Helen Thomas, a fixture in the White House press corps spanning eleven presidential administrations, passed away this morning just shy of her 93rd birthday. Formal obituaries are appearing at places like the NYT, NPR, CBS, NBC and elsewhere, noting her role as a trailblazer for women journalists and her blunt style of questioning each of the presidents she covered. For me, though, it was her FDL Book Salon chat about Listen Up, Mr. President with co-author Craig Crawford that leaped immediately to mind.
Having watched Helen at press conferences for years as she asked questions, it was a decidedly odd (and decidedly delightful) experience to be able to ask her questions. A few selections from that book salon:
Demi: Question for Ms. Thomas: Just from watching press conferences and reading stories, it seemed that you and your tenacity for asking tough questions really irked President GW Bush and his spokespeople. When the cameras weren’t on, was your relationship with them pleasant, or were they just always rude?
Helen: I hope I do irritate them. Reporters — good ones, anyway — do not expect to be loved, or even liked. The Bush WH made it clear they weren’t pleased off or on air, and, as you probably know, often hesitated to call on me. But I kept reminding them, as I do all WH staffs, they are public servants. We the public pay their salaries.
* * *
Spocko: Why do you think that so many of the press responded positively to being insulted by the President [GW Bush]? Is it because of the male school boy code of “ranking” on the lesser members in the pack to show who has the highest status?
Helen: Reporters sometimes don’t understand their own legitimacy, and bow to power instead of speaking to power.
* * *
Cynthia Kouril: The thing that really stikes me about both books and about your in person comments is that somehow you seem to have avoided becoming jaded and cynical. After all your years in DC and all the demoralizing things you must have seen go down, you still seem to be such an idealist. How do you maintain that?
Helen: We live from to hope to hope, as Samuel Johnson said. I am a cynic with hope.
* * *
Perris: Helen, what do you think of obama’s opinion that “we need to look forward not backward” addressing the abuses of the previous administration
we know from Rumsfeld/Chaney’s previous escapades in the ford administration that if we allow the kind of deception they perpetrated back then to undermine Nixon’s détente then there is no reason they won’t do it time and again
do you think he really believes “looking forward” means not prosecuting the crimes that have passed?
Helen: It’s covering up the past. We must learn from our mistakes, no matter how painful.
I love the interactions at Book Salon chats, and I walked on air for a bit after this exchange:
Peterr: In your many years of covering the White House, what is the best way you’ve seen for ordinary folks to push the media to act in the interests of the general public when they seem to have cozied up a bit too much?
Helen: For starters, people should not get mad when reporters seem rude to politicians. Sometimes that’s the only way to get their attention, and get real answers. They have to be accountable, and they usually don’t to be.
Peterr: My problem with the reporters isn’t that they are too rude, but they aren’t persistent ENOUGH when confronted with stonewalling, for example. When a press spokesperson — or the President — responds to a difficult question by tossing out lots of bright shiny objects to distract folks from the fact that they didn’t actually answer the question, how can we encourage the media to say “Excuse me, but that didn’t address what you were asked. Would you like to try again?”
Is there any chance at all that a reporter at a presidential press conference would ever give up their own personal question by saying “Mr. President, I don’t think you answered what my colleague asked you a moment ago. Could you please answer *that* question?”?
Helen: Excellent point. It should happen more often, especially when follow-ups are barred. We can always hope.
Helen Thomas said I made an excellent point! (swoon)
The coverage of Thomas’ passing will no doubt be filled with words and phrases like “one of a kind” and “unique”. I have a sense, though, that Helen might note that there’s nothing to prevent other reporters from being persistent and asking difficult questions. Nothing would have pleased her more than to be one of a crowd of reporters like herself.
As she said to Cynthia, she was a “cynic with hope.” We sure could use a lot more cynics like that.
Rest in peace, Helen. You’ve earned it.
photo h/t to Brave New Films and used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0