Yale Bulletin and Calendar

November 22-December 6, 1999Volume 28, Number 14

Poynter Fellow Helen Thomas (right), who has covered the White House for over 30 years, chats with Stephanie Hanes during a master's tea at Ezra Stiles College.

Media's quest for truth vital to U.S. society, says Thomas

When Ronald Reagan was informed during his presidency that a helicopter carrying a U.S. press corps had been fired on by Sandinistas on the Nicaragua/Honduras border, he quipped, "There's some good in everyone," recalled veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas during her Poynter Fellowship lecture on Nov. 17.

No president since the days of George Washington has ever had a great affection for the press, Thomas said, but, on the other hand, the reporters who cover the nation's leaders "aren't trying to win any popularity contests." The press, she stated, has a much more important function: By keeping a "constant spotlight on public officials," it helps "lessen possibility of corruption."

"We are the self-appointed watchdogs of democracy," Thomas told her audience in the Law School's Levinson Auditorium. "Our Holy Grail is to search for the truth."

The presidential press conference, she noted, is "indispensable" in American society. "It's the only institution in our society where the president gets questioned on a regular basis and held accountable."

Thomas' visit to campus was sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship, which brings to the University writers, editors and others who have made important contributions to the media.

In her talk, Thomas shared her memories and some of the highlights of her nearly 40-year career as a White House correspondent for United Press International, during which she covered eight presidents and numerous White House controversies. The award-winning journalist, who broke many gender barriers in her field, said she has felt "greatly privileged" over the years to have a "ringside seat to instant history" in the White House.

To the laughter of her audience, Thomas recalled comments that the presidents she has covered made about the press. John F. Kennedy, the first president she reported on, said about newspaper coverage, "I'm reading more and enjoying it less." Lyndon B. Johnson revealed his feelings in a comment that is "unprintable," Thomas said. And when a press corps once walked into the Cabinet Room where Richard M. Nixon was working, he said, "It's only coincidental that we're talking about pollution when the press walks in," Thomas recounted.

Jimmy Carter, Thomas noted, "seemed as if he was always saying of members of the press: 'Forgive them, for they know not what they do.'" George Bush has commented that he believed in the freedom of the press when he was president but that he now believes in freedom from the press, she noted. And Bill Clinton, when asked once why the press always followed him in a motorcade as he jogged, responded, "They just want to see if I drop dead."

While running for the office, every presidential hopeful craves media attention, but those elected to the nation's top post quickly change their view once they reside in the White House, Thomas said.

"As much as they covet the highest office in the land, once they get in there presidents moan and groan about their lack of privacy and their isolation, sitting in the loneliest place in the world," she commented.

Thomas, who is known for her tenacious questioning of national leaders, noted she is unfazed by such complaints. "I think you can tell that I never waste my sympathy on presidents. That's because I think that they have the greatest honor that can come to anyone ... the trust of the American people."

Every president she has covered has both "stumbled" and "excelled" at times, Thomas told her audience. And while the journalist said she believes that all presidents first take office with the "best of intentions," she added, "something happens on the way to the forum."

"Power does corrupt," she noted. "We've seen it time and time again throughout our history."

The veteran journalist said she is often amused by accusations that the press "sensationalizes" the news, a charge frequently made about the media during the Clinton/Lewinsky sex scandal.

"Hollywood could not have thought of that one," Thomas quipped.

Because of that scandal, "historians will have quite a time" assessing Clinton's presidency, Thomas said. However, she noted "time is a great healer; it softens presidential images." And the President "has many accomplishments in his favor," she said.

"He is the education president," Thomas stated. "He has pushed for more and more programs that will permit more and more students to go to college. He also has presided over a rosy economy but never gets credit for it."

Thomas also cited Clinton's support of bills for gun control and tighter gun regulations as positive aspects of his presidency, pointing to the string of tragic shootings, like the one at Columbine High School, as examples of the excessive violence currently characterizing American society.

During her long career, said Thomas "There have been times to laugh, times to cry, and times to wonder." She has written about her experiences in her new book "Front Row at the White House."

One of her "all-time favorite" comments made by a presidential family member, Thomas revealed, was when Jimmy Carter's mother, Lillian, complained, "Sometimes when I look at my children, I wish I had remained a virgin."

As the world approaches a new century, its is important to look back at the events that have both pained and shaped the world, contended Thomas. In America, she said, "great leadership is required" in the coming century as the nation continues to confront some of the issues that have plagued its past. "Age-old racial, ethnic and religious hatred has erupted in so many places," Thomas said. "So the past is very much with us."

She stressed that it is crucial "for democracy to endure and prevail," and added, "It is also important that we maintain our superpower leadership -- as jingoistic as that sounds ­ especially when we consider the alternative."

Noting that the next century will also be a time of technological advances "beyond our wildest dreams," Thomas said she hoped newspapers would still be around beyond the next decade. Regardless, she added, the press will continue its vigilant coverage of the nation's presidents and other elected officials.

"I believe that people can handle the truth and they deserve no less," said the White House reporter.

-- By Susan Gonzalez


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