Helen Thomas

Nov 24, 2003

Helen Thomas, the long-time UPI White House correspondent, spoke at the UNC j-school tonight as part of the Park Lecture Series. She was brilliant. She stepped up to the microphone and launched into a diatribe agains the follies of the Bush Administration’s Iraq war (read the Nov. 24th New Yorker for a long article about the mess in Iraq), and then pulled in the reins to give the lecture promised by the publicity: “Covering History from President Kennedy to President Bush II.” She told many of the same anecdotes that she wrote about in her books and delivered at theNational Press Club (listen here), including these about Miss Lillian Carter.

On journalism, she had this to say: “It’s a great profession. The second oldest.”

See the story I wrote as an assignment for newswriting class this past summer (it’s based on the speech she gave to the Press Club, linked above):

Newswoman Helen Thomas, in a speech to the National Press Club in Washington Tuesday, reflected on her tenure of more than 40 years as White House correspondent for United Press International, saying it had been a privilege “to have a ringside seat to instant history.”

Thomas recalled details from each of the eight presidents she covered, including how she covered the birth of John F. Kennedy, Jr. and the Bible study teaching of then President-elect Jimmy Carter.

“Presidents should be questioned early and often,” she said, explaining that the press, though never well-liked by politicians or citizens, plays an important role in keeping the spotlight on government leaders.

“We know we won’t win any popularity contests – but so what,” she said. “We’re the self-appointed, self-anointed watchdogs of democracy.”

Thomas covered eight presidents starting with John F. Kennedy. She is best known as a tough questioner and the most senior reporter whose responsibility it is to end presidential press conferences with the polite but strong “Thank you, Mr. President.”

President Gerald Ford once described Thomas as having “finely balanced journalism and acupuncture” with her ability to ask incisive questions. She told the National Press Club audience that reporters have an obligation to keep presidents honest.

She covered the first ladies as well. “All the first ladies rose to occasion and made great contributions,” she said. But it is the president’s press secretary that has the second-toughest job in the White House, said Thomas.

“The press secretary is the voice of the president, the federal government and the nation, but also the pipeline to the press and the American people,” she said.

Thomas retired from UPI in May 2000. She currently covers the White House as a columnist for Hearst Newspapers. She was a recipient of the National Press Club’s Fourth Estate Award that honors distinguished contributions to journalism.

“Helen Thomas is the first lady of American journalism,” said the man who introduced her Tuesday.

Anton Zuiker

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