WALLA WALLA, Wash.— White House Press Corps veteran Helen Thomas, who has covered every president from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, reviewed all of them in her Hosokawa Lecture Wednesday night at Cordiner Hall.
JFK, in Thomas’ estimation, was “the most inspired.” Lyndon Johnson was “bigger than life.” Richard Nixon “always had to two roads to go, and always took the wrong one.” Gerald Ford “restored confidence” to the presidency. Jimmy Carter made human rights “the centerpiece” of his administration. George W. Bush made “a religious office of the White House,” Thomas said.
Keen of mind and full of wit, Thomas recalled a moment in Johnson’s administration when his speechwriter delivered a draft that included an observation by Voltaire. “Voltaire? Nobody knows Voltaire,” Johnson said. When LBJ delivered the speech, he declared, “As my dear old daddy used to say . . . .”
A large crowd of Whitman students, faculty, staff and Walla Walla residents heard Thomas lament America’s fall from grace in the eyes of the world. “We’ve lost our halo,” she said, citing the “illegal” war in Iraq and "the hustling for deep pockets" by politicians.
Thomas’ words clearly resonated with her audience, most of whom were not even born before she began a 57-year career in the Washington bureau of United Press International.
“It’s discouraging for our country to be involved in something as contrived as the war in Iraq, but we’re lucky to have a Helen Thomas to make us aware,” said first-year student Christina Russell.
In her no-nonsense way, Thomas pointed a finger of responsibility at her own colleagues, the Washington press corps. Reporters covering the White House and the Iraq war, she said, are only now “coming out of (their) coma.”
In a lighter moment at the beginning of her talk, Thomas noted that she’d done her homework about Walla Walla before her visit to Whitman. “I’m ready to taste your wine,” she said gleefully.
A question-and-answer session followed her lecture. “What question that you’ve asked a president have you regretted?” Thomas was asked. “None,” she replied.
President George Bridges noted a survey in which the vast majority of print editors expressed a clear preference to hire young reporters with credentials from a liberal arts college rather than a journalism school. “Could you explain why that might be?” Bridges asked.
Thomas said that, while the “mechanics” taught in journalism schools are essential, reporters are “generalists whose knowledge has to be broad.” “Latitude and breadth of education are very important,” she said. “Journalists know a little about a lot.”
Whitman Assistant Professor of History Elyse Semerdjian and IT Services consultant Bryan Lubbers spoke for many in the audience — an audience that saluted Thomas with a standing ovation before she spoke a word — as they waited in line for her to sign a copy of her new book, “Watchdogs of Democracy.”
“Helen Thomas for president,” Semerdjian quipped.
“She’s a great representative of what used to be the fourth branch of government in this country,” said Lubbers. “I only hope that students in particular were listening carefully to what she had to say.”
Office of Communications, Whitman College