WASHINGTON--In possibly his final news conference from the White House. President Reagan said last night that "extraordinary things" have taken place between the superpowers in his second term, but he cautioned that the Soviets would retain military "superiority" even considering Mikhail S. Gorbachev's troop reduction pledge.
"The path remains open and the pace of peace continues," the president said in a nationally-televised news conference one day after his fifth and final summit with the Soviet leader.
In a session sprinkled with complimentary references to his summit partner, Reagan replied, "Yes, I do" when a questioner asked whether he believes Gorbachev is transforming the Soviet Union into a less threatening nation.
Reagan also said Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat did not make a clear-cut commitment to recognize the state of Israel despite a statement to that effect this week before the United Nations. The president said Arafat "left himself openings" on the subject.
It was Reagan's 46th news conference as president, held in a White House East Room decorated with Christmas trees.
He began with a quip--"Got to stop meeting like this"--and ended by wishing reporters a Merry Christmas.
Asked if there was hope for release of American hostages held captive in Lebanon, Reagan said he thought the United States eventually would have to negotiate "with Iran because they have control of" the kidnappers.
Concerning the prospect for negotiations with Iran, he said, "There are conditions that have to be met also there. Anytime that they are ready to come forward on an open basis, we would be ready to talk to them."
White House spokesperson Marlin Fitzwater elaborated later, "We'll be glad to talk, but we've never been able to get them to do that."
Reagan sidestepped a question about the war in Afghanistan, saying it would be unacceptable to stop arming the rebels there unless the Soviet-backed regime ended military operations. But he did not venture a detailed response to Gorbachev's call for a more comprehensive settlement to be sponsored by the United Nations.
He was asked to provide an unusual amount of reflection on his eight years in office.
He said his "greatest burden" was to have to order troops into "danger...to where their lives are threatened, to where their lives are taken." He later expanded that, noting the continued captivity of hostages in the Middle East.
His greatest joy, he said, was the economic recovery--the longest ever during peacetime.
Reagan, who leaves office January 20, said he would be "deeply disappointed" if President-elect George Bush raised taxes to help cut the deficit, which grew to $155 billion this year. But he quickly added, "I don't think it's going to happen."
Many other questions dealt with Gorbachev.
Asked directly whether he trusted the man he has met five times, the president said, "He hasn't shown me any reason yet why I shouldn't." But, he quickly said, his attitude was one of "trust but verify."
Regarding tough statements he made about the Soviet Union in his first news conference as president in 1981, Reagan said in exasperation, "That was four leaders back before this one. I think there have been some changes." He had said in 1981 that the Soviets reserved the right to "lie and cheat and do anything else to achieve their ends." Since then, three Soviet leaders have died--Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko.