THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY The Briefing Room
1:25 P.M. EDT
MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon, everybody. Two items to start with. First, we'll have a statement from the President shortly, if we haven't put it out already, welcoming the fact that France and Great Britain have deposited their instruments of ratification for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Secretary General of the United Nations, thus making them the first nuclear powers to deposit their instruments of ratification. It represents a milestone in the global effort to reduce the nuclear threat and to build a safer world. The President obviously expresses his gratitude to President Chirac, to Prime Minister Blair in his statement and again calls on the United States Senate to give its advice and consent to the CTBT this year. The President argues that the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban is in the best interest of the United States because its provisions will significantly further our nuclear nonproliferation and arms control objectives and strengthen international security.
The President also had a good, vigorous, productive one-half-hour conversation with President Boris Yeltsin this morning. The President reviewed his recently-completed trip to Africa, noted that the African continent, during the period of the Cold War, was sometimes the venue for superpower rivalry, and suggested it could now be a place where the Russian Federation and the United States could work together to bring Africa into the global pantheon of prosperity that the President talked about during his recent trip. And he suggested that they could perhaps talk about ways in which Russia and the United States could cooperate together on initiatives related to Africa when they meet soon in Birmingham.
President Yeltsin will be attending the upcoming meeting of the G-7/G-8 in Birmingham. The two presidents reviewed some of the issues that they may wish to take up when they see each other in Birmingham. President Yeltsin offered an assessment based on his conversations with his parliamentarians of what the prospects are for confirmation of Prime Minister-designate Kiriyenko.
President Clinton again emphasized the importance of ratification by the Duma of Start II. They discussed other bilateral issues and said that they look forward to seeing each other in May.
Q What about the summit? Did they talk on that?
MR. MCCURRY: Not a discussion of that, because, of course, they will be seeing each other very shortly.
Q Did they discuss Yeltsin's health at all?
MR. MCCURRY: No.
Q What about Iraq?
MR. MCCURRY: They discussed some issues. The President again stressed some of our concerns about proliferation. They discussed some issues in that area and stressed how importantly we take the commitments that we've received from the Russian Federation related to missile technology transfer issues.
Q When is the President going to be meeting with Dennis Ross?
MR. MCCURRY: The President will see Ambassador Ross and others on the Middle East peace team this evening, I think about probably 8:00 p.m. or so. And they're going to get a -- the President looks forward to getting a longer briefing from the Ambassador on his recent visit to the region, his discussions with the parties. You've heard Secretary Albright and others in our government say that we're at a point now where we need the leaders of this process to make some difficult, hard decisions, and Ambassador Ross will offer his assessment of how close they are to narrowing some of the gaps that remain in their positions. I expect that we'll do some hard thinking about the process itself. I do not expect to have any news to report to you tonight, because we'll want to follow up on this conversation with the parties directly.
Q Hard thinking about the process, Mike -- is that a suggestion that the process isn't working well?
MR. MCCURRY: It's clearly not working well because there's been very minimal progress made by the parties and we have spent the better part of a year now trying to coax progress out of these leaders and there has been very little progress.
Q I guess I asked a badly-phrased question. Is the Oslo framework not durable? Is it not providing the kind of -- here's another badly-phrased question, forgive me.
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not sure what the question means.
Q Well, my point is, you said that the process was breaking down.
MR. MCCURRY: I didn't say that; I said that there's been very little progress in that process, and that's what we've been trying to encourage by the parties. The commitments that the parties made to each other through the declaration, through the Oslo format -- and there are fundamental commitments under the Madrid format -- remain and our willingness and our desire to encourage the parties to address their differences remains quite strong.
But, as the Secretary has suggested, there is a limit to what we can do if the parties are not willing to do for themselves what they must do, which is to make the difficult decisions that would allow them to bridge their differences and to move forward to implement their agreements.
Q So Oslo is still workable as a format?
MR. MCCURRY: We believe it is and we've offered ideas and suggestions on how they might use that format, that process to address the issues that they face. But they have both interim issues and final status issues that remain outstanding in which their differences are great, and we have tried persistently to help them bridge those differences. And they're at a point now where if they're going to do it, they will do it because both sides find the courage necessary to address the differences that they have.
Q Was the President surprised by Secretary Pena's resignation, and has he talked to him?
MR. MCCURRY: The President was not surprised. He talked to Secretary Pena yesterday. I think it's safe to say that the White House, well pleased with Secretary Pena's performance at both the Energy Department and the Transportation Department, would have liked for him to stay longer. But President Clinton certainly respected Secretary Pena's decision and understood exactly the reason that he cited today in his press conference related to his family why he desires at this point to have a change of venue.
Q Mike, on Northern Ireland, do you have any comment on how the peace talks are going there?
MR. MCCURRY: The President spoke yesterday with Prime Minister Blair and reviewed at some length the status of the discussions. This is a very critical week in the Northern Ireland peace process. We believe that the parties can take advantage of the Stormont talks and now make the decisions that would lead to a truly historic moment for all of the peoples of Ireland. It is difficult to say that we can predict with any certainty what will happen this week, but everything is aligned for the parties participating in this process to reach a truly historic agreement if they seize this moment.
The President offered to be available to do anything that the Prime Minister recommended. We've also had contact with the government of the Republic of Ireland, and we wish the parties well in this very critical week of decision making.
Q Mike, on the import gun ban, why hasn't the Administration asked Congress to stop domestic manufacturers from making these same type of weapons?
MR. McCURRY: You had a good person who could have answered that question here a minute ago. I'm not aware that the issue we're facing today dealt with the import ban which arises out of the 1989 decision by President Bush, and in a way sort of follows up implementation under the '94 act, but I'd have to check and see what contact there has been with domestic manufacturers or what restrictions exist. I just don't know.
Q I'll follow up on Dave's question in a different venue. For the cameras, the NRA says that this is just another way of going to the eventual total ban of guns. How does the White House respond?
MR. McCURRY: I think the scope of this decision is quite clear and the existing statute is quite clear, and that's not something that has been advocated by the President or is under consideration.
Q Mike, on Mrs. King's questions about the creation of a national commission, the President referred it to the Attorney General. Why did he refer this to the Attorney General? Does he think there should be a national commission to investigate the assassination of King? And does he think it's possible the government had a role in the King assassination?
MR. McCURRY: I think the President and the administration have spoken in the past on this issue. It arises out of criminal investigation and prosecution that occurred at the state level. And we've suggested in the past that the state level is where the matter ought to be considered. However, given the President's respect for Mrs. King, given his concern about her strong argument, he felt it appropriate for the Attorney General to hear that argument. And he asked the Attorney General to meet with her and she will.
Q Does he have an opinion about Reverend Jackson's idea that the government may have had a role in this?
MR. McCURRY: The President has no opinion on that. I'm not aware that the President would have any information that would corroborate that claim.
Q Following up on that question, Mike, last year the King family asked the Vice President to get involved. The Vice President said no because the Executive Branch could not get involved with the Judicial Branch in reference to James Earl Ray. What's the big difference this year?
MR. McCURRY: The difference is the very strong representation made by Coretta Scott King, very strong feelings that she has about a matter that concerns her, as one can easily understand it would. And the President felt it appropriate for the Attorney General to hear her argument.
Q They had the same strong feelings last year though.
MR. MCCURRY: I think the President felt it appropriate for the Attorney General to hear her argument, and she will.
Q Has the President called Mrs. King yet?
MR. MCCURRY: The President spoke with Mrs. King this morning and indicated to her that he wanted the Attorney General to be in a position to hear her argument.
Q How are they willing to get together -- the Attorney General and Mrs. King?
MR. MCCURRY: The Attorney General, I gather, is going to call and see if they can set up an appointment.
Q Do you have any reason to believe that Pena's resignation is the first of what may be several more senior officials in the administration resigning?
MR. MCCURRY: I have no reason to think that.
Q Mike, the President at the outset of his first administration said that he wanted the Cabinet to look like America. Is he concerned that with Pena's departure, Hispanics are under-represented and might he move to correct them?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, Hispanic Americans enjoy a high degree of representation throughout the administration, including at the Cabinet level. And the President will cast a wide net in looking for a suitable replacement, and obviously diversity will be an important criteria as will excellence.
Q What's your view of the status of the tobacco talks, and does the President plan to try to do something to get things moving this week?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President addressed it Saturday in his radio address, and I expect later in the week, in particular when he goes to Kentucky, he'll do things to indicate that a comprehensive approach to the public health issue of tobacco can be an approach that does not necessarily harm the economic interest of tobacco-growing communities and tobacco farmers -- one of the critical principles that he has brought to the table in addressing this issue. And I think he will say that the time is now for Congress to move ahead on legislation.
Q If I could follow up -- is there anything the White House can or should do at this point to nudge the process on the Hill?
MR. MCCURRY: Exactly those things that we've been doing: working hard on the Hill to bring our thinking to those drafting the legislation and, through the good offices of the President, building public support for what is surely a very important public health matter.
Q Mike, how does he feel about the Supreme Court's decision to tell the tobacco industry that they cannot hold back documents in the Minnesota case?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, if you recall, one of our principles in addressing this issue has been full public disclosure of information that sheds light on the practices of the industry in the past. And so that's a welcome decision, although it's one that was foreseen in the President's articulation of the principles that he brought in evaluating the proposed settlement last August.
Q Mike, a couple things -- as you know, Cardinal O'Connor had some very strong things to say yesterday about the President's taking of communion. In that light, I wanted to ask you three things. One, the Cardinal suggested that no one should take communion who's not in a state of grace. Did the President feel he was in a state of grace, one? Two, does he regret taking communion? And three, the White House suggested it had contact with officials at the church who thought it appropriate but the pastor has said he was not one of them. Can you give us some names of who said it was okay?
MR. MCCURRY: My understanding when we were there, as I indicated on Friday, I think -- Thursday last week -- was that our team on the ground indicated that the conference of bishops in South Africa had a more ecumenical view of the holy eucharist and had advised members of the traveling party it was appropriate for baptized Christians to share in communion. And the President acted on that guidance.
Q And on the other two points --
MR. MCCURRY: And that includes the priest, and I thought also the bishop who officiated as well, is my understanding, but we can double check that.
Q And in hindsight, does the President regret taking communion, and does he feel --
MR. MCCURRY: No, the President was happy to receive the invitation to participate and was glad that he did.
Q But, Mike, she asked a serious question because what the Cardinal said was that if you're in a state of grave sin, which seemed to be a reference to the President, that you ought not take communion.
MR. MCCURRY: I think that's an argumentative question. I think that the President was pleased to receive the invitation from the bishop and thought it was appropriate and took communion.
Q It's a question about what the Cardinal is saying.
MR. MCCURRY: Cardinal O'Connor may not be familiar with the doctrinal attitude towards the holy eucharist that the conference of bishops in South Africa brings to that question.
Q The South African bishops have apparently now criticized the minister for having offered communion to the President or permitted him to take it. Does the White House have any reaction?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware of that. That's contrary to the guidance that the President and his traveling delegation were given at the time of the service.
Q Well, apparently they say he was supposed to have asked the local bishop for permission before permitting the President to take communion.
MR. MCCURRY: Our understanding was that the invitation was extended on behalf of the Conference of South African Bishops.
Q Mike, can you be specific about who extended it?
MR. MCCURRY: I can find out if our advance people have got any idea who they spoke with.
Q As I understand it, only Catholics are supposed to receive Catholic communion. Did that come up in the President's mind?
MR. MCCURRY: That is the attitude and posture of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, but our understanding is that the Conference of Bishops in South Africa have a different view of holy communion.
Q Mike, have the White House lawyers worked at all with John Conyers' staff in any way at all in its preparation of letters to the Attorney General critical of her lack of supervision, in their view, of Ken Starr?
MR. MCCURRY: Not that I'm aware of, but you may want to double check with Jim Kennedy on that.
Q Is the President or his aides concerned at all about the Attorney General's handling of Ken Starr?
MR. MCCURRY: Not that I'm aware of, but you should contact Jim Kennedy.
Q What does the President want people to think when they see the Social Security forum tomorrow? Are people going to be looking for concrete ideas?
MR. MCCURRY: I think the President sees this as the beginning of the dialogue he suggested we need in this country on the future of one of the world's premier social insurance systems. There are a lot of questions about Social Security, related not only to the retirement income security of millions of Americans, but also all of the other things that the Social Security system does to protect the disabled, to protect those who lose parents and loved ones and who are in need of assistance. And the future of that system and how we structure its financing so it will last long, long, long into the next century is going to be a principal challenge that we face over the next several years.
The President believes that tomorrow we will open a discussion in which many are already bringing good ideas and constructive ideas about how to ensure the solvency of Social Security into the future. And the President has sort of two fundamental principles as we begin the conversation: one, that we do need to save any future federal budget surpluses to ensure that they are there and available as we deal with the questions of Social Security -- Social Security first, as he's argued; and second, that we need good bipartisan, common-sense solutions, that what we have to do is build a national consensus on the future of that program.
And the fact that there will be representation from both political parties and from many points of views and from groups that have sometimes taken contrary positions on the future of Social Security is a very hopeful thing.
Q Can I follow up on that? Isn't there a danger in a broad kind of formless discussion of all the problems of it, that people would be looking for some kind of hope that there -- they'll get tired of just the talk?
MR. MCCURRY: I think the future of Social Security has been an issue very much on the mind of the American public for well over a decade now. The different types of solutions that might present themselves have been discussed and debated to some degree or another going back to the early 1980s, and we have in the past acted when necessary to assure the solvency of the system and made modest changes in the program. And I think Americans now are anxious to hear what kind of changes -- if we need changes, what kind of improvements we can make to assure the solvency of the program.
I think the President is confident the kind of discussion that we are about to launch with the forum tomorrow will lead all Americans to a consensus view on how we proceed.
Q What about the commission what was supposed to be formed to look into this?
MR. MCCURRY: Each leader of Congress has designated representatives to participate. The AARP and the Concord Coalition together have structured these discussions which we believe can prove very useful in fashioning solutions, and the President has indicated he's prepared to move forward and to help mold that solution based in part on these discussions that will start tomorrow.
Q Mike, all of the weapons that were banned for import today can be manufactured domestically. In terms of guns on the street, what practical difference was made this morning?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I believe your background briefer gave you a good answer to that. I think that there is surely, based on the recommendations of the law enforcement communities that have to deal with gun violence in the streets -- felt strongly that this was a warranted step, and they are the ones who are in the best position to know exactly what kind of violence and what kind of human tragedy has been the result of some of these weapons.
Q It doesn't seem to take a single weapon off the street.
MR. MCCURRY: You had an expert here and I can't add to what --
Q That wasn't for camera, Mike.
MR. MCCURRY: I can't do any better than he did.
Q Can I just follow up, Mike? Why not ban domestic manufacturers from manufacturing the same thing that imported manufacturers --
MR. MCCURRY: The scope of the law that allowed us to issue this report and take this action is defined pretty clearly by Congress and we acted within the scope of that law.
Q This is for BBC Scotland; it's a serious question. Today is National Tartan Day, which was sponsored by --
MR. MCCURRY: National what?
Q Tartan Day. Do you know that? It is.
MR. MCCURRY: What day?
Q Tartan Day, pressed by Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich and it's on behalf of Scottish Americans.
MR. MCCURRY: They really are on recess, I think.
Q Can you give me some words, please, on that?
MR. MCCURRY: For all Americans -- (laughter) -- who share at least in some measure Scottish lineage and heritage, the wearing of tartans proudly to commemorate ethnic heritage is certainly something that the White House is pleased about. (Laughter.) There is no McCurry family tartan; otherwise, I would have worn -- since I have Campbell family background, I could have worn the Campbell tartan, which is quite lovely.
Q Do you foresee this becoming as big an event as St. Patrick's Day, which is the intention?
MR. MCCURRY: I doubt, at the moment, that it approaches the magnitude of St. Patrick's Day, but perhaps as the Scottish rise in their statements of national pride, perhaps one day it shall.
Q Albright is expected -- is it the same time as Ross?
MR. MCCURRY: Is she coming over tonight as part of it? I believe she's coming with Ambassador Ross this evening.
Q Will there be any coverage of that meeting?
MR. MCCURRY: As I said, Wolf, this is a meeting, really, to get Ambassador Ross's assessment. Obviously, we're not going to do that publicly, and I think some of the thinking and the evaluation based on that briefing will likely be shared first with the parties in the days ahead before it's shared publicly.
Q Can I go back to guns for one last try at this? If there was a car that was manufactured both in the U.S. and abroad that was killing people, you wouldn't merely ban the importation of the car -- you'd ban the whole thing. It doesn't seem to make much sense to ban imports when the same thing can be built here. Can you explain how that makes sense?
MR. MCCURRY: The sporting purposes test that was set forth in the law only applies to the importation of firearms. The Secretary does not have authority to stop the domestic production of weapons that do not meet the sporting purposes test. So it's within the nature of the law that the President acted under.
Q Right, which is why I asked originally, one would presume, then, that the administration would be going to Congress and saying, "You've got to stop this domestically, too."
MR. MCCURRY: I'll check and see if that's a discussion that's under consideration.
Q Attorney General Reno made direct reference to Jonesboro in her remarks this morning. Does the President feel that Americans should see what they're doing on assault weapons as a whole and relate that to people's fear?
MR. MCCURRY: I think the President's decision was certainly within the context of a nation that's still grieving over the incident in Jonesboro, but it began prior to that and it follows up on action the President has taken before, and while not necessarily directly related, it certainly is a decision that's made in that context.
Q Mike, does the President think that on Social Security a 2 percent privatization plan like Senator Moynihan is contemplating would wreck Social Security?
MR. MCCURRY: The President doesn't want to preempt any idea or any set of ideas coming forward at this point. We've said that Senator Moynihan has made an intriguing proposal that has many elements of what could be a comprehensive approach to long-term Social Security solvency. It does not necessarily mean it's the only approach that you could take, and the purpose of the discussions that we're about to begin tomorrow encourage many people with different views to come forward and to put ideas on the table from which we can fashion the kind of consensus that will lead us to a good long-term policy.
Q Mike, back on this communion flap again -- the doctrinal issues aside, the interpretation of different bishops, the Cardinal of New York seemed to be implying by raising the whole question of the state of grace that maybe the President wasn't in it. Do you have any reaction to the Cardinal making statements?
MR. MCCURRY: I think the Cardinal is reflecting church theology as it's interpreted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. I think the Cardinal has to do that for all of those who practice Catholicism both within his jurisdiction and within the United States, but that apparently is not necessarily the way it's viewed by other bishops in another conference elsewhere in the world.
Q Mike, if Congress sends the President a transportation bill that's $30 billion over the 1997 budget agreement and contains these almost 1,500 demonstration projects which have come under a lot of fire, would the President consider a veto?
MR. MCCURRY: What's the status of our statement of administration policy? Which level are we at?
MR. TOIV: We're working to improve that bill.
MR. MCCURRY: We're working to improve that bill and remain hopeful that we can achieve legislation which more closely resembles the President's own budget requests. We had called for an increase in funding for surface transportation, even levels that were somewhat beyond those foreseen in the balanced budget agreement. That is certainly not along the lines of the recently passed measure. That legislation has a long way to go and we've stressed our concerns about both the level of funding and also some of the discretionary aspects of projects that have been targeted. So it's got a long way to go before it's going to pass muster with the administration.
Q What's the overall assessment of the Africa trip? What would you say is the most significant accomplishment of the whole trip?
MR. MCCURRY: I'd say the President, as he indicated at the conclusion of the trip, believes many Americans now see Africa in a new light and see the potential and the opportunity that exists for closer engagement with Africa, commercially, through cultural exchanges, through the kinds of insights that we were given on the trip by those that hosted us and that the President met with. We see the opportunity for a new partnership.
I think many millions of Americans now see that as well, and many preconceived notions about Africa are beginning to evaporate, in part because of the good coverage that came about as a result of the trip and because more people became familiar with some of the opportunities that exist in Africa.
Q Just to follow that -- were any particular initiatives discussed with Yeltsin with respect to Africa?
MR. MCCURRY: Nothing specifically, other than the President's suggestion that because it had been a venue in the past in which Russians and Americans had contested geopolitically that now it is possible that it might now be a place where cooperation could bring fruitful result.
Q Mike, how does the White House feel about the new use of Tamoxifen as a breast cancer drug even though it has a fairly grave but rare side effect?
MR. McCURRY: Well, the Secretary of Health and Human Services is addressing exactly that at this moment, so I don't want to step on her words of wisdom. This is not a drug that will clearly be indicated in each and every case of breast cancer, but it is one that does offer hope and could offer hope to potentially thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of victims of this disease. Obviously it is a hopeful development but not one that should be read as a universal cure.
Q Mike, there's been a lot of focus on the gun control laws in Arkansas that would allow children so young to have guns. The President, of course, was governor of Arkansas for a long time. Does he have any problem with those gun control -- or lack of gun control laws? Does he think Arkansas needs tougher gun control laws?
MR. MCCURRY: I haven't had an opportunity to talk to him about it. I'll see if he's got any thoughts to share on that.
Q Mike, you said the President in his conversation with Boris Yeltsin pressed the need for Duma ratification of START II. Did President Yeltsin offer any response, any assessment of the prospects --
MR. MCCURRY: I would best leave that to the Russian government to express. But on many occasions, including this one, President Yeltsin has indicated his desire to move ahead, his understanding of how important it is for us to move ahead with implementation of START II so we can begin the discussions and lay the groundwork for a new round of arms reductions. And I think President Yeltsin gave every indication that he is hopeful that the Duma will act soon on the START II ratification.
Q You said the conversation was good and vigorous. Would you say that President Yeltsin was as vigorous as the conversation? (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: He gave every indication of being anxious to see President Clinton and to work on the matters of bilateral interest that we have on our agenda.
Q Mike, did Citicorp chairman John Reed speak with the President last night about the merger between Citicorp and Travelers? And what's the administration's position on Glass-Steagall in light of this proposed merger?
MR. MCCURRY: On the second question, I think some of our views on Glass-Steagall and the historic division between the banking and financial services sectors have been expressed by various administration officials who have testified on the Hill -- most recently, the Secretary of the Treasury. And I can refer you to them for his testimony. I do not know whether they spoke last night.
Q Mike, regarding the President's comments on Japan last Friday, a question on the minds of many Japanese is that though the President called Prime Minister Hashimoto an able leader who understands what needs to be done, Hashimoto has essentially enacted exactly what the bureaucrats have prescribed for the Japanese economy by raising taxes and not taking any action this year. The President said that the bureaucrats are the problem. Why doesn't the administration see Prime Minister Hashimoto as indecisive and being part of the same bureaucratic problem?
MR. MCCURRY: Because that's manifestly not the President's view. He indicated quite the contrary in his public remarks. He has a high degree of respect for the Prime Minister. He understands the Prime Minister's commitments and understands how hard the Prime Minister has worked to right the course of the Japanese economy. And the President wanted to pay tribute to the fine work of the Prime Minister.
He did describe the reality that exists and some of the impediments to that type of macroeconomic policy-making, and I think most experts concurred in the President's assessment.
Q Mike, one last thing on this -- does the President believe he was in a state of grace at the time of communion?
MR. MCCURRY: The state of grace, as it's -- the little I understand from Catholic theology, is defined differently in the Protestant tradition. Questions of grace are doctrinally perhaps different than they are in the Catholic tradition. I think ultimately it's a matter of personal faith and not a matter of public policy.
END 1:58 P.M. EDT