The Assistance Leagues of Newport Beach and Laguna Beach launched their 22nd Town Hall lecture series Monday with a zippy hour of political quips and historical footnotes provided by veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas.
Thomas, a wire service scribe for more than 45 of her 69 years, is often referred to as the "dean of the White House press corps." She is famous for her tough questions and tenacious reporting, and for the bright red dresses she wore to Reagan's press conferences. (Nancy Reagan wore a lot of red too, remember. Thomas knew how to get the President's attention.)
Thomas was dressed in red at the Edwards Cinema in Newport Beach on Monday morning, but only because "this is all I could find that was out of the dry cleaners," she joked privately. Moments later, the UPI reporter stepped up to the podium and read her speech.
While the lecture lacked spontaneity--Thomas read a 35-minute prepared speech--it was nonetheless engrossing. Thomas' speech-writing style was by turns droll, tutorial, hopeful.
"I bring you greetings from Millie," she said, mentioning the President's dog before mentioning the man himself. "We've seen more of her in Bush's first year than we did of Reagan in his eight years in office."
Moving quickly through her anecdotes, Thomas was rewarded with hearty laughter dozens of times by the audience of roughly 900 people, who paid $15 each to attend the lecture. Notable quotes:
* "Bush feels he's wiped out the 'wimp factor' with what he calls, 'that Panamanian thing.' "
* "There's one woman in Bush's Cabinet, the labor secretary. There was one woman in FDR's Cabinet, the labor secretary."
* During his '88 campaign, Bush told a crowd he was "anti-racist, anti-bigotry and anti-Semitic."
* "In Kennebunkport, a day of relaxation includes jogging, fishing, boating, swimming, perhaps a round of golf. . . . A younger colleague (of mine) was invited to go jogging with Bush. I was invited to the opening of the horseshoe pit."
* Members of the press are seen as "vultures, piranhas, sharks in the water. . . . We don't expect to be loved or popular. To be understood might be nice, but that might be too much (to ask) for the messenger who brings bad news."
* "I've found that people can handle the truth, and they deserve no less," Thomas said. Thomas shared memories of White House doings from Kennedy to Bush, including this one-liner from Lillian Carter, President Carter's mother: "Sometimes when I look at my children I wish I'd remained a virgin."
After her talk, Thomas answered questions for 25 minutes on topics ranging from foreign policy and abortion to Barbara Bush's health and life on the beat without television correspondent Sam Donaldson. (Does she miss Donaldson? someone asked. "Yes. He was an enfant terrible with me, and we're standing alone these days.")
Following the lecture, about 200 Assistance League members and friends met at the Balboa Bay Club for lunch.
At the head table with the guest of honor were Karen Stevens, chairwoman of the Town Hall lecture series; Sally Forbes, a Newport Beach league member and incoming chairwoman of the series; Bernice McGrath and Betty Porter, who knew Thomas when they were members of the National Press Club in Washington; and Sylvana Foa of Sherman Oaks, who used to work with Thomas at UPI.