional responsibilities in the confirmation process.

As we all know, veterans are men and women who have served in uniform and who continue their concern for the health and security of our nation. They can be counted on to support commemorations on patriotic days and memorial days. But we must remember that the parades are caused by their actions, that the commemorations are for their sacrifice. We, as Americans, are informed and inspired by our veterans' patriotism, for it is they who gave up their yesterdays in order that America might have her tomorrows.

And so, again, I thank you, Mr. President, for your leadership, for this assignment -- this sign of your favor and your confidence. But most of all I thank you for the opportunity to serve those to whom we and our families and all Americans owe a debt that we can never fully repay, but must never stop trying. Thank you, Mr. President. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, Togo.

Q Mr. President, have you already been informed of Janet Reno's decision on whether to recommend that an independent counsel be named?


Q Well, could you tell us how you feel in these hours before you're officially informed over this apparent rift between two of your appointees, Janet Reno and the FBI Director, Louis Freeh, who seem to be disagreeing strongly on whether or not there should be an independent counsel?

THE PRESIDENT: I don't have any particular feelings about it. I know -- all I know about it is what I've seen in the press. I think what I would like to emphasize to you is what I have said all along here -- this is a decision of law vested in the Attorney General, which should be made based on the law. I don't believe people outside the Department should attempt to influence the decision, and I have not. And I think that the Attorney General just has to make the decision, consulting with anyone, including the FBI Director, whom she chooses, and then making the decision she believes is right.

That's what a lot of these jobs involve. I've made a lot of decisions that not everybody who works for me agrees with. That's part of life. And I think we should let her make the decision and then, whatever the decision is, we should get on with the business of America and the Justice Department should get on with the business of protecting the people of America.

Q Mr. President, how do you view this "no new tax" pledge that Speaker Gingrich is demanding of those that he has chosen for the Medicare commission?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I don't exactly what to make of it and exactly what it covers. In terms of taxes, per se, I personally don't know that we need any taxes to reform the Medicare system. I hate to see the commissioners themselves have their hands tied at the outset because I think we want them to be free to look at this Medicare system over the long run.

After all, we now have -- in the balanced budget agreement, and with the savings incurred back in '93, we now have put more than a decade of life on the Medicare system. The trust fund is secure now for a decade, and perhaps more, depending on how well the reforms that we enacted this year work. And so what we want this commission to do is take a look at what the impact of the retirement of the baby boomers will be, what the impact of increasing lifespans will be, and the new technologies, and all the opportunities also to save money with preventive strategies under Medicare, and take a long look at it.

I had not assumed that they would actually recommend any tax increases in Medicare, which, to me, is different from the cost that consumers have when they buy into the program. But I don't want to tie their hands unduly. I want them to look at it and be free to look at it, and I hope that that's what they'll do.

I think we're going to have an interesting commission of a large number of members of Congress because both the Republicans and the Democrats appointed significant numbers of members of Congress, but also some from outside as well. And we've all pretty well had our members I think for some time. We've been trying -- I haven't named mine yet by and large because we were trying to reach agreement on exactly how the chairmanship would be handled. We haven't quite got that done yet, but I expect it to be done within the next day or two.

Q Mr. President, when you said you didn't think that any outsiders should impact on Attorney General Reno's decision, whom were you referring to? Were you referring to Freeh or to members of Congress or --

THE PRESIDENT: No, no. No, he's an insider. I mean, he -- and, of course, there is the Justice Department division; there's a whole division of professionals who deal with these kinds of cases all the time. And I'm sure that -- at least I assume that they've made recommendations to her as well. They should all make their recommendations and then she has to decide.

But I believe it should be a decision based strictly on the law and not outside political pressure. And I have scrupulously avoided saying anything one way or the other, publicly or privately, that would be that kind of thing. I just don't think the rest of us should be involved in this. This is a legal question.

Q Are you still uncertain on whether you made any calls from the White House -- fundraising?

THE PRESIDENT: I've met with the Justice Department, as you know; I've answered them all. I don't have anything to add to what I've already said on that.

MR. MCCURRY: Thank you, Mr. President.

Q Mr. President, can I just elaborate -- despite Mike McCurry's suggestion that I -- (Laughter.) On this relationship that you have with Louis Freeh and with Janet Reno, you've, in the past, suggested that the strains resulting from all these investigations has hampered your ability as President to deal with the other chief law enforcement authorities in the country. Has this become a real problem and how will it play out irrespective of Janet Reno's decision?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, after the decision is over, when she makes a decision, whatever the decision is, I would expect that things will return to normal because we'll go back to work. I just want everybody to go back to work here. We've got serious law enforcement challenges both beyond our borders and within our country. And the most important thing is that everybody does the people's work up there, that we get back to the business of protecting the American people and dealing with those challenges.

And I think that that's what we're expected to do, that's what we got hired to do and we shouldn't let anything interfere with that. And I don't intend to let anything interfere with my efforts there. But I thought it was appropriate to limit any personal contacts I had during this period of time because I didn't even want this appearance to be out there that there would be any attempt to influence a decision. I don't think that's right. This is a legal decision; it ought to be made on the facts.

And a lot of the political rhetoric that's been in the press in the last several months I think is entirely inappropriate because there is a legal -- there's a statute here, and we cannot get in the position in this country of basically bringing politics to bear on every legal decision that has to be made. That's not the right way to do this.

Thank you.

Q Are you satisfied with Mr. Freeh's job performance, Mr. President?

END 11:05 A.M. EST