WALNUT - Helen Thomas has always been a burr in the saddle of the many presidents she has covered over the decades as a White House reporter.
"Gerald Ford likened my questions to acupuncture," said the diminutive Thomas, to a capacity crowd at Mt. San Antonio College's Sophia B. Clark Theater Monday. "He said, `If God created the world in seven days he wouldn't have been able to rest on the eighth day - because he would have had to explain it to Helen Thomas.' "
Thomas' remarks drew both chuckles and somber contemplation from the nearly 400-person audience at Monday's event, organized by the college, the Mt. SAC Foundation and the college's Associated Students.
The so-called "Grand Dame of Journalism," Thomas began her Washington career covering John F. Kennedy as a UPI correspondent and eventually became White House bureau chief for UPI, a post she relinquished in 2000. At 87 she remains
active as a reporter, serving as a columnist for Hearst Newspapers covering the White House.
Thomas regaled the crowd with her take on each of the presidents she covered. She called JFK the "most inspired" for his signing of the first nuclear test ban treaty and his pledge to land an astronaut on the moon.
She said Lyndon B. Johnson was "bigger than life" and monogrammed the country with his familiar "LBJ" initials, and called his Great Society programs like Medicare, voting rights for blacks and federal financial aid the greatest contribution to American society in the past 100 years.
Thomas called Richard Nixon "politically astute" and credited him with pursuing detente with China before ending his presidential career with the Watergate scandal.
She criticized Ronald Reagan for pushing national politics to the right, but acknowledged his role in the arms race that eventually contributed to the downfall of the Soviet Union.
But she reserved her harshest criticism for President George W. Bush, whose administration was the first to relegate her to the back of the White House press room during news conferences.
"We have a president who envies the power of autocratic dictators," said Thomas. She called the Iraq war "illegal, immoral and unconscionable," adding that every reason the president gave to justify the war has proven false.
She also lambasted her fellow reporters and the U.S. Congress for not taking the president to task on his mistakes.
"This is the most secretive administration I have ever covered, and the press really rolled over after 9/11," said Thomas. She called the numerous moves by the Bush administration to allow questionable interrogation methods of terror suspects and allow surveillance of Americans while bypassing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act "creeping totalitarianism."
Despite her dismal take and the U.S.'s current political state and its standing in the world, she acknowledged that much has changed for the better in the country since her early days in the White House.
She particularly noted the improvements in equal opportunities for women and minorities.
"I never accepted this was a man's world," she said in response to a question about how she rose to the top in what used to be a male-dominated profession. "I was born outraged."
Thomas' appearance was inspirational to Brittany Harley, a 21-year-old Mt. SAC journalism major.
"There is nobody on the planet like her, and I hope to one day emulate her success," said Harley, who dreams of one day becoming a political journalist. "So seeing her speak was amazing."
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