It isn't often that a small number of people has the chance to meet, listen to, and sit so close to a force as great as this pioneering journalist, who's covered every US president since Kennedy, who was there when Khruschev banged his shoe on the table ("We will bury you!"), and who has so many firsts to her name that no American woman journalist is really her peer.
The Center for New Words sponsored a brunch with Helen today and some 75 or so people turned out to listen in the lovely Brookline home of one of CNW's board members.
Helen began by saying that "it's the worst of times for America and yet the signs of democracy are strong" with the election of Obama, allowing "black people to stand taller" and white people "to feel they've done the right thing."
She didn't shy away from the tough topics - she wants the US out of Iraq and Afghanistan now, believing that those countries have it in them to solve their own problems.
She "believes in Medicare for everyone," i.e. a single payer healthcare system. When people call that "socialism," she says, "What about roads, schools, and bridges?"
She is devastated by the demise of the newspaper industry, calling it the "greatest tragedy" of the economic meltdown, because "there's no democracy without a free press." She also pointed out what all serious reporters know: blogging is not journalism. We need editors for that and this ain't that.
"Words count," she said, more than once (how I love writers) and implored all of us, including Obama, to understand that "this is the time for quantum leaps," not careful steps.
She ended by responding to some questions about her career. "There's no such thing as making it," she said. "There's always another mountain to climb." When she came to Washington as a reporter, she couldn't join the National Press Club. It took Khrushchev's coming to Washington -- and a concerted effort on the part of women reporters -- to even be allowed to attend National Press Club functions.
Where were the women journalists invited to sit at the Khrushchev press conference? "Thirty women were allowed to sit on the floor at the National Press Club," she reported. "Everything has been a struggle. And I'm still carrying that anger."
Report on, Helen. We in your wake thank you so for what you've endured.