Dean of the White House Press Corps, Helen Thomas spoke to a packed Alden Theatre at the McLean Community Center Tuesday night, June 18. The young and the old were kept laughing as Thomas revealed details of each of the former presidents starting with John F. Kennedy and finishing with current president George W. Bush.
Thomas is known for her "Thank you, Mr. President" at the end of the White House press conferences. Her book, "Front Row at the White House" was a national bestseller. Her current book, "Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President" uncovers her experiences with the nine presidents she has worked with or, "worked against" as Thomas said Tuesday night.
At the Alden Theatre, she offered "thumbnail sketches" of the presidents. As she was remembering the Kennedy administration, the older members of the audience nodded as she spoke. "Kennedy had his eyes on the stars. He really learned in office through the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban missile crisis," said Thomas. "He brought a sense of spirit to the White House."
Richard Nixon, the first president to ever resign from office was, "a brilliant politician," Thomas said. "There were always two roads and he always took the wrong road. He had a dark side that always prevailed."
"Ronald Regan," said Thomas, "always kept a sense of humor even after the attempt on his life with Regan saying, 'I forgot to duck'." As for Regan's predecessor, Thomas said that "when it came to domestic policies, we couldn't read his lips," poking fun at and bringing back memories of Bush during his attempt at reelection saying, "Read my lips, no new taxes."
Thomas went on to talk about Bill Clinton, highlighting some of the good aspects of his career as president including that he, "brought on prosperity and tried to bring peace to Ireland." However, she could not forget the bad in his years in office. "He tarnished the oval office," said Thomas. To end the Clinton administration on a lighter note, Thomas remembered how she asked the president if he could take anything from the White House, what he would take. "Little did I know that he would rent a U-Haul," joked Thomas. What he said he'd take though was, "the moon rock from Neil Armstrong," brought back from the first man on the moon mission.
As for the current U.S. president, George W. Bush, Thomas said, "he's a work in progress." "He calls himself a compassionate conservative. He steered clear of the Middle East during the first year of his presidency and I think he's paying for it now."
After delivering her speech, the audience had their questions for Thomas answered. When asked who the smartest president was she said, "I think they were all smart in different ways. Clinton was brilliant in many ways, though he was not street smart." She continued, "I don't think you get to be president without being smart." Then she added, "sometimes."
Thomas's opinion for the most destructive White House scandal, the infamous Watergate scandal. "[Watergate] destroyed the trust," Thomas said. "It was a total abuse of federal power and it was totally unnecessary. [Nixon's] dark side prevailed, he had to have it all." She continued, "His fate was as inexorable as a Greek tragedy and nothing could be done."
"I don't believe in putting the president on a pedestal," said Thomas in response to the question of what the public least understands about the president. "I don't think we expect enough of the president," she continued. "The president should always be respected, but we should be constantly questioning him."
On a different note, Thomas was asked what the most challenging time in her career was. She responded, "After the war, eight women reporters, except two were fired." "I hid under the table," Thomas joked. "I went to work at 5 a.m. so my job was not coveted."
For students aspiring to be journalists, Thomas offered this, "Go for it. You will never be unhappy." She concluded with, "Journalism is like an education everyday. If makes you feel very much a part of the world."