A hack rises.

By

Last April, when comedian Stephen Colbert appeared before the White
House Correspondents' Association dinner and memorably lacerated the
assembled reporters for having spent much of the last five years as
lazy courtiers for the Bush administration, he exempted one person
from his barbs: Helen Thomas, the 85-year-old columnist for Hearst
Newspapers. Indeed, Colbert's performance ended with a videotaped
segment portraying him as the White House press secretary,
relentlessly pursued by a dogged Thomas, who drove him into a panic
with her insistent demands that he explain why the country went to
war with Iraq. What had begun as an indictment of press
capitulation ended as a tribute to the will and integrity of
journalism's grand old dame. As the video ended, Colbert extended
his arm toward its heroine, who was sitting at the head table near
President Bush, and declared, to thunderous applause, "Helen
Thomas, ladies and gentlemen."Once the epitome of a wire-service stenographer, Thomas has, over
the past several years, emerged as the liberal journalistic icon of
the Bush era. Her fame derives in part from customs that have
arisen thanks to her longevity: For press briefings, she has a
permanent seat in the front row and is alone in having her own name
engraved on it. (Her colleagues' chairs all bear the names of their
respective news outlets.) For years, she has, as a courtesy, been
allowed to ask the first question. Of late, she has added to her
image as doyenne of a bygone age by asking exceptionally combative
questions of Bush and his interlocutors. "My point," she asked with
typical bluntness in the run-up to the Iraq war, "is, why is the
president going through this charade of diplomacy when he obviously
plans to go to war?"

This unique combination of staying power and anti-Bush
obstreperousness has made Thomas a hero to the left. Her advanced
age, diminutive proportions, gnarled features, and scraggly voice
suggest a Yoda-like mien, adding to her aura of wisdom and
integrity. "Aged, frumpy, a bit grumpy, Thomas is a throwback in
this telegenic age, an unglamorous reminder of a more civic era,"
wrote James Wolcott in Vanity Fair. Novelist Dermot McEvoy seconded
the "throwback" idea, declaring her "a throwback to the time when
Edward R. Murrow, I.F. Stone, and Jack Anderson were feared as
purveyors of truth by the powers that be." It's a mantle Thomas has
been more than happy to wear. In her new book, Watchdogs of
Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed
the Public, she casts herself as the sole voice of skepticism among
her supine colleagues in the press corps.

The Helen Thomas of the liberal imagination is, alas, a largely
mythical creation--and a convenient one for the administration she
supposedly terrorizes. To begin with, she is a bizarre choice for
heir to the liberal muckraking tradition. McEvoy's encomium
notwithstanding, Thomas bears little resemblance to journalistic
crusaders like Murrow, Stone, and Anderson. None of them were
members of the White House press corps--which makes sense, given
that it is not a natural launching pad for muckrakers. Despite its
superficial glamour, the beat holds limited interest for most
reporters. Lucky White House correspondents can--or, at least, used
to be able to--pal around with the president and his top aides and
circulate among the capital's social elite. But the job consists
largely of writing down whatever the White House has to say on a
given subject, with limited opportunities for original reporting or
fresh writing. White House reporters often joke that their trips
accompanying the president amount to a "body watch"--i.e., their
primary role is to be present in the unlikely event that the chief
executive suddenly drops dead. Due to the limited nature of the
job, leading newspapers tend to cycle reporters-- especially valued
ones--off the beat after just a few years.

Thomas made her name, in other words, simply by staying in the same
gruntwork job far longer than any of her colleagues could bear. She
started on the beat in 1960; stories describing her as the dean of
the White House press corps can be found as early as 1979. At some
point, through sheer force of longevity, she became etched into the
Washington landscape. If you made a movie about the White House,
you needed a Helen Thomas cameo. (She played herself in Dave and
The American President, and also in a humorous sketch made by
President Clinton's staff for the 2000 White House Correspondents'
Association dinner.) In recent years, she has begun collecting
awards at a breathtaking pace: More than 30 honorary degrees, the
Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award from the White House
Correspondents' Association, the International Women's Media
Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Press
Foundation Kiplinger Distinguished Contributions to Journalism
Award, and the Glamour Woman of the Year Award, among many others.

The odd thing about her awards and citations is that they almost
never mention any specific contributions she has made to journalism
save for being female and, well, old. The usual path to
journalistic fame, other than appearing regularly on television, is
to break a major story--Ida Tarbell and Standard Oil, Bob Woodward
and Watergate, et cetera. But Thomas has no connection to any such
body of work. She has never had a big scoop or been a finalist for
a Pulitzer Prize. Indeed, of the many people who recognize Helen
Thomas, it's unlikely that one in 100 can recall a single article
she has ever written. She was simply there, a fact made evident in
her previous books, Front Row at the White House; Thanks for the
Memories, Mr. President; and Dateline: White House, all of which
reflect little more than an insider's nostalgic congeniality.

Thomas's new book delicately attempts to reconcile her old role as
Washington institution and her current role as crusading outsider.
Her basic argument is that the young whippersnappers in the press
corps don't ask tough questions the way the old-timers used to. "I
believe the journalists of the past," she writes, "were more
dedicated to the profession than those now." The new generation
lacks "historical perspective on government deception and folly."

Uncomfortably for her thesis, she spends much of the book
reminiscing fondly about the old days when presidents slapped backs
and threw down drinks with the ink-stained wretches covering them.
Thomas presents the Kennedy years--during which, she writes, "The
atmosphere [between Kennedy and the press] was chummy"-- as a
golden age of journalism.

The more Thomas reveals about how things worked in her salad days,
the worse her argument looks. She recounts how, at one point, she
wrote a sympathetic story about Lyndon Johnson's regular visits
with his aged cousin. Johnson's press secretary, naturally, was
delighted--seeing the piece as a paean to the president's "rough,
but somehow tender, sensitivity to the loneliness of an elderly
widow" and predicting it would win him millions of votes. Alas, LBJ
took inexplicable offense. So, recalls Thomas, "He stopped `wining
and dining' me. He no longer invited me to the ranch, and he no
longer considered me the friend he once did." All this in
retaliation for her attempt to write a puff piece! Explain to us
again how journalists were tougher back then?

It is true that Thomas has always been known as an aggressive
questioner of presidents and their flacks--especially Republican
presidents, who especially offend her (obviously liberal)
sensibilities. But a turning point in her role took place in 2000,
when she quit her beat at United Press International and started a
column with Hearst Newspapers. Liberated from the constraints of
objectivity, her tough questions increasingly devolved into unhinged
rants.

Her emergence as a liberal icon can be dated to the night of March
6, 2003, when President Bush committed the crime of failing to call
on her at a press conference. Washington gasped at the shocking
snub. It was "the first time anyone can remember her being
stiffed," wrote Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz.
Liberals rose up in outrage, the hack now a martyr at the hands of
Bush. "President Bush broke a 43-year tradition by failing to call
on Helen Thomas," complained Molly Ivins. "Afraid to take a
question from an 82-year-old woman?"

The reality is that, of all the indignities the Bush administration
has inflicted upon the media, Bush's slighting of Thomas is by far
the most justifiable. She is, after all, now a columnist, and
columnists do not typically get to ask questions at White House
press conferences. More importantly, her questions are as wildly
inappropriate for the forum of a press conference as they are
ineffective. It is hard to imagine what admissions could be
extracted from questions like, "Does the president think that the
Palestinians have a right to resist 35 years of brutal occupation?"
Or lectures like, "Why are we killing people in Iraq? Men, women,
and children are being killed there. I mean, what is the reason we
are there, killing people, continuing? It's outrageous."

At the historic occasion of the first press conference of Bush's
first term, Thomas took the opportunity to ask: "Mr. President, why
do you refuse to respect the wall between the church and state? And
you know that the mixing of religion and government for centuries
has led to slaughter. I mean, the very fact that a country has
stood in good stead by having a separation--why do you break it
down?" Amazingly, this subtle line of inquiry did not force Bush to
confess his goal of an American theocracy.

Thomas's fans believe the administration is terrified of her. ("Her
questions are so tough that the current administration ignores her,"
wrote a New York Times society reporter.) In fact, the behavior of
Bush and his spokesmen suggests that they are grateful for her
presence. Fox News often broadcasts her exchanges with the press
secretary to bolster its claim that the mainstream press has an
anti-Bush bias. As Brit Hume introduced one such clip, "Stay tuned
for a look at the dean of the White House press corps in action."
Bill O'Reilly, in one of his many diatribes against Thomas,
declared, "There are ideologues among [the White House press corps]
like Helen Thomas--people who are not looking out for the folks,
but who are pushing a political point of view." Former White House
Press Secretary Ari Fleischer's memoir devotes more space by an
order of magnitude to Thomas than to any other reporter, and it
spends the better part of a chapter reproducing her diatribes at
length.

As GOP Representative Peter King summed it up recently, "I that
think Helen Thomas was [Bush's] best weapon. I think it's important
for the American people to see that--to see that there's this
built-in, almost subconscious or unconscious bias that so many in
the White House press corps have against the president."

Thomas's relationship with the Bush administration, in other words,
is a symbiotic one, in which both sides have an incentive to play
up her role--she, so that she can posture as a crusading icon;
they, so they can smear the entire press corps as ideologically
biased. Stephen Colbert may imagine the White House press
secretaries fleeing in panic at the sight of Thomas. But maybe
there's a reason they seat her in the front row.

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