Those defending President Obama’s controversial address to school students this week are pointing out that past U.S. presidents like George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan also spoke to school children during their presidencies as well. In 1988, Mr. Reagan not only spoke to jr. high school students about American history in the East Room of the White House but also answered their questions. These questions were not exactly softball oriented either. Topics ranged from race to gun control to taxes. President Reagan’s address was telecast in classrooms all over the country. C-SPAN has the video (embedded above). Here is an excerpt of the transcript:
Q. Hi. My name is Ben Allnutt. I go to Poolesville Junior-Senior High School. I was wondering if the younger generation today is going to have to pay for the world debt in years to come?
The President. No, I don’t believe that it is that big a problem. You mean our Federal deficit? No, I think that with this thing we have going along — yes, there will be a time when in the future, when government bonds come due and so forth — whether it be the taxpayers at that time that are paying them off. But if we can get this plan we’re working on into effect, that will come along gradually as those bonds come due. And that, I don’t think, will be a great threat to our economy. Truth of the matter is, bad as our Federal debt is, it is much milder than many other countries as a percentage of our gross national product.
Q. My name is Cameron Fitzhugh, and I’m from St. Agnes School in Alexandria, Virginia. I was wondering if you think that it’s possible to decrease the national debt without raising the taxes of the public?
The President. I do. That’s a big argument that’s going on in government. And I definitely believe it is because one of the principal reasons that we were able to get the economy back on track and create those new jobs and all was we cut the taxes. We reduced them because, you see, the taxes can be such a penalty on people that there’s no incentive for them to prosper and earn more and so forth because they have to give so much to the Government. And what we have found is that at the lower rates the Government gets more revenue. There are more people paying taxes because there are more people with jobs. And there are more people willing to earn more money because they get to keep a bigger share of it.
So, today, we’re getting more revenue at the lower rates than we were at the higher. And you know something, I studied economics in college when I was young, and I learned there about a man named ibn-Khaldun, who lived 1,200 years ago in Egypt. And 1,200 years ago, he said, “In the beginning of the empire, the rates were low. The tax rates were low, but the revenue was great.” He said, “In the end of the empire, when the empire was collapsing, the rates were great, and the revenue was low.” So — all right.
Minority Educational Opportunities
Q. My name is Crystal Adair, and I’m an eighth grader attending Jefferson Junior High School. And my question is: Mr. President, for past years, the educational opportunities for blacks and other minorities has not been — there hasn’t been a great deal of them. And I want to know, during your term in office, what have you done to increase those educational opportunities for us?
The President. Well, we have vastly increased the amount of Federal money that is going into education, although remember that education has always been in the province of the State and the local communities. So, the share of cost of education is not as great for the Federal Government, but we have increased it. We’ve increased the money that is available for scholarships and for workfare programs for students that have to work their way through, as I did, and also for loan funds for students.
I can assure you that, with regard to any hint of discrimination, we have done more than any other generation — or administration, I should say, to punish those who attempt to discriminate and to make sure that the opportunities are equal for all. And one of the great things that our administration did when we came in here was immediately turn on to helping something that I think is historically wonderful in our country,and that is the Negro private colleges and universities. And in fact, we helped one of them out that was facing bankruptcy, and bailed it out so that now they are proceeding in a better situation than they’ve had in the past. But those opportunities are there.
Back there, the young man in the back row, and then I’ll take you in the sweater.
U.S. Space Program
Q. Stuart Washington from Jefferson Junior High School. Mr. President, do you wish to accelerate the rebirth of our National Aeronautical and Space Administration, also known as NASA?
The President. Yes, I think the new frontier in the whole world is out there in space. And we’ve made such progress in it, and it has proved so rewarding. This isn’t talked about much, and many of you probably don’t realize that experiments conducted on the shuttle when they’re up there in space — on all kinds of things that had nothing to do with space — have brought benefits to us back here. Firemen, for example — a fireproof fabric has changed and made their fireproof garments that they have to wear in battling a fire much lighter — and that they can do that. Medicines — certain medicines in which only up in the gravity-free space can they achieve certain mixtures. And they’ve come up with things that have been beneficial in that way. So, this is very important that we continue to do this. We were set back by the Challenger tragedy, but we must continue.
Q. My name is Chris Allen. I’m from Poolesville Junior-Senior High School. I was just wondering what you and Mrs. Reagan feel about the new gun ban law.
The President. What we feel about the new — —
Q. Gun ban law.
The President. The gun — —
The President. Gun ban? Well, I think there has to be some control. But I thought that in California we had a system that probably was the best. I have never felt that we should, for the law-abiding citizens, take the gun away from them and make it impossible to have one. I think the wrong people will always find a way to get one. But what we had was — even if today when I go back to California, if I want a gun and go in a store to buy a gun, I have to give them the money, but I have to wait a week, no matter who I am. I have to wait a week and come back then to get the gun, because in that week, my name is presented to investigative element there in the State that checks to make sure that I have no criminal record, that I have no record of mental problems or anything of the kind. Then, and only then, can you pick up the gun and take it with you.
But if I could, I know we’re running out of time, but let me just tell you something that — I got the strangest letter when I was Governor. There was talk about having a gun ban in California. It didn’t go through. But I got a letter from a man in San Quentin prison, and from the prison he wrote me the letter to tell me he was in there for burglary. He was a burglar. And he said, “I just want you to know that if that law goes through, here in San Quentin there will be celebrating throughout the day and night by all the burglars who are in prison because” he said, “we can watch a house we plan to rob for days. We can learn the habits of the people living in that house, to know when is the best time to go in and be a burglar — rob it.” He said, “The only question we can never answer is: Does the man in that house have a gun in the drawer by his bed?” He said, “That’s a risk we have to run.” He said, “If you tell us in advance they won’t have a gun in that drawer by their bed,” he said, “the burglars in here will be celebrating forevermore.”
I thought he made kind of some common sense. And I don’t know why to this day he ever chose to send the letter to me.