President Reagan, with the hostage crisis in Beirut overshadowing his trip to Texas to promote his tax plan, lashed out Friday at “uncivilized barbarians” who commit murder, hijackings and kidnaping and insisted that they “will never weaken our resolve to resist terrorism.”
Although he clearly hoped to keep the focus of the trip on his tax proposal, Reagan took time out to meet with and reassure the families of three of the 40 Americans being held hostage from the TWA jetliner.
Reagan and national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane met with 14 members of the families of Allyn B. Conwell, a Houston oil man who has acted as spokesman for the captives; of Vicente Garza, a Laredo, Tex., real estate developer, and of Robert Trautmann, Garza’s son-in-law. White House officials released few details of the session and said the families had asked that their conversations with Reagan remain private.
Included in the group were Irma Garza and Irma Trautmann, the hostages’ wives, who had themselves been briefly held when Flight 847 was first seized June 14. They were among the first group of passengers freed by the terrorists.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes said that the two former hostages, fighting back tears, embraced Reagan.
In trying not to appear mired in a crisis over which he has limited control, Reagan made only a brief reference to the plane’s hijacking in his 20-minute speech to a Lions Club International convention.
The President, also mentioning the killings Wednesday of four off-duty U.S. Marines and two American businessmen in El Salvador, pledged to proceed cautiously and said the United States will continue to act with “appropriate restraint.”
Invokes Teddy Roosevelt
But it was his tougher talk that ignited a long burst of applause and cheering from the crowd of about 15,000.
“Let no one doubt our resolve,” Reagan said. “Those who commit such crimes should be aware of the truth of President Theodore Roosevelt’s observation: ‘The American people . . . are slow to wrath, but once their wrath is kindled, it burns like a consuming flame.’ ” The statement was part of Roosevelt’s first annual address to Congress, delivered Dec. 3, 1901, three months after Roosevelt’s predecessor, William McKinley, was assassinated.
Otherwise, Reagan focused most of his speech on tax simplification, a cause he has taken to almost a dozen cities in the last few weeks.
Reagan is trying to drum up enough grass-roots support to overwhelm special interest groups that are expected to try to dismantle his plan, piece by piece, on Capitol Hill. The plan aims to lower overall tax rates by eliminating many popular deductions--most of which have large and powerful constituencies behind them.
“The mind-boggling system of itemized deductions, special credits and exclusions will go through a major simplification and reform,” Reagan said. “The result will be a simpler and fairer system that will enable our economy to grow more competitive and our people to prosper.”
‘All in Our Power’
The families of the hostages had been brought to the site of the convention, Reunion Arena, for their meeting with Reagan.
“The President told them we are doing all in our power to get (the hostages) back and told them of all our efforts, including our diplomatic efforts, to get them back,” said a White House spokesman, Alfred R. Brashear. However, he added that the President had not detailed the more sensitive aspects of the U.S. effort to the families. Reagan reportedly talked with the family members for about 20 minutes, and McFarlane stayed another 15 minutes.
Diana Conwell, sister-in-law of hostage Conwell, said in a telephone interview: “We were encouraged by what he had to say. . . . (Reagan) answered whatever questions we had. He listened. He also told us things without us asking. We felt he was totally straightforward with us--as much as he could be.”
Speakes said Reagan is “operating on an even keel, no matter what the workload is.” Describing Reagan as determined and hopeful, Speakes said the President has not lost track of domestic issues as he tries to grapple with the hostage crisis.
Burden of Comparison
In this, Reagan appears to be making a strong effort to avoid comparison with former President Jimmy Carter, whose Administration was widely perceived as having been paralyzed during the 1979-1981 holding of U.S. hostages in Iran.
Carter, whose handling of the crisis Reagan had criticized as a “humiliation and a disgrace,” issued a statement from his home in Plains, Ga., on Friday, urging Americans to give their “full support and encouragement” to Reagan.
“I know from personal experience how difficult it is to deal with the kidnaping and prolonged holding of innocent Americans,” Carter said.
“Under such circumstances, our leaders have a dual responsibility--to guard the honor and interests of our nation and to protect the lives and safety of the hostages while doing our utmost to secure their early release.”
Times staff writer Marlene Cimons contributed to this story.