‘Watchdog of Democracy’ Growls in Displeasure


Octogenarian Helen Thomas – better known as the "Dean of the Washington Press Corps" – has not been shy about criticizing the president or the war in Iraq.

From interviews to speeches to her forthcoming book, Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public, the 87-year-old reporter turned columnist – who still attends daily White House briefings – has made it abundantly clear that she views the invasion of Iraq as a pre-emptive strike, immoral and illegal.

She's equally dismissive of colleagues in Washington who, she believes, did not ask enough tough questions leading up to it all.

Thomas sounded those themes during a recent appearance in Center City. She served as the keynote speaker at the 10th annual "Spring Gathering" fundraiser for Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania, a pro-choice organization that aims to "enhance access to reproductive health care and services."

"We were not called to defend America, but rather to attack Iraq," said Thomas, as the crowd applauded. "There were no weapons of mass destruction, no ties between Saddam Hussein and terrorist networks."

Thomas covered the White House for United Press International from 1960 until 2000, a time that spanned eight administrations.

She began her talk by quickly proclaiming her support for women's reproductive rights, then she switched gears to current events before offering a rundown of the presidents she's covered. John F. Kennedy was far and away her favorite. She said that the rest had mostly failed tests of leadership.

"I never worship at their shrine," she said. "I think presidents are public servants. They should be serving the people."

But did bringing in a speaker who focused on the war draw any attention away from Planned Parenthood's key issues, or create the impression that the organization had taken a stance on the war?

Dayle Steinberg, Planned Parenthood's president and CEO, replied that although Thomas' views on the current war were, in fact, well-known, she is a valuable resource, and her opinions don't necessarily reflect those of the group.

"She is supportive of our issues, and we invite progressive thinkers to these events," explained Steinberg, noting that past speakers included civil-rights lawyer Morris Dees and Katha Pollitt, a columnist at The Nation.

And the Next Prez Is …

Scott Feigelstein, Philadelphia director of the Republican Jewish Coalition – which does not take a stance on abortion – didn't attend the speech, but was curious what opposition to the war in Iraq had to do with reproductive rights, other than that they are both issues embraced by many Democrats.

"The way to get past this debate [of invading Iraq] is to recognize the facts on the ground," he said. "Iraq is just another battleground in the war against global, Islamic-fascist terror. I think the president has recognized the changed paradigm and has the moral vision to see the problem, and act on it appropriately."

Thomas was also asked who she thought was going to be the next president.

While she replied that someone like Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) would be tough to beat, in the same breath, she also thought it was time for a woman to lead the country, and was hoping that Sen. Hilary Clinton (D-New York) would find a way to carry the torch.

Still, that wasn't her initial reaction.

When first asked the question, she answered: "If elected, I will serve."



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