Helen Thomas, "America at War? A Conversation” - MIT Communications Forum
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.
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.
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--
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
THOMAS: There's an election in two years.
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.
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.
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.