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April 11, 2007

Press' Grand Dame Coming to McDaniel

Kevin E. Dayhoff

A curmudgeon without peer, a celebrated author, a reporter who covered the White House through nine presidents, and now a columnist with the Hearst organization, Helen Thomas could easily be called the press' grand dame.

In one of many recent sharp exchanges with White House press secretaries, in July 2006, Tony Snow responded to one of her soliloquies, which currently passes as a question, with "Thank you (Helen) for the Hezbollah view."

Political commentator Greg Tinti wrote about that exchange between Mr. Snow and Ms. Thomas in a July 18 piece, remarking that it was "old school Helen Thomas, trying to 'Scott McClellan' Tony Snow. And somehow Tony has already mastered the art of dealing with the queen of combativeness and irrationality. It's really quite impressive."

In reality, Ms. Thomas, who was born August 4, 1920, has been excoriating presidents and press secretaries for five decades. She was born in Winchester, KY, the daughter of Lebanese parents, but she grew up in Detroit.

After earning her bachelor's degree from Wayne University in 1942, she briefly worked for The Washington Daily Times before joining United Press International in 1943, initially to write copy for their radio wire service. Until 1960 she covered the various federal agencies.

Over the years she has accomplished a number of "firsts." In 1972, she was the only woman journalist to accompany President Richard M. Nixon on his groundbreaking trip to China. She served as president of the Women's National Press Club from 1959 to 1960, was the first woman member of the Gridiron Club, was the first woman officer of the National Press Club, and was the first woman member and first female president of the White House Correspondents Association.

The author of four books, she worked for United Press International for 57 years until May 17, 2000, when she quietly left in protest over the wire service's purchase by the conservative "News World Communications," which also owns "The Washington Times."

Known as the "Sitting Buddha" in her early years, she began covering President John F. Kennedy just after his election in November 1960 and has covered nine presidents.

Since she became a columnist with King Features Syndicate, which is owned by the Hearst Corporation, she has been making the news almost as much as she reports it.

In a November 2002 lecture at the Massachusetts' Institute of Technology (MIT,) a published account quoted her as saying, "I censored myself for 50 years when I was a reporter. Now I wake up and ask myself, 'Who do I hate today?' "

"Her short list of answers seems not to vary from war, President Bush, timid office-holders, a muffled press and cowed citizens, pretty much in that order," wrote Sarah H. Wright, after the event, in an article entitled, "Journalist Helen Thomas condemns Bush administration."

Ms. Wright quoted Ms. Thomas demanding: "Where is the outrage? Where is Congress? They're supine!"

In a March 12, 2003, article in "Slate" by Jack Shafer, entitled, "Screw You, Mr. President," he observed, ". her loathing for Bush is palpable. 'This is the worst president ever,' she told the Torrance, Calif., Daily Breeze in January. 'He is the worst president in all of American history.'"

She then told "The Hill," "The day Dick Cheney (runs) for president, I'll kill myself. All we need is another liar..."

Mr. Shafer's scathing rebuke concluded: "Which brings us to the saddest part of Thomas' decline: She often raises serious questions that are on lots of people's minds-questions that other critical journalists in the press corps might want to pose. But when spoken by Thomas' lecturing lips first, the questions sound absurd. She ends up taking the air out of the room for intelligent criticism of the president and helps make the press corps look like a Saturday Night Live skit."

In the not-too-distant past she maintained a particularly contentious relationship with White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. Mr. Fleischer singled Ms. Thomas out in numerous references in his book, "Taking Heat: The President, the Press, and My Years in the White House."

According to Baltimore Sun reporter Arin Gencer, in an article about her upcoming lecture at McDaniel College in Westminster, wrote: "Terry A. Dalton, an English and journalism professor at McDaniel, had originally called Thomas 'out of the blue' to see if she would visit his media and politics class."

Professor Dalton had assigned a class Mr. Fleischer's book and "he wondered whether Thomas would be willing to come and give students her side of the story," according to the Sun article.

If Professor Dalton is bringing Ms. Thomas to McDaniel so that she may give McDaniel journalism students advice, insight as to what she will say can be found in her November 2002 MIT presentation: "Asked to advise young journalists, Thomas pounced. 'Remind the politicians you interview that you pay them, that they are public servants. Remember every question is legitimate. And don't give up. There's always a leak. There's always someone who's trying to save the country,' she said."

Liberals love her. Conservatives find her cringe-worthy at best. Ms. Thomas will probably be a hit at McDaniel. But, considering her 63 years of accomplishment and clout, she remains a formidable force in the current discussion and dialogue over the George W. Bush presidency and the global war on terrorism. And she may single-handedly "save the country" herself, whether or not the country knows that it needs to be saved.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:

(Editor's Note: Ms. Thomas is slated to lecture at McDaniel College in Westminster tomorrow evening. Her presentation, "From JFK to George W.: Holding their feet to the fire, Helen-style," is free and open to the public. The lecture will take place at 7:30 P.M. in the McDaniel College's Forum, located in Decker Center.)

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