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Doubting Thomas

White House Press Corps dean Helen Thomas on giving presidents hell


Published October 24, 2006 at 6:01 p.m.

For Helen Thomas, "Question Authority" is not just a bumper-sticker slogan; it's her job description. As a member of the White House Press Corps since 1961, she's grilled nine American presidents - first as the White House Bureau Chief for wire service United Press International, and now as a syndicated columnist for Hearst Newspapers, which hired her after she left UPI in 2000.

Thomas was a pioneer when she started out in the male-dominated biz; the 86-year-old Washington, D.C., resident was the first female member - and later, the first woman president - of the White House Correspondents Association. She was the lone lady reporter on Richard Nixon's historic China trip in 1972.

Since becoming a columnist, Thomas has been free to express her liberal political opinions, and she doesn't hold back; she has called President Bush the worst president ever, and has been sharply critical of the media for not asking tougher questions in the run-up to the war in Iraq. Her position is clear from the title page of her fourth book, Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public. Her upcoming address in South Burlington is entitled, "Where Is the Outrage in This Country?"

Thomas drew praise from Iraq war critics after a press conference last March, during which she pushed Bush to explain why he really went to war. Here's a partial transcript of their exchange, from the White House website:

HELEN THOMAS: I'd like to ask you, Mr. President, your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly, at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is, why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, from your Cabinet - your Cabinet officers, intelligence people, and so forth - what was your real reason? You have said it wasn't oil - quest of oil, it hasn't been Israel, or anything else. What was it?

PRESIDENT BUSH: I think your premise - in all due respect to your question and to you as a lifelong journalist - is that - I didn't want war. To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect -

HT: Everything -

PB: Hold on for a second, please.

HT: Everything I've heard -

PB: Excuse me, excuse me. No president wants war. Everything you may have heard is that, but it's just simply not true. My attitude about the defense of this country changed on September the 11th. We - when we got attacked, I vowed then and there to use every asset at my disposal to protect the American people. Our foreign policy changed on that day, Helen. You know, we used to think we were secure because of oceans and previous diplomacy. But we realized on September the 11th, 2001, that killers could destroy innocent life. And I'm never going to forget it. And I'm never going to forget the vow I made to the American people that we will do everything in our power to protect our people.

Part of that meant to make sure that we didn't allow people to provide safe haven to an enemy. And that's why I went into Iraq - hold on for a second -

HT: They didn't do anything to you, or to our country.

PB: Look - excuse me for a second, please. Excuse me for a second. They did. The Taliban provided safe haven for al Qaeda. That's where al Qaeda trained -

HT: I'm talking about Iraq -

PB: Helen, excuse me. That's where - Afghanistan provided safe haven for al Qaeda. That's where they trained . . .

I also saw a threat in Iraq. I was hoping to solve this problem diplomatically. That's why I went to the Security Council; that's why it was important to pass 1441, which was unanimously passed. As the world said, disarm, disclose, or face serious consequences -

HT: - go to war -

PB: - and therefore, we worked with the world, we worked to make sure that Saddam Hussein heard the message of the world. And when he chose to deny inspectors, when he chose not to disclose, then I had the difficult decision to make to remove him. And we did, and the world is safer for it.

Comedian Stephen Colbert paid tribute to Thomas in April at the Washington Correspondents Dinner; Bush was among the guests. In his roast, which made the email and YouTube rounds, Colbert joked that he was planning to apply for the job of White House press secretary, then proceeded to show an "audition tape" of himself in the role. Thomas plays a diminutive but determined scribe who confronts Colbert with a tough Iraq question, then chases him into a parking garage, and finally traps him in a limo, in order to get a response out of him.

But while she makes her living by posing uncomfortable queries, there are a few that Thomas herself prefers not to answer. If you want to make her testy, inquire about her age. "I'm getting sick and tired of that," she says. "It's very, very judgmental. I read a story, and the man never has an age, but I always have mine. I'm sorry, it's very annoying." The conversation went uphill from there.

SEVEN DAYS: You started your career in journalism in 1942. As a female reporter who works for a newspaper owned and run by two women, I'm curious - how was the work environment different for women back then?

HELEN THOMAS: Well, I think the fact that you're working for two women obviously shows that it has changed. It was a man's world, no question about it. If a woman applied for a newspaper job, she usually would be shunted to what was then the society pages, then became family and style. There were some women for 150 years writing hard news. But nevertheless, most of the jobs for real tough reporting were given to men.

SD: You were eventually named an officer of the National Press Club, but I've heard that when you started out in the business, women weren't allowed to be members.

HT: We didn't get in, really, until 1971, when they were down on their dues financially. It wasn't a matter of great principle. All the clubs in this town were closed to women. There was a Women's National Press Club, which was established mainly to offset that. But we had to demonstrate, picket, appeal to the government officials that they should not let a visiting head of state speak at a press club where we couldn't cover the story. So it was a long struggle.

SD: Thanks for doing all that work.

HT: I was very selfishly motivated, believe me. It was a cabal. Everybody knew the injustice.

SD: You began covering the White House during JKF's presidency in 1961. What does covering the White House entail?

HT: We have two press brief-ings daily. One is called a gaggle, which is early in the morning, lasts about 15 minutes. Lays out the president's day, and we ask some questions. Then a major briefing is around 12:30 in the afternoon. Usually televised. Press conferences are on their own volition. We never know when it's going to happen.

SD: George W. Bush has had fewer press conferences than past presidents, right?

HT: Yes. He doesn't like 'em. No president really likes a press conference. The whole idea of being quizzed and interrogated, when they think they're president, you know, 'Who are you to ask me?' The thing is, this one in particular certainly doesn't like press conferences. He doesn't take follow-ups, which is very bad.

SD: Your role at press conferences has changed over the years.

HT: I was with the wire service - UPI and AP got the first two questions, by tradition. They've been there since before the advent of television. And now I'm a columnist, and so I just take my chances.

SD: They rarely call on you now. Is that because you're a columnist now, or because they don't like you?

HT: They don't like me. Who cares? I never went into this profession to be liked. Why would I? I went in for my own reasons.

SD: Such as?

HT: To keep the people informed. You cannot have a democracy without an informed people. To fulfill my own ambition. Nosiness. Finding out what's going on in the world every day. Education every day. That's what journalism is.

SD: You've criticized the press corps for not challenging the president -

HT: Absolutely.

SD: But I read White House press conference transcripts, and they often strike me as combative. There's a lot of back and forth, with either the press secretary or the president. That process doesn't often make it into newspaper stories. Why is it important?

HT: We should be asking tougher questions which they don't want to answer. They prepare themselves with automatic, reflex answers to clear their names. But telling the truth is very, very difficult in government or anything else. It's our job to try to find out the truth.

SD: You've certainly asked some tough questions, the most famous being the time you badgered the president to tell you why he went to war in Iraq. A number of right-wing commentators vilified you after that exchange. Don Imus said, "That old bag should shut up and get out. I'm sick of her." Bill O'Reilly said, "I would have laid into that woman, and I don't care how old she is. I would have laid her out." Are you afraid of these guys coming after you?

HT: [laughs] Hell, no. They're imbeciles.

SD: Why are they so angry with you?

HT: I think they're so far to the right that they obviously see me as the opposite side. I'm a liberal. I'll be a liberal for the rest of my life. I was born a liberal. And they can't stand it. They know they've fallen on their face. Thousands are dead, and nobody can explain why. We invaded a country that did nothing to us. I don't know how they can have that on their conscience. They should be ashamed of themselves, really. Not for attacking me, but for not standing up for innocent people who are being killed every day.

SD: Since then you've become a hero to many people angry about the war, and about the way the country is being run. I think they wish they could question the president like that.

HT: I hope so. I want people to get out of their passivity. Their silence is deafening. If their voices are raised, we might not be killing so many people.

SD: It's a real privilege to be able to sit in that briefing room and ask questions. But I guess it shouldn't be a privilege to question government in a democracy.

HT: It's our right. But it is a privilege to ask the president a question, because [it's his decision] whether he's going to call on you or not. And the very fact that they avoid the tough questions - how can a president be a president and not be able to deal with the issues, explain himself?

SD: Whenever I see President Bush answer questions - the back-and-forth kind of questions, not the ones where he's giving a canned answer - I'm often surprised by how inarticulate he is.

HT: Angry, mostly. He's angry. He's a very angry man. The fact that you might even challenge him when he has such a sense of self-righteousness.

SD: You've covered some interesting times. Any favorite stories?

HT: I cover history every day. It's my cliché answer, but it's the truth. I've been here since Kennedy, so you can imagine what's happened in this panorama since 1961. Assassination of a president, resignation of a president for the first time in history, scandals - rampant scandals - watching fascinating people aspire to power and fall down on the job when they reach the top of the mark.

SD: Any plans to retire?

HT: If I did, would I be here talking to you? Why in the hell should I?