A history of tough questions

The Baltimore Sun

The woman known for her decades of grilling American presidents is stepping behind the lectern herself.

White House correspondent-turned-columnist Helen Thomas has been invited to deliver a lecture, "From JFK to George W.: Holding Their Feet to the Fire, Helen-style," at McDaniel College at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the Forum in Decker College Center.

The event is free and open to the public.

Terry A. Dalton, an English and journalism professor at McDaniel, had originally called Thomas "out of the blue" to see if she would visit his media and politics class, he said.

He had had various politicians and political reporters speak to his class in the past - including U.S. News and World Report's Kenneth T. Walsh and The Sun's Jennifer Skalka - in an effort to convey what the "symbiotic relationship" between the media and politics is about.

But a book he recently started having students read brought Thomas to mind.

That book was former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer's Taking Heat: The President, the Press, and My Years in the White House, which details his encounters with White House reporters.

"He mentioned Helen far more by name than any other reporter. ... He gave her a pretty hard time," Dalton said, citing questions she had asked.

Dalton said he wondered whether Thomas would be willing to come and give students her side of the story.

He was delighted when she agreed, he said.

From there, her classroom visit mushroomed into Thursday's public lecture.

In preparation for the questions she could take after her speech, Dalton said he has told his students, "Don't pull your punches. She's capable of defending herself."

"What I also hope comes through ... is that there's room in the news media for tough, aggressive questioning of public officials," Dalton said. "Helen is the classic example of someone who doesn't back off."

Thomas is known for her persistent and pointed questions in news briefings, particularly with respect to the war in Iraq. But that style also characterized her decades working for United Press International. She has covered nine presidents.

As a columnist for Hearst Newspapers, she spends her days not only speaking but writing what's on her mind.

Or, as Thomas puts it in her book, Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President: "After all those years of telling it like it is, now I can tell it how I want it to be."

At McDaniel, she is expected to do just that.


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