Commonly referred to as "The First Lady of the Press," former White House Bureau Chief Helen Thomas is a trailblazer, breaking through barriers for women reporters while covering every President since John F. Kennedy. For 57 years, Helen also served as White House correspondent for United Press International. She recently left this post and joined Hearst Newspapers as a syndicated columnist.
Born in Winchester, Kentucky, Helen was raised in Detroit, Michigan where she attended public schools and later graduated from Wayne State University. Upon leaving college, she served as a copy girl on the old, now defunct Washington Daily News. In 1943, Ms. Thomas joined United Press International and the Washington Press Corps.
For 12 years, Helen wrote radio news for UPI, her work day beginning at 5:30am. Eventually she covered the news of the Federal government, including the FBI and Capitol Hill.
In November, 1960, Helen began covering then President-elect John F. Kennedy, following him to the White House in January, 1961 as a member of the UPI team. It was during this first White House assignment that Helen began closing presidential press conferences with "Thank you, Mr. President."
In September, 1971, Pat Nixon scooped Helen by announcing her engagement to Associated Press' retiring White House correspondent, Douglas B. Cornell at a White house party hosted by then President Nixon in honor of Cornell.
Helen was the only woman print journalist traveling with then President Nixon to China during his breakthrough trip in January, 1972. She has the distinction of having traveled around the world several times with Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, and Bush, Jr., during the course of which she covered every Economic Summit. The World Almanac has cited her as one of the 25 Most Influential Women in America.
Helen Thomas has written three books, including her latest, Thanks for the Memories Mr. President: Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House.
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ / Helen Thomas: GWB Is Worst President in American history DailyBreeze.com 1-23-3 http://www.mediawhoresonline.com/
Thomas offers press veterans her take on the state of the presidency...
As veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas signed my program Thursday evening at the Society of Professional Journalistsâ annual awards banquet, I said, "First time I ever asked a reporter for an autograph."
"Thank you, dear," she said, patting my arm. "Donât lose heart."
Those are words that should be engraved at the bottom of every journalism degree. That's because I'm not sure that any business can cause a heart to be lost or broken faster than this. And Thomas probably knows this better than anyone because she began reporting in 1943.
Thomas, in case you've never seen a presidential news conference, is the woman who has haunted every U.S. president since JFK.
I can't, in fact, recall a news conference where she wasn't standing hawk-like, grilling men who clearly didnât want to be grilled by anyone, especially a woman.
Thomas, by the way, is the woman who said, "Thank you, Mr. President," at the end of her very first press conference in 1961.
That, I think, is a wonderful tradition that continues to this very day. It shows a little respect to make up for the kind of lack of respect we used to hear from shouters such as Sam Donaldson, the man Ronald Reagan could never quite hear.
I attended this Biltmore Hotel banquet for two reasons ÷ Thomas and Jean Adelsman. Jean is the retired managing editor of the Breeze and the recipient Thursday evening of a Journalist of the Year award, along with Judy Muller of ABC News, Kitty Felde of KPCC's 'Talk of the City,' Sue Manning of The Associated Press and USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky.
Odd how the world breathlessly awaits the Golden Globes while honors presented the people who watch the politicians or work for a cancer cure are as obscure as lice. In fact, there's a joke about the Golden Globes and the foreign press that presents them. Itâs said that on ceremony night you canât find a waiter anywhere in town. Take this from someone who once sat at another banquet with the foreign press ÷ a group composed of a dry cleaner from Pacoima, a large Eastern European woman in a turban and an Egyptian shoe salesman who spent the evening trying to cadge free drinks. Now that I think of it, they arenât much different from domestic journalists.
Except when it comes to Thomas, who ÷ to the 100 or so people in that room ÷ is the very essence of celebrity, a woman who dedicated 60 years at United Press International and Hearst to afflicting the elected.
Keep in mind that Thomas came up in the bad old days. Unlike Thursday night, when four of five honorees were women, she spent decades proving herself to the male hierarchy.
As late as 1972 she was the only woman on the Nixon China trip. Still, she survives in a Washington press corps that she says has gone soft, accepting presidential spin without question.
There was a lot of that in her speech, this talk of devaluation in the character of leadership. Not surprisingly for an admitted liberal, she held her greatest praise for John Kennedy, the only president in her estimation who made Americans look to their higher angels.
Then came Johnson's Great Society and Vietnam. Nixon, she said, was a man who would - when presented two roads - "always choose the wrong one." He was followed by 'healing' Ford, well-meaning Carter, Reagan's revolution, Bush Sr.'s self-destruction and Clinton's damaging of the presidential myth.
She seemed to have sympathy and affection for everyone but George W. Bush, a man who she said is rising on a wave of 9-11 fear - fear of looking unpatriotic, fear of asking questions, just fear. "We have," she said, "lost our way."
Thomas believes we have chosen to promote democracy with bombs instead of largess while Congress 'defaults,' Democrats cower and a president controls all three branches of government in the name of corporations and the religious right.
As she signed my program, I joked, "You sound worried."
"This is the worst president ever," she said. "He is the worst president in all of American history."
The woman who has known eight of them wasn't joking.
First Publish Date: January 19, 2003
All materials <http://dailybreeze.com/about/privacy/copyright.html>© 2003 Copley Press, Inc.
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Ari Fleischer: And with that, I'm more than happy to take your questions. Helen.
Helen Thomas: At the earlier briefing, Ari, you said that the President deplored the taking of innocent lives. Does that apply to all innocent lives in the world? And I have a follow-up.
Ari Fleischer: I refer specifically to a horrible terrorist attack on Tel Aviv that killed scores and wounded hundreds. And the President, as he said in his statement yesterday, deplores in the strongest terms the taking of those lives and the wounding of those people, innocents in Israel.
Helen Thomas: My follow-up is, why does he want to drop bombs on innocent Iraqis?
Ari Fleischer: Helen, the question is how to protect Americans, and our allies and friends --
Helen Thomas: They're not attacking you.
Ari Fleischer: -- from a country --
Helen Thomas: Have they laid the glove on you or on the United States, the Iraqis, in 11 years?
Ari Fleischer: I guess you have forgotten about the Americans who were killed in the first Gulf War as a result of Saddam Hussein's aggression then.
Helen Thomas: Is this revenge, 11 years of revenge?
Ari Fleischer: Helen, I think you know very well that the President's position is that he wants to avert war, and that the President has asked the United Nations to go into Iraq to help with the purpose of averting war.
Helen Thomas: Would the President attack innocent Iraqi lives?
Ari Fleischer: The President wants to make certain that he can defend our country, defend our interests, defend the region, and make certain that American lives are not lost.
Helen Thomas: And he thinks they are a threat to us?
Ari Fleischer: There is no question that the President thinks that Iraq is a threat to the United States.
Helen Thomas: The Iraqi people?
Ari Fleischer: The Iraqi people are represented by their government. If there was regime change, the Iraqi --
Helen Thomas: So they will be vulnerable?
Ari Fleischer: Actually, the President has made it very clear that he has not dispute with the people of Iraq. That's why the American policy remains a policy of regime change. There is no question the people of Iraq --
Helen Thomas: That's a decision for them to make, isn't it? It's their country.
Ari Fleischer: Helen, if you think that the people of Iraq are in a position to dictate who their dictator is, I don't think that has been what history has shown.
Hearst News Service columnist Helen Thomas has unambiguous feelings about the Bush administration.
"This government lies," she said Wednesday to editors, reporters and interns from The Indianapolis Star.
As for the Bush administration's claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, one of the key arguments for going to war against Saddam Hussein, Thomas had one word: "Baloney."
"I think we have a government that absolutely is ignoring the truth and a press that is ignoring the truth," she said during a luncheon at the Downtown Radisson Hotel.
Thomas, 83, who worked for United Press International for 57 years as a correspondent and White House bureau chief, began covering the Oval Office during the Kennedy administration.
The columnist said she thinks the press today is doing a terrible job covering the presidency -- worse than she ever has seen.
"I really think that reporters for two, three months after 9/11 -- everyone was afraid to ask their question," Thomas said. "They would not ask any question that would appear to be unpatriotic."
This reticent culture continued into the war in Iraq, where reporters feared questions would be perceived as jeopardizing American troops, Thomas said.
"I think she's absolutely right -- dead on," said James W. Brown, executive associate dean of the Indiana University School of Journalism at IUPUI. "The evidence is there -- the Bush administration lies, lies, lies.
"The strongest, most aggressive person taking the Bush administration to task is not someone from The New York Times or The Washington Post, but Michael Moore, albeit from his own viewpoint," Brown said. "He is asking the questions."
But Rich Noyes, research director of the Virginia-based Media Research Center, which describes itself as a conservative media watchdog group, said Thomas' remarks were "a totally fictional account of what happened since 9/11."
"By early 2002, it was really back to normal, with reporters asking many, many tough questions both about domestic policy and foreign policy," Noyes said. He said his group documented heavy skepticism toward the war in Iraq.
"When Helen Thomas says the press was too soft, what she really means is the press should have been more of an actor in the process instead of covering the process," Noyes said. "That's just not the right role for a journalist."
Thomas openly acknowledges her politics -- "I was born a liberal, and I'll die a liberal," she said -- but added that they were not reflected in her work as a reporter. She called the notion of a liberal bias in the media fictitious.
veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas confronting White
House Press Secretary Scott McClellan on the reasons for invading
Iraq. [Includes transcript]
Both President Bush and British Prime Minister Blair have each had to confront a damning report on the intelligence failures leading up to the Iraq war. Although both leaders still insist that the war was justified, Blair has since said "I accept full personal responsibility for the way the issue was presented and therefore for any errors made." Bush has yet to make any such statement.
This past Monday, veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas took on White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan on the issue.
· White House Press Briefing, July 19, 2004.
Helen Thomas: Prime Minister Blair took full personal responsibility for taking his nation into war under falsehoods -- under reasons that have been determined now to be false. Is President Bush also willing to take full, personal responsibility --
Scott McClellan: I think Prime Minister Blair said that it was the right thing to do; that Saddam Hussein's regime was a threat.
Helen Thomas: Those were not the reasons he took his country into war. It turned out to be untrue, and the same is true for us. Does the President take full, personal responsibility for this war?
Scott McClellan: The issue here is what do you to with a threat in a post-September 11th world? Either you live with a threat, or you confront the threat.
Helen Thomas: There was no threat.
Scott McClellan: The President made the decision to confront the threat.
Helen Thomas: Saddam Hussein did not threaten this country.
Scott McClellan: The world -- the world, the Congress and the administration all disagree. They all recognized that there was a threat posed by Saddam Hussein. When it came to September 11th, that changed the equation. It taught us, as I said --
Helen Thomas: The Intelligence Committee said there was no threat.
Scott McClellan: As I said, it taught us that we must confront threats before it's too late.
Helen Thomas: So the President doesn't take full responsibility?
Scott McClellan: The President already talked about the responsibility for the decisions he's made. He talked about that with Prime Minister Blair.
Helen Thomas: Personal responsibility?
Scott McClellan: Terry, go ahead.
Helen Thomas used to ask questions in press briefings. Now she makes speeches. By Jack Shafer SLATE Posted Wednesday, March 12, 2003 http://slate.msn.com/id/2080034/
At his televised news conference last week, President George W. Bush deliberately snubbed several reporters he ordinarily calls upon, including journos from the Washington Post, Newsweek, and USA Today. But the most conspicuous recipient of the 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. freeze-out was longtime UPI reporter Helen Thomas, who has barbed and grilled every president since John F. Kennedy and almost always gets to ask a question. Bush pointedly ignored her.
Bush then dealt Thomas a second slight. By custom, Thomas concludes White House press conferences at the president's signal by saying, "Thank you, Mr. President." Bush denied her that supporting role, ending the conference with his own sign off, "Thank you for your questions," and flushing a decades-old White House custom.
Bush's slaps at Thomas are consistent with the psy-ops his information wranglers conduct day-in and day-out on the White House press corps. Bush's news conferences have become increasingly scripted, with the president calling on reporters from a preset list and refusing the follow-up questions that might trick him into saying something substantive. Press Secretary Ari Fleischer has lobotomized the White House press corps in official briefings by jawing more and more and saying less and less. (The smarter reporters play hooky these days rather than endure Fleischer obfuscations.) Last October, Fleischer maliciously tampered with the corps' self-esteem by reassigning seats in the briefing room. The new chart demoted scribes from Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report from the Park Place of the second row to the Siberia of the sixth. (Pressies live for their little perks, and the White House reporters revealed their Ted Baxterian pettiness for all to see when they bellyached about the reshuffle.)
But the reason behind Bush's double dissing of Thomas isn't directly related to his basic contempt for White House beat reporters. Bush ignored Helen Thomas because she is no longer the Helen Thomas of yesteryear, a deadline artist writing news for tens of millions of UPI readers. She left the waning wire in silent protest, after convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon's News World Communications rescued it from collapse in 2000, and took a job at the Hearst News Service. There, Helen Thomas the Pundit writes a sharply partisan syndicated White House column about what she thinks-as opposed to Helen Thomas the Reporter, who wrote about what she'd learned. How bad is the column? Only a couple of Hearst papers, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Houston Chronicle, publish her pieces with any regularity.
I dare say that if you were Bush or his handlers, you'd pass her over at a press conference, too. Her loathing for Bush is palpable. "This is the worst president ever," she told the Torrance, Calif., Daily Breeze in January. "He is the worst president in all of American history." Though Thomas never masked her crush on Democrats when she worked as a news writer, she comes completely out of the closet in her columns, ripping "Bush's headlong drive into war, his favor-the-rich economic policy and his campaign to put right-wing ideologues on the Supreme Court." As the child of Lebanese immigrants, Thomas knows exactly which religious button she's pushing when she repeatedly condemns Bush's plans for war on Iraq as a "crusade."
But Thomas' opinion columns are a model of restraint when compared with the snarky speeches she delivers in lieu of asking questions at White House briefings. In the past, Ari Fleischer usually gave Thomas first shot, and in recent weeks she rode a constant theme:
Thomas to Fleischer: Will you state for the record, for the
historical record, why [Bush] wants to bomb Iraqi people?
-March 5, 2003
Thomas to Fleischer: [W]hy is [Bush] going to bomb them? I
mean, how do you bomb people back to democracy? This is a question
of conquest. They didn't ask to be "liberated" by the
United States. This is our self-imposed political solution for
-Feb. 26, 2003
Thomas: At an earlier briefing, Ari, you said
that the president deplored the taking of innocent lives. Does
that apply to all innocent lives in the world?
Fleischer: Well, Helen-
Thomas: And I have a follow-up.
Fleischer: -I refer specifically to a horrible terrorist attack in Tel Aviv that killed scores and wounded hundreds. And the president, as he said in a statement yesterday, deplores in the strongest terms the taking of those lives and the wounding of those people, innocents in Israel.
Thomas: My follow-up is, why does he want to drop bombs on innocent Iraqis?
-Jan. 6, 2003
Thomas' talent for speechifying at news conferences dates to her career as a reporter. The day after the allies started bombing Iraq in 1991, President George H.W. Bush denounced Hussein's Scud attack against Israel in a news conference. Back then, Thomas had a very different idea of who qualified as an "innocent civilian."
Thomas: Mr. President, two days ago you launched a war,
and war is inherently a two-way street. Why should you be surprised
or outraged when there is an act of retaliation?
Bush I: Against a country that's innocent and is not involved in it? That's what I'm saying.
Thomas: Well ...
Bush I: Israel is not a participant. Israel is not a combatant, and this man has elected to a-to launch a terrorist attack against the population centers in Israel with no military-no military design whatsoever. And that's why. And it is an outrage and the whole world knows it and the whole world is-most of the countries of the world are speaking out against it. There can be no-no consideration of this in anything other than condemnation.
Bested by Bush, who was never particularly quick on his feet, Thomas changes the subject with a new speech.
Thomas: Why is it that any move for-move for peace
is considered an end run at the White House these days?
Bush I: Well, you-you obviously-what was the question? End run?
Thomas: Yes, that is considered an end run, that people who still want to find a peaceful solution seem to be running into a brick wall.
As someone practiced in the art of vitriol, I'd be the last to deny Thomas her right to extend a middle finger at the president. And as an 82-year-old, Thomas possesses more energy and exhibits a stronger work ethic than anybody on her beat. One reporter says she's the only person with any testosterone in the White House press room. She starts each day at 5:30 a.m., reading the newspapers at a coffee shop near the White House. She responds to e-mail and answers her own phone-although she's known to hang up quickly if she doesn't like the direction the conversation takes.
But she can't give Bush the what-for and expect the White House to treat her like the grande dame. And I don't think she does. For a crabby person with a big mouth, Thomas complains very rarely. When the Moon cult bought UPI, she left in protest but didn't trash the place on the way out. Nor has she griped about receiving Bush's cold shoulder. "That was his privilege, I guess," Thomas told the New York Observer. "I think he had a right to do that."
We could applaud her for stripping the varnish off standard-issue White House lies with her acerbic questions, but rarely are her questions tailored to produce an intelligent response from Fleischer. When you repeatedly ask the question, "Why does he want to drop bombs on innocent Iraqis?" you're mostly venting your spleen.
Not that Fleischer would give a useful answer to a direct question in any case. The same goes for his boss. White House briefings and presidential news conferences have become so ritualized and substanceless that many of the beat reporters have begun exhibiting all the classic symptoms of depression: guilt, worthlessness, pessimism, restlessness, and irritability.
While Bush dislikes Thomas, he and his news managers are still savvy enough to recognize her usefulness to the administration. When Fleischer changed the seating chart in the briefing room last year, he could have exiled Thomas to the back row. Instead, he kept her down front, where he uses her as his foil, addressing her liberally by first name so other White House officials reading the transcript can chuckle to themselves-We're safe! It's another question from that wacky Helen Thomas. When Fleischer calls on her, he hopes she'll heckle him and savage Bush with her eccentric, combative, accusatory, and unreasonably phrased questions-because they're so easily evaded. "We will temporarily suspend the Q & A portion of today's briefing to bring you this advocacy minute," Fleischer responded to a line of Thomas questioning at the Feb. 26 press briefing. The moment of comic relief lifts Fleischer and soils Thomas.
Which brings us to the saddest part of Thomas' decline: She often raises serious questions that are on lots of people's minds-questions that other critical journalists in the press corps might want to pose. But when spoken by Thomas' lecturing lips first, the questions sound absurd. She ends up taking the air out of the room for intelligent criticism of the president and helps make the press corps look like a Saturday Night Live skit. You can almost hear Fleischer squealing behind closed doors after the briefings: Thank God for Helen Thomas!
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