President Bush and his policies, particularly the war in Iraq, took a direct broadside hit last Saturday morning by the "Dean of the White House Press Corps" at the 13th Annual Women's Issues Conference. And, the woman delivering it received a standing ovation from an overflow audience.
Helen Thomas, award-winning journalist, author and for 57 years a United Press International correspondent who has covered presidents from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, warned the audience packing the auditorium of Minnie Howard School, West Braddock Road, "If George Bush is reelected we will have war without end. He has lighted a match that will take us through this century."
Serving as the keynote speaker of the conference hosted by U.S. Rep. James P. Moran (D-8), Thomas said, "We never should have invaded Iraq. It will be a long time before we get our honor back."
Thomas currently writes two columns a week for Hearst Corporation on issues concerning the White House and other national affairs. It was Thomas who initiated, during Kennedy's tenure, the now trademark comment, "Thank you, Mr. President," marking the conclusion of a White House Press Conference. In January 1972, she was the only print journalist traveling with President Richard Nixon during his landmark trip to China.
"Helen Thomas is an icon, especially for women in this country," Moran said in his introduction. "She has been a role model for women for more than 57 years. And, we need to find more role models like her."
Thomas recalled that when she started her career there were few women journalists. "When we [the U.S.] entered World War II and the government began drafting men, we got the break to get their jobs," she said.
But, her criticism was not limited to President Bush, it was equally hard on today's media, both print and electronic. "We in the press are the only forum able to question a president on a regular basis and hold him accountable. But, the press is equally vulnerable because they have rolled over and played dead."
SHE BLAMED THIS on several factors, the practice of "imbedding" the press with troops during the Iraq invasion, the fact that "many television commentators have no actual reporting experience," and the consolidation of the press, making the profit motive more important than serving as the people's watchdog. This, according to Thomas, has enabled the Bush Administration to manage the news.
"Lyndon Johnson once said, after he left office, ‘I lost the people's confidence because Vietnam came into their living rooms every night.’ This [Bush's] administration has not allowed that to happen. There are no pictures of bloody Iraq babies like there were from the recent Russian tragedy. This war has become so sterile," Thomas said.
"Bush has not held a real press conference since June 10. And then his aides hand picked the questioners. His campaign appearances are totally controlled where no difference of opinion is allowed. He is supposed to be the president of all the people. He is run by a bunch of advisors with their own conservative agenda," Thomas said.
In addition to her critique on the Iraq War, she also went after this administration's domestic agenda. "There are no great social programs being put forth like LBJ's Great Society which brought forth Medicare and the civil rights legislation. Dick Cheney voted against Head Start six times when he was in Congress," she said.
In answer to a question on The Patriot Act, Thomas said, "This administration is playing the fear card to the hilt. We never needed a Patriot Act during World War II. The Patriot Act is an affront to our civil rights. What have we become?"
She quoted the late Adlai Stevenson, former presidential candidate and ambassador to the United Nations, stating, "Democracy is great because it's safe to be in the minority." To which she added, "If we are a free people let's act like it."
Rhetorically she asked the audience, "Did you ever think we would be an aggressor nation? Bush has made us the most despised nation in the world. This election coming up is one of the most important in our history. It's not about one party or the other. It's about our country.
"If Bush is reelected the draft will be reinstated, Social Security will be nearly eliminated, and there'll be more tax cuts for the rich. Under Bush, we are no longer our brother's keeper. But, where is the national outrage?"
Thomas said, "This President has torn up practically every treaty signed since World War II. Presidents have to be watched for an arrogance of power. Obviously, George Bush doesn't send me flowers anymore."
Going back to the responsibility of the press, Thomas said, "Our [the press] holy grail is to follow the truth. The press has not played its proper role in this Iraq War. I want to support the troops by getting them out." This brought forth one of several outbursts of applause.
THOMAS CONCEDED that no president really likes the press. "Gerald Ford once said, ‘God may have created the world in six days but on the seventh he would not have been able to rest. He would have had to explain it to Helen Thomas’," she said.
Following her speech, and a sustained standing ovation by the audience, Alexandria Vice Mayor Redella "Del" Pepper said, "I wish she would join the campaign trail. That would help turn things around quickly.
"I greatly admire her. She was able to get to the top of her profession when women were not wanted there. I particularly liked her comments about our need to restore our image in the world and the press not playing its proper role in Iraq."
Alexandria Councilman Ludwig P. Gaines said, "That was probably the most enlightening and poignant speech I've heard in a long, long time. We are so fortunate to have been able to have had her here. Today's weather might have made it somewhat gloomy outside, but it sure was electrifying inside."
Prior to introducing Thomas, Moran said, "The inequities still faced by women need to be rectified. We have to set the pace in this nation. You women in Northern Virginia need to set the pace. This country needs to set the pace for the rest of the world."
Among the issues which need increased focus, according to Moran, are:
* The eroding of women's reproductive rights.
* The differential in social security income between single men and women over age 65. Women average $9,000 per year while men average $20,000 per year due to the fact that many women left the workplace to raise families or did not enter the workplace until much later in life for the same reason. And, women are more dependent on social security as their prime retirement income source due to many not being part of employment-based pension plans.
* Many women being in jobs that are underpaid such as teaching and nursing.
AFTER THE OPENING General Session, several hundred attendees participated in a series of individual breakout sessions throughout the day on such topics as "What Every Woman Needs To Know When It Comes To Financial Planning;" “Finding Your Entrepreneurial Spirit;" “Career Development and Job Strategy Techniques;" and “Hormone Replacement Therapy: Issues, Facts and Controversies."
Prior to opening the day-long conference and during the lunch break, conferees had an opportunity to visit with a number of exhibitors such as Area Agencies on Aging, League of Women Voters, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, and the Women's Business Center of Northern Virginia.
Information from the conference sessions will be available in the next few weeks on Moran's Web site at www.house.gov/moran.