DC insider Helen Thomas shares her front-row view of presidential politics
on October 13, 2009
Every president since John F. Kennedy has answered to Helen Thomas, the political reporter staked out in the front row at White House press conferences for the last half-century. But last night at Mills College, Thomas was answering questions instead of asking them.
Famously tough with presidents, Thomas didn’t pull any punches when asked for her own opinions.
“I want to get out of the war, I want Congress to pass the public option [for health care] and I want the president to live up to his Nobel Peace Prize,” Thomas said to applause from the crowd of more than 300 in Littlefield Concert Hall.
On tour to promote her new book Listen Up, Mr. President, Thomas returned to the area where she recalled ordering “a Samoan Fog Cutter at Trader Vic’s” after covering Barry Goldwater at the 1964 Republican Convention in the Cow Palace. She joined Mills President Janet Holmgren and Oakland Congresswoman and Mills alumna Barbara Lee for a 90-minute discussion of contemporary Washington politics, the changing media landscape, and Thomas’ enduring contributions to American civic life.
“Helen, we commend you for opening doors for journalists and for asking probing questions that make a difference in the course of history,” Holmgren said.
In the event at California’s oldest women’s college, several people during the question-and-answer session acknowledged Thomas’ pioneering role as one of the few women in the Washington press corps in the 1950s and ’60s. Thomas described her early days in the capital as a time when reporters could stroll down the street with John F. Kennedy and get Vietnam briefings directly from Lyndon B. Johnson, but also a time when virtually all reporters and policymakers were men.
“Women have known tremendous unfairness,” Thomas said, citing the tireless efforts of suffragettes, and speaking in support of a proposed-but-not-ratified Equal Rights Amendment. “We’ve always had to fight for rights we should have been born with.”
Thomas said all 10 presidents she has covered have evaded her questions, but that John F. Kennedy was the most adept at parrying inquisitors with wit and humor. She described Jimmy Carter as the president who was “best at keeping facts and figures at his fingertips” and recalled flummoxing a “usually glib” Ronald Reagan with her question about the lack of a holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
She saved her harshest criticism for George W. Bush and said the most dramatic moment in her journalistic career came during his presidency.
“I asked President Bush why we invaded Iraq when every reason we heard [about the invasion] was untrue, and why after that everything went downhill,” she recalled. “When he was in office, everything came out ‘9/11,’ no matter what he did.”
Sharing the stage with Barbara Lee, one of Capitol Hill’s main supporters of a publicly run health care plan, Thomas encouraged President Obama to fight for his campaign promises and veto any health care legislation that does not include “Medicare for everyone.” A journalist best known for covering the White House, Thomas fired a playful shot at Congress.
“With one exception, Congress is terrible,” she joked, reaching out to pat Lee on the forearm.
Lee spoke warmly about her undergraduate days at Mills in the early 1970s, where as a young mother she earned a psychology degree. She said at Mills she was a “revolutionary” who didn’t think much of the political process until she went to a speech on campus by Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress. When Lee learned that Chisholm was running for president in 1972, she orchestrated Chisholm’s Northern California campaign effort out of her dorm room at Mills. It kept Lee from failing her one undergraduate political science class, where participation in a campaign was a requirement.
“I couldn’t campaign for Hubert Humphrey, McGovern or Muskie,” she said. “None of them spoke to me as a young African-American woman with two children.”
In a nod to Thomas’ many years of measured political coverage, Lee decried the proliferation of partisan blogs and Twitter. She said these more instantaneous forms of communication emphasize anecdotes over substance and “have no place in serious public policy debate.” Thomas, long known as “the dean of the White House press corps,” agreed.
“Anyone with a laptop thinks they’re a journalist and anyone with a telephone thinks they’re a reporter,” Thomas said as someone in the front row snapped a cell phone photo. “What people don’t understand about journalists is that we’re edited thoroughly. Once something is out there, you can’t pull it back. Real journalists have ethics and standards.”
Thomas recently earned headlines when she said the Obama administration was even less forthcoming with reporters than the famously secretive Nixon Administration. Last night, in her overall assessment of Obama’s first year in office, Thomas said she believes the president “needs more courage, but has a good conscience.” Regardless of her feelings about any president, Thomas vowed to keep digging for information she believes the American people have a right to know.
“I don’t worship at the shrine of any president,” Thomas said. “I am in awe of the office, but resent that presidents think that information that should be in the public domain is their private preserve.”
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