I managed to catch up with my former white House Press Corp colleague, Helen Thomas, when her national book tour swung through San Francisco. At 91, Helen is the oldest and longest serving member of this esteemed group of journalists, and has the traditional right to ask the first question at each press conference.
The native Kentuckian has covered every president since Kennedy, but has been observing the political scene since the Roosevelt era (Franklin, not Teddy). I knew her when I was a wet-nosed apprentice writer during the Carter administration and she was a senior writer for the old United Press International.
Helen hasn’t changed an iota, and is as feisty as ever. John F. Kennedy was her favorite president, a man of peace who knew war, who inspired people, and launched the space program and the Peace Corp. Lyndon Johnson brought to life the most sweeping social programs since FDR’s New Deal, but saw his legacy shattered by the Vietnam War. She pitied Richard Nixon, who at the end felt the wrath of the nation fall upon his shoulders.
Gerald Ford was a decent human being, too nice, really, for the job that was thrust upon him. Ronald Reagan was a master at managing the press. George W. Bush lied to the people about WMD’s in Iraq and hung the albatross of torture around America’s neck. He then sanitized the war for public consumption, and cowed the press into fearing being called unpatriotic and anti-American. Bush heard that Helen was murmuring that he was the worst president in US history, and broke with a century of precedent by conspicuously ignoring her seniority during his administration.
Obama, who shares a birthday with Helen, lacks the courage to do the right thing and should stick to his guns. But all new presidents come in completely unaware of what they have signed up for and there is a tortuous learning process. Investigative reporting is gone forever because newspapers can’t afford it.
Helen has seen public morals become more liberal for ourselves, but more strict for our public officials. I know there isn’t any real investment insight here, and I will probably get some angry e-mails from Tea Partyers. But hey, when a piece of living history crosses your path, you grab on to her with both hands and shake her until the gems of insight she possesses fall loose. If Helen could only bottle and sell the energy she has at her age, she could make a fortune.