Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Helen Thomas: it's OK to have a heart

As a former winner of Washington Women in Public Relations' "Washington PR Woman of the Year" award, I got to relax at this annual luncheon today and listen to keynoter Helen Thomas, a 57-year veteran of the White House Press Corps, first woman officer of the National Press Club, winner of the International Women's Media Foundation lifetime achievement award and the first woman member and president of the White House Correspondents' Association. Fearlessness and persistence are this eloquent woman's trademarks, and I was struck with her simple and direct language. As a former journalist and current public relations practitioner, I appreciated her acknowledgement of what the two professions have in common: "Trust and credibility--without these two standards, we cannot operate."

With an audience of women, she talked about still being outraged that women didn't get a vote in the United States until 1920, but noted that "the outlook is better for us now," with nine women governors, 70 women in Congress, and women as Secretary of State, Speaker of the House of Representatives and "a real woman candidate for President." Thomas noted "it's tough to get out and fight the traditions that men have had," adding that, while it's well established "that the hand that rocks the cradle also can wage war," her advice to all women politicians is "There's nothing wrong with having a heart."

Many Presidents--she's covered them all since John F. Kennedy--would be shocked to hear this aggressive questioner talk about heart, but Thomas noted that "no President has liked the press, going all the way back to George Washington--although I didn't cover him." Gerald Ford said that if God created the world in six days, he wouldn't be able to rest on the seventh until he'd explained it to Helen Thomas, and Fidel Castro noted that the difference between the Cuban and U.S. democracies was that "I don't have to answer questions from Helen Thomas."

Despite the humorous barbs, she persists. Barbara Walters once asked her in an interview whether the men at the White House thought her aggressive; Thomas's answer was simply "I hope so." (But before women entered the White House press corps, the male press aides and journalists had a much cozier arrangement, getting dates for one another in return for coverage or access. Eleanor Roosevelt, the first First Lady to hold press conferences of her own, led the way by opening the sessions only to women reporters--forcing news organizations to hire them, if only for this purpose.)

Wikipedia's "Wikiquote" pages devote space to more bon mots from Helen Thomas here, and here's a story she told at today's luncheon about great speechwriting and Lyndon Baines Johnson: When his speechwriters brought him a script full of quotes from the great 18th century aphorist Voltaire, he reportedly said, "Voltaire? The people I'm going to speak to don't know who Voltaire is," then replaced all references to him with "as my dear old daddy used to say..." For more Thomas tales, read her autobiography Front Row at the White House : My Life and Times.

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