Helen Thomas by Wikipedia Creative Commons
"I came here in 1943," she told a dinner audience of 30, "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."
Shown at top in a 2009 photo, 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.
John Edward Hurley by Hurley Family
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 church, veterans 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, retired CIA analyst Ray McGovern, former NSA analyst Kenneth Ford and others undertaking research incongruent with conventional political wisdom.
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.