The telephone rang in my office in the National Press Building. On the line was Gus Hall, national chairman of the Communist Party USA. This must have been sometime in 1977 or 1978.
Luis Corvalan, the exiled leader of the Communist Party of Chile had applied for a visa to visit the U.S. and had been rejected. “Is there anything you can do to help out?”
I was at a loss for words. “Well Gus, I can go to the White House press briefing today and ask President Carter’s press secretary. That’s about the only thing I can think of.”
So I did. My White House Press Pass entitled me to attend the daily briefings and Presidential news conferences. Yet the White House was hardly my favorite destination.
It was so stage-managed. Each of the seats in the Press Briefing room had a brass plate attached to it with the name of the correspondent and the newspaper, news agency or network he or she represented. At that time, the White House press corps mostly sat around waiting for the Press Office to distribute a press release.
Yet I was conscious of the ordeal Luis Corvalan had endured. His Party—and Corvalan personally—were part of the broad coalition that elected Salvador Allende as the first socialist president of Chile in 1970.
Gen. Augusto Pinochet and his minions overthrew Allende’s democratic election in 1973 with the full connivance of President Richard Nixon, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Corvalan went into hiding. The fascists arrested and tortured Corvalan’s son, Alfredo, who died of the wounds.
The fascists tracked Corvalan down. He was tried and convicted of “high treason” but a worldwide outcry forced Pinochet to back off from executing him. In 1976, the Pinochet regime released Corvalan in exchange for the Soviet release of dissident, Vladimir Bukovsky.
Corvalan went into exile in Moscow and it was there that he applied for a visa to tour the U.S.
As I walked along Pennsylvania Avenue to the West Wing of the White House, I turned over in my mind Nixon’s instigation of fascist coups around the world, not to speak of the Watergate coup right here in Washington. President Jimmy Carter’s pose as a champion of democracy, lecturing the Soviet Union and other socialist countries on their alleged abuse of “human rights,” was hypocrisy at its crudest.
When I entered the Press Briefing Room, I stood at the back, behind all the assigned seats.
Press Secretary Jody Powell was in his usual smart aleck mode, kidding the reporters, one wise crack after another.
The press corps asked all their questions often the same question asked in a dozen different ways. The session was coming to an end.
I raised my hand. Powell called on me. “Luis Corvalan, leader of the Communist Party of Chile has applied for a visa to visit the United States and has been rejected by the State Department. In light of the President’s call for upholding human rights, can you explain why the visa was denied?”
Powell listened to my question with a bored expression and then snapped, “When Brezhnev stops persecuting Dr. Andrei Sakharov and hounding Alexander Solzhenitsyn we’ll have an answer for you.”
The press corps broke into embarrassed giggles at Powell’s witticism.
“You haven’t answered my question,” I replied.
“Well, I’ve given you as good as you’re going to get,” Powell replied. There were more titters from the reporters.
Then at the front of the room a woman spoke up in a loud, commanding voice. “He’s right, you haven’t answered the question.”
It was Helen Thomas, dean of the Press Corps, White House correspondent for United Press International who had covered every president since Dwight Eisenhower.
Powell turned ashen white and the smirk disappeared from his face. The briefing room fell silent.
In a polite voice, Powell told me, “I don’t know the answer. But I will take your question.”
In press corps jargon, it meant that Powell was promising to get an answer, and call me back. (He never did, despite my repeated calls to the White House).
I pushed my way to the front of the Press Briefing room and leaned over and whispered to Helen Thomas. “Thank you.”
I ran into Helen Thomas many times in the years that followed. Often she was dining with a coterie of cub reporters at a nearby table in a modest restaurant in Georgetown or some other neighborhood. I would congratulate her for her sharp questioning during presidential press conferences. By tradition, she asked the first question. She was of Lebanese background and sometimes asked pointed questions on why the U.S. gave billions of dollars in military aid to Israel, no questions asked.
On that day, Helen Thomas proved herself a defender of freedom of the press, and a defender as well of democracy in Chile.
Photo: The iconic late Helen Thomas on the job. Ron Edmonds/AP