Political leaders and journalists including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Helen Thomas encouraged student leaders from around the country to stay engaged in politics Tuesday. More than 100 university student government presidents and newspaper editor-in-chiefs attended the first annual Democracy Day hosted by GW’s Graduate School of Political Management.
Students discussed contemporary democracy while commemorating the anniversary of the 215th signing of the U.S. Constitution at the conference. Other speakers included CNN hosts Bob Novak and Paul Begala and Charlie Cook, editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report.
McCain and Thomas both concentrated on the conflict brewing between the United States and Iraq. McCain called Saddam Hussein a “clear and present danger” to the country before an audience of more than 500 students.
“He’s invaded his neighbors and used weapons of mass destruction,” McCain said. “If all he was interested in was remaining in power, then he would have stopped developing the weapons.”
He said the United States should remove Hussein after Congress approves such a plan, though he said the government should not make it common practice to take over hostile governments by force.
McCain, who received a standing ovation from the audience, also discussed corporate scandals and what he called “weak” campaign finance spending legislation in Congress.
Thomas, the last speaker of the day, offered a potent analysis of American politics post-September 11, laced with sometimes harsh criticism of the current administration. She described the President as “itching to destroy Iraq” and said he has “tried to tear up every treaty we have signed since the second World War.”
For the past 41 years, Thomas has worked at the front lines of political journalism, serving as the unofficial “dean of the White House press corps.” She was a pioneering journalist in a field long dominated by men. Originally assigned to cover Jackie Kennedy for UPI, she soon worked her way up, becoming White House Bureau Chief in 1974. From her seat in the front row at White House press conferences, Thomas has covered nine different administrations, spanning from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush.
Speaking in the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theater, she reminisced about her lengthy career and warned students of the dangers confronting them.
She also criticized the press, saying “they have rolled over and played dead since September 11.
After her short speech, Thomas answered audience questions. When asked which presidents she respected, she said, “I respect all of them when they take office. After inauguration, it’s all downhill.”
“She says what’s on her mind, and she has so much wisdom to share,” GW student Randy Nolte said.
The day included leadership training sessions by the League of Women Voters focused on equipping university student government presidents and college newspaper editors with managerial experience.
Organizers said they would like to make the day an annual GW event.