|NATIONAL | summer 2006
In her mid-80s, fearless White House correspondent Helen Thomas still asks the tough questions about war and peace.
It was the talk of the blogosphere: As part of Stephen Colbert’s eviscerating roast of President Bush at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in April—wonkish Washington’s equivalent of the Oscars—he showed a hilarious video that was supposedly an “audition” for the job of White House press secretary.
His costar in the satiric short: none other than the octogenarian doyenne of White House correspondents, Helen Thomas.
Using actual TV footage of the White House press corps, Colbert (of Comedy Central’s Colbert Report) played a putative press secretary at a podium, ridiculing the reporters and avoiding their questions. But when Thomas asks, as she did of President Bush at a March 21 press conference, why we really invaded Iraq, Colbert feigns terror. He runs from the White House with Thomas in slow-but-relentless pursuit, notebook and pen in hand. Inside a parking garage, Colbert presses the emergency intercom to demand help, because “She won’t stop asking why we invaded Iraq.” The attendant responds, “Why did we invade Iraq?”
Colbert finally escapes and returns to New York City. But there, the be-capped limousine driver turns out to be…Helen Thomas—who then urges him to “buckle up.”
The video is yet another triumphant, iconic moment in the long, impressive life of the pioneering journalist, who turns 86 on August 4. The first woman to be chief White House correspondent for a major news service (United Press International), Thomas has covered every president from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush. In 1998, the White House Correspondents’ Association named its lifetime achievement award for her. Yet she’s no relic—working as an opinion columnist for Hearst Newspapers since 2000, she still has her front-row seat at White House press briefings and still shows up daily.
She remains as feisty and fearless as ever. In her new book, Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public (Scribner), she takes her colleagues to task for not asking the sort of tough questions she does. “I honestly believe,” she writes, “that if reporters had put the spotlight on the flaws in the Bush administration’s war policies, they could have saved the country the heartache and the losses of American and Iraqi lives.”
Her anti-war, anti-Bush administration views have put her, not surprisingly, in disfavor with the president. In January 2003, she gave a speech at the Society of Professional Journalists’ annual awards banquet, in which she offered her regular criticism of his presidency, particularly worrying about his intention to go to war in Iraq. Afterward, a young writer from the Torrance, Calif., Daily Breeze sought her out for an autograph.
“I was flattered. I preened,” says Thomas, sheepishly. “I thought I was talking to my new best friend.” The young man asked why she seemed sad. “‘I should be,’” she recalls answering. “‘I’m covering the worst president in Amerian history.’”
The White House was not amused. “I have yet to learn not to talk to reporters. I didn’t realize he would quote me,” she says now. “Suddenly, I was in the wilderness.”
At a presidential press conference two months later, Thomas was not called on for the first time in what reporters believe was more than four decades. She wrote the president to apologize, insisting she did not mean to call him the nation’s worst president, and he wrote back to accept. But it wasn’t until three years later that she received absolution.
At the March 21 press conference, Bush first complimented her on her “brilliant” performance at a Gridiron Club dinner—where she sang a song about Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions while dressed in a Scarlett O’Hara costume à la Carol Burnett (made from green drapes, the dress had a curtain rod running through it). Bush then signaled that he was ready, finally, to take a question from the veteran reporter.
“You’re going to be sorry!” Thomas quipped. Bush retorted, “Well, then, let me take it back.”
He didn’t get a chance to. “Every reason given [for war in Iraq], publicly at least, has turned out not to be true,” Thomas admonished, then accused Bush of wanting to invade Iraq “from the moment you stepped into the White House.”
“To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect,” Bush responded. “No president wants war. Everything you may have heard is that, but it’s just simply not true.”
Several months later, Thomas sits in the unnervingly quiet, decorator-designed conference room of Hearst Newspapers despite her professional stature, she works in a cubicle, not a private office). She wears her trademark black pantsuit and red nail polish, her fingers encircled with rings and bracelets lining her arms, her original black hair long-ago dyed bronze brown. Thinking back on her interaction with the president, she only wishes she had pressed him harder.
“The president can’t even explain why we are in Iraq,” she complains. “And now he wants to take on Iran?”
In her new book—her fourth—she writes that the administration signaled for two years that “it could not be deterred from going to war,” and that White House reporters knew it. But she thinks the press was caught up in the administration’s overly optimistic assessment that leading Iraq to democracy would be easy. “The president wasn’t nailed on why we were invading a country of innocent people who had done nothing to us,” she says.
Thomas, who is of Lebanese heritage, is outraged at the conduct of the war and the cauldron of hatred she argues it has spawned toward the U.S. in the Middle East. Behind the war, she thinks—as do many—is a quest for oil by former oilmen Bush and Vice President Cheney. And she, for one, won’t hesitate to keep pounding the administration with questions.
She has now made it her daily job to buttonhole new press secretary Tony Snow, who appears to take her more seriously than did his predecessors, Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan. Snow parries amiably with her. Early in his tenure, he remarked on a handsome apple Thomas was holding, so she handed it to him.
“Whoever thought Helen Thomas would kiss up to me? An apple for the teacher,” Snow said as everyone laughed. “Hardly. Hardly,” Thomas said hastily, but she, too, smiled broadly.
“He’s very smooth. Very slick,” she says of Snow. But she insists this White House remains the most secretive she has covered.
And she has many to compare it with. After graduation from Wayne State University in Detroit in 1942, the Kentucky-born, Michigan-raised Thomas made covering the White House her life’s work, beginning her signature practice of saying, “Thank you, Mr. President,” at the end of every press conference until Bush abolished the custom in 2003.
After her competitor at the Associated Press, Douglas Cornell, retired, they were married in 1971. Their engagement had been announced by First Lady Pat Nixon at a White House party in Cornell’s honor. Although he passed away in 1982, Cornell’s name still appears on Thomas’ phone caller ID. She has lived in the same northwest Washington, D.C., apartment building for years, but she’s often on the road, giving speeches or receiving honorary degrees. When addressing students, she presses them to demand honest answers from their public servants. But as intensely provocative as her speeches are, she usually has a ready laugh and kind words for her audiences.
Reaction to Thomas’ questioning of the president has played differently, depending on the arena. One woman sent her dozens of roses for questioning the president’s motives to his face. But she also was flooded with “venomous, scatological” emails. Conservative talk-show hosts lambasted her for interrupting the president and riding her hobby horse of war and peace. “Will former White House reporter Helen Thomas ever go away?” cried L. Brent Bozell III, president of the conservative Media Research Center.
Not a chance. In her new book—which excoriates the press corps as docile and incurious—she argues that reporters never pushed hard enough on administration plans for post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. But she is somewhat hopeful, she says, that the press has since been energized by outrage over the government’s inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina and Bush’s low poll ratings. She points to more aggressive questioning of the administration’s intentions in Iran, and alarm that the United States might find itself in a three-front war.
“I think Americans have been very worried there could be another preemptive strike,” Thomas says. “After all, we went to war in Iraq, which was not a threat to us. Isn’t it better to talk than start another war? How does bombing people make us safer?”
Here’s a question for Thomas: After covering nine presidents, does she believe in her heart that Bush will strike Iran? She pauses and slowly shakes her head. No, she says. It would be “such a folly” for the administration to take military action against Iran. “The president has enough on his plate.”
But she vows to continue being in the president’s face. “I respect the office of the presidency,” she says, “but I never worship at the shrines of our public servants. They owe us the truth. They owe us peace. America should never be a country that starts wars; Iraq has reminded Americans of that. We do not have the right to attack anyone we think is a potential enemy.
“The Washington press corps has the privilege of asking the president of the United States what he is doing and why,” she continues. “We don’t go into journalism to be popular. It is our job to seek the truth and put constant pressure on our leaders until we get answers. We threw in the towel after 9/11. But I think—I hope—we’re more skeptical now. The press is coming out of its coma.”
Ann McFeatters is a Scripps Howard News Service columnist who has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.