Veteran journalist Helen Thomas brought the grit and whir of a White House press conference to Bartos Theater on Monday evening, speaking with passion about the media's role in a democracy whose leaders seem eager for war.
Actually, the 82-year-old former United Press International reporter didn't just speak: she surged into her topic, giving everyone present an immediate sense of the grumpy wit and fierce precision that gave her reporting on American presidents Kennedy through Bush II such a competitive and lasting edge.
"I censored myself for 50 years when I was a reporter," said Thomas, who is now a columnist for Hearst News Service. "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.
Angered by what she views as the Bush administration's "bullying drumbeat," Thomas referred early and often to her own hatred of war, quoting from poets and politicians to bear down on President Bush and his colleagues.
Winston Churchill, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Louis Brandeis, George Santayana, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King Jr. all made appearances in Thomas' sweeping portrayal of what she sees as the administration's betrayal of both the character and will of the American people and the principles of democracy.
"I have never covered a president who actually wanted to go to war. Bush's policy of pre-emptive war is immoral - such a policy would legitimize Pearl Harbor. It's as if they learned none of the lessons from Vietnam," she said to enthusiastic applause.
Thomas ignored the clapping just as she once ignored the camera flashes and shouting matches of the Washington press corps.
"Where is the outrage?" she demanded. "Where is Congress? They're supine! Bush has held only six press conferences, the only forum in our society where a president can be questioned. I'm on the phone to [press secretary] Ari Fleischer every day, asking will he ever hold another one? The international world is wondering what happened to America's great heart and soul."
Like any star, Thomas, who resigned from UPI in 2000, appreciated her audience's thirst to get the insider's view of our national leaders, and she gave generously, in snapshots, though the Reagan and both Bush regimes were cast in darker hues.
"Great presidents have great goals for mankind. During my years of covering the White House, Kennedy was the most inspired; Johnson rammed through voting rights and public housing; Nixon will be remembered for his trip to China and for his resignation; Ford for helping us recover from Nixon; and Carter for making human rights the centerpiece of foreign policy," Thomas said in an even, respectful tone. She just sighed over Clinton, who "tarnished the Oval Office."
Thomas' mood became visibly more somber at the mention of Ronald Reagan's military buildup and at the name Bush. Again and again, Thomas warned the MIT audience, "It's bombs away for Iraq and on our civil liberties if Bush and his cronies get their way. Dissent is patriotic!"
After her talk, Thomas participated in a panel discussion with MacVicar Faculty Fellows David Thorburn, professor of literature, and Charles Stewart III, professor of political science. Philip S. Khoury, dean of the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, introduced the speakers.
"Helen Thomas offered a very powerful indictment of the current behavior of the Bush presidency in her comments on the incoherence and inconsistency of Bush's policies and the danger to civil liberties of Bush's rhetoric," said Thorburn.
He compared the lack of public awareness of an antiwar movement in 1965 and 1966 with the wide public debate about Iraq going on today. "An aroused citizenry can instruct the government," he said.
Stewart also focused on the current public debate about Iraq, declaring that it may be a "hopeful sign. The polls say Americans don't want to talk about Iraq - they want to talk about the economy, about education. But the press has continued to point out the important thing. Everyone knows there's been a dance between the President and Congress over Iraq."
Thomas didn't let the press off the hook, though. "Everybody learned the lessons of Vietnam, including the Pentagon. In Vietnam, correspondents could go anywhere - just hop on a helicopter and report on the war. Now we don't have that access. It's total secrecy. The media overlords should be complaining about this. I do not absolve the press. We've rolled over and played dead, too," she said.
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.
The talk was sponsored by the MIT Communications Forum.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 6, 2002.