Saturday, July 15, 2006
Driving Ms. Helen: A "giraffe" intern gets losts, collects wisdom and coffee while ferrying Helen Thomas from Amherst to a Boston TV studio
OPINION, By Sean McHugh
The author is a journalism/English undergraduate at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts who lives in Williamstown, Mass. He was among interns who staffed the Media Giraffe Project's first summit conference at UMass Amherst June 28-July 1, 2006, where Hearst newspapers' White House columnist Helen Thomas was a speaker.
Driving Ms. Helen.
I am driving Helen Thomas, legendary White House correspondent and journalist par excellence, and I am totally lost. I need to get her to NECN TV studios in Newton by 3:15 and I can’t, for the life of me, find the goddamn Mass Pike. The rented Ford Explorer I’ve been saddled with isn’t helping, it’s unfamiliar bulk makes me yearn for my (t)rusty Geo Prism waiting for me at the conference in Amherst. I think the side-view mirrors are off but I can’t figure out how to adjust them while driving.
I’m trying to keep the conversation going, partially to hear her fascinating war stories but equally to keep her distracted from the road. I ask her how the current conflict in Iraq compares with the one in Vietnam, two unpopular wars. The biggest difference she notes the attitude toward the war held by the administration. Johnson felt trapped in the war, he desperately wanted to pull out but felt he couldn’t leave without making the US appear weak, dishonouring JFK’s legacy, and opening southeast Asia to communism. The Bush administration by contrast was gung ho from the beginning and never let contrary opinions sway them. Angry demonstrators constantly barraged LBJ, and Nixon after him, anywhere he went. Bush by comparison is kept in a bubble of supporters and yes-men, safely away from dissenting opinion. She adds that while Johnson was giving himself sleepless nights worrying over ways to escape the quagmire, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the cabal of Neo-Cons that run the White House today were obtaining draft deferments, or using their fathers’ influence to land cushy National Guard gigs.
I note that today those same National Guard positions are now on the front lines, not sidelines; patrolling the streets of Fallujah and the US/Mexico border when they could be much more useful in New Orleans.Having mentioned the Neo-Cons, Helen goes on to tell me about The Project for the New American Century. It involved taking Iraq and replacing the government with an America-friendly regime. Then Syria would suffer the same fate, followed by Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and finally Egypt. This would ensure US containment of China. The grand design for this megalomaniac scheme more befitting a Risk board than international politics was to preserve American dominance in the world. I resolve to research it later, or, at the very least, look it up on Wikipedia.
I see a sign for the Mass Pike and breathe a sigh of relief. I am slightly concerned to note that we have somehow managed to arrive west of our starting point, which is odd considering I had been trying to go east. Still, I left early enough to afford myself so slack. I head out towards the miraculous strip of asphalt I have been searching for. We enter the Pike and speed off down towards Newton. I’m eager to make up for lost time, but I never ever break the speed limit. Never.
We begin to discuss to the death of rational argument in America and the culture of Talking Points. “Shouting Points,” I quip. (Note: the phrase “Shouting Points” is copyright Sean McHugh 2006, if you steal it I will find you). In the last few years fact and evidence have given way to opinion and volume; “Truthiness” in the words of modern sage Stephen Colbert.
We hit the high points. Global Warming. What was once an acknowledged problem is now back on the table for further review (the Explorer’s external thermometer reads 83 degrees). Intelligent Design. Did I miss the part where we as a society regressed a century? Anne Coulter. Our consensus: freaky.
Needing fuel for my lumbering behemoth I pull off the interstate to one of the ‘Pike’s various gas’n’food plazas. An unholy union between a McDonalds, a TigerMart and a gas station greets me with a convoluted pattern of traffic directions that would do M.C. Escher proud. I drop Helen by the rest area and maneuver my way through the gas pumps. My hungry beast slurps down 20 gallons of the precious, precious fluid. I adjust the side-view mirrors, and, completely forgetting to collect my receipt, follow Helen into the rest area. Inside I discover that the rest area is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Eisenhower interstate highway system. They have cake. Deciding not to chance the McDonalds fare, Helen gets a coffee, we grab some cake, I take a picture for one of the anniversary workers who recognizes Helen, and we leave. We pause a moment to enjoy our cake before resuming our trek.
"Hillary can win if Democrats stop saying she can't"
Back on the road again, I ask her who she thinks could take the presidency in 2008. I’m slightly surprised when she responds "Hillary. She’s smart, she does her homework, she figured out how to win upstate New York, a traditionally Republican area. The Democrats just need to stop saying that she can’t win, because she can, and get behind her. Also she needs to stop pandering, it doesn’t help."
I get that, her recent stance against violent videogames hasn’t won her any real support, it just made her sound like an out of touch luddite. I may be a little harsh on that point, but I need to defend my core values. You can have my controller, ladies and gentlemen of Congress, when you pry it from my cold, clammy, carpal-tunnel afflicted hands. I digress.
Conversation shifts toward me as Helen inquires about the political climate of college campuses today. I mention the pervasive apathy that tends to hang about the hallowed halls of education. I do note that there is still some passion for politics among my peers. Then I go on to tell my funny story about the student production of Romeo and Juliet in which radical liberal me played Romeo opposite the vice president of the Conservative Student Union (Ask me about it some time, it’s a pretty funny story (Actually, come to think about it, that’s 90% of the story right there, never mind (On second thought, there are some amusing anecdotes related but not directly part of it so ask anyway))).
I realize I never got the receipt for the gas. Drat, that was $59.We wend our way down the perilous outer rings of Boston traffic and make our way into Newton.
In no time flat we have located the television studio, and, with plenty of time remaining before Helen’s TV appearance, we decide to look for somewhere to have lunch. Unfortunately we soon find this to be a fruitless endeavour. Newton, it seems consists of nothing but country clubs, residential districts, cemeteries, and the occasional office park. “Where do these people eat?” we wonder. I think I see a Pizzeria Uno but it turns out to be the corporate office of the chain. They don’t have any food. The one restaurant we come across is closed for the Fourth of July Weekend. Defeated, we turn around and head back to NECN, whose employees we figure must brownbag it every day, or run up a fortune in take-out.
In the lobby of the New England Cable News studio we wait for a gubernatorial debate, which is running long, to finish. As we sit there I can almost feel the current flowing through the building: Helen Thomas has arrived, THE Helen Thomas. People passing through the lobby stop to introduce themselves and say what a hero she is to them. A communications director takes the initiave and seats us in her office.
NECN staffers are tripping over each other to make sure we have everything we need. We get more drinks then we could possibly handle. I tear through the reheated (delivery) pizza they offer. The current has grown stronger and more and more journalists pour into the office to meet the great Helen Thomas. I end up taking a few more pictures for distinguished men in expensive suits and attractive women with suspiciously perfect hair. They thank her for her role in women’s empowerment.
They ask her who her favorite president is, she doesn’t hesitate before saying JFK. They ask her least favorite, she thinks for a moment and answers “This one.” “Worse than Nixon?” someone asks, a little incredulously. She stays adamant. “The Nixon administration was a microcosm of the abuse of power, but this present administration has taken it further.” She goes on to say that Nixon was checked by principled people in Congress and the courts, and hounded by an attentive press but the Bush administration has done everything to silence opposition. It has blockaded the press wherever possible. Where the press hasn’t been opposed it has rolled over for the administration, often because of corporate ownership. The journalists assemble nod in agreement, though the say NECN is largely free from corporate control.
They’re ready to start prepping Helen for her interviews, one live, one taped for the next day. We say good-bye and she heads off into the studio. I receive a tour of the newsroom and the TV set and I talk to the internship coordinator before returning to the long and lonely road to Amherst.