“Thank you, Mr. President.” Four simple words, immortalized by one woman for the last sixty years. These are the words that White House correspondent Helen Thomas has used to end every presidential press conference for the last ten presidents, from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama.
But what probably stands out in my mind is the date August 4, 2009, Helen Thomas’ eighty-ninth birthday. On that day, Pres. Obama surprised White House reporters by entering the White House briefing room, carrying a plate of cupcakes, one of which had a lighted candle. Along with the other reporters, the president began singing “Happy Birthday” to a speechless Ms. Thomas.
It was also the president’s birthday.
When the president shares the spotlight with you on his birthday, you know you’ve arrived. Actually, Helen Thomas had arrived a long time ago, and is considered a “trailblazer” in the journalistic profession for her many accomplishments.
I had the humbling and awe-inspiring experience to listen to this woman’s personal accounts of working closely with past presidents, and then, I got to meet her.
Helen Thomas grew up in an era when few women enjoyed success as journalists. It was post-World War II, and returning soldiers were expected to take over the majority of positions in newspaper companies. During the war, women were in their element no matter what they did, since the men were off fighting, and nobody else was around to do those jobs. But, after the war, the status quo changed again.
That didn’t stop Helen, not by a long shot. She explained that, during her upbringing, her parents never told her that there was anything she couldn’t do because she was a female. So, she didn’t think there would be any obstacles to her becoming a journalist.
She quickly found out otherwise. Still, she trudged forward.
During a protest at the National Press Club, where women were not allowed to enter at the time, Pres. Kennedy entered the club and, pointing to Thomas, joked, “There’s one of the troublemakers.”
The event I attended was held at Valencia Community College, and it was a lively discussion between her and journalist Craig Crawford, with whom she co-authored the book, Listen Up, Mr. President. The book is part memoir, part survival guide for wannabe presidents. It’s also a fount of wisdom for voters, so that they can make more educated decisions about who to elect to run the country.
After the discussion part, Mr. Crawford read questions that had been submitted by the audience on notecards, and then a line was formed to have them sign copies of their book. I first stood in line to get a picture, and then got back in line after purchasing the book. I was really nervous; I mean, they are both revered journalists. With all she’s done, seen, and heard, Thomas has major bragging rights,but talk to her for five minutes, and you’ll realize she doesn’t use them. Instead, the stories she tells sound more like the warm anecdotes you would hear from your mother. Still, I recognized my time to interact with her would be very limited, and I struggled to figure out what to say, and how to make the most of that priceless encounter. As my turn came, I handed Mr. Crawford the sticky note with the message I wanted inscribed in my copy, and I started babbling to Ms. Thomas like a first-class buffoon.
Fortunately for me, Ms. Thomas is a class act. My mom stood beside me, and proudly remarked, “She is a journalism student.” I blushed. How insignificant that description of me sounded, in light of everything this woman before me had experienced as a professional journalist! Even so, she smiled pleasantly. Mr. Crawford examined my desired inscription: “For Laura, Fellow Journalist & Advocate.”
“Why the quotation marks?” he queried. I smiled, and shrugged my shoulders helplessly. “Well, I’m still learning,” I replied. He responded that one is always learning. Now, I addressed Ms. Thomas carefully, but as concisely as possible, for there were many others behind me. This was my one chance, the chance of a lifetime.
Motioning to a pair of business cards I had handed them my first time around in the line, I said, “The blog I’m writing is to try to raise awareness of spina bifida, the condition I was born with.”
Without missing a beat, Ms. Thomas replied, “Judy Woodruff has a son with spina bifida.” I was speechless. Here I had been for the past six months, growing increasingly frustrated at my attempts to explain to others what spina bifida is. Most people just don’t know. But a woman who has had to absorb so much information, and so many detailed facts, not only knew exactly what spina bifida is, but could even name someone who had a child with the condition. I stood in awe of this paragon.
Then, she took my hand, looked me in the eyes with a sincere smile, and said, “I am so honored to meet you.”
I’ve written many letters and E-mails, and what few replies I have received, have mostly been form letters or general, polite refusals, from people who are too detached from any personal situation beyond their own to actually try to understand what my mission is. But here, in a crowded conference room with lots of people waiting behind me, an eloquent woman who is traveling the country to promote her book, took a few minutes of her time to see things from my perspective.
I fought hard to hold back the tears. Once I reached the car, they got the better of me.
I think I’ll find it very difficult to be the same person after this. Or maybe I’ll be the same person, just a more hopeful, optimistic one.
Helen Thomas really wants presidents to listen. But last night, for a brief moment, she listened to me.
Thank you, Ms. Thomas.
Have a great Thursday,