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Honoring Helen Thomas
Eric Brewer
Published: Monday August 4, 2008

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Helen Thomas, the grande dame of the White House press corps, turns 88 today. That's cause for celebration. But sadly, the woman who got her first reporting job four years before the current president was born — and who has been performing enhanced interrogations on him and his press secretaries for the last seven years — has not yet reappeared in the briefing room since she became ill in May. On July 17, Ann Compton, president of the White House Correspondents Association, reported that Helen had been released from the hospital and was building up her strength for her return to work. For the sake of the country, let's hope that happens soon.

Born in Kentucky, Helen was raised in Detroit by illiterate parents who had immigrated from Tripoli, in what is now Lebanon. As she explained in a recent interview on the Australian TV talk show Enough Rope, her parents had originally considered themselves Syrian, but their hometown ended up as part of Lebanon when Britain and France divvied up the Middle East after World War I. In that same interview, Helen said that she caught the reporting bug after one of her high school English compositions was printed in the paper. She joined her high school newspaper and found that the sight of her byline was such an ego boost that she exclaimed, "My God, this is it!" "Fame at last," she joked to the show host.

Helen graduated from Wayne State University in 1942, came to Washington, looked for work at newspapers, but ended up taking a job as a hostess in a restaurant. That didn't work out so well, she says, because she didn't smile enough. She was about to be fired from the restaurant when a job as a copyboy for the old Washington Daily News opened up. She was soon promoted to cub reporter and has never looked back. By 1961, as John Kennedy was taking office, she had worked her way up to being UPI's White House correspondent. She has covered every President since—a total of nine administrations.

Helen may be most famous for her Watergate-era stories based on information she received in middle-of-the-night phone calls from Martha Mitchell, wife of Nixon's Attorney General John Mitchell. On August 26, 1973, Thomas reported that Martha told her that she had seen a Nixon campaign strategy book that included plans for Watergate-style operations.

In my three years of attending White House briefings, I've had the privilege of seeing Helen in action as she deals almost single-handedly with the most secretive and deceptive administration ever. One of my favorite exchanges of hers was this one she had with Scott McClellan on February 9, 2006:

HELEN THOMAS: Why did you go into Iraq?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the President is --

HELEN THOMAS: There were no terrorists.

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not trying to relitigate what we've -- the decisions that were already made.


I was also there on March 21, 2006, when Bush called on her for the first time in three years. She prefaced her question with the warning, "You're going to be sorry," and then asked him what his "real reason" was for going to war in Iraq. He hasn't called on her since. One reporter caught a glimpse of the seating chart they gave Bush for a press conference, and there was a big black X through Helen's seat.

Helen's combative style has been criticized by both right-wingers and the mainstream media (I know, hard to tell the difference sometimes). Slate's media critic Jack Shafer, for example, complained that Helen doesn't ask questions, she gives speeches, and that "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." But in the same piece, Shafer admits that the Bush administration's contempt for and stonewalling of the press is the real problem: "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)." So if the "smarter reporters" have given up, who's going to provide that "intelligent criticism of the president" that Shafer bemoans the lack of? And anyway, in my book Helen Thomas is smarter than all of them.

On April 30 of this year, I sat next to Helen at a briefing at which current Press Secretary Dana Perino ignored me, as she usually does, until Les Kinsolving of World Net Daily publicly shamed her into letting me ask a question. Afterwards, Helen and I talked for a while about the critical state of adversarial journalism in the Bush era. Helen advised me not to give up—to keep coming to briefings, keep trying to be heard.

Shortly thereafter, Helen became ill and stopped showing up in the briefing room. After a month or so, desperate to ask a question about the President's involvement in the Pentagon's military analyst scandal, and not knowing that "it’s the only seat that traditionally is left vacant if unoccupied," I dared to sit in Helen's front row seat a few times, hoping it would improve my chances of getting called on. The strategy worked, but the last time I employed it, two establishment reporters, one from CBS Radio and one from the AP, came up to me afterwards and told me that I shouldn't sit in Helen's chair. They said that White House journalists have honored her by letting her keep her seat in the middle of the front row, even though she's now an opinion writer and no longer a straight news journalist. They also said that it was especially important to honor her by not usurping her seat during her illness. One of the guys appeared to be livid with anger. The other just sneered in contempt. I consulted with Ann Compton, President of the WHCA, and she endorsed her colleagues' opinion that it was disrespectful of me to sit in Helen's seat. I asked Ann for advice on how to get heard, and she suggested that I submit the topic I want to ask about to Ms. Perino in advance of the briefings, presumably to allow the press secretary to assure herself that my question won't be too hard to answer.

I don't know. I think that continuing to ask the White House tough and surprising questions is a better way to honor Helen Thomas. But I also know that Helen is very proud of her position in the front row at the White House. So I'm going to hold off unless Helen tells me it's OK with her. For now, I just hope that she's feeling better and back in the briefing room soon.

The preceding article was a White House report from Eric Brewer, who will periodically attend White House press briefings for Raw Story. Brewer is also a contributor at BTC News. He was the first reporter to ask about the Downing Street memo and the Pentagon analysts scandal at White House briefings.