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In new book, White House reporter Helen Thomas calls Bush press secretaries 'robots' 'spouting nonsense'

Published: Thursday June 1, 2006

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In a RAW STORY exclusive excerpt from her new book, White House columnist Helen Thomas calls Bush press secretaries 'robots' 'spouting nonsense' and dubs Bush's press team 'Orwellian.' Thomas has covered the White House since 1960 and is now a columnist for Hearst. From pages 36-37 and 52-56 of Watchdogs of Democracy by Helen Thomas, which hits bookstores June 15.


For many reporters, the White House beat was nirvana--the top of the mark.

More than any president, we came to know and size up the press secretaries. My favorites had wit, warmth, and compassion, understanding that each--press secretary and reporter--had a role to play. The country was best served when the press secretary also understood he or she was dealing with the nation's business, operating as a publicist for the president. I have always thought that the job of White House press secretary is the toughest position after the presidency itself.

In fact, an impossible job might be a better description because the press secretary is caught between two worlds--an administration that wants to paint a rosy picture, no matter what the facts, and a skeptical, perhaps cynical press corps that is seeking truthful answers. Faced often with this dilemma and with job survival at stake, most press secretaries have opted for the political rule: to get along is to go along with whatever the president or his top aides want publicly said--whether it's right or wrong.

Unfortunately, too few who have served in that exalted office have risen to the occasion and been willing to defy the Oval Office in the interests of honesty. Integrity, credibility, perhaps a good conscience, and definitely a sense of humor are the qualities that make a great press secretary, in my opinion. That is why there have been so few.

The press secretaries I have observed over the years take the White House podium with the best of intentions, assuming they do not have a built-in hostility to the media after the long, hard road to the White House. I have even heard them say, "I will never lie to you." I smile when I hear that. I do believe, however, that some kept that promise, knowing how fast a lie can catch up to them, even defying presidents who wanted to shade the truth.

My criticism of the press secretaries in the Bush-2 administration is that they are robots parroting the party line, on message word for word. They are afraid to deviate even when they are spouting nonsense. They stay on one page, no matter what the question.

Pleasing their president too often means more to them than their questionable responsibility to the American people; to democracy itself. They define it as loyalty to the boss, but they owe a higher loyalty to the country, in my opinion. Dissembling and avoiding the truth does not engender trust or respect. It harms the nation.

I endeared myself to President Bush-2 and his press secretary when Bush dropped into the pressroom a couple of weeks after taking office in his first term. He dutifully went down the line of reporters in the front row, where I had retained my seat on the basis of seniority. They were the regulars for the national television networks and the wire services, Associated Press and Reuters. Each of those reporters asked about Bush's top-priority tax cuts.

When the new president got to me I asked, "Mr. President, why don't you respect the wall of separation of church and state?"

It was as if I had physically struck him.

He drew back and said, "I do," to which I responded, "If you did, you would not have a religious office in the White House. You are secular?"

"I am secular," he insisted.

A few hours later, I received a telephone call from Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, who said, "What's the idea of blindsiding the president?" I responded that I had asked a legitimate question.

I was soon to become persona non grata in the eyes of the Bush administration as I committed many more "heresies" with my questions, columns, and opinions.

Many who have served in the role of press secretary are true believers, of course--believers, that is, in the president and his course of action. But in the Bush-2 regime, it was a job requirement. Even though it was a prerequisite for the job, many should have been more troubled.

Such a man was Ari Fleischer, first press secretary to President Bush-2. His clone, Scott McClellan, was even more programmed, his answers even more automated. Fleischer started his job by saying he was an "advocate," but that in itself raised the question whether he could be fair and let the facts prevail. The question was answered in hundreds of his morning "gaggles" and afternoon televised briefings. Truth took a holiday.

The Bush-2 spokesmen were predictable and Orwellian. They lived in fear that there would be a news leak, which made Bush apoplectic, not the first president with such a reaction. Fleischer and McClellan marched in lockstep in the most secretive administration in modern history.

But even Fleischer realized he had overstepped his bounds when he told reporters that some in the White House were noting their comments and they should "watch what they say."

Reporters practically leaped out of their seats.

"What did you say?" they demanded in chorus. Looking abashed, he quickly left the podium.

Sometimes he was even laughed off the podium, but not often. Fleischer was articulate and had perfected the proverbial game of ducking and dodging when questions became too tough.

In the long run-up to the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003, Fleischer intoned repeatedly from the podium "9/11–Saddam Hussein," a significant staple dating back to World War II. Repetition is the key marker of falsehoods.

For months, Fleischer railed against Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction" following the lead of President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Shameless, deliberate misinformation was dispensed day after day to the American people that led to a war that Bush had wanted since the day he entered the White House.

In the epilogue to his book Taking Heat, Fleischer confessed casually, "We never did find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Although we found old artillery shells with traces of sarin gas and other chemicals, we have yet to discover any of the chemical or biological stockpiles we thought we would discover there. Yet, President Bush still won reelection."

Two American task forces, under David Kay and later Charles Duelfer, spent millions of dollars and months in Iraq and found no unconventional weapons. Their findings verified what the United Nations inspectors, headed by Hans Blix, had tried in vain to convey to the world.

"I said from the White House podium on many occasions that we knew Saddam Hussein possessed chemical weapons. I said we knew Saddam possessed biological weapons," Fleischer continued in his book.

Any remorse at the falsehoods? Hell, no. After blaming faulty intelligence and some other world leaders who thought Iraq possessed the doomsday weapons, Fleischer said, "The Bush administration may have been wrong about Saddam's capabilities, but we weren't wrong about his intentions."

Mind reader Fleischer said that Saddam was simply "biding his time" before confronting the West and Israel with the deadly weapons. Nice going, Ari. It certainly set the tone for press secretaries anointed to warm up the crowd for war.

Fleischer and McClellan obviously did not see themselves as public servants. Nor did they aspire to such a delusion. McClellan was unflappable in defending the indefensible at times. I am, however, critical of the media for taking too long to challenge the administration on the war, to ask the tough questions, to stop accepting at face value the administration's stands on war justification, human rights, and international cooperation, including violations of the Geneva Convention.

But, then, in bashing the press, I come down even harder on Congress--the people's representatives--who cared more about reelection than opposing the madness of an unprovoked war.

All this would be sophistry if it did not carry such a terrible human price. To dismiss months of deception with Fleischer's explanation is disgraceful.

There were other press secretaries and other spokespersons. I have mentioned only a few who stand out in my mind, for better or worse. Many of their names became household words, but I doubt few were able to fold their tents and silently steal away without feeling that somewhere along the way they could have done better.


Copyright © 2006 by Helen Thomas. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., NY. Thomas' book is available for pre-order at