April 10, 2007

'First Lady of the Press' Characterizes Past Presidents

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Helen Thomas, tough-talking journalist and one of the first female members of the White House Press Corps, spoke to a packed Statler Auditorium last night at a lecture organized by the Cornell Political Coalition.
Thomas, whose career has spanned over 55 years and nine presidencies, was critical from her opening remarks, condemning the United States’ involvement in Iraq, President Bush’s “primitive drive for war” and the American public’s toleration of the “dumbing-down of our country.”
“It is wrong to ask the ultimate sacrifice without a good reason, and we have yet to hear that, because truth has taken a holiday in this war,” Thomas said.
She went on to question why the United States, “the world’s only major military superpower,” would attack an economically sanctioned third-world country.
“We had a choke hold on Iraq, they couldn’t make a move,” Thomas said.
Thomas also implicated the United States’ economic sanctions in the deaths of thousands of Iraqi children.
“They say a quarter of a million children died because they couldn’t get medicines for ordinary illnesses,” Thomas said. “As you can tell, I’m against the invasion and occupation of Iraq. It is illegal, it’s immoral and unconscionable to wage a war against a country that did nothing to us.”
Thomas went on to laud the recent progress made in bringing more diversity to the political arena, citing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s entry into the 2008 presidential race, but expressed concern over the trend of focusing on “the obscene amount of money” necessary for fundraising rather than on policy.
After a brief commentary on the current race for president, though, Thomas quickly returned to the Iraq War, proposing military withdrawal and saying, “We are exacerbating the situation. We should be saving lives.”
Thomas also called upon journalists, who she characterized as cowed to submissiveness by the attacks of 9/11, and moderate or “chicken” Democrats to check the power of the “very imperial presidency, apparently answerable to no one.”
“I think a president should be open to more dissent,” Thomas told The Sun.
When asked how she felt when she was not called on at a presidential press conference for the first time in over 40 years, Thomas replied, “I like to be called on because I have lots of questions, but that’s his privilege.”
“We in the press are the only institution in our society that can question a president on a regular basis and hold him accountable,” Thomas said. “It’s the greatest profession in the world. It’s a search for the truth.”
Towards the end of her speech, Thomas gave succinct evaluations of each of the nine presidents she covered during her career in the White House Press Corps. She called John F. Kennedy “the most inspired” saying, “He set goals for us, he gave us hope,” lauded Lyndon Johnson for his revolutionary domestic policies, including the establishment of Medicare, environmental laws, The Civil Rights Act of 1965 and federal aid for education, and pegged Clinton as “charismatic,” but in spite of his efforts toward peace in the Middle East and Northern Ireland, “he missed his chance for greatness, I believe, because of his liaison with an intern, and for being demonized.” Finally, of George W. Bush she said, “He’s a conservative all the way. He tore down the separation of church and state, setting up for the first time in history, a religious office in the White House. He wanted to be known as a wartime president. He is.”
Thomas ended her speech on a lighthearted note, shooting off anecdotes from her years in the White House.
“President Ford likened my questions to acupuncture,” she said. “And he said that if God had created the world in six days, on the seventh day he could not have rested. He would have had to explain it to Helen Thomas.”
“I was surprised she was so candid … she didn’t try to conceal her opinions” said Alex Patriquin grad, a second year student at the Johnson Graduate School of Business Management.
“I wasn’t that surprised,” said Ben Ware ’08, co-president of the Cornell Political Coalition. “Many other reporters that might be a little bit younger than she is, just starting out, [might be] a little more cautious. Helen Thomas doesn’t need to prove anything. She’s the veteran, she’s the dean of the White House Press Corp, and she has a right to call it like it is.”
“We try to bring speakers from different sides, not necessarily apolitical,” said Cornell Political Coalition co-president Everet Yi ’08. “Two years ago we had a third-party presidential debate, we’ve brought representatives from the libertarian party, the Green Party. We’ve had Rick Lazio, who was a Republican that ran against Hillary Clinton. We wanted to foster discussion, and we want people to be aware of issues affecting this country.”
“I think it was a success and I really appreciate everyone coming and hope they got something out of it,” Ware said.