Friday, 24 January 2003

Doubting Thomas offers her press veteran's take on state of presidency

As veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas signed my program Thursday evening at the Society of Professional Journalists’ annual awards banquet, I said, “First time I ever asked a reporter for an autograph.”

“Thank you, dear,” she said, patting my arm. “Don’t lose heart.”

Those are words that should be engraved at the bottom of every journalism degree. That’s because I’m not sure that any business can cause a heart to be lost or broken faster than this. And Thomas probably knows this better than anyone because she began reporting in 1943...

There was a lot of that in her speech, this talk of devaluation in the character of leadership. Not surprisingly for an admitted liberal, she held her greatest praise for John Kennedy, the only president in her estimation who made Americans look to their higher angels.

Then came Johnson’s Great Society and Vietnam. Nixon, she said, was a man who would — when presented two roads — “always choose the wrong one.” He was followed by “healing” Ford, well-meaning Carter, Reagan’s revolution, Bush Sr.’s self-destruction and Clinton’s damaging of the presidential myth.

She seemed to have sympathy and affection for everyone but George W. Bush, a man who she said is rising on a wave of 9-11 fear — fear of looking unpatriotic, fear of asking questions, just fear. “We have,” she said, “lost our way.”

Thomas believes we have chosen to promote democracy with bombs instead of largess while Congress “defaults,” Democrats cower and a president controls all three branches of government in the name of corporations and the religious right.

As she signed my program, I joked, “You sound worried.”

“This is the worst president ever,” she said. “He is the worst president in all of American history.”

The woman who has known eight of them wasn’t joking.

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