THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT, SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS TOGO WEST, AND DEPUTY SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS HERSHEL GOBER The South Portico
12:26 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon. I want to say a few words in a moment about Togo West and Hershel Gober, and the Department of Veterans Affairs and its mission. But first, I'd like to make one brief announcement.
Since March, I have asked Congress to establish a home heating oil reserve in the Northeast to reduce the chance that future shortages will hurt consumers, as they did last winter. Congress recently, again, has failed to act, and time is running out. Winter may seem far off on this hot day, but if we don't do something now, reserve stocks of heating oil may not be in place before the cold weather comes.
That's why today, I am taking action to establish a home heating oil reserve to help families avoid higher energy costs this winter. First, I'm directing Secretary Richardson to exchange crude oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve for two million barrels of home heating oil to store in the Northeast.
Second, we're taking steps to establish this reserve on a permanent basis. The action I take today will leave us far better prepared to face the winter months. But it does not relieve Congress of the responsibility to act. So I renew my call to Congress: Please, provide the authority so we can tap into this new home heating oil reserve when we need it. Take up my energy budget initiatives and the tax incentives. Pass comprehensive electricity restructuring. Reauthorize the strategic petroleum reserve.
These are things Congress can do right now to build a better, safer, more secure and more affordable energy future. I ask them again to do their part to increase our energy supply, protect the environment, increase energy conservation and keep our economy strong.
This morning, I accepted the decision of Togo West to step down as Secretary of Veterans Affairs by month's end, after more than two years of effective leadership on behalf of America's our 25 million veterans and their families.
Every day, in every way, Togo West has given his all to make sure America does right by our men and women who have served us in uniform. As Secretary of the Army at the beginning of our administration, Togo West was known as a "soldier's Secretary." His leadership helped make the Army part of the best-trained, best-equipped, most potent fighting force in the world. He took special care to make sure that America took good care of our Army families. And he brought that same sense of purpose to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Under his leadership, the VA has begun to confront some long-neglected problems head on -- reaching out to more than 400,000 veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange; pressing for answers to the Gulf War Syndrome and proper care for those who suffer from it; beginning the process of building five new national cemeteries, the most since the Civil War; and making a special effort to bring homeless veterans back into the society they did so much to defend.
His leadership and devotion to our veterans helped improve lives and make this country a better place. And on behalf of all Americans, Togo, I want to thank you for more than a quarter century of service and selfless devotion to our nation.
To carry forward the vital work of the Department of Veterans Affairs, I turn to one who knows the work and the mission of the VA as well or better than anyone ever has, Deputy Secretary Hershel Gober. You all know we've been friends for many years. He did a suburb job as the State Director of Veterans Affairs in Arkansas when I served as Governor. He did a superb job as Acting Director between the tenures of Secretary Jesse Brown and Togo West. There are few people in our country who have ever been as prepared for a job as Hershel Gober is for this one.
He has an ear for the needs of our veterans because he has the heart of a solider. A veteran of both the Army and the Marine Corps, Hershel Gober served two terms in Vietnam, earning the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, and the Soldier's Medal. A few years ago, I was honored that he agreed to head a delegation back to Vietnam to seek the fullest possible accounting of our men and women still missing in uniform.
Hershel has already made his mark on the critical issue of veterans' health care. Early in our administration, he came to me and recommended that we look for ways to bring health care closer to the veterans to need it. Since then, we've opened more than 200 out-patient clinics all across America, and have more planned this year. That's one of the big reasons we were able to treat -- listen to this -- 400,000 more veterans last year than we did the year before.
Hershel Gober has been a strong partner for both Secretary Brown and Secretary West. He will serve in a great tradition, and I thank him for agreeing to do so. Now I'd like to ask them to say a few words, beginning with Secretary West.
SECRETARY WEST: Thank you, Mr. President, and congratulations to you, Hershel. I think Hershel is a fine choice for the job he's being asked to take on.
I have been privileged to serve in all or part of each of the eight years of this historic administration. My wife -- who's not here today -- she's in Santa Barbara, looking after an ill sister -- and I will cherish the memory of every one of those years.
As President Clinton's Secretary of the Army, it was my privilege to work with America's finest, our men and women in uniform, and the families and civilians that support them. The power generated by the intelligence, competence and dedication of America's soldiers, sailors, Marines, Air Force personnel and Coast Guard personnel will remain in my memory always. As Secretary of Veterans Affairs, the President enabled me to give life and expression to his and the nation's gratitude for the service of her veterans and the sacrifices of their families.
A nation is defined, as are people, by those who love her. Never has a nation been better loved, never has a nation been better served, never has love through service been more clearly expressed than in the fidelity and patriotism of America's veterans.
In this next chapter of our lives, my wife and I will be eternally grateful that we have had this opportunity to serve. We'll be forever grateful for the leadership of this extraordinarily gifted President. And we'll be forever grateful that we are part of this great nation.
With admiration and unbounded respect, I thank those who have worked with me in the Department of Veterans Affairs and in the Department of Defense -- especially Deputy Secretary Gober; I thank those who have supported us in the Congress and in the Veterans service organizations; and I especially thank my President for these eight glorious years.
Thank you all.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, bless you.
DEPUTY SECRETARY GOBER: Thank you, Mr. President, for the opportunity and for the chance to say a few words.
First, I'd like to thank Secretary West for his -- I would like to also thank Secretary West for his distinguished career and dedication to his country, and wish him the very best in the future.
I want to assure you, Mr. President, and all the veterans of this nation, that each morning when I get out of the bed I will be thinking about what can I do for veterans today. And also, I'm very proud to have actually have worked for you for 15 years.
The Clinton-Gore administration has a remarkable record of achievement on veterans' issues. We have done much of what we set out to do. In fact, Mr. President, you've kept all of your campaign promises. Every veteran in America, honorably discharged, can be in a VA hospital today and receive quality care. We now have over 1,200 locations where veterans can be treated.
And, actually, Mr. President, since we came into office, we've put in over 400 out-patient clinics. I know it's not a good policy to correct you, but I want you to get credit for it.
THE PRESIDENT: You can always do that.
DEPUTY SECRETARY GOBER: We've done remarkable -- there is still much to be done. We have to continue to fight for the men and women who serve this country. And every day, if everyone out there would realize when you get up and you see this great economy, you see this great freedom you have, you see everything is going so great in this country, it's because of a veteran, because veterans are willing to put their lives on the line.
You know, when I travel across the country -- and I know the President has had this happen to him, too, because you sent me notes about it -- veterans come up and they say, thank you for what you're doing for us. And I tell them, you don't owe me any thanks; how can I give you something or do something for you that you have already earned.
And, Mr. President, I pledge that until the day we leave this office that I will continue to represent you and to represent the veterans of America. And I'm delighted to have this opportunity to serve once again. Thank you, sir.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you.
Q Mr. President, the Israeli government is falling apart. How is Barak going to be able to negotiate a peace?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first, I think it's important to note that, as the news reports this morning in Israel reflect, a solid majority of the people want him to come and want him to pursue peace.
Look, if this were easy it would have been done a long time ago. This is difficult. It is perhaps the most difficult of all the peace problems in the world, certainly dealing with the most difficult issues of the whole Middle East peace process, on which I have worked for nearly eight years now. But both Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat have the vision, the knowledge, the experience and the ability and the shear guts to do what it takes, I think, to reach an agreement, and then to take it back to their people and see if they can sell it.
And keep in mind, Prime Minister Barak has said that the people of Israel will have their say on this. So this is really, I think, a matter of trying to come to grips with the issues on the merits, asking whether the price of peace is greater than the price of continued conflict, and all the associated difficulties and heartbreaks and uncertainties and insecurity that that carries.
And I'm going to do my best to help them. I admire both of them for coming. It's not easy for either to come. But they have come because they think that the price of not doing it is greater than the risk of going forward. And I hope we'll have the thoughts and prayers and best wishes of all Americans. It's going to be a difficult process. But the fact that they're coming means that we still have a chance.
Q Mr. President, given the fact that these are the most difficult issues, do you think you can do this in just eight days? And would you consider delaying your trip or abandoning your trip to Japan?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, let me say, just because they're difficult doesn't mean they're not understood. I mean, I would say the answer to that would clearly be, no, if this were happening in 1993 or '94. But an enormous amount of time and thought has gone into this. I think both sides have a pretty clear idea of what the various options are.
And I don't want to set an artificial deadline for these talks. But I think that they need to listen to each other, and I need to listen to them, and we need to get right after it, because it's not as if we don't know what's out there to be done. And this has been simmering on the stove for some years now, and I think we understand generally what the options are and we'll go there and go to work, do our very best.
END 12:40 P.M. EDT