Helen Thomas has the reputation among journalists for asking the uncomfortable question -- and fortunately for us, her target is the President of the United States. She has covered every White House administration since John F. Kennedy, becoming in 1960 the first female member of the White House press corps. While she wrote for the news service United Press International, Thomas' tenure was honored with the first question during White House briefings. In more recent years, her journalism has turned to commentaries in newspapers and books, her most recent being Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How it has Failed the Public (Scribner, 2006).
Thomas now prepares to cover her 10th administration, and, in a recent interview shortly before the inauguration, she reflected on the Bush administration and her hopes for her newest target: Barack Obama.
Today you attended the last press briefing of President Bush, and you weren't called on. If you had been called on, what would you have asked?
I was going to ask about Gaza and the very fact that he has played a big role in giving the Israelis F-16s, bombers, Apache gunships, cluster bombs, God knows what else, maybe phosphorous and so-forth, used on a helpless people. He complains about smuggling for the Palestinians -- we're doing wholesale weaponry to the Israelis to kill.
Was that addressed during the conference?
No. It was very nostalgic. I think the questions were good about how he felt about things and so forth, so it was very warm and sympathetic, and he had his say, which was very self-serving.
You have been among the throngs of people very critical of the White House press corps. Why do you say the press failed the public?
Because they did. They let this country go to war without asking why.
You had asked why and the answer wasn't really an answer, was it?
That's right. Because any reason they had was unacceptable, whether it's oil, or Daddy, or Israel, or whatever -- you don't give people's lives.
But there was a great deal of coverage over the buildup of the war, but it was seen by many in hindsight as toeing the administration's line. What stories would you have like to have seen covered that perhaps could have altered history in that sense?
I would like to have had the truth to see what was worth dying for. You don't take a country to war unless you have some good reason. Unless you're defending -- unless it's the truth. There were so many lies told. There were no weapons of mass destruction, no Iraqis in 9/11, no ties between Iraq and al Qaeda and the terrorist organization, so called. Everything was a falsehood. And everybody got away with it, and scared the hell out of the American people for how many years now? Since 2003. Thousands and thousands and thousands are dead.
Could the media have altered that?
Absolutely. The media is very powerful if they come out with the truth and let people know. Outrage the people. You have to have a reason to go to war, to kill 10,000 [people] miles away, who you don't know, who have done nothing to you.
You covered the Kennedy administration and every administration since then, and we had wars during that period as well. How is this different?
I would never justify the Vietnam War. I was against it every inch of the way. And also I think President Kennedy was right to turn around and not invade Cuba during the Bay of Pigs. I also think that he played his cards right, along with Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader. Both had known war. Both knew to step back and be statesmen instead and save the world. Each had nuclear arsenals and could have blown us all up.
The coverage then was much more hardcore. What the media was covering back then, leading up to the Vietnam War and the Cold War -- it was much more of a watchdog role than it is today. Can you compare the situation, the way the media reacted, and why is there that difference?
Sept. 11 scared the hell out of everybody. Reporters didn't want to be called un-American and unpatriotic and so forth. So you had to go along with what the administration was saying -- and don't even question the patriotism. Don't question if it's really true. Don't ask for an exhibition of the arms that they said they had.
You've been the target of that. In questioning Bush's intentions in going to war you've been labeled anti-American and biased. You've questioned Israel's actions against Palestinians and you've been called anti-Israel. Recently, you questioned the policies in Iraq and you were accused of denigrating the military. Isn't that always the price of asking the uncomfortable question, or is this something different?
Well, I do write an opinion column, so I probably wouldn't ask it the same way if I was still working for a wire service. But I do have an opinion and I'm allowed to have it.
But do those kinds of labels really have a stifling effect on the media?
I think it's really bad to call somebody a name because you don't agree with them. But that has become our way of life. If you don't believe in what you're saying, then you cave to that kind of attack. I've been called Hezbollah and everything else. I don't say it doesn't affect me, but I must say I don't retreat. Why should I? I have a right to my opinion in this country.
Looking back over the past eight years under the Bush administration, what do you think are the biggest botched stories? What did the media miss and do wrong?
I think the media retreated. They should have fought the administration which locked them out of any photographs of coffins and the war itself. They submitted meekly, totally, to everything that was really happening abroad. They tried to act like it wasn't happening at all. People were unaware of what we did in Iraq. We destroyed a country.
Your parents were immigrants from Syria, and you've written about your own experience as a youth dealing with prejudice and bigotry. I wonder how that shaped your viewpoint in the aftermath of 9/11, when Arab-Americans were being targeted for investigations, interrogation, and arrest?
I think that my background -- obviously, I'm much more interested than the average person on what goes on in the Middle East, but I can assure you that I was born here, I grew up on the whole idea of what it means to be an American, and I believe in the Bill of Rights, and I believe in fighting against injustice across the board.
One of the biggest stories of 2008 was the politicizing of the Justice Department, which resulted ultimately in the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. President-elect Obama has now nominated former deputy attorney general Eric Holder to the position, but he comes with a familiar controversy in that, in 1999, Holder is accused of pushing subordinates to drop their opposition to clemency to members of a Puerto Rican terrorist organization. What's your assessment of this appointment?
I think he'll be a good attorney general. I think he has a good sense of honor and law. Obviously everybody is going to be fought. The Republicans are gearing up to make trouble. They don't have the power, but they can do it. Gonzales was probably just awful. I mean, torture? Secret prisons? And all the Justice Department people, not all, but many approved of such a horror. The way he hung that albatross around the neck of every American: secret prisons, torture, waterboarding.
What have Obama's appointments told you, with all your years of experience, about what the tone is for this administration?
Not going to be bold. He's going to walk down the middle line. He's going to be as careful and cautious as he was in the campaign. He's going to try to be all things to everyone, and he doesn't understand, he needs courage.... The whole idea is that people want him, but they want him to do the right thing. And he has the possibility, he has so much power in this presidency to do the right thing. He should not compromise and he should not keep his promises to his big donors.
You mentioned earlier about Gaza. Obama has said that there's only one president at a time...
Oh, bull. Why didn't he say that during the campaign? He sure has been silent. You're never silent when people are being slaughtered.
What's the first question you're going to ask President Obama?
Well, I think he'll be asked many questions about the economy, and I would say how soon is he going to stop the killing across the world that we're involved in? I think that his answer will be very cautious, that we're trying and so forth. We plan to get out of Iraq in 16 months and I'll tell him why not now. If you know you're leaving, then get out.
What do you think are the major stories that the media needs to jump on in the coming years?
I think they will jump on the economy, what's being done. So many people are suffering in this country. But I think we'll be able to test him in many ways in terms of what he does in foreign policy. If he's going to run scared, and follow Bush's model, we're in trouble.
The relationship between the Bush administration and the press has certainly been strained. Is that the way business is going to be done from here on out? Are we every going to see it go back to the Fourth Estate that the media once was?
I think so. It's possible. I think the press is going to be very kind to [Obama]. So that's good. But I don't think they should be easy on him.
Is it good to be kind to the president?
No. I mean, you can be civil and you should be polite. You have one chance in the barrel. It's a privilege to ask the president a question, and he should take the question. And the question should be important to everybody in the world.
You've been doing this for nearly 50 years now. Why is it important for you to continue working into what will be your 10th administration?
For one thing, it's important for me to keep learning. There's nothing that can replace being there and asking the questions I know should be asked.
If you don't ask those questions, who will?
There's nobody around now. I'm looking. When I was going back and forth with [Bush White House press secretary] Dana Perino, and she said they killed people, they did this and that, and I said, 'So do we.' When it was over, I stood up and I said, "Where is everybody?" And this was on an open mic. There was silence in the press room. And then when I went back to my office, I got many calls and they said, "We're here. We're here."
But you don't see, then, the people who are ready to step up.
They perhaps don't have my causes. And my causes are peace, helping people, help the poor, the sick, the maimed. What other purpose should we have? Why should we help bankers who are multi-millionaires, and not help people who are hungry and need shelter? I don't understand why this wouldn't be of interest to everyone.
Do you have high hopes for the media or are you concerned for its wellbeing?
I have very high hopes for them, but I know that everyone's under the gun, in the sense that they don't have a job. Lots of jobs have been lost and newspapers are folding, so I can't ask others to do what I might not do. The point is that a lot of the publishers are selling their papers because they're not making a 25 percent profit, and they have never made that kind of money. If you were a publisher, newspapers used to be your contribution to the community. Usually you made your money in other fields.
I think we've lost it because it got to Wall Street, and Wall Street doesn't know or care anything about our right to know. You can't have a democracy without an informed people and that's where it comes from: newspapers. But I don't think those who buy up newspapers care particularly anymore [about] keeping the people informed. They care about their pockets.
What do you think, then, about the internet media, where you have a much more free and open source of information?
I don't want everyone with a laptop thinking they're a journalist, when they don't have any of our standards or principles, or the sense that you give everyone a chance. And you can ruin lives, ruin reputations. You have a lot of freedom to say anything. At a newspaper at least, you have editors, you have people knowing you have to toe the line, you have to be honorable.