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.