PROVO — A liberal lion strode into a conservative lion's den on Tuesday and emerged unscathed.
Diminutive liberal columnist Helen Thomas, famous for questioning nine U.S. presidents over more than 40 years as the "first lady" of the White House press corps, criticized President Bush in front of thousands of students at Brigham Young University, well-known as a conservative stronghold.
A couple dozen students walked out of the University Forum lecture at the Marriott Center after Thomas questioned President Bush and the war in Iraq. Great cheers erupted when Thomas declared President Bush "more conservative than any president I've ever covered."
Thomas paused, then asked, "Am I in enemy territory?"
She said after the lecture that the invitation from BYU was unexpected.
"I think it's very kind and very democratic," she said. "I was surprised. It's what democracy is all about. It's how we learn. I think tolerance is one of the main criteria of living in a democracy."
Thomas actually won over the audience with humorous stories from her "ringside seat to history" in the White House press room and her assessments of presidents from JFK to GWB.
"Even though I didn't agree with her, I respect what she said," said Paul Thatcher, 23, a senior in accounting from Paradise, Cache County. "I think that's why BYU has forums, to give us a different look at things."
Thomas covered the White House for United Press International from 1961 until 2000. She now writes syndicated columns twice a week for the Hearst newspaper chain, which makes them available for free on the Internet.
In a question-and-answer session after her lecture, Thomas said the transition from objective reporter to opinionated columnist was difficult. She was always liberal but had never allowed her feelings to make their way into her reporting.
"When I turned in my first column my editor said, 'Where's the edge, where's the opinion?' " Thomas said.
She had no trouble sharing her opinion on Tuesday.
"We are involved in a war that is becoming more dubious every day," Thomas said. "I thought it was wrong to invade a country without any provocation. Our leaders are starting to backtrack so fast it makes your head spin."
Americans need to question their leaders, she said: "It's not ours just to die, it's ours to reason why."
Thomas is legendary for roasting presidents and presidential press secretaries with tough questions. She decried President Bush's lack of press conferences, just eight so far.
"The news conference is the only forum in our society where presidents can be questioned," Thomas said.
Thomas became a living legend at the White House because as a wire service reporter she asked the first or second question at each press conference. She also ended each one by saying, "Thank you, Mr. President." President Bush slighted Thomas in a televised press conference in March by not calling on her to ask a question. He also ended four decades of tradition by concluding with his own sign off, "Thank you for your questions."
The dislike is mutual. "This is the worst president ever," Thomas had told the Torrance, Calif., Daily Breeze in January. She said on Tuesday that she made the statement during a conversation she thought was off the record.
Thomas joked about presidential scorn for the media but also highlighted the role of news organizations in a democracy. She recalled a visit President Ford made to Michigan soon after Watergate. A man stopped Thomas and thanked her for saving the country.
"I knew he didn't mean me but the entire press corps," Thomas said. "We had done the job in the search for truth."
She described herself as a nosy rebel proud of her political leanings.
"I'm a liberal. I wouldn't think of being anything else. I believe we are our brother's keeper."
She finished to big applause when she said, "I believe people can handle the truth, and they deserve no less."
University officials expressed pleasure with Thomas. She was nominated as a potential forum speaker by the school's communications department more than a year ago, said Randy Shirts, a chemistry professor and chair of the University Forum Committee.
Her visit was approved by university officials and the Board of Trustees, made up of the First Presidency of the LDS Church and other General Authorities of the church, which sponsors BYU.
Several students challenged Thomas on her views of Bush and the Iraqi war during the question-and-answer session. Thomas, 83, defended her positions adroitly.
"That's what a university is about, differing viewpoints and discussion and debate," Shirts said. "If we don't have that kind of interplay, we aren't a real university."