Friday, July 26, 2013

My Day With Helen Thomas

Helen Thomas |Occidental Dissent
(Someone asked me about the original story I wrote for the alumni magazine about my day with Helen Thomas. Here it is, reprinted with permission.)


So what’s it like to spend the day with the world’s most famous woman journalist?

Yes, that one—the one whose piercing “Mr. President, I don’t think you’veanswered that question” have made her feared by eight administrations. The one you saw boogeying with Aretha Franklin just one seat down from Hillary Clintonat the White House Correspondents’ Dinner less than twelve hours before she stepped off the plane in Wichita on her way to speak at Small College's Commencwment. The one mentioned in the same breath as Sam Donaldson as the White House correspondent most likely to make a press secretary sweat.  

Well, I’ll tell you what it’s like.

It’s like spending the day with your very intelligent, very energetic, very lovable grandmother.


The Helen Thomas who had been my idol since I saw her for the first time in the front row of the White House press corps turns out not to be the hard-bitten harridan I had anticipated (and dreaded). She came off the plane with a black bag holding her return ticket and her passport (she doesn’t drive; it’s her identification at airports) in one hand, and a plastic carrier holding a copy of the New YorkTimes and a pair of red shoes in the other. She’s tiny, only five feet tall or so, and much prettier than cameras would lead you to believe, with a jeweled red pin in her hair. She is, in fact, huggable.

Within minutes this woman who has brought entire administrations toaccountability is asking me about my family.  Helen Thomas is asking me about my family. And it seems only natural to be telling her all about them.

She is charming, self-effacing, direct. Her stamina is unbelievable: The correspondents’ dinner had lasted late, she explains, then she wanted to catch CNN to find out what was happening with the release of the American servicemen, and she was afraid she’d miss her 6:40 a.m. flight so she just stayed up. An all-nighter at age 78.

She is a news junkie, who quietly frets about being out-of-pocket, and needs an afternoon CNN fix more than she needs the opportunity to put her feet up in front of it.

Nearly six decades in the news business have given her a unique perspective—her thumbnail sketches of presidents are based on personal observation (Jack Kennedy had the most vision, Jimmy Carter is the best ex-president, Clinton will beremembered for his gains in education and the economy as well as for his sordid affairs).

Her comments are surprisingly kind, for someone who has seen politics at its most down and dirty. But she can turn sharp. She reads prodigiously, and talks about columnists she admires. How about Cal Thomas, one mischievous questioner asks? “Hell, no,” she says tartly. (In fairness, that was the only expletive out of her mouth all day.)

At Commencement, in a speech she predicts beforehand will be “utterly forgettable and filled with cliches,” she charges graduates with the responsibility of dealing with a world that is producing Kosovo and Littleton. Get a life, she tells them.

Then she walks away from the stage party, and tells me (by now she’s calling me her den mother) she’s ready to go back to the plane. It’s still an hour early, but she’s a worrier—“so much can go wrong on the way to an airport, and I have to be back tomorrow for Clinton’s summit with the Japanese prime minister.”

So as we sit in the airport waiting for TWA 516 to board, we make final chitchat, the legend and the den mother who met only eight hours ago.

“You’re coming to Washington? Are you going to bring all the boys? Make sure to call me—promise to call me, and we’ll see the sights together,” she seemsgenuinely excited at the prospect of herding us around her town. “Here, I don’t have a card but let me write down my phone numbers,” and she carefully prints her home address and home and office phone numbers.

And then, after a final hug, and last waves, the tiny figure is back on another of a lifetime of planes. She’ll sleep on the way back to Washington (“I can doze on anything that moves”) and be up in time to cover the most powerful man in the world tomorrow.

As my husband and I leave the terminal, the security guard asks us about her.

“I watch her all the time on television—is she a relative of yours?”

No, but I wish.

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