In their own words…
“What stuck out most was the cell phones. More than the opulent dinners, the cocktail conversations with distinguished journalists, the frenzied typing of competitors working up until deadline, it was the shrill ringing of cell phones that I remember. They pierced the silence of the competition room, drawing stares from the other competitors, as the lucky recipient of the phone call leapt from her seat and took her phone out into the hallway. The rest of us would cringe, inwardly. Could she be calling the White House? Perhaps she was on the phone with Ari Fleischer at that moment, as the rest of us sat at our computers and looked blankly at the screen. I remember, finally, when my own cell phone rang, bringing me calls from Washington, obscure Medill connections that paid off in interviews about legendary journalist Helen Thomas. I remember typing furiously after those phone calls, wondering what magical words the others were putting onto their pages, feeling as if my own could never compete.”
Labeling President Bush’s war in Iraq an “elephant against a gnat,” veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas blasted the administration’s conservative policies on Friday with her characteristic acid tongue.
Speaking to eight print winners of the Hearst Journalism Awards Program and about 20 other guests, Thomas questioned the administration’s motives for attacking Iraq and likened its post-Sept. 11 round-up of suspects to Kafka.
“Through two world wars, we told the Germans, ‘You’re horrible and aggressive, and you shouldn’t go to war,” said Thomas, 82, known informally as the “dean of the White House press corps” for her coverage of nine American presidents. “Now, they don’t want to go to war, and we say, ‘You’re horrible, and we don’t have the time for you.”
Thomas covered the White House for United Press International for 40 years before becoming a columnist for Hearst in 2000.
Borrowing a line from Malcom X, Thomas said “the chickens are coming home to roost” in the president’s war effort, as the press begins to ask pointed questions about the missing weapons of mass destruction.
The media, she said, “rolled over and played dead” after the terrorist attacks, muting criticism of the administration’s policies for fear of being labeled unpatriotic. Now, she said, the patina surrounding the war in Iraq has begun to wear.
“I don’t think anything’s unpatriotic to ask,” she said, banging on the table for emphasis. “It has been to their advantage for Rumsfeld to swagger and strut around and say, ‘Are you asking me that question?’”
Thomas said one of the largest differences between the Bush Administration and former presidents is the universal hard-line ideology among Bush’s adviser.
While Bush tries to privatize social security and implement far-reaching tax cuts, Thomas described herself as the press corps’ last liberal and spoke passionately against slashing government service to the needy.
“I don’t want Wall Street’s mitts on one penny of the social security system,” she said.
Thomas also attacked Bush’s faith-based initiatives, which grant taxpayer money to religious organizations that perform social programs. Only governments like the Taliban knock down the traditional separation between church and state, she said.
Although all U.S. presidents conceal information, Thomas said, the Bush Administration ranks as one of the most secretive in modern history.
Since entering office, she said, Bush has held just eight presidential news conferences, allowing him to duck tough questions about his policies. In Bush’s March press conference, he removed Thomas from her front-row seat and did not call on her for the traditional first question.
“Once they get into the White House, the iron curtain comes down,” she said. “Everything becomes a secret—even the color of the walls.”
Charlene Brown, an Indiana University administrator who attended Thomas’ speech, said she loved the columnists’ willingness to state unpopular opinions.
“I really appreciated her directness and her willingness to speak her mind,” she said. “For a group of young journalists, she’s really a model of what is great in this profession.”
The President’s press briefing on Jan. 6 began like most others.
As America geared up for war in Iraq, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer gave a tightlipped rundown of President Bush’s daily schedule.
Helen Thomas, the 82-year-old godmother of the Washington media, sat in the front row when, as usual, Fleischer granted her the first question.
“You said that the president deplored the taking of innocent lives. Does that apply to all innocent lives in the world?” she asked with trademark bluntness.
As Fleischer fumbled a reply, Thomas moved in for the kill.
“Why do you want to kill innocent Iraqis?” she demanded. She and Fleischer exchanged several more barbs in rapid succession, dominating the next several minutes of the meeting.
For younger reporters, the acerbic interchange might have meant blackballing by the White House. But for Thomas, who has covered the daily ups and downs of nine U.S. presidents, the exchange just meant one more coup for a woman who describes herself as the press corps’ last liberal.
“I live on outrage,” said Thomas, relishing her 3-year-old role as a Hearst columnist after nearly six decades of reporting for the United Press International. “That’s my manna from heaven. Now, I wake up every morning and say, ‘Whom do I hate today?’ ”
Earlier in her career, Thomas used the limelight of national television to ask President Clinton about his affair with Monica Lewinsky and to confront President Nixon about incriminating Watergate tapes.
As “dean of the Washington Press Corps,” she has been outspoken in her opposition to the conservative policies of the Bush Administration. In January, she told the Torrance, Calif., Daily Breeze that Bush is “the worst president in all of American history.”
In an interview at the Palace Hotel on Friday, Thomas’ flame-red fingernails match her lipstick, and she wears two different watches on her left hand. When asked about retirement, she sharply replies that she intends to “de with my boots on.”
Thomas was the only female journalist to travel with the White House Correspondents Association, the first female member of the Gridiron Club and the first female officer of the National Press Club.
“Helen is an icon for American women journalists,” said Charles Lewis, chief of Hearst’s Washington bureau. “She has broken through so many glass ceilings that she has earned the admiration and respect of everybody in the business—including the men.”
Helen Thomas was born on Aug. 4, 1920, in Winchester, Ky., to Lebanese immigrants.
After college at Wayne State University, she began her career as a copygirl for the Washington Daily News making $17.50 a week.
While assigned to the White House for UPI in 1961, she began to close press conferences with “Thank you, Mr. President.”
During the Reagan Administration, the president once remarked that he would be more likely to call on reporters who wore red. Thomas came to work the next morning in a saucy red dress, which has since become her signature.
When Thomas resigned from the UPI in 2000, reporters in Washington speculated that she would lose her front-row seat. Out of respect for her experience, however, the White House allowed her to remain.
Every day, Thomas said, she checks her nametag to make sure she can still sit in her old spot.
“It’s nice to be in the front row—you can taunt them,” she said.
Ellen Shearer, who worked at UPI at the same time as Thomas, said she remembers the older woman’s practiced composure during a speech by President Carter at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, M.D.
While other reporters rushed to file their stories, Shearer said, Thomas effortlessly dictated her piece on the speech. She even managed to include historic details about the Academy’s statues, Shearer said.
But Thomas’ legendary status has earned her a fair share of detractors. In a January 2002 opinion piece, Jay Nordlinger, managing editor of the National Review, wrote that Thomas would not have received the same privileges if she were a conservative and a man.
“I always wanted some White House Spokesman—Jim Brady, Larry Speakes, Marlin Fitzwater—or even a president himself to say to her, ‘Look, lady, you may be old and a woman, but you’re an insulting, unthinking, harshly partisan so-and-so, and I’m not going to deal with your nonsense anymore.’”
Despite the criticism, Thomas said she has no plans to stop asking tough questions of U.S. president.
“If you’re afraid to ask the questions, you shouldn’t be in the business,” she said. “The people are best served with a straight news story. Let them, decide.”
The fresh-faced teenagers approached Tyrone Ambus on Wednesday with some of his favorites: Reese’s peanut butter cups, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and hot chocolate.
The 49-year-old homeless man with tufts of gray hair sleeps on the Tenderloin and sells the homeless paper Street Sheet on the corner of Fifth and Market streets. When seven young Christian missionaries offered him food and placed their hands on his shoulder to pray, he said it was the first time he had tasted chocolate—or talked to Jesus-in weeks.
The teenagers also handed him a flyer enticing him with a free dinner if he attended a church service later that ay. Ambus told them he planned to go, but he soon lost the address.
“The Christians are the most frequent and the most charitable,” said Ambus, who said religious groups approached him on the street at least five times a month. “I study people. I could see that they were sincere.”
As the city’s homeless problem escalates, some San Franciscans are looking to an unlikely source for relief—evangelical Christian groups, who offer to feed and shelter the homeless in exchange for a daily dose of gospel.
Although the city does not keep statistics on religious aid, local activists say they have seen a clear increase in evangelical Christian outreach to the homeless, a common occurrence in the Bible Belt but almost taboo in a city in which more people cheer the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in the Gay pride Parade than attend mass.
“They’re starting to pop up everywhere, that’s for sure,” said Chance Martin, project coordinator for Street Sheet, the newspaper of the Coalition on Homelessness. “They’re much more active. They’ve been going from street corner to street corner passing out sandwiches and inviting people to church.”
The evangelical group SOS-San Francisco is planning an outreach conference for June 20-28 to distribute up to 100,000 gospel tracts on city streets. The Oakland-based organization plans to host 60 Christian activists from the West Coast and Midwest, who will sleep on the floor of local churches and hold midday prayer meetings in several city parks.
In the Tenderloin, the San Francisco Rescue Mission estimates that 900 people weekly pass through its doors for coffee and pastries, Bible study and a combination church service and dinner.
Also in the Tenderloin, the San Francisco office of Youth with a Mission has set up its own five-month urban missionary school for Christian teens and twentysomethings. It includes classes like “How to Hear the Voice of God” and “Spiritual Warfare.”
The steady diet of coffee and Christ is nothing new in the city of Saint Francis.
The Salvation Army has been operating in San Francisco since 1883, and it now has 11 centers around the city.
The city’s most well-known Catholic church, Glide Memorial, serves three meals per day to the Tenderloin’s homeless. On busy days, the line of people waiting by the church’s door on Ellis Street snakes down the block and around the corner in a solemn procession of overflowing shopping carts, matted hair and tattered clothing.
Although religious groups have historically ministered to the poor, the newer evangelical organizations mark a direct departure from their service-based peers.
Unlike churches like Glide, which place service first and gospel second, evangelical churches now put as much emphasis on their Biblical message as on serving food. Across the South and Midwest, the rise of the megachurch and charismatic televangelists like Jerry Falwell have fueled a religious revival.
In San Francisco, however, evangelists have faced a rocky, often hostile political and social climate. Many of the Bay Area’s biggest evangelical churches have established flourishing ministries in the outer suburbs but maintain only a minimal presence in the city itself.
Although that balance has not changed, the growing suburban churches have begun to funnel money, resources and manpower into evangelizing the streets of San Francisco, especially the homeless, said Rodrick Durst, vice president of academic affairs for the Southern Baptist-affiliated Golden Gate Theological Seminary in Mill alley.
Although evangelicals recognize the difference between preaching and passing out food, they refuse to do one without the other, Durst said.
“If you show people you care, they will be open to Jesus,” he said. “The intent is both to heal and to preach. They are not hesitant to share the good news that Jesus cared enough about us to die on the cross.”
Larry Rosenbaum, director of SOS-San Francisco, said in an interview that his group would try to help the city shake its “anti-church” reputation. The program primarily works through “street witnessing:–passing out pamphlets of the gospel and locking hands with the homeless in prayer. In a letter on the group’s Web site, Rosenbaum plays up the appeal of ministering to one of “the spiritually darkest places in the world.”
The city “has been at the forefront of a satanic revival that has impacted our world—the drug movement, topless bars, homosexual activism, Eastern and New Age religions, etc.,” wrote Rosenbaum, who grew up in a Jewish home and earned his bachelor’s degree from Yale University and a master’s from Brandeis University before converting to Christianity.
At the San Francisco office of Youth with a Mission, posters of Bible verses hang on the wall above black leather couches and ping pong tables. “Know God and he will help you reach up to higher places in your life,” a sign advises visitors.
Carla Deal, a small blonde with a nose ring and flip flops, runs the mission’s Reach-Up program, which encourages the homeless to reach out to God as an essential part of getting off the streets.
Deal, 20, moved from Kansas City, Kansas, to San Francisco to attend the group’s urban missionary school. She and 21 other staff members from across the United States send letters to relatives back home asking for money to support the mission’s work.
On Friday nights, the staff brings hot chocolate to people in the neighborhood and talk to them about the gospel.
“I tell them, ‘Even when you’re gutter trash, God is still looking down on you and praising you,” she said.
One of Deal’s protégées, Steve Anthony, arrives to the Youth with a Mission office promptly at 9 a.m. dressed neatly in a black shirt with a silver cross around his neck.
Since joining the Christian mission’s Reach-Up gospel in January, Anthony now plans to attend the California Culinary Academy and become a professional chef.
“The peak of the day is really hearing the Word,” said Anthony, 38, who has been homeless for four years. “When people are homeless, they don’t think of religion too much. It’s survival of the fittest. I encourage people to look toward Jesus instead.”
He said the program’s strict regiment—9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, with several hours of Bibles study and volunteer work in the community—has helped him keep his life on track.
But that strict schedule also has helped diminish the program’s appeal. It started with 10 people in January but has since fallen to two.
Martin, the activist from Coalition on Homelessness, said several homeless people in programs like Youth with a Mission have complained about being forces to sit through sermons in order to eat or sleep. But with shelter space at a premium, he said many of the homeless have little choice but to embrace whatever aid they can get.
The coalition estimates that between 11,000 and 14,000 people are homeless in the city.
David Curto, director of contracts for the city’s Department of Human Services, said only about five of the city’s 70 homeless and housing contracts are awarded to groups with any religious affiliation—and, even then, the religious groups are not allowed to preach to the homeless.
As a result, evangelical groups have found them shut out of the city’s $60 million pool of funding earmarked to fight homelessness. Although several evangelical groups have requested city funding for missionary work, Curto said he tells them that the city does not fund help programs that rely on prayer. Curto said San Francisco also has no plans to apply for grants for homeless help though President Bush’s faith-based initiative program, which offers government funding for religious groups engaged in community work.
Even without city funding, the evangelical groups have left a lasting impact on some of the longtime homeless.
Gaylord Dixon, 56, sitting on an overturned milk crate on the corner of Mason and O’Farrell streets, said the Christian missionaries bring blankets, socks, toothpaste and razors. They make his favorite bag lunch, bologna and cheese, while the other aid workers serve just peanut butter and jelly. Once when it was raining, evangelical missionaries ventured outside to bring him a poncho.
“They don’t just walk by and throw the name of God at us and keep walking,” Dixon said. “Even when everybody else looks at us like we’re drug addicts and alcoholics, the Christian people don’t walk by with their noses stuck up in the air. They don’t say, ‘You need to go to church.’ They say, ‘If you get a chance, why don’t you drop by.”