Helen Thomas joined the United Press in 1943. She started covering the White House after the 1960 election. From John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, from the Bay of Pigs and Watergate to Iran-Contra and the war in Iraq, she has witnessed presidential politics first-hand.
Over the years, many Americans came to know her as the woman who closed countless press conferences with her trademark, "Thank you, Mr. President." Presidents and press secretaries got to know her as the one who asked tough questions.
The longtime White House bureau chief notes in her new book, "I have approached the task with awe for the office, but not reverence for the men who've held it."
In Watchdogs of Democracy?, Thomas leads readers through the stories that helped define nine administrations, and she introduces the journalists — writers, photographers, editors, publishers, and producers — that brought the news home. But the role of a White House correspondent has changed dramatically since Kennedy held office — consider the consolidation of media empires, decreased access to the presidents, manufactured news, and the rise of advocacy journalism, for starters — and in Watchdogs Thomas questions her peers, arguing that since 9-11 reporters have failed to protect the public's right to information, most notably during the build-up and execution of the war in Iraq.
"I want the press to start questioning the administration. Every administration," she explained in conversation. "I want us to do our jobs better. I think we owe it to the people."
Dave: Reading your books, it's hard to ignore how much the relationship between presidents and the press has transformed since the Kennedy administration. In terms of presidential transitions, one to the next, which brought on the most substantial change?
Helen Thomas: In every administration I've covered, the powers that be want to control the press. It reached a real masterful plan in the Reagan era: state of the art, managed news. Now this is the tightest, the most locked-down, secretive administration I've covered.
Dave: How much would you attribute that to better tools, technologies and so forth, as opposed to particular policies of this administration?
Thomas: I think it all lands in the White House with the president and his own sense of paranoia. All the information belongs to him. This president goes ape if there is any kind of leak.
Sometimes, a leak is legitimate information that we should have. It takes a lot of nerve to get it out there. Whistleblowers put their jobs on the line. Some of them have tremendous integrity. I think we should know a lot more than we do. The thesis of my book is that we as reporters haven't been doing the job we should have.
Thomas: Same thing. He's very slick. He's more articulate and very smooth, but it's the same old message. He's jumped right on board. He's an advocate, ultra-right. He loves this war — or, if he doesn't love it, he certainly defends it. They got the package they wanted. You always think that a newsman would want a little more running room.
Dave: How would you compare the polarized state of contemporary America to the Vietnam era?
Thomas: Scared. Passive. When people should be outraged, when they know that there have been falsehoods, the lack of feeling is unacceptable. If an administration is not credible, how can you believe anything? It's the boy who cried wolf.
Dave: Why are people so passive, do you think?
Thomas: The fear card plays well. People don't want to be called unpatriotic or un-American after 9-11. But also, there isn't a draft. People feel pretty safe and immune. We have a volunteer army. Most families are not affected.
More and more, we're getting to see the photographs and the suffering and pain, but at the start of the invasion, you know, Shock and Awe. I saw Rumsfeld walking up, swaggering, bragging, "Shock and Awe." And no reporters said to him, "Are you talking about dropping bombs on innocent people?"
Dave: Short of a draft, what is it going to take?
Thomas: I think it depends on whose ox is gored. The American people have gone into retreat. They don't identify with this war, per se. Someone else is fighting it, and the president tells us we're winning it. I think there is a gradual turnaround. People are beginning to ask, "Is this a war without end?"
Dave: Hardly a day goes by when you don't read in the paper about civilian casualties or the death of American soldiers.
Thomas: Every day, they're dying on both sides. War is killing and being killed. We're getting it with both barrels, and they are, too. It's really heated up. There is a greater awareness now, but not enough to call a halt. It's so polarized. The Republicans all vote for this war. I want to see how many of them have relatives in the war.
Dave: In the book, you talk about corporate consolidation of media, restricted access to the president, manufactured news, and advocacy journalism. Where do you find hope that journalism will rebound and the public will get balanced news?
Thomas: I think there will be a backlash.
A lot of the reporters seemed to wake up with Katrina. A lot of them seem to have been given more leeway from their corporate heads to go ahead and ask the questions. They're coming out of their coma, little by little. And I think when they Monday morning quarterback and look back at how they handled this, they're going to be shocked; we're going to go back to our real purpose, which is a search for the truth.
Dave: But when the media's goal is to deliver eyeballs to advertisers instead of news to the public... In a chapter about the FCC, you bemoan the erosion of the fairness doctrine, but I wonder, would that policy simply push advocacy journalists to cable channels, and would that further undermine the efforts of public television stations to compete?
Thomas: Maybe. But when I started as a reporter, I never heard about the profit motive. Every major city had two or three newspapers, and competition was the lifeblood. You never really thought that the owners of these newspapers, families usually, were in the business to make a lot of money. They would usually make their money in real estate or some other field. Owning a newspaper was a public service. And I think reporters also feel that way. I really do think that way, and it's a way of life. We don't think in terms of ratings.
Of course, when I worked for UPI, we always wanted to beat the AP, and visa versa. But it was more or less a game. Now in television, ratings are everything, and Wall Street wants a twenty-five percent profit. What is this anyway? What's it all about? It's so important to have a fair press.
Dave: Of the presidents you've covered, which one least resembled his public persona?
Thomas: I don't know any of them so personally. Once in a while you get an insight, when they let their hair down, but less and less do we have that access.
In the case of Kennedy and Johnson, we were able to walk down the street with them before the heavy security curtain fell. We'd see them in much more relaxed situations and much more agonized situations. With Johnson, we would walk round and round the south lawn. We used to call them the Bataan Death Marches; he would bemoan what was happening and decisions that he faced. You got a real insight. We don't get that so much now.
Maybe some reporters are close to this president, but I haven't seen any human interest stories about what he's actually going through.
Dave: What do you remember of that first trip to China with Nixon? Experiences of the country or the people.
Thomas: Every reporter in Washington wanted to be on that trip. There had been a twenty-year hiatus where we knew nothing about China. The CIA knew about it, people in Hong Kong, India and so forth — they knew what was happening in terms of the transformation, but the ordinary American didn't. It was a gold mine for a reporter. It was like landing on the moon. Everything was a story: what the Chinese looked like, what they wore, what they ate. It was transmitting our view of a whole new world.
Dave: Have you been back since?
Thomas: I went back with Reagan and with Kissinger. I think I've been back three or four times. And again, the transformation, the modernization... These people are incredible. In ten years, they're going to beat us in everything.
Dave: What is it like to fly on Air Force One? The last time you were invited was with Clinton, right?
Thomas: Right. For one thing, you have to stay alert. It's comfortable, they take care of you — but then they do on the press plane, too. You get first class treatment. You try to stay awake and ask questions, if you can get them in, because you're doing your job. You write pool reports for the other reporters who are not privileged to ride Air Force One. It's a duty. But it is a thrill, no question.
Dave: All those years working for the wires, you always had your ear out. Did the job ever stop?
Thomas: If you're gossiping in Washington, even out with your friends for a meal and a drink, you're talking news; you're talking about what happened during the day. I don't think your job ever really stops, but you don't want it to because nothing can replace being there in a story. You are covering history.
Dave: In Front Row at the White House, you describe yourself at twelve years old, telling a family friend that you wanted to be a newspaper woman. Where did that confidence come from? This was long before women had access to powerful roles in the media.
Thomas: Not confidence but certainly... I think everybody has a dream of being something, whether it's possible or not. My parents couldn't read or write, but they never told us it was a man's world, seven girls and two boys, nine children in our family. We were never told there was some kind of limit, that we should get married and have children, go into nursing or some safe career. We felt quite free to make our own decisions.
Dave: During your many years at the White House, did you ever consider moving to some other beat?
Thomas: Everything comes through the White House, from the most ticky-tack, trivial story to war and peace, so I really felt that I had a front row seat to history.
Others don't like the White House beat. They think it's very dull. You're waiting for the other shoe to fall. I found it very exciting. Especially in quiet times, I'd fasten my seatbelt.
Dave: What do you think the public's biggest misperception is about the lives of presidents?
Thomas: They certainly don't see what goes on behind the scenes. The agony, the frustration, the fact that some presidents think they're quite limited in their powers. We never know how they really handle their staffs, but I'm sure they beat up on them quite a bit when things go wrong. And we don't know what goes on upstairs, the personal lives. They put on a façade, as they have to.
Thomas: It happened! Other things, too. LBJ thought he had to shake every hand in front of him. He would be sore at the end of the day, with all kinds of bruises, especially if he had a ring on. He learned not to wear a ring.
Thomas: No, but we were always waiting for him to bump his head, I must say.
He is a very nice man. He did a lot to restore security and confidence in the country after the Watergate scandal.
Dave: Of the presidents you've covered, what about post-White House careers surprises you most?
Thomas: They don't realize how much they'll miss being a celebrity. And they are celebrities, even in the aftermath. But I think a lot of them miss the attention. I assume that President Clinton would want to stay in the limelight. They think they'll be so happy to leave the White House, but I don't think they are in the end.
Dave: Al Gore is experiencing quite a renaissance right now.
Thomas: Yes, he is. It's very interesting. His whole thesis on the environment has really taken off. Everybody sort of laughed, but he's been screaming from the housetops and people are finally getting it.
Dave: Gore was criticized for not being personable, for not being a man of the people, which is funny in light of what's going on now. People are suddenly shocked that he has a personality. Without dissecting the reason he lost the election, if someone were to ask your advice about the way we elect presidents, what would you suggest? What are we doing wrong?
Thomas: I would tell the politician: Always be yourself. Think about what your handler is telling you to do, how to dress, how to act. Use your common sense, and learn to say no. They're trying to transform your image, and that's not acceptable because it doesn't fit.
As for the voter, I would demand integrity and credibility. Any falsehoods are unnecessary.
Voters should think twice about spin and propaganda. What themes are they playing, and do you really want to go along with that? Gay marriage and burning the flag, these things, compared to the fact that this president was telling us he was going to war in his first try for the presidency and you just accepted it? Read between the lines.
Dave: Salman Rushdie was here in September of 2002. I asked him about the impending invasion. We all assumed it was going to happen, even though it hadn't been announced...
Thomas: And why did we?
Dave: It seemed inevitable. And Rushdie was worried about America acting unilaterally, maybe even without the support of its generals. He said:
I think the real problem is that I haven't heard anything that suggests that the administration in America has worked out what to do after Saddam. You can't start a war if you don't know those answers.
You've been critical of the press for not forcing someone to answer those questions, but it's not as if Rushdie was so visionary. Articulate, but not visionary. People made comparisons to Vietnam, but for some reason those concerns never got traction.
Thomas: Too many years passed. People had no institutional memory.
It isn't just the press I'm critical of, though I'm speaking of my own profession. I must say that Congress dropped the ball. They knew damn well that the president was going to war, and that any resolution they voted on was an okay. It was their right to declare war, not the president's. They gave up that responsibility. Nobody asked why.
To this moment, the president of the United States cannot tell you why he went to war. I asked him. He said, "The Taliban." I said, "I'm talking about Iraq." He said, "9-11." I said, "I'm talking about Iraq. There were no Iraqis involved."
The point is that they cannot tell you flatly why they went to war. Don't give me this "spreading democracy" business. The barrel of a gun! How free are you six feet under? No rationale can explain it because whatever the reason was, was unacceptable.
Dave: How was my experience of the war different because of the decision to embed reporters?
Thomas: I think the reporters definitely felt safer. Iraq is Russian Roulette. You can hardly go on the street without taking your life in your hands, apparently. But it was different to the extent that you really can co-opt a reporter and a photographer when you have them under your wing. You're bonding with the soldiers, you feel very much a part of it. Not that you wouldn't be supportive otherwise, but they certainly lost a lot of their freedom. At the same time, they stayed alive.
Dave: Did we get better reporting? If nothing else, we probably got different stories.
Thomas: I think those that were embedded felt it worked, but I think they missed a lot in the translation. I didn't lay my life on the line, so I shouldn't ask them to, but you get a soup-song. You get one slice of the picture. We got no human interest stories. How was this affecting the Iraqis? We got the spin every day.
Dave: Just yesterday, the Bush administration urged a federal judge to force Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams [authors of Game of Shadows] to divulge the source of the leak about the BALCO testimony.
Thomas: It's terrible. And then they want to apply the espionage laws? What is this? We're not supposed to know anything, if they had their way. I believe in the people's right to know almost everything.
Dave: Where do you draw a line?
Thomas: Something really valid in terms of national security. But they can put that label on anything.
Dave: What are the best international newspapers?
Thomas: I don't have that much contact, but I do think the BBC is very respected. And even Aljazeera. Okay, slanted for the Arabs, but they're still telling you the truth from their aspect, and it's certainly showing a hell of a lot more in terms of what's actually going on, the graphic stories. It's an exercise in futility for the people in public diplomacy to try to tell people in that part of the world how wonderful we are when they see us shooting people every day.
Dave: Have you been in touch with any of the former presidents?
Thomas: Not lately, but I always get invited to the different birthday celebrations for President Ford and so forth. If President Carter comes to the White House, I certainly greet him. President Clinton, too. But I don't have any close relationships with any of them and don't expect to.
Dave: Do any special moments stand out for you, scenes to which you were witness?
Thomas: When I started to cover the White House, we had lots of banter with Kennedy. He liked reporters at first, before he began to read what we were writing. Then we became persona non grata. But he was very quick.
Once he was seeing the Venezuelan president out the West Wing, and we women reporters had protested against the Venezuelan president speaking at the National Press Club, where women were not allowed to go. So I was standing outside when Kennedy was seeing him to the door. He pointed at me and said, "There is one of the demonstrators." So I said to the president of Venezuela, "We forgive you officially." And Kennedy said, "But not personally." He always had a comeback.
LBJ was fantastic. He would invite us to dinner. He was a people man, and sometimes reporters became people when nobody else was around. He wanted the company. We had a lot of close contact. Once he dropped into the pressroom, and he said to me, "Have you had your lunch?" If I'd had my lunch, I would have said no anyway, but I said, "Oh, no." He escorted me up to the family quarters and we had lunch with some of the other staffers. That hasn't happened since, I assure you.
Helen Thomas spoke from Washington D.C. on June 27, 2006.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State