“I came here in 1943,” she told a dinner audience of 30 on Dec. 7, “and I don’t think I’ve ever seen our country so bereft of ideals and ideas. I don’t see anything on the horizon that can pull us out. I hope I’m wrong.”
She described current leaders as weak and selfish. The self-described liberal doled out criticism to all sides. “Republicans,” she said, “have one goal: To get Obama. But when they see the country falling apart, that’s all they can do?”
“As for Obama,” she continued, “I think he’s weak. He has no courage.” She said the country urgently needs “a stand-up guy who’ll do the right thing.” What are some examples? “The first priority should be jobs.” Also, “Make people pay their taxes, and stop the wars.” She estimated at least 700 U.S. military bases around the world.
“We’re killing all of these people [in undeclared wars]. Why? Is it any surprise that people will fight back for their country? There’s no doubt we want to eliminate Iran. Why wouldn’t they want to defend themselves?”
Thomas, 91, spoke to the Sarah McClendon Group, a speaker society named after a late White House correspondent from Texas who fought similar battles as Thomas for many years to win Washington acceptance of women as serious journalists in male-dominated media and government circles.McClendon Group Chairman John Edward Hurley introduced Thomas as a heroine in journalism who is being smeared for her blunt talk — and is thus in the tradition of many previous speakers appearing before the McClendon Group. Hurley is a director of my Justice Integrity Project among his multiple civic group leadership posts in Washington in veterans, church and historical groups.
For nearly a quarter of a century, the McClendon Group (featuring best-selling Vulture’s Picnic author Greg Palast Dec. 14) has met at the Press Club, but with its own, independent speaker selection process.
It focuses especially on speakers regarded as too controversial to speak even to journalism groups. They have included Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) before his current campaign, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Joe Wilson, and “Swift Boat” and “Birther” researcher Dr. Jerome Corsi.
A Kentucky-born child of immigrants from Lebanon, Thomas began work as a “copy girl” at United Press after graduating from college in Detroit. She went on to cover every President from Eisenhower to Obama. In doing so, she gained a reputation as one of the hardest-working and most outspoken correspondents. Author of six books, she also broke many sex barriers as a White House correspondent for UP’s successor UPI.
Among her successes was working with McClendon and a few other pioneers to persuade the Press Club to drop its ban against women, which ended in 1971 as women argued they could not do their jobs if the Club kept them away from newsmakers.
Thomas recalled a prior incident before the ban was lifted: “A woman came into the bar. And all the members got up in arms and wanted to throw her out. But it turns out that she was an inspector for the Alcohol Beverage Control Board. And they quickly changed their tune.” Thomas became the Press Club’s first female officer, one of many such firsts.
Working far longer than most of her contemporaries who retired long ago, Thomas resigned in 2000 from UPI because of its purchase by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the right-wing Korean tycoon and Unification Church leader who had been convicted by the United States of tax evasion.
She worked as a columnist for Hearst Newspapers until 2010, when she was forced to retire from journalism after a rabbi quoted her as advocating an end to Israeli abuses against Palestinians, among other opinions. A variety of news and other communications organizations joined in the widespread criticism of Thomas. The Society of Professional Journalists, for example, ended its annual lifetime achievement award rather than continue calling it the “Helen Thomas” award.
“Yes, I cried for a couple of weeks,” she recalled. “Then I decided I would write. I have the right to say what I think.”
Looking back this week, Thomas reiterated her controversial theme: That Palestinians should not be deprived of their land, water and freedom. Regarding changes she has observed in Washington, she said many of the nation’s brightest minds came to Washington long ago out of what she called a desire to help the country during the Depression and World War II.
“They weren’t coming to Washington just to get a job,” she said. “They had big hearts.” The country, she said, “was flat on its back….Old people were dying of hunger.”
“Everything is going down the drain” she said of today. “Congress is so weak now. They do nothing….Democrats are scared to death. They don’t want to open their mouths. They want to keep their jobs.”
This week, on the 70th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, she again spoke bluntly by estimating that the Obama administration will keep 100,000 contractors in Iraq after the much-touted withdrawal of most combat troops. “They [private contractors] make a lot more than ‘GI Joe,’” she said. “Where does the money come from?”
Afterward, I researched estimates of contractors in Iraq and saw that they have varied widely. The Department of Defense reported 52,637 (16,054 of them U.S. citizens) in October 2011. Estimates ranged from 95,000 to more than 100,000 in 2010. Those reports come from Jeremy Scahill in Obama Has 250,000 “Contractors” in Iraq and Afghan Wars and from the Guardian, US contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq: Find out how many US military contractors there are, and what they do.
The greatest challenge to Thomas during the Q&A was from a middle-aged woman who arrived late and demanded to know why Thomas wasn’t more frightened of Iran. Thomas reiterated her belief that U.S. militarism in the region is provoking more dangers for the public here than it’s preventing. The questioner, sitting next to me, then asked me who published me. I responded and asked about her own interest. She identified as an employee of one of the nation’s largest defense contractors and left a few moments later.
Thomas said she regards as especially ominous a recent plan for the United States to place 2,000 troops in Australia, which she described as part of a dangerous plan to confront China. “I think we ought to get the hell out of all these places…Why do we keep sending other people to die?”
Regarding the future, she did find a ray of hope: “I want people to rise up, and they are….We should all hit the streets and call for revolution.”