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The First Lady of the Press

Helen Thomas on lapdog reporters, White House bullies, and the evolving role of the media.
 
 
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Helen Thomas, known as "the first lady of the press," has been reporting on the Presidency for forty-four years. As a White House correspondent for United Press International, she began covering the Kennedy White House. She was not assigned to the beat – she just started showing up.

For decades, Thomas could be seen sitting in the front row during Presidential press conferences, often asking the first question. In her memoir, "Front Row at the White House," she writes, "When it comes to the Presidential news conference, I have never lost my sense of awe that I am able to quiz a President of the United States – politely I hope, but if necessary to hold his feet to the fire." Elsewhere in the book, she quotes Richard Nixon as telling her, "You always ask tough questions, tough questions not in the sense of being unfair, but hard to generalize the answers."

Thomas has built a remarkable career as a journalist. She rose through the ranks to become UPI White House bureau chief. She's covered the day-to-day workings of the White House longer than any other correspondent. And she was the first woman to hold posts in the White House Correspondents' Association and the National Press Club. She left UPI in 2000 and now writes a syndicated column twice a week for the Hearst newspapers.

Thomas no longer sits in the front row during Presidential news conferences, a privilege traditionally reserved for wire service reporters. When I caught up with her in Washington, D.C., in April, I asked her if she missed asking the first question. "No. I just want the questions to be asked," Thomas replied. "It doesn't matter whether I ask them. No leader should get off the hook when they take people to war."

I also called her in late June to ask her opinion of the Abu Ghraib scandal.

The White House press corps was pretty tame after 9/11, but now they are starting to challenge the President. What happened?

I think they are coming out of their coma. They finally are realizing they've been had. They finally realized that we went into a war based on false pretenses. And we were very much a part of that. We were the transmission belt for all of the spin and the alleged threats.

But there was the aura of 9/11. At these televised briefings there was an atmosphere among the reporters that you would be considered unpatriotic or un-American if you were asking any tough questions. Then it segued into a war where the public thought you were jeopardizing the troops if you asked certain questions. So I think we walked the line too much. The press corps is finally waking up to the fact that its job is to ask the questions that are so obvious. The American people were asking the questions. And they were wondering why the reporters rolled over and played dead.

60 Minutes held the Abu Ghraib torture story for nearly two weeks. Should the press hold stories upon the request of the Pentagon?

They would have to have a real good reason. You don't want to do anything to jeopardize lives. But otherwise I wouldn't abide by the request. I think definitely it should be done if it involves the lives of human beings.

Why do Bush's press conferences sound so scripted?

Bush has a seating chart and he knows who he is going to call on. He picks the people. He's been told to not call on me because I am going to ask a very tough question, such as, Why are we there? Why are we killing people in their own country? How can we? On what basis? I mean, if you want to go after terrorists, good. But Iraq had nothing to do with it.

This President has not had many press conferences. Do you think the Bush administration values the opportunity to talk with the press?

Hell, no. He's forced to. It's absolutely necessary because we are there in their face. But he doesn't hold enough news conferences. It's far short of anybody else. And when he appears with a head of state and they try to act like it's a news conference, it's not. He says, "I'll take two questions here and two questions on that side," and there's no follow-up. He gets mad if it is a two-part question. I mean, c'mon. The President of the United States should be able to answer any question, or at least dance around one. At some time – early and often – he should submit to questioning and be held accountable, because if you don't have that then you only have one side of the story. The Presidential news conference is the only forum in our society, the only institution, where a President can be questioned. If a leader is not questioned, he can rule by edict or executive order. He can be a king or a dictator. Who's to challenge him? We're there to pull his chain and to ask the questions that should be asked every day, for every move.

Has President Bush given you a nickname?

I'm sure it's profane, but I don't know what it is. I don't blame him for not liking me; I ask very tough questions. He doesn't have to like me. I would prefer that he respect me. We don't have to be liked. We didn't go into this business to be liked or loved. If we did, we're making a big mistake. It's not the point. You cannot have a democracy without an informed people.

In a June 2003 column, you wrote that we should have an open mind while asking tough questions of the Bush administration regarding its credibility on weapons of mass destruction. A year later, do you think the Bush administration is losing credibility?

Absolutely. Where are the weapons? Where's the smoking gun? Where's the mushroom cloud? Where's the imminent threat? Where was ever the threat? Are you kidding?

They have no credibility on the reasons for going to war. And to this moment we don't know why this President wanted to go to war so badly. It was very clear there was no threat. We were not attacked. We had a choke hold on Saddam Hussein for twelve years. He couldn't make a move.

Your book "Front Row at the White House" gives the impression that administrations have become more secretive.

All administrations are secretive, but this one is more so. I think there's too much secretiveness and arrogance of power. They really walk in lockstep. It's a lockdown administration. This President in particular abhors any leaks. And to me a leak is just the truth that someone wants to get out. Other Presidents have managed to have some dissenting voices or devil's advocates around. But in this administration, there's no tolerance for anyone who has an opposite opinion. We can see what they've done to Colin Powell. You're on board or you're not. You're with us or against us.

What effect have the disclosures by Richard Clarke and Medicare actuary Richard Foster had on this administration?

I don't think they have made the administration more honest, but they've had an effect on the American people, who know they were misled in the most drastic way – life and death, war and peace, Medicare being underpriced by $150 billion so they could sell it. It's the boy who cried wolf. How many more times can we be deceived?

Polls show that Bush still has a lot of support from Americans.

People always want to believe their President to the very end. I found that true with Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal. It wasn't until his last weeks practically when he was finally forced to say that he had not been credible, had not told the truth, that everything went downhill. But even then he had 23 percent approval. People want to believe their leaders, and that's a good thing.

How has television changed news reporting?

It's dominant now. Can't blame a President to prefer TV. He can reach sixty million people rather than talk to you and me and reach maybe a few newspapers. With TV you get a much wider audience. And it's good for the American people to actually see the person so they can decide with their own eyes.

But I think newspapers are indispensable. You have to read a newspaper because it grabs you, it wraps you all around. And you have to read the stories you never intended to read. You get a much broader view. Television and newspapers are both necessary. But I notice the TV people get most of the interviews with the President.

How did you see your role when you were a wire service reporter?

Straight reporting. Just the facts, ma'am. I wrote dull copy because I was afraid even a verb would sound pejorative or judgmental. But now I go for broke. I have to be curbed. I can honestly say I was never accused of slant in my copy. But I tell everyone – this is my cliché – that I never bowed out of the human race since the moment I was born. I permitted myself to think, to care, to believe. But I was not paid for that. At the wire service, you had to have straight factual reporting and I did it for fifty-seven years.

What's an average day like for you?

Now, I'm loose. I go to the White House briefings, which they call a gaggle, in the morning, at 9:45 a.m., and then a briefing at 12:30 p.m. I write two columns a week. I have to decide what to write and what to be outraged about, which is plenty.

And what were your days like when you were a wire service reporter?

I used to go to the White House around 5:30 in the morning, grab a cup of coffee, read the wires, hang out outside the press secretary's office around 8 o'clock and see if I could buttonhole them early. Attend the morning briefing and the afternoon briefing, always checking with the office because when we are sleeping, half the world is making trouble. So you try to catch up. Do your homework. Things are happening during the day and you try to get reaction. You write many, many stories a day.

Who was your favorite President to cover?

Kennedy and Johnson. Kennedy because I think it was the most inspired. I thought he had his eyes on the stars, that he knew where the country should be going. He told young people to give something back to the country. He had ideals. And Johnson moved a mountain the first two years in office. He got through Medicare, civil rights, voting rights for blacks in the South, federal aid to education at all levels from Head Start through college, child and maternal health, public housing, you name it. It was phenomenal.

How has the relationship between the President and the White House press corps changed since you started covering the Presidency?

It was much more intimate before because it was a much smaller press corps. You could walk around the South Lawn with Lyndon B. Johnson. We were very close to Kennedy. There wasn't this whole cordon of security. And you didn't have wave after wave of TV and other electronic outlets. The press corps now is humungous on a big story. Since 9/11, of course, there's been heavy, heavy security, and even before that with the attempts on the life of the President. There's always been one more step to tighten security and keep us further away.

Even after 9/11, when the press was really tame, there were still charges by some people in the press that there was a liberal media. Do you agree?

I'm dying to find another friend. I am a liberal. I was a liberal the day I was born, and I will be until the day I die. What's a liberal? I care about the poor, the sick, and the maimed. I care whether we go to war for unjust causes. I care whether we shoot people who are innocent. There's no such thing as a liberal media. I think we have a very conservative press. Read the columnists. They are predominantly conservative. I don't relate to them at all. I'm looking for another liberal.

But there was a time when there were more liberal voices.

There were more. But the press has moved with the country to the right. There was a Ronald Reagan revolution. There were many more liberals in the Great Depression, World War II. They had heart and soul and compassion. Reporters see so much more than anyone else, really, if they open their eyes. It's their job to take a very human approach. I don't see how you can see what's all around you and not be liberal. You see the poor. You see the hungry. You see the suffering.

Elizabeth DiNovella is Culture Editor of The Progressive.