"I started with George Washington," the veteran reporter quipped Thursday evening, in front of a National Press Club ballroom filled with retired reporters, working hacks, and a crowd of readers and admirers.
Thomas, who has worked Washington news conferences, first for United Press International and now as a columnist with Hearst Newspapers, since the Kennedy administration, has a hard-earned sense of perspective about the last half century at the White House. She has watched from the front row as presidents inspired the people with passion and shocked and disappointed them through deception. She has also, she explained at the club, heard them laugh.
"Some presidents, like Kennedy and Reagan, did have a ready wit, and a legendary gift of gab. Lyndon Johnson would have you rolling on the floor with his talent for impersonation," she said. Other presidents were far less able to bring humor to the Oval Office. "If Nixon ever had two roads, he always took the wrong one. His dark side always prevailed," she said.
Thomas was on stage to promote her new book, "Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President." Her third memoir, the book takes a lighter look at the presidency than "Front Row at the White House" and "Dispatch White House," focusing on the "wit and wisdom" she gleaned from the nine presidents she's covered. Filled with humorous and sometimes touching anecdotes, the book, like many of Thomas's questions over the years, strives to find those moments that brought the leaders of the free world down to earth.
President Carter didn't have much of sense of humor, Thomas said, but his mother did. The press corps would rely on Miss Lillian to lighten the moment and knock her son down a few pegs. "Sometimes, when I look at my children, I wish I'd remained a virgin," she recalled Miss Lillian once told her.
President Kennedy was the most inspired president: "He had his eyes on the stars," Thomas said. But he could also make a joke -- even at Thomas's expense. Kennedy was the first president to use an airplane regularly, and the press corps was a bit nervous about it. One time, Thomas asked Kennedy what would happen if Air Force One crashed.
"I know one thing -- you would be just a footnote," he told her.
When Thomas says, "Thank you, Mr. President," at a news conference, it means the meeting officially is over. If only presidents took her advice as seriously the world would be a better place, she joked. The comment, like much of the book and her outlook on the presidency, has a more serious side.
Though "Thanks for the Memories" is supposed to be devoted to humor, Thomas didn't want to stick to light topics in speaking to a crowd. She had more pressing issues to talk about, she explained, particularly the mistakes and inexperience of President George W. Bush, and the "iron curtain" of secrecy that invariably falls between the president and the public he is supposed to represent.
Thomas is upset by the current presidents' moves to curtail civil liberties, and she believes people are not doing enough to fight it.
"What is this, the gulag?" she asked the crowd. "Trying to enlist the post office and truck drivers to inform on citizens, giving the FBI access to emails and library lists? Why has everyone rolled over with these crass invasions of our liberty?"
Everyone in America is frightened, she said, and the president is making matters worse by not providing meaningful answers or explanations about why the nation was attacked. "We are being handled and manipulated," she said. The press is not doing enough, she added.
"Too many of us are lying down on the job and afraid to question the powers that be," Thomas said. "I think it's unpatriotic to not question the people that make the decisions."
She also said she was still hopeful the press and people would again call the president to account, as they did during Vietnam.
"We will remember again," she said, "'that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,'" deftly quoting Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a president she didn't cover.
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