Although Helen Thomas covered the White House for more than 50 years as a reporter for United Press International, the neutrality she kept in her articles never stopped her from having strong opinions about the people she interviewed.
When asked in front of a packed audience on Thursday if Dick Cheney was as evil as he was portrayed to be, she interrupted the speaker with a terse “Yes. Dick Cheney was as dark as they come,” eliciting roars of laughter from the crowd, which filled the McCormick Tribune Center Auditorium to capacity.
Thomas, the longest-serving member of the White House Press Corps, was brought to campus by the College Democrats on Thursday to discuss her love of journalism and experience as an insider at the White House.
“We chose to bring Helen Thomas because we thought she would give us a good insight into what happens in the White House,” College Democrat Secretary Katherine Plimpton said. “You could really see from her speech the variation between different presidents and Democrats and Republicans.”
Thomas has covered 10 presidencies during her career, but she said that John F. Kennedy, the first president she covered, was her favorite.
“I’ve been covering the White House since 1961, the start of the Kennedy era, the golden era, when we actually had hope,” she said. “He made us realize that we were witnessing history every day.”
She also offered anecdotes that dotted the span of her career, particularly interviews with President Lyndon B. Johnson.
“President Johnson was a great storyteller. He would take us round and round the South Lawn” of the White House, she said. “We used to call those sessions the Bataan death marches. We were falling all over each other … it was hell.”
Thomas’ dry sense of humor shone through when she summarized her view of the presidents she followed, saying that “Richard Nixon always had two roads to go, and always took the wrong road,” and that after his affair with Monica Lewinsky, President Clinton “won’t wind up on Mount Rushmore.”
Thomas said she had a positive view of President Obama, but implied that Obama’s pledge for change could backfire.
“We have a new president now, and certainly a well-meant leader who is talented, eloquent and very bright,” she said. “He has promised us utopia […] When people lose their credibility, you cannot run this country in the same way.”
Thomas said she had been interested in journalism for as long as she could remember, citing her “nosiness” as her main quality.
“I saw my byline in the high school paper when I was a sophomore, and I was hooked for life,” she said. “I think my ego got me.”
Amanda Litman contributed to this report due to a conflict of interest between the author and Katherine Plimpton.