Helen Thomas at MIT 2002 – America at War? A Conversation

Helen Thomas at MIT 2002 – America at War? A Conversation


KHOURY: Good
evening and welcome. My name is Philip
Khoury I’m the Dean of the School of Humanities,
Arts and Social Sciences here at MIT and I’m a
professor of history. It’s a privilege to
introduce this event, which is titled America at War, a
conversation with Helen Thomas. Our sponsor is the
Communications Forum at MIT and I’ve been asked just to
make one brief announcement before we proceed. And that is, this
Wednesday at 5:00 PM in this room in
Bartos Theater there will be the third Communications
Forum Forum, the third fora, if you like, OK, on copyright. And the two featured
speakers are Jonathan Zittrain at Harvard
and Siva Vaidhyanathan at NYU. And we urge you to
come out for this. I gather it’s been a very
successful couple of forums so far. Now, for more than four decades
with pen and paper in hand, Helen Thomas has occupied a
front row seat in a theater where the principal
cast and the plot changed every four years,
or occasionally every eight. As a young writer, she began
covering a newly elected president in November, 1960. And then marked the transition
from his administration to the subsequent one
after his assassination. She has monitored presidential
political and military policies relating to conflicts
from Vietnam to the former Soviet Union
to Israel to the Falklands to Libya and to Iraq. She has written about
political scandals that have involved wiretapping,
arms sales to rouge militants, and love affairs with interns. She sits now– I knew that would
go down well, Alex. OK, she sits now pen still at
the ready, offering commentary on measures being
taken to stimulate our languishing
economy, on policies that bear on our role in Iraq,
and on the dozens of issues that will emerge as
the dominoes tumble after tomorrow’s
midterm elections. Indeed, as a member of the White
House Press Corps since 1960, Helen Thomas has been reporting
important national and international stories in
which nine US presidents have played the lead. She is a legend in
her own time, which means she is someone
who refuses to live off her many laurels by remaining
as active and as engaged as ever with her profession
of journalism. On behalf of all
of us, Helen, I am honored to welcome you to MIT. I know this is your first visit. And I will confess that I
knew her as a little boy. She wasn’t much
older than me then. So it’s a wonderful
reunion for me. As a longtime
eyewitness to history, Helen’s perspectives on politics
and the state of the free press are even more relevant
and valuable today and they will be tomorrow. Certainly as reporters
and as participants in public debates
about democracy, about civil liberties, about
foreign policy, Helen Thomas and her colleagues in the
media serve an important role in helping us to
understand what’s happening on the
political stage, to explore alternative
points of view, and to decide what
we, as participants in a democratic society,
should do, ought to do. Such an important role doesn’t
come without scrutiny however, as we have come to
question the press as much if not more than
the players it covers. What responsibility
and accountability do the media have to
the citizens they serve? What is the media’s
responsibility to the individuals,
organizations, and institutions it covers? Helen will address these
questions in relation to our current
situation in Iraq, spotlighting the role
of the free press to both question and to endorse. And she’ll explain how the two
have become either too entwined at times, spin becomes
news, or entirely polarized, that paper’s too liberal or
that one’s too conservative. Following Helen’s
remarks, we will turn to our two
respondents Charles Stewart on my far right,
always on my far right. [LAUGHTER] And David Thorburn. David very kindly has agreed
to step forward on very short notice to replace Henry Jenkins,
who has been called away quite suddenly and regrets
that he cannot be here. Has a personal issue that he
had to deal with out of town. Charles Stewart is Professor
of Political Science at MIT and Associate Dean
of our school. He also happens to be one
of this country’s leading scholars of American
politics and behavior. He’ll offer a response emerging
from his extensive research on the US Congress. David is Professor
of literature at MIT and he’s of course a director
of the Communications Forum and has been for a good long
while now, our sponsor today. David is a media
studies expert and is one of the pioneers
of television studies in the United States. And I want to add that both
David Thorburn and Charles Stewart hold the highest honor
we have in the teaching world at MIT. Both are MacVicar
Faculty Fellows. There is no higher honor in my
opinion at this institution. We’re ready to begin. We’re going to begin with our
featured speaker, Helen Thomas. Welcome, Helen. [APPLAUSE] THOMAS: Well, it’s always
hard to hear your obituary, but I have never had
done more intellectually. And as for the
questions, I’m going to leave that to the experts. Good afternoon or is it evening? I’m very honored to be here. But I must admit, when I
told my friends that I was going to MIT, they said, why? You can’t add two and
two, and there you’ll be with all those Nobels
and future Einsteins. But I did come on the eve,
eve of the midterm elections. And I don’t have any of
those answers either. My crystal ball is murky,
short of predictions, but long on hopes that
the Democrats will keep control of the Senate. It is up for grabs. They have only one seat
in the majority now. Otherwise, you can be sure
it will be bombs away. I can say that now because
I write an opinion column. When I worked for
UPI wire service, I had to stick to the facts. And now I’m allowed
to have an opinion. Forgive everyone. Free at last. And now I wake up in
the morning and I say to myself, who do I hate today? And that’s the way
you write a column. When I wrote my first
column, the editor said, where’s the edge? Said the what? Your opinion? My what? After 50 years of censoring
myself, anyway it’s fun. Well, I never beat around
the bush, excuse the pun. I hate war. Besides I’ve lived
long enough to see so many of our reviled
enemies become our friends. So maybe there is a better way
instead of the killing fields. I’ve never covered a president
before in all my years in Washington who
actually wanted to go to war, first resort,
not the end of diplomacy, not the end of talk, not
the end of negotiations. Others would go of course. But in this case,
it’s the first resort. Iraq has been on
President Bush’s radar since he came into
office and even before. Whenever it seems that
he may be easing up his cordon of hawk and hard
line advisors rein him in. Not that he is not obsessed. Saddam Hussein is
his white whale. It’s more than that. He and his cohorts are pursuing
a policy that is alien to all that we’ve ever stood for
since World War II, at least in terms of collective
security, containment, peaceful diplomacy,
peaceful negotiations. The Bush policy of
preemptive war is immoral. Historian Arthur Schlesinger– [APPLAUSE] Historian Arthur Schlesinger,
thank you, put it well. He said that such a policy
would legitimatize Pearl Harbor. But he has given a green
light, President Bush has been given a green
light from Congress. So it’s once more into the
breach with none of the lessons learned since Vietnam. Sure, we’ll win that war. Bomb the Iraqis who are left. Bomb them into democracy. No other country is
really with us on this. Tony Blair is apparently not
speaking for the British people on this one. The Air Force has been doing
practice runs in southern Iraq. And do I dare to assume that it
is hoped that some Iraqi will be full up foolhardy enough to
give Bush an excuse for the war that he longs for. Where are the peacemakers? I thought we had to
retaliate in Afghanistan. But perpetual war,
war without end, is hardly what anyone would
want to look forward to for their children, for their
children, their grandchildren. What a way to begin
the 21st century. And we thought that we were
going to live happily ever after when the Cold War ended. I have to admit the Bushites
have played the war card well. The economy, prescription
drugs, other domestic issues have been pushed aside. Rightfully so, because
clearly they have no answers. But woe be on this country if
Bush actually gets a Republican Senate and House. Start drilling oil in Alaska. Forget Enron and
the corporate greed. Give those hungry
Wall Street investors a cut in the Social
Security benefits. Well I say cry, the
beloved country. We have arrived at
a stage where there are no ideals, no
inspiration, no hope. It’s not only a
swing to the right, it’s a big slide away from the
values and principles that have made this country so great. We have seen
Americans too willing to give up their freedom for
security Big Brother style Darkness at Noon
as well as Orwell. It’s odd for me
to quote Bob Barr, the conservative
Congressman, Barr, sorry. Who said that the
real test of freedom is not during periods
of peace and prosperity, but in times of national crisis. I must say I was surprised
that some great Ivy League academic defenders
of civil liberties were so willing to jump
over to the other side when they felt that the
country was threatened, and to be as vengeful as anyone
else who has never asked why. The Attorney General had ruled
that deportation cases should be closed to the
public and the press. Fed, up the Detroit
papers finally sued and won a ruling
to be able to cover some of these deportation hearings. And federal judge Damon
Keith said, democracy dies behind closed doors. We are so willing to
accept an unprovoked war as the United States builds up
its forces in the Persian Gulf. Where is the outrage? Preemptive war is
not us, I maintain. At least it wasn’t us
in the 20th century. But we are being led to
permanent, perpetual war by a man who did not
choose to serve himself when he was about to
be drafted for Vietnam and that goes for all
of his hawk advisors. I don’t think that’s a low blow. It’s a truth It’s not lost
on the American people that President Bush is giving a
pass to diplomatic talks, that is to North Korea, which
admits it lied and has nuclear weapons in production
or it wants to produce them, has a program. And we are going to bomb Iraq,
which may have them someday. Does that make sense to you? Of course. Or is it the oil
that Iraq possesses? Anyone want to send their
sons or grandchildren to die for a grab at
Iraq’s oil fields? Would we tolerate an attack
on our nation that way? When are the American
people are going to wake up? In the case of Afghanistan,
I felt that the retribution was swift and right. The question, to question,
to question, to dissent, is not unpatriotic. It is patriotic to
be a thinking people and not to roll over as Congress
did for fear that they will not get re-elected without
thinking of the consequences. We should be working
for true arms control all over the world. We should uphold
the treaties that we have made since World War II
that are being torn up day by day, comprehensive
test ban treaty, non-proliferation treaty,
anti-ballistic missile treaty, and so
forth, all the others that we signed
since World War II. We have even forgotten that
we need friends and allies. We forgot that at
least till 9/12. Then the president was never
off the phone for three weeks calling everyone in the world,
all the leaders in the world, lining them up. Colin Powell, Secretary of
State was a lonesome dove. But he likes his
job and there is no room in this administration
for a devil’s advocate. President Bush has had
only six news conferences in his two years in office. That’s a long time
between drinks. And that is playing
it safe, but not consistent with true democracy. The presidential– and he
has his last news conference was on July 8. A lot has happened since then. The presidential news
conference is the only forum in our society where
a president can be questioned on a regular
basis and held accountable. Otherwise he can rule
and is ruling now by executive order,
autocratically, imperialistically. I maintain that is not
us and not democracy. You cannot have a democracy
without a free press, free to ask questions. It’s indispensable
in our system. Well, what a
difference a day makes. What a difference a year makes. We’ve had to tighten security
like never before now that we know that
we are vulnerable, not protected by two oceans. I know I sound like
the bearer of bad news. Blame the messenger. We’re used to that. No question our world has
been shaken, shattered maybe. But I am confident
that we shall overcome. As Franklin D Roosevelt put
it at the height of the Great Depression, we have nothing
to fear but fear itself. The philosopher
George Santayana said, that if we do not learn
from our mistakes, we are doomed to repeat
them in the future. It is ours to reason why,
not just to do and die. We have to wake up, speak up,
play a role in the decisions that affect all mankind. It’s up to us to make our
public servants accountable. We in the press are the
self-appointed self-annointed watchdogs of democracy. We try to follow the truth
wherever it leads us. As long as I’m on
my rant, I think we also have to protect
our civil liberties. Benjamin Franklin
said, if we are willing to give up our liberty
for temporary security, we are in danger of losing both. I speak of wiretapping,
indiscriminate, random, FBI accessing email, FBI listening
in on private lawyer client conversations, rounding up
dark skinned immigrants who have no appeal, no due process. Some 700 detainees
at Guantanamo Bay held in limbo, unable to contact
any member of their family or a lawyer, of course. They are prisoners of war,
captured in Afghanistan, denied rights under
international law and the Geneva Accords. That’s not us. The international
world is wondering what happened to America’s
great heart and soul. Sabotage the biological
chemical weapons treaty. We have opposed the
criminal court and so forth. We’re going to put nuclear
weapons in our last sanctuary, the heavens. Winston Churchill
said that democracy is the worst form of government,
except for all the others that have been invented. And I like what
Adlai Stevenson said. Stevenson said,
democracy is great, not just because the
majority prevails, but because it’s safe
to be in the minority. It’s also said that the
only way for evil to prevail is for good people
to do nothing. I shall never forget the Martin
Luther King march on Washington in 1963 when he made
his immortal speech I have a dream, black and
white kids walking hand-in-hand together. But I also remember
the rabbi who had spent many years
in a concentration camp in the Hitler regime. And he said that the greatest
sin of all in the Nazi era was silence. The French historian
de Tocqueville spoke of America in its
infancy and visited here. He said, America is
great because it is good. When it ceases to be good,
it will no longer be great. To me, great presidents have
great goals for mankind. I believe that they
have the greatest honor that can come to anyone. And that is the trust
of the American people. I’ve always felt greatly
privileged to cover the White House and to have that ringside
seat to instant history, history in the making. I’ve seen presidents
in their highs and lows always aware that they are
human beings, sometimes. I thought I’d give
you a thumbnail sketch of the presidents I’ve covered. John F. Kennedy, most
inspired of them all. Anyone who would say
we’re going to land men on the moon in a decade was
either reading science fiction or obviously had
that vision thing. He said, there’s a universe
out there that we must explore. He was a statesman at the time
of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He avoided a nuclear holocaust. Lyndon B. Johnson’s
Great Society helped the poor, the
sick, and the maimed. He rammed through Congress in
his first two years in office on the tailwind of the
Kennedy assassination. Medicare, the Civil
Rights Act, voting rights for blacks for the
first time in the South, where they didn’t have to
recite the US Constitution or pay a poll tax
to register to vote, public housing, federal
aid to education at all levels from Head Start
through college, you name it. But of course, Vietnam
was his denouement. Like most presidents, Johnson
had a stable of speechwriters. And once he once asked that
a certain speech be prepared. And when the speechwriter
writer brought him the first draft he looked
at it and he said, Voltaire? Voltaire? People I’m going to talk to
don’t know who Voltaire is. Grabbed a pen scratched shout
Voltaire and scribbled in, as my dear old
daddy used to say. And when he was
pushing civil rights, a group of his
Southern cronies, he had been Senate majority
leader came to him and said Lyndon, what is this? When you were in the Senate,
you were a Southerner. And he said, I’m president now,
president of all the people. He knew every man’s
price on Capitol Hill. And he knew where all
the bodies were buried. Richard Nixon,
brilliant politician, who always had two roads
to go and he always took the wrong road. He will be remembered
for the breakthrough trip to China in 1972, which began
the normalization of relations between the US and China after
a 20 year hiatus, 20 year gap. And he will be remembered as the
only president in our history to be forced to resign because
of the abuse of government power. His dark side always prevailed. Gerald Ford restored
confidence in the White House and in the country
in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. He said, the long
nightmare is over. Jimmy Carter put human
rights at the centerpiece of his foreign policy. He also is the most respected
past president of recent times and hats off that he won the
Nobel Peace Prize finally, after being nominated 10 times. Ronald Reagan moved the
country to the right. There was a Reagan Revolution. He also abetted the
end of the Cold War with a tremendous arms buildup. George Bush 41, best known for
the Persian Gulf War victory. But we couldn’t read his lips
when it came to the economy. Bill Clinton tarnished
the Oval Office with his personal liaisons. But he did bring prosperity
to the country, balanced the budget. He worked for world peace in the
Balkans, Ireland, Middle East. And when he was getting ready
to leave office of course, all the White House reporters
wanted to interview him. And we all had the
pro forma questions. Will you write your memoirs? What will your legacy
Be but I think I asked him one prophetic question. I said to him, Mr.
President, if you could take one thing
from the White House that belongs to the American
people, what would it be? Well, I didn’t know he was
going to bring a U-Haul. He said it would be
the moon rock, which was brought back by Neil
Armstrong, first man to land on the moon. And he said that whenever his
staff were in high tension, at each other’s
throats, he would tell them to chill out
and point to the moon rock and note that it’s
3.6 billion years old. And that’s what we
call perspective. George W. Bush, 43,
a work in progress. He has raised more
than $125 million for the Republican candidates. His cordon of advisors I’ve
told you are all hard liners. He likes being
president, no sweat. He asked for advice on one page. Presidency has always
been on the job training, so we’ll forgive him. His philosophy is simple, black
and white, good and evil, dead or alive, with us or
against us, except when it comes to the transgressions
of the greedy corporate world. And then he says, you really
can’t reduce this problem to black and white. I went to Washington
during World War II determine to be
a newspaperwoman. Had just gotten out of college. And Liz Carpenter who
also became a great– she became a great Texas
newspaperwoman and later press secretary to Lady Bird Johnson,
arrived at the same time. She had just graduated from
the University of Texas. And we both went knocking on
doors at the National Press Building. And Liz was always
on the plump side. And she ran out of money a
couple of days before I did. And she wired her brother,
please send me $200 or I’m going to have
to sell my body. And he wired back,
sell it by the pound. All The first ladies I covered
rose to the occasion. They found out that
they had great power and they could wave a
magic wand in support of a good social cause. And many supported
their crusades long after they left
the White House. And Mrs. Johnson’s,
of course, was known for her national
beautification program, which transformed this land we love. And she has created a Wildflower
Center outside of Austin. And a teacher took a group
of her school children one day to visit the Center. And she held up a photograph
of Lady Bird Johnson and asked the kids, do
you know who she is? And one little boy piped
up, that’s Mother Nature Of course, the White House
is always under scrutiny. And somehow presidents
seem to think they can have their privacy. My feeling is, if they
want their privacy and that’s the issue, don’t
go into public life I also think that if you really
want to go into public life, you should decide at the age
of five and live accordingly. When I was first assigned to
cover President hyphen Elect Jimmy Carter, I thought
of that interview he had given to Playboy
Magazine where he said he had lust in his heart. Well, little did I know
that presidential lust would come much later. Instead I found myself covering
a Sunday school teacher. And when I tried to
cover Carter’s Bible class in Plains, Georgia,
my male colleagues were allowed in. But I was blocked by
a big, burly bouncer. I finally convinced him I was
no lady, I was a reporter. Forgive us our press passes. Well, no president has ever
liked the press, dating back to George Washington. I wasn’t covering
him but Kennedy said, I’m reading more and
enjoying it less. What LBJ said is unprintable. Nixon looked up when we walked
into the Cabinet room one day and said, it’s only
coincidental that we’re talking about pollution
when the press walks in. President Ford said
that if God had created the world in six days. He could not have
rested, he would have had to explain it to Helen Thomas. Carter always
seemed to be saying, Lord forgive them for they
know not what they do. And when President
Reagan was told that the Sandinistas,
the Marxists, had fired on a press helicopter
at the Honduran border, he quipped, there’s
some good in everyone. And when a friend asked
President Clinton why the press always went
along in the motorcade when he went jogging, he
laughed and said they just want to see if I drop dead. That’s true. George Bush used to invite my– George Bush I used to
invite my younger colleagues to go jogging with him. Better them than me. I got invited to the dedication
of the horseshoe pit. Well, Al Neuharth, the
founder of USA Today said that when he went to
Cuba to interview Fidel Castro a couple of years ago,
he found that Castro was very clued in about
America, happenings here. And he asked Castro, what’s the
difference between your country and mine. And Castro said, I don’t
have to answer questions from Helen Thomas. Well as we start
the 21st century, I think that we can look back
on the last century in deepest gratitude to the
millions who made the ultimate sacrifice for us,
two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam. At the same time,
we also realize that we’ve made great strides in
last century which have brought us great credit in
terms of civil rights, women’s rights, human rights,
not to mention the high tech advances, robotics,
and so forth. We’re going to
Mars and so forth. And we know that our quest for
knowledge should never end. I have many memories in
covering the White House. There’ve been times to
laugh, times to cry, and times to wonder. I remember when Kennedy
said an off the cuff remark at a news
conference, life is unfair. And I remember when we asked
him, what would happen if– on Air Force One we
asked him, what would happen if the aircraft crashed. I know one thing he said your
name will be just a footnote. And I remember when we were
invited to the LBJ ranch for dinner. And Johnson asked Bill Moyers,
who had been a Baptist minister to say grace. Moyers bent his
head, began to pray. Johnson commanded,
speak up, Bill. I wasn’t talking to you, Mr.
President, Moyers replied. And I remember when
Johnson was taken to Bethesda Naval Hospital
for gallbladder surgery. The psychiatric ward had been
transformed into a press room. What happened to the patients,
Johnson asked Moyers. We gave them all press
cards, said Moyers. And then there was
Mitch Costanza who said, I don’t mind Carter
being born again, but did he have to
come back as himself? And I remember
asking Billy Carter if he too had been born again. He said once is enough. Then there was my all time
favorite, Miss Lillian, Carter’s mother
who said, sometimes when I look at my children,
I wish I’d remained a virgin. When Carter was
elected president, a reporter ran up to
Miss Lillian and said, aren’t you proud of your son? She said, which one? I remember interviewing her
during the Carter campaign. She was still fuming over a
French woman correspondent who had belabored Carter’s
campaign promise never to lie. She kept asking Miss Lillian
what he really meant by that. Finally she said to Miss
Lillian, do you lie? Miss Lillian said, well, I
might tell a little white lie. Well, what do you mean
by a little white lie? In total exasperation,
Mr. Lillian said, you remember when you
came through that door and I told you how
beautiful you looked, well, that’s a little white lie. Several years ago on Christmas,
in the Christmas season, the Washington Post
said the General Colin Powell was going to
become President Clinton’s Secretary of State. Well, that’s a little premature. That’s what he is now. And I was invited to a Christmas
party at Sam Donaldson’s house. Powell was there. In my usual shy way, I
marched up to him and I said, General, are you going to be
the next Secretary of State, to which you turned to
another guest and said, isn’t there some war
we can send her to? Well before 9/11, he
sent me a note saying, I’m still looking for that war. And I sent him back the Vietnam
slogan, hell, no, I won’t go. And then there was
Henry Kissinger. Woman ran up to Kissinger
and said, oh, Dr. Kissinger, thank you for saving the world. He said, you’re welcome. And once Kissinger teased
his own Secret Service agents that he might be
kidnapped by terrorists. They told him, don’t worry we’ll
never let them take you alive. And I remember going to
Moscow with President Reagan for a summit meeting
with Mikhail Gorbachev. Suddenly, the evil empire
was no more in Reagan’s eyes. And he noted that the Russians
laughed and they cried and they were human. When we got back to
Washington, I said to him, Mr. president do
you think if you had gone to Moscow 10
years ago, 20 years ago you might have found out
the Russians laugh, they cry, they’re human. They’re not bears
who walk like men. He said nope, they’ve changed. Justice Brandeis said that if
the government becomes a law breaker, it breeds
contempt for the law. He also said that a constant
spotlight on public officials lessens the possibility
of corruption. Lincoln said, let the people
know the facts and the country will be safe. I believe that. Jefferson said,
eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Engraved in the Mantel
in the State Dining Room it’s a prayer by
John Adams, which says, blessings on this house. May only good and
wise men live here. We all hope for that. And I believe that people
can handle the truth and they deserve no less. And we should keep
an eye on presidents who have life and death
power over all humanity today to keep our people informed,
democracy alive, thank you. [APPLAUSE] KHOURY: Thank you
very much, Helen. We will now move on to– David Thorburn has–
we work together. This is how it is
David is elected to speak first in response. THORBURN: Thank you. I won’t even attempt to
be as witty or as charming as Helen Thomas. But I would like to
begin by giving you an examination, a test. It’s a pop quiz. Among her many allusions
and references, Helen Thomas made reference to
a poem by Tennyson in her talk. Did anyone pick up on it ? What was it? AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] THORBURN: Yes. She spoke briefly. She said, ours is
not to reason why. And of course she was referring
to a very famous poem, which is deeply relevant to
our discourse in some respects. And I thought I might begin
by mentioning it to you It’s of course, the
famous poem that Tennyson wrote after the catastrophe
of a brigade of light cavalry being ordered in the
Crimea War, being ordered to take charge into
incredibly overwhelming cannon shot. It was a horrific
military blunder, a mistake on a monumental
scale to send light cavalry into the face of those guns. And there was an elaborate
investigation afterwards, and the great national act
of mourning, commemoration, and self-flagellation in
England after the event. And it was partly
caused by the power of Tennyson’s famous poem. In the poem he describes– some of the power
of the poem has to do with its
astonishing rhythms. But one of the lines in
the poem goes something like this, cannon to
the right of them, cannon to the left
of them, volleyed and thundered, stormed
at with shot and shell, boldly they rode and well
into the valley of death rode the 600. 600 cavalryman rode
into those cannon. Even as they began it,
they knew that they were riding to their deaths. I think a more sensible leader
might have actually disobeyed orders and sent his men
away from the front. But they were glad– they were too
honorable and too full of sort of a sense of pride
that we have to obey our orders. And some of the lines in
the poem talk about someone had blundered is one of
the lines in the poem. And one of the
reasons that strikes me as relevant to
our present situation is in some sense
disturbing and eerie to me. Because one difference between
our contemporary situation and the situation
in the 19th century. I could imagine easily, and I
think Helen Thomas’s discourse implies, and an equally horrific
and maybe even more shocking blunder if it’s a pre-emptive
strike by American forces on others. But the difference of
course as all of you are thinking I’m sure,
is that our forces would be high in the
air, free of danger. The civilian casualties
are likely to be horrific. The cost, even if it’s
a horrific blunder, the cost will be to the
enemy and the country responsible for the horror
is likely not to feel it. Part of the danger
of Bush, it strikes me part of the danger of what
President Bush has been talking about, although perhaps less
aggressively in recent days than at the beginning of his
discourse about preemptive war, part of the danger
of it is precisely that if we go down
that road, we are much less likely immediately
to feel the consequences of such behavior. Horrible as it is, of the 600
members of the Light Brigade who charged into
the mouth of hell, something over 400
of them were killed, a shocking, shocking
casualty rate. But it was a wake up
call to that society and to those people. In a way such wake
up calls may be less available in a high
tech environment in which war is conducted by
digital technology and high flying airplanes
and so-called smart bombs. So it strikes me as a relevant
and disturbing imperfect analogy. I also thought it was
worth saying what I take it most of you felt. I think
that Helen Thomas offered us a very powerful indictment
of the current behavior of the Bush presidency,
from which I certainly have no significant dissent. I think that the notion
of preemptive war is as dubious and as vulnerable
as Helen Thomas suggested. I think her comments about
the implicit incoherence and inconsistency
of the Bush policies are especially notable
and worth recalling. And also her reminder to us
of the extraordinary danger to civil liberties in the
country that has already begun to build because of the
rhetoric of the Administration deserves I think underlining. But her most powerful– but for me, the most powerful
and disturbing aspect of her discourse,
maybe it’s that I don’t expect that much from the
collection of managers and oil company apologists who surround
President Bush, the most shocking thing to me in some
ways that Helen Thomas dwelled on a bit, mentioned a bit,
and that I think we might want to talk more about
in our conversation, has been the astonishing
supineness of the Congress, the astonishing the
absolutely astonishing, truly shocking cowardly behavior
of most Democrats. It is quite amazing that Helen
Thomas in her in our talk today was 50 times more
eloquent than almost any Democratic
politician has been in public about the
shocking inconsistency and folly of this
Administration’s behavior. Is the Democratic Congress so
nervous about its ridiculous jobs that it is afraid
to speak the truth in a moment like this? That strikes me as almost more
shocking and more horrible. Because they know better. Because they know– at
least Bush presumably believes what he’s doing maybe. Perhaps believes
what he’s doing. In any case, some
of the warmongers in his Administration, Richard
Perle and the Secretary of Defense truly believe
what they’re doing, contemptible as
those beliefs may be. There are many
Democratic politicians who know perfectly well how
shocking and inconsistent and morally dubious as well
as politically impractical these plans are. But they’re silent about it. And it strikes me
as in that sense a very, very depressing time
supposedly for our democracy. Let me end with a little
reminiscence of my own about the Vietnam era. And in this sense, I have at
least one minorly optimistic thing to say to you in response
to the kinds of thoughts that Helen Thomas’s
discourse generated in me. I was very active,
relatively active, in my graduate student days
and in my days in my early days as a young professor in
the anti-war movement against the war in Vietnam. And one of the most
important things that I recall about
that time, seems to me to lead to at least a partly
optimistic conclusion after all the negative things
that I’ve been saying and that Helen Thomas has said. And that is that in
the very early days of the anti-war movement
in the United States during the Vietnam era in
the early 1960s, in 1961, ’62, 63; 63, the year of
Kennedy’s assassination when we began to send
advisors to Vietnam. There was never in the beginning
even any formal declaration of our involvement
there, the amount of anti-war discourse
in the larger population was relatively small. You would never
read an op ed piece in the New York
Times questioning the motives of the war. And it was as late
as 1965 or 1966 that the Secretary of State of
the United States, Dean Rusk said there is no
significant body of opinion in this country– this is
almost a direct quotation. I used it many times in my
anti-war talks in the 1960s. No significant body of
opinion, this bastard said. No significant body of
opinion that United States is opposed to the war in Vietnam. By the time he said that in
1965, many university campuses were hotbeds of
anti-war activity. But the truth is that none
of the anti-war activity in those early came from
public sources either. So we weren’t hearing
from Congressmen. We weren’t hearing from
senators in those early days. But it is still
the case, I think, that in our present situation
the prime difference that I see between
those days and now is that even though the
politicians are keeping their mouths shut
and are behaving with I think
contemptible cowardice and self-interest, probably
mistaken self-interest, ordinary people
are speaking out. There is more on
the op ed pages. There’s more on the
talk shows and on radio. There’s more general
fear and opposition to any proposal to invade Iraq
bubbling in our society now than was remotely the case
as late as 1965 or even 1966. And that’s I think
a positive moment. My guess is, my belief is,
that if the Bush administration really is so
foolish as to pursue some sort of a preemptive
war, the amount of anti-war, the explosion of anti-war
activity into the streets will be surprising to
everyone except those of us who remember the
Vietnam era and remember what can happen when an
aroused citizenry begins to instruct its government
about what constitutes reasonable behavior. At least that’s what
I hope will happen if Bush is so foolish
as to go down that road. THOMAS: That’s wonderful. [APPLAUSE] STEWART: So this is two
difficult acts to follow. Not only have we heard
two very compelling views about the state of
the world today, but I teach a freshman
advising seminar, those of you, most people here are
probably from MIT and know about these
things, and I’m teaching about cooking, doing
a cooking class actually this term. And about an hour
and a half ago, we were making an eating won tons. And I have a belly full
of the right about there. And so I’m going to be looking
down at my notes a little more than I would like, just to
kind of get over the won ton problem, we shall call it. THOMAS: Is he kidding? STEWART: Only at MIT. But on my notes, I
have kind of a feeling that the conversation
would go this way. I want to say something
that I think is ultimately in the spirit of what both Helen
Thomas and David have said, but come at it is
slightly different way. And actually suggest
that in the politics of going to war with Iraq,
perhaps going to war with Iraq, over the last couple
of months there’s been both this supine behavior. But there’s also been
an interesting debate and an interesting
dynamic in public opinion. And I’m curious about the degree
to which this pattern might emerge going forward. And so let me kind of lay
out my argument a bit, and kind of see where it goes. And I’m going to start
off perhaps a bit, maybe even overly conventional
and too political scienc-y but then come back to what I
hope is the hopeful point here. And so in any case, I mean going
to war is a pretty awful thing. And Ms. Thomas mentioned
in the beginning that there were
lessons of Vietnam. And there’s one
lesson of Vietnam that I think we all
understand, hawks and doves, and that is that a nation
shouldn’t be dragged into war without the public’s approval. Another lesson that was learned
within Washington at least and is less well understood
is that well the president shouldn’t go to war without
Congress’s approval. And that’s certainly what
we witnessed in September was watching a president try
to get Congress’s approval. Of course, these two
things go together. The public that the president
wants to get the approval from is not a they, it’s an it. And this public
can’t ask questions it can’t speak with one voice. That’s what Congress
is there for. And so these two
things go together, getting Congress’s approval and
getting the public’s approval go together. And during the months of
September and October, we saw this dance between the
president and the Congress over what precisely
should Iraq policy be. And the interesting
thing, of course, is that this is a society where
secrets aren’t easily kept and that dance took
place in public. And as a consequence of what
was relatively a narrow debate within Washington,
there was nonetheless the development of quite
sophisticated public opinion that I would say a little less
passionately but nonetheless I agree with what David just said,
and that is the spirit of that, and that is moving forward,
there’s been a ground laid, the groundwork
laid it hasn’t been there and many other
adventures around the world. And so here’s sort of I
guess the hopeful scenario. Americans don’t like to
talk about foreign policy. We know that. They hate it. What they like to think about
is there is there world. They’d like to think about
the price potato chips. And they like to think about
whether their kids have good schools and the rest. And this shows up in public
opinion all the time. And in fact the Pew
Center for the research on the people in the press
asked in October likely voters a bunch of questions. They actually asked
them two questions that got a lot of attention. One was what is the
thing that you’ve been talking about the most
in terms of national politics? And the thing they’ve been
talking about the most was Iraq. In fact, along the
long list that we all know of issues that
one could talk about in September and October,
they were talking about Iraq, more than half. More than terrorism, more than
the economy, more than Enron, more than anything else. Then they were asked, well, what
would you like to talk about? And it wasn’t Iraq,
not surprisingly. It was the economy. It was terrorism. It was education. And it was the rest. Now, a number of my friends,
my liberal Democratic friends, have taken this news as
being really horrible, and as evidence
actually that politics isn’t working in America. The evidence is this. That Americans really want
to be talking about the sorry state of the economy. And it’s a pretty sorry
state of the economy. In any other midterm election
we would expect the Republicans to be getting hammered right
now because of the poor state of the economy. And we would not be wondering
right now whether Republicans are going to– whether the Democrats
could possibly pick up seats in the
Senate or the House. We would just be assuming it. But things are really,
really different right now. OK? So Americans want to
talk about the economy. But they’ve been led
to talk about Iraq. Well I think it’s a
great thing they’ve been led to talk about
Iraq quite frankly. And, I think it’s a
great thing that we have a press that has
figured out in Washington what the important issue is. So while it is a sad thing,
putting on my liberal Democratic hat, to think that
we’re coming into a midterm in which the poor economic
performance cannot be an issue and in which we cannot blast the
incumbent President for that, nonetheless the press
was focused on– rather the people
were focused on Iraq in September and
October and the reason they were focused
on Iraq was it was a drama going on in Washington,
as bad a drama as it was. And that drama was over
whether Delay and Armey and, actually not Delay,
but Armey and all those guys would come along and
support the president. In the end they did. And in the process, the
public developed a really kind of interesting public opinion. And it certainly isn’t a
fully formed public opinion. It is going to
emerge even further. So at the beginning
of September, most Americans believed we
should go to war against Iraq. We should do it now
and we should do it without any the world
coming along with us. By the time the
resolution was passed in the beginning of October,
roughly the same number of people said we should
go to war with Iraq. But most Americans
said we should go only when our allies
are with us, only when the UN is with us,
and only as a last resort. They did not believe
that a month ago. So somehow there’s a
very interesting message got into that craniums
or most Americans who mostly want to think about
the prices in the grocery stores and kids’ education. They actually developed a
pretty sophisticated view on the situation in Iraq. So the responsibility
of the press is multifaceted
in a time of war. And I think that
a lot of times, we focus on issues of secrecy, of
the denial of civil liberties and the rest. But an important
thing that I think that witnessed over the
last couple of months is the press continuing to
point out the important thing. And the important
thing right now is that, as Helen
Thomas was pointing out, America used to not be a
nation of preemptive war. Now we might be becoming a
nation of preemptive war. And so, I’ll just conclude
by saying, the hopeful thing and then asking the question. The hopeful thing again, if
you haven’t gotten the point, is that a dynamic has begun
in the public discourse that, like it or not,
the public is going to be talking about the Middle
East and about issues of war and are going to be
dragged into developing a sophisticated
understanding of the issue. Should we in fact go to war? And I think that it’s actually
less likely than some people think that we will go to war. But should we go to war, we’re
prepared to talk about it in ways that we
weren’t in other cases. And that’s an interesting thing. And so the question
really becomes, there’s a number of ways
for me to go from here. One is to assume, as with
David, that once the war, should a war happen,
that naturally there would be a revolt
on college campuses and naturally we’ll be
situated to resist mightily. In my view, just having
watched last couple of weeks, for that to happen, it would
require not only people in the street to keep
going, but it would also require the press to keep
the skeptical eye on a war. And the one thing that hasn’t
really been touched on so far, and I would love to hear
what you have to say and what other
people have to say is that, should we
go to war with Iraq, would the sophisticated view
or more sophisticated view of the policy that we’re
seeing in the press and we’re seeing
the public develop, would that more
sophisticated view continue to be pushed in
the press among members of the press corps? Or is there a tendency
even at that point, for not only the public, but,
and not only the Congress, but then the press with
a real shooting war, to throttle back a bit? And so I’ll just
conclude by saying that, agreeing that the guarantor
of liberties in this country is the press and Helen Thomas’s
word today in her career or evidence that
without the press we would end up
going on willy nilly into some pretty
frightening policies. And I think that the
best thing that we could hope for over the
next couple of years is continued dissent
and continued sophisticated analysis,
as much as we can get as public as we can get. So thank you. [APPLAUSE] KHOURY: So just before we
open it up to the floor, I thought Helen, I don’t know
MIT has certain traditions, but not lots of them. But on this occasion,
if you wish, you may wish to respond
to David or to Charles or we can just go
straight to the floor. It’s up to you. THOMAS: Well, I
would like to say that I’m thrilled
to hear both of you, because you’ve given
me a lot of thought. And it’s nice to have
a strong supporter and you gave me hope because
if the president goes to war tomorrow, the ballgame is over. But if it’s allowed to ferment,
as you said, and I really believe that people will
really begin to think, what’s this all about, Alfie? And I honestly think that
the more we think about it, the more we’ll realize
how foolhardy it is. Except I think that
this president is looking for any excuse
and will use any– if we’re doing practice
runs a no fly zone, we’re hoping they’ll
shoot at us right? I mean and have a good
pretext to go to war. He’s got none so far. He hasn’t been able to sell it. And they were very
open about it. Karl Rove, last January,
he issued a memo to all the Republican
operatives around the country, maybe that’s the
wrong word, leaders, that don’t forget
we’ve got the war card. And we’re going to play it. And they have played it. And that’s why
it’s on the agenda. And that’s why it’s
in the conversation. The president has not made
any speech about the price of popcorn or anything else. He’s definitely stayed
on message, which is war. And he’s really psyched up
the people and thinks that– he has not been accountable,
as I said before, as I complained before. Every day I ask
Ari Fleischer, when is the president ever going to
have another news conference? When you don’t have
one since last July and you’re taking a
country into war and there’s no other way to
make them accountable. We don’t have a prime minister
going before a House of Commons or being questioned. So I’m hoping that people
will begin to think. But I also think in
terms of the campus, you know the
campuses were on fire when George Bush was at Yale. He didn’t even know there was
a war going on in Vietnam. But there also was the
question of the draft. When young people on
campuses definitely felt more vulnerable,
of course they became more interested in the
war and having to go to a war that they didn’t believe in. And the whole– you’re right
about the lesson of Vietnam, which is that you cannot fight
a war unless people understand the reasons why to die. And certainly we
saw the evolution of Vietnam, Washington
Post, New York Times supported the Vietnam War
in the initial stages. But gradually, when it came
back to the point where we were going to have to
bomb them to the Stone Age to really win the war. And they could fade
into the night. We didn’t even know there was an
underground channel in Saigon. We were there 15
years of the CIA. And so forth. So there was no way they could
win the war unless they really did almost a total annihilation. And the American people got
really fed up by that time. And they realized that
to destroy a village and restore it, and this is
what you hear about Iraq now, which is so shocking. Oh, we’re going
to wipe them out. And by God, and then
we’re going to build– you see on CNN it says,
life after the war. There is so much
assumption here that we’ve practically– we won the war. We’re in the war and
there’s no full stop. I wish there would be
to be more thinking. But I think that the
question of inevitability has sunk in now,
where people think we have got no more say about it. Congress has given him the
green light and so forth. Well, I think the
people do have a say. And I do think that this
White House responds to polls. At least, in some way if his
polls would continue to go down and he would see that
this was not valid, you know, there is no reason. Iraq has not provoked
us in any way. For 11 years, we’ve had
satellites, AWACS overhead. We know everything that
moves in Iraq on the surface. We’ve had tight
economic sanctions where their children have
not been able to get medicine for ordinary baby illnesses. And we bomb them and we
bomb them every other night in the no fly zone. But we don’t have
reporters there. We don’t know where they’re
going or anything else. Not that I don’t
trust this government. And then you have
the total secrecy. They tell you nothing. I think that the truth doesn’t
hurt us in any ways, not just Iraq Why don’t we
know about terrorism? Why don’t we know the causes? They have done
everything to sabotage the creation, establishment
of a commission to look into the causes. How can you rectify a situation,
how can you change it? How can you make a difference,
treat it, whatever, if you don’t know the reasons? And they don’t want you
to know the reasons. It’s not just political,
because obviously, other administration, the
Clinton Administration will be to blame too. I mean talk about missing
the boat all over the place and not connecting the dots. It wasn’t just this
administration. But I’m in a center
here which is known for its intellect and
the intellectual ferment and thinking. And there is nobody
in Washington in the higher echelons
who wants to think, why? There is only one question on
the table, and that is why? Why are we hated now? Why should we ever be hated? We’ve always been loved? What made us lose so
much ground and so much affection and
respect in the world? KHOURY: Thank you, Helen. [APPLAUSE] OK, I think we can now
open up to our audience. I’d better get a
piece of paper here. Please direct your
comment or question. And remember what Helen said,
dissent is a good thing. Yes. This gentleman in the– AUDIENCE: I was wondering– KHOURY: Yeah, we
have microphones. AUDIENCE: Howdy. THORBURN: It would be good to
identify yourself since there isn’t a record of this. AUDIENCE: Sure my
name is Nils Fonsted. I’m a PhD student at the Sloan
School of Management here. And I was interested
in hearing more about the issue of press
access to information regarding wars for example, and
how that access has evolved over your years of
covering the White House. And specifically how
that trend which seems to be towards less and
less access, how that can be changed if in any way? THOMAS: Well I think that the
media overlords have really laid down on the job. They shouldn’t be complaining,
protesting the fact– does anybody know
anything that’s going on. Do we have a war in Afghanistan? Not really a war, it’s
a special forces action, police action, whatever. We aren’t fighting an Army,
Navy or anything else. What are we really doing there? We’ve had no casualty
figures or anything else. Rumsfeld struts and
swashbuckles every day and refuses to
answer the questions, acts like everybody’s some
nincompoop for even asking. During the Vietnam
War, correspondents could hop on a helicopter
and go to any front. They could go anywhere. I mean it was a wide open deal. Sure, they would attend
the 5:00 follies that were given by the
Army headquarters and so forth in a
hotel in Saigon. But they also went to
the front, and they saw. They knew what was happening. And hence you that the
books and hadn’t you got the dispatches
that really questioned, what are we doing there? You don’t have that anymore. I mean they have really– the word Iran, and
this is strictly rumor, at the Pentagon. They said never again
will we allow a war to be covered like that. And they drew up a master
plan to contain us. And they did a good job
in the Persian Gulf War in terms of having briefings
at the Pentagon and in Riyadh. And they were very
coordinated and so forth. But they really
limited the reporters who could go to the front. Now, I think that they’re really
trying to control everything. They might allow us– they’re
allowing some reporters on aircraft carriers
and so forth. But there is no real
coverage of these wars. Everything is under their
control, spin, manipulation, management. KHOURY: Yes, in the
blue shirt, blue, yes. If you’d use the microphone. Thank you very much. AUDIENCE: My name’s
Michael Halley. I’m an alum and I’m an
instructor at Harvard Medical School. I wonder if– Helen, thank you first for
great insight I think none of us could get from any other source. And along those lines,
one of the things that I’ve seen in
the last couple years that I wonder if
you could comment on is really kind of a
loss of principle in how people conduct public affairs. I mean, when we’re talking
about war in Serbia, there are lots of
people who were saying, there’s no compelling
interest for Americans to fight this war. And those people
are strangely silent now when the
question of interest happens to cross party lines. We saw that in the
elections, when the people who are
traditionally states’ rights, had always advocated states’
rights, all of a sudden wanted Florida to change how– they were wanted to tell Florida
how to do their elections. And it seems to me there’s
evidence of that happening that we see all the time now. And is principle, something
that we as, maybe younger people look back on and
say that’s something that happened in the past. It isn’t true in ours. Or is that something that’s
always really been going on and we’ve just idealized
what’s happened in the past? THOMAS: Consistency
is the hobgoblin. I mean the treatment of Iraq
versus North Korea to me it shows you the difference. They’re very pragmatic. They do what they can do. And they do what is
within the realm. And they can knock
off Iraq, but very difficult to go to the Pacific
at this time and so forth. So I think the
question of principle has not entered in here. What is the principle? Are we against dictatorships? Great. Do we think that nobody
should have any bombs but us? Great. I mean, but not going to work. You can’t control all
humanity that way. So you have to have
a policy yourself. You have to represent
something yourself and you have to work for arms control. And you can’t tear up
everything and have people look to us as some sort of savior. Why do we think that people
wouldn’t follow preemption once we make it stick? If it’s good for us,
where is the principle? THORBURN: One quick addition. I mean I think we all
have a kind of nostalgia for an older time when there
was greater moral clarity. My guess is that our
institutions have probably been always about as corrupt
as they are, and about as good as they are, that there’s
probably very little– that it would be hard to make
a case for a past time that was more admirable. But but I do think that
one strand of the discourse that I think Charles clarified
for us in his comments is worth emphasizing again, and
maybe ought to become a fuller part of our
discussion, which has to do with the failure of
particular institutions. Charles’s suggestion
in effect, and I think he’s right about this,
is that without the press, we might be at war now. I think that’s very likely. There has been a change in
the tone of the Bush rhetoric in the last couple of weeks. And that’s surely
partly a consequence of the way the major media
and especially institutions like the New York Times
and the Washington Post in a kind of
relatively quiet way began to publish op Ed
pieces by dissenters who were very distinguished,
like prime ministers in Europe or very important
older Republicans who had served in Bush I. And the effect of that I
think that began to build up in a way that
began to, certainly had the consequence of
moderating the rhetoric regime. THOMAS: Regime change. THORBURN: That’s right. THORBURN: Whether it will
keep us from the war. But the more interesting
question to me is, if it’s true that our press
has been something of a savior here, a very
helpful institution, it seems to me the alternative
conclusion would be forced to be drawn about Congress. Because this election ought
to be about the war in Iraq. The Democrats ought to be
running against the Bush policy. But when we cast
our votes tomorrow, no matter which side
we’re voting for, none of the politicians
who are standing for office now are articulating a clear
position on this question. And to me that means that our
political institutions are not functioning. They’re not functioning
at the level that a healthy society requires. THOMAS: I want to
interject one point. I do not absolve the press. I think we have rolled
over and played dead. We had sent the spin out. There hasn’t been any
real decent other side of the question. Every columnists, I should
say, on the Washington Post, everyone but one or two
had been for the war, pumping it up every day,
every day demonizing not just Yasser Arafat
who became the demon and they were so successful,
why [INAUDIBLE] he’s nothing. And then Saddam
Hussein, every day. I’m holding no
brief for a monster, but I can assure you that this
is definitely a war drum beat. KHOURY: In the middle there. Yes. Yes, you. AUDIENCE: My name is Aggie. I’m kind of on the
nine year plan here. I went here undergrad and
now I’m a grad student. And Ms. Thomas has just
anticipated part of one of my questions. And there’s about 10
tumbling in my mind. So I may be a
little inarticulate. But I was wondering,
Professor Stewart said that he thinks
that there has been a sophisticated
discourse in the press. And I feel like just the
opposite is true in that particularly, in the
traditional media, we’re being sort of
fed very simple story lines that people can follow. And also the peace movement
I think has been very much downplayed and ignored. And I was wondering, how
you think, since Ms. Thomas, it seems that you
agree to some extent, how you think this might
change if you think the pressures of alternative
media might do so, or if the press will in
some way come to its senses and learn to give facts
and be less frivolous? Thanks. STEWART: Well let me,
let me try to stoke it a bit and maybe as I understand
the questions or the question. I guess, to restate
what I had stated and maybe we could
talk about it a bit, if I say it was
sophisticated, well, gee. More sophisticated
than I imagined. And so just to kind
of rehearse that. I mean one of the things I
think we need to remember is that if we were to try to
find a time in America’s past in which there was a really
sophisticated argument about whether to go to war at
any given moment and full blown dissent about doing it,
it would be hard to find. Now it wouldn’t be that
you couldn’t find it. It’s just that it
would be really, really, really hard to find. And so when I look for instance
in the Gallup poll or the Pew poll, there’s various polls, and
discover that 36% of the public thinks that going to
war is a bad idea. Now some people think
that’s a small number, but given past history,
the fact that we may be going down a road to war
with 36% of the public saying is a bad idea is a new
thing in American history. So that’s just for one thing
is that that’s different. It’s unexpected. And where does that come from? Maybe it does come from
the alternate media. My guess is it’s coming from
whatever people can glean from the mainstream media. Because even though
the alternate media has grown, still by and
large middle America gets their news
from the broadcasts and actually get most
of their political news from the newspapers. So it’s just one
thing that, I mean, compared to what we in Cambridge
or we at MIT might want, it’s unsophisticated and
uninformed and pretty supine. But compared to American
history, it’s, you know, it’s maybe at least
dissent trying to break out at the beginning. That’s the first thing. And the second
thing, again, when you look inside
those polls, you see folks being either
schizophrenic or nuanced. You can come depend
on how you feel today how you characterize it. Nonetheless, yes we should go
to war, but we should wait. We should wait for these people. So that again, my guess is that
when opposition to the Vietnam War first broke out, I was
a mere child at the time, but watching it on
newspaper, it appeared to be pretty polarized
and pretty vitriolic, and not a whole lot of,
well, on the one hand, well, on the other hand. And right now,
there’s a fair amount of, well, on the one hand,
well, on the other hand, The final thing I
guess I’ll say is sort of in defense of
Congress, which is why I study. I guess that’s my role here. Is that I was listening to
the radio during the debate. And the Senate and
I heard the speech. And it was Bob
Graham from Florida. And I’m just
listening to him talk. And he finished and I thought,
gee Bob Graham of Florida is going to vote against
the war, how weird. Well in fact he
voted for the war. Although he gave a
speech against it. Well, what I took
to be, you know, these are all the reasons
why this is a stupid idea. And you know, if you’re
really going to do this, these are things you’ve
got to convince us of. And this is where you got to do. And if you screw up, it’s your
fault. That’s interesting. So you know, so
this doesn’t exactly kind of address your
point except to say, I do think that the
messages out there are more diverse than they would
have been 30 to 40 years ago. And just as government has
learned lessons of Vietnam, I think the press and the public
learned lessons from Vietnam. And one of those is
just to be skeptical. And just keep in mind
there are strong pressures in any country at any
given point at this moment to go along with the leaders. That is the history– THOMAS: Good point. STEWART: –of governments
and their citizens. And the fact that we have a
third of our citizens saying, this is not a good thing, is
at least the glass half full. THOMAS: Without
revealing my age, I would like to sort
of before World War II, there was a real
split in this country between the interventionists
and the non-interventionists. Hitler was on the
move and so forth. But we had people like Gerald
LK Smith, Father Coughlin, and so forth on the other
side, very, very pro-German. And the memory,
memories of World War I, gasing, and all of
the horror of Verdun and the terrible, terrible
things that in that war. I mean the memory lived
long into the ’30s. And it wasn’t– I mean there was a real split in
this country and a real debate. It went on day after day. Was very strong. And of course FDR
obviously felt that we were going to have to get
in at some point in terms of giving lend lease to Britain,
and giving as much support as he could to Churchill
and the inevitability. But then Pearl
Harbor, of course, made the decision for all of us. And then we rallied, everybody
rallied around the flag and had to. And realized that Hitler
had to be stopped. But there was real, real debate
between the interventionists and the non-interventionists. KHOURY: Let me take
someone from the back and then I’ll come
to the front next. Please. Someone would give that
person a microphone. AUDIENCE: My name,
whoa, hi there. My name is Ellen Frith. You used to be a staff
person here at MIT. I’ve received a master
of divinity from Harvard. And I work a lot
with nonviolence. I was a Peace Corps
volunteer in Morocco. So I know a lot
about what’s been happening with this
kind of Islam bashing. Helen, thank you very much
for all of your candidness and I agree with you 100%. THOMAS: Thank you. AUDIENCE: And I do think
that the Congress has been very weak in standing up. Even the constituents
in this state who have asked John
Kerry that we don’t want there to be a yes vote for the
war, and he voted yes anyway. So there is an alternative
Democratic candidate, that’s a write in candidate. Her name is Randall Forsberg. And her address is
950 Mass at Cambridge and she also is a write in
candidate for John Kerry. For me, having lived and just
coming back from the Middle East, I’m very
concerned about what can be the repercussions
if we go ahead and have a war with Iraq. Because we will not–
we’re not safe now. But we really won’t be
safe if we do go ahead and walk into Iraq. So I’d like to hear anyone
on the panel talk about what does that say around our
ethics, around our children, around the children in Iraq? And about what you think
some of the repercussions are going to be, not
just politically. Thank you. THORBURN: Well,
my first reaction is, I think that John Kerry’s
yes vote is particularly contemptible, coming from
him, particularly so. [APPLAUSE] And I think that
John Kerry’s vote is a signal to us
about why we should not vote for him for
president, which is clearly his motivation. THOMAS: Maybe he can throw
someone else’s medals over the fence. THORBURN: I actually,
one reason I actually, I spoke from anti-war platforms
with John Kerry in California in 1966 or ’67. And when he came back from
Vietnam, and as a Vietnam veteran, spoke out
against the war, he was one of the most
important early public voices against the war who
really got attention. I mean those of us
who had been arguing against the war for a much
longer time were unknowns and we couldn’t get
any press coverage. And it was a kind of shocking
situation in which it really– Helen was right. What really happened was middle
class kids started to die. And that as soon
as the middle class realized that in
the United States that its own children were
being sacrificed in the war, the anti-war movement
became a majority movement. But it wasn’t up until then. And I mean, I think
Charles has pointed about 36% of the
population already raising questions about Iraq
means that our situation now is very different from
our situation then. But it may well be that
the sources of our support are going to come from
ordinary folk, not people like John Kerry, who are
dreaming of becoming president. KHOURY: Charles. STEWART: If I could just
say a word about that. I mean, I mean, what I think
I know something about is public opinion. And so tried to give maybe
a hopeful view of this. But if you want
non-hopeful view I think that a combination
of what Helen said earlier and what you suggested
just now is actually the unhopeful scenario,
and one of the reasons why is important to
be in dissent now. So one road says that we won’t
go to war for whatever reason. There are actually
people arguing that a consequence of
the last [INAUDIBLE] reminds me that in the
end we won’t go to war. But there is one
scenario that says we will eventually go to war. And I’m not an
expert, but you know, folks I’ve talked to have had
who’ve been around the world and lived in that
part of the world have convinced me that
should we go to a real war, then we will in fact be in much
greater danger and much greater peril from basically
that part of the world and taking it out on us
one way or the other. If that should happen,
then the real danger is the Americans who are
dissenting and wondering right now will flip. In the same way as Helen was
noting before the Second World War, that the dissent
or the questioning about internationalism
and intervention went away with Pearl Harbor. And again, it’s a reason why
if you oppose the action, you know the road
we’re going on in Iraq, now is the time to dissent
and now is the time to act. Because should we go to war
and should the worst case scenario play out, the folks,
middle class Americans, who right now are wondering, will
turn and become loyal, I mean, will become loyal to
whatever the policy. THOMAS: My country,
right or wrong. STEWART: Exactly. And so I mean, it’s
not what you wanted to hear and not a full
engagement with the issue. But it does seem to me from what
I know about public opinion, is that there is a real
perilous road that could be even worse than it is not. THORBURN: And even
without a war in Iraq, what Charles is describing
could happen anyway. Another attack on an
American institution is going to have an
effect like that. Americans will rally around. So we’re obviously in very
precarious circumstances. One message I think
everyone is saying, both the panelists
and the audience is that we suffer from a lack
of leadership in the country. That the leaders of
the country are not being helpful at this terrible,
terrible moment in our history. KHOURY: This gentleman
right here, please. AUDIENCE: My name
is Dana Dunham. I’m a visiting scholar here. And I’d be interested
in hearing, perhaps just as an intellectual
exercise, which we love here at MIT, from any
member of the panel, do you see anything redeeming
so far in the current presidency or any hope for anything
redeeming coming out of our current president? And I’m actually
asking that seriously. THORBURN: Well, he has
a short attention span. [LAUGHING] THOMAS: There’s an
election in two years. [LAUGHING] I think that he’s
so hell bent for war that it’s very hard to
find the redeeming factor. You know, I wish it was a bluff. I pray. I want to be wrong
on everything. And I don’t understand why he
can’t see the consequences. Why he doesn’t think there’ll be
more terrorism if we actually– we can win anything. We’ve got to know how. We are the king of the mountain. And there’s no
question, but we’re also going to be the bullet
of the Western world. And do we really
want that reputation? And for what? I mean we really respect
people in this world. And they have their own way. I’m not saying I don’t
want democracy to spread. I do want it but not through
our warfare and bombs. KHOURY: Yes, please. AUDIENCE: Hi. My name is Erica Taylor and I’m
a broadcast journalism graduate student at Boston University. And my question is directed
to you, Ms. Thomas. In terms of say that the press
rolls over and plays dead. What advice do you have
for upcoming journalists in terms of how we
can maybe separate the press from the
government and cover things, not so much jaded by what public
opinion is and more so what we feel ethically speaking? THORBURN: The question
is essentially, how can young journalists
get the truth out of politicians instead of
having to play the spin? THOMAS: You tell them
that you pay them. The taxpayer pays them. And they have to answer it. They are public servants. If they don’t like that,
well give up the job. And you definitely
can’t be rude as I am, but you definitely
have to remind them they are public servants
and they are accountable. And they are supposed
to answer questions. I mean if it’s a
deep, dark secret that would affect national
security, no, of course not. I mean wouldn’t want to
jeopardize the lives of troops or anything. But every question is
legitimate, I believe, practically. THORBURN: The other
part of the question is, if you didn’t go to public
sources like politicians, where would you go
apart from, apart from the traditional
sources of information to find out the truth? What should a journalist
do in that way instead of just accepting
what the politicians do? THOMAS: Well, I think you
have to find the leak. You have you have to
find some dissenter who doesn’t mind telling you
the truth, and who is so upset. There aren’t many
Deep Throat’s around. But sometimes I think
you have to find out is everyone solid
in that position. And if they’re not, you have
to find out what is the break. This president doesn’t
tolerate leaks. And he doesn’t, I mean he’s
got a solid front and so forth. And they’re all very much aware
that they have to be on board. So it’s very hard to
find that breaking point as there was in Bush I, even
when you had differences of opinion or even Reagan, when
you had Jim Baker on one side and Ed Meese and the others. And so there was a real split. But there will always be someone
who is going to try to save the AUDIENCE: Country. And you do need whistleblowers. You’ve got to find
them in a way. But they have to
answer the questions. They are accountable. And I think you
have to remind them. May get them mad. You may not get the answer. But you put them on notice. KHOURY: Yes, this
gentleman there. Yes, right there. Yeah, thank you. My name is George Mocher. I live in Central Square. There’s a very
interesting book that I’ve read this year called Defying
Hitler by Sebastian Haffner. And I don’t mean to imply that
the Bush Administration are fascist, because I
don’t believe that they are fascists or Nazis. I believe they’re corporatists,
which is something different. The book is interesting
because was written in ’38 and put away. And it’s the
clearest explanation I know of how the process
of Nazification happened. And reading that book
was very scary to me, because many of the same
things seem to be going on. And when you have Senator Bird
on the floor of the Senate quoting Goring, as he did. When you have a high ranking
person in the German government making a comment about the
similarities between some of the tactics of the
Bush Administration and the Nazi government,
and then being fired for it, things become very dicey. When you have the one
person in the Senate who voted against the war
suddenly dying in an airplane crash, there are many people
whose noses are twitching, whose stomachs are
a little uneasy. And I would hope
that we find out what really happened to that plane. Because when you read
about that incident they’re talking about what’s
the political fallout, but they don’t talk about
what happened to the plane. And then you read
another article that says Mondale is asked whether
he’s going to travel by plane, and he says, no, only by bus. So I don’t mean to be impolite
but I think that we really have to examine the
possibility that things are much darker than we think. THORBURN: I hope you’re off and
I don’t believe you’re right. Bad as things are,
I think I think that I think things are
terrible enough not to require conspiracy theories. There are enough
simple explanations for why things
are so terrible so that they don’t require that we
imagine even worse conspiracy. THOMAS: I don’t believe
there is any conspiracy there has been a chipping
away of civil liberties. No, they’re doing fine. They’re getting along. They’re making great inroads
into our rights, and so forth. So they don’t really have
to resort to anything as underhanded as
that and horrible. THORBURN: I mean the notion
that, Wellstone’s plane was hot down or was sabotaged
by Iraqi warmongers or by Bush, it makes no sense
from many angles. One of the reasons
would be it’s not as if Wellstone was the
only one who had spoken out against these things. Nor is it a question of
Wellstone having any power. So it’s very hard it’s very hard
to see the usefulness of such an account of the world, when
a much more straightforward account of the world
is sufficient to cause horrific nightmares. KHOURY: Yes, please. AUDIENCE: My name’s
Elizabeth Laws and I’m an
undergraduate and here in my days studying economics. And thank you, Ms. Thomas. I enjoyed your presentation. I see under President Bush’s
power, I do see a hopefulness. And that’s in that he has
the power to take us to war and then he hasn’t done it yet. And as Professor Stewart said,
and I’m a fine example of, our public opinion is going
from a really scared, very vulnerable, post September 11
America looking for a football coach to rally us
and take us to war. And now we’re starting
to think about it. And we’re starting
to talk about it and question whether this is
really what we need to do. And I think we’re asking
for more from him. And of course the
press is helping. But I think we’re
looking for a plan. I’m also not anti-war. I don’t think what we need
is more of a grassroots war is evil and unjust,
because of course it is. But we also have to
be a realist and think about America and
what it stands for and why maybe we do need
to go to war one day and under certain circumstances. And I think what we need to look
for from him is a plan that we can defend internationally
and ideologically and morally and openly, one that hopefully
is a multilateral effect and doesn’t need to be
done in the next few years. Because Iraq won’t
have nuclear weapons, at least for a few years. But I’m curious as to what you
think about the possibility in the future of having to go
to war by necessity because of the threat that a ruler like
Saddam Hussein, who, I think has vehement plans
against the United States and would like to have a
nuclear weapon to harm us. And also and more right now,
al-Qaeda, who obviously would love to hurt us again. And what do you think we
should be doing against them? I mean we’re basically a
war against al-Qaeda now and it’s a hard war to
fight, because it’s not a traditional one. But I’m just curious
what you think about it on a more finite terms as
opposed to the ideology of it? THOMAS: Well, Saddam
Hussein has never threatened the United States. He may threaten Israel and in
terms of the whole question of the Middle East. But he’s never threatened
the United States. So you’ve got gotta find
a reason to attack him and I don’t think
you should find one. I really don’t
think that we should go looking for provocation
when there is none. I mean, we’re talking
about human beings. We’re talking about human lives. You go and bomb Iraq, Why? Why? Going to kill Americans? Why? Are you willing
to give your life? STEWART: To respond
to the question, it strikes me
that, you’ve almost given the I think the
answer to your own question in your life, what you’re
talking about your life story. It strikes me, I went
to Yale Divinity School. Someone went to
Harvard Divinity School and was very much influenced
by the Vietnam years. And I considered myself a
pacifist for many years, still do I think. But the thing that’s
really striking about this, say the September
11 attacks, talking to my friends who
kind of grew up under the same circumstances. Began to realize
there may really be conditions under which
we could support war. And one of those would be
nations doing horrible things to us. THOMAS: That’s right. I supported Afghanistan. STEWART: There might
well be reasons. And what’s also striking
kind of in public opinion is that Americans have– a lot of Americans who used to
be anti-war, not all, but many are beginning to think,
well, maybe yes maybe no. And there are some traditions
about thinking about that, just war tradition and others. And so it seems to me that
one of the reasons why it’s really interesting that
so many Americans are wondering about Iraq, is that that wonder
and skepticism about Iraq comes at the same
time that there’s kind of greater
willingness in general to find reasons to
retaliate by war. And so I wouldn’t want to speak
for Ms. Thomas or for David, but it strikes me that most
of us nowadays would say, well, you know if we get
attacked for whatever reason, and one can blame the United
States for a lot in the world. And quite understand
why it is that people would want to hate us. But you know don’t do
horrible things to us or we may, in fact respond. That’s different from
a preemptive war, which this country and many
of us are discovering, that we’ve never
had a tradition of. THORBURN: I have
one quick response. I mean, I think that
there was an answer to your question in the
question as well, which is that we are already at war. The most shocking aspect
of this business about Iraq is the fact that it’s not as
if the Bush administration has been so brilliantly
successful in its alleged war on terrorism. If we start looking
at its record, in fact, I think
that I’m shocked that a Democratic politician
isn’t running against the Bush Administration for
its incompetence in protecting us in
the war on terrorism. Airports are still just as
dangerous as they ever were. There’s overwhelming evidence
that we remain incredibly vulnerable to a single sniper. And yet– a single
sniper paralyzed Washington for three weeks. And the FBI, the CIA,
and the police forces of Maryland and Washington
were incapable of catching them immediately. And this was just
two individuals. I think there’s
overwhelming evidence that the war on terrorism
is a serious business. I don’t think that the Bush
Administration is taking it seriously enough,
because if they were, they would not be talking
about extending it to creating a second war. That’s one response I have that. I have something else to say. I’m sorry to sound so weirdly
radical it’s not like me. But the fact of the matter
is if you put yourself in the position of someone
not in the United States, but living anyplace
else in the world. And if you asked
someone living in France or someone living in the
Middle East or someone living in Russia, which is the most
dangerous country in the world? Which country in
the world do you think is most likely to start
dropping bombs on civilians? Do you think that
the answer would be Saddam Hussein or George Bush? The United States is right
now the most dangerous and the most apparently
potentially lawless country in the world. And where we really
need, if we wanted to address questions of being
peaceful good neighbors, we would be much more
aggressive in attacking the immoral behavior
of our president. [APPLAUSE] KHOURY: Right back there. Our last question or comment. Yes, right there. Thank you. AUDIENCE: Thank you
very much to all. Thank you, Ms. Thomas. You’ve been a role model
in particular for me, a journalist from Europe. My name is Nadia Christen
and I go to school at the Fletcher School. My question is regarding
the international media. When you and your colleagues get
together at the different press clubs or different reunions you
have and you talk about the way you report on whatever
President Bush plan is for Iraq, do you ask yourself
and your colleagues, how is the European media
for instance reporting? How is Al Jazeera
reporting or other media outlets in the Middle East? And if they do report
different, and I think they do, do you ask yourself
why you’re not trying to report
differently if you have this frustration that
the media is basically aligned with the president? Thank you. [PANELISTS WHISPERING] KHOURY: Little
negotiation round here. It happens. STEWART: The basic question is
that you or your colleagues, do you worry about,
say what how foreign coverage, foreign coverage
of the American news. Do you worry about it? Do you talk about it? Does it influence what you do? Do you pay attention to Al
Jazeera or other forms of– THOMAS: I think we’re very
interested in foreign coverage, that’s for sure. And we were very interested when
the National Security Affairs Advisor went to CNN
and other cable outlets and told them not to use certain
things on Al Jazeera, which is very un– I don’t want to call it– it not the way we do things. I mean this is not the
way a free press operates. You’ll let it all hang out. You let the chips
fall where they may. That’s where truth is. So I’m certainly aware that we
are not liked in this country, that our country is not liked
where it was loved before. Everybody who has traveled last
summer came back from Europe and so forth, came
back with hair raising tales about how the
Europeans were viewing us, as not only war mongers but
lacking in understanding. Yes we do care. This is a global village. CNN can go anywhere
in five minutes. Everybody’s war is
in your living room. It is one world. And we certainly– every time
anything happens anywhere, I think we are affected. And certainly when you
cover the White House, you get it all from
tricky track to everything that happens in the world. We are affected and I
think that we do worry. And I think we have to
refurbish our image. It’s really gone down badly. And I don’t know if the
White House is really aware or really cares. Not, when you think
of unilateralism, and say, who in the hell cares? You know, we’re on top. We can wipe out any one. But that’s not the
way the world works. And I’m afraid that
they bit off more than they can chew if they
don’t care what our image is. KHOURY: Helen, you’re a delight. Your subject isn’t. You may not count all that well. But I know you count
for this audience. And therefore you count for MIT. So I just, on behalf
of our institution and the Communications
Forum, I want to thank you and of course
your wonderful colleagues, my friends, for putting on a
wonderful show for us today. [APPLAUSE]

Danny Hutson

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