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White House press corps legend Helen Thomas recalls presidents and shifts in politics over 65-year career

Veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas was true to form when she spoke at Cornell April 9 -- she held nothing back in questioning President Bush's policies and the war on Iraq.

"We've never been in worse shape as a country," Thomas said to a nearly full house in Statler Auditorium. "Truth has taken a holiday in this war. President Bush struck a match across the Middle East and invaded that country. Who are we? What have we become? Whose war is this? … Is this America? This is the time to start thinking of peaceful solutions to set our world right again."

Thomas recalled highlights from her six-decade career as a journalist, joining United Press International's Washington bureau in 1943 and covering nine consecutive presidents from John F. Kennedy, when she became the first woman to join the White House press corps in 1961, to George W. Bush -- "all well-intentioned, but something happened on the way to the forum," she said.

At age 86, she still speaks up at presidential press conferences. "Why?" is her favorite question, she said.

"I decided I wanted to be a newswoman in high school," she said. "I saw my first byline and my ego swelled; I was hooked for life."

In her 30-minute talk, Thomas delivered a reasoned but scathing indictment of the current administration, the war, and topics from wiretapping and war profiteering to a compliant press and ineffective politics on both sides of the aisle. She also recounted historic moments from the Civil Rights Act to the end of the Cold War.

"I came to Washington in a different era, when government was respected and liberals were not demonized for wanting a better society," she said. "It was a hopeful time, and the idealists were legion."

She advised students to learn as much as they could and to find a job they loved. "I was so lucky to pick a career where my curiosity and nosiness would work for me," she said.

Thomas also shared anecdotes about presidents she has worked with -- and challenged -- over the years:

Gerald Ford -- "President Ford likened my questions to acupuncture," she said. "He said, 'If God had created the world in six days, on the seventh day he would not have rested, he would have had to explain it to Helen Thomas.'"

John F. Kennedy -- "He set goals for us; he gave us hope."

Lyndon B. Johnson -- When he read a draft of a speech quoting Voltaire, he said, "'Voltaire? The people I'm talking to aren't going to know who Voltaire is.' So he scratched out 'Voltaire' and wrote, 'As my dear old daddy used to say …'"

Richard Nixon -- Despite many bad decisions, "he was politically astute -- if he were standing here today, he could tell you who'd win the presidency in 2008."

Bill Clinton (known for his love of fatty foods) -- He "was asked why the press rode along in a motorcade when he went jogging. He said, 'They just want to see if I drop dead.' That's true! We were on the body watch."

George H.W. Bush -- "After the liberation of Kuwait [in 1991], he wisely decided not to go on to Baghdad, because he said there would be house-to-house fighting and civil war. Imagine that."

Thomas also answered questions from the audience.

"How do you contain your disbelief?" she was asked.

"I don't contain it. I am a cynic with hope; I believe you should ask questions."

Thomas' lecture was sponsored by the Cornell Political Coalition. After her talk, she attended a dinner reception at Alice Cook House.

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