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2004-04-08

Veteran White House Correspondent Helen Thomas On Bush and the State of the Media

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Max Cleland, Former Georgia senator. In 2002, he was appointed to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. In December 2003, he stepped down from the commission to become a member of the board of directors of the Export-Import Bank of the United States.

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Democracy Now! interviews veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas who says, "If we don’t have the courage to stand up and ask a question when we are so privileged, we have defaulted on our profession." Thomas has served as White House correspondent for some 57 years and has covered every President since Kennedy. [includes rush transcript]

On March 6, 2003, President Bush held only his second White House press conference since taking office 14 months earlier. The only previous press conference he had given was one month after 9/11 as the U.S. was beginning the so-called war on terrorism. This time, it was on the eve of the invasion of Iraq.

Although reiterating several times at the press conference that he had not made the decision to go to war, Bush repeatedly told reporters that Saddam Hussein possessed "weapons of mass terror" and that he posed a "direct threat" to the United States.

With the nation watching, the White House press corps assembled in the East Room lobbed softballs at Bush, refusing to challenge the president for his reasons to lead the country into an unprovoked and globally-opposed war.

New York Times White House correspondent Elizabeth Bumiller who was at the now-famous press conference responded to criticism that reporters were too easy on Bush. She was questioned at a forum on the press and the presidency. This is an excerpt of what she had to say:

  • Elizabth Bumiller, New York Times White House correspondent speaking on March 15 at a forum on the press and the presidency organized by Towson University and the University of California Washington Center with Towson University professor Martha Joynt Kumar.

To get a response on Bumiller’s eyebrow-raising comments, we called veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas. Commonly referred to as "The First Lady of the Press," Helen Thomas is the most senior member of the White House press corps. She has served as White House correspondent for United Press International for some 57 years and has covered every President since Kennedy.

President Gerald Ford once remarked, "If God created the Earth in six days, he couldn’t have rested on the seventh–he would have had to explain it Helen Thomas."

In response to Elizabeth Bumiller’s comments, last week I asked Helen Thomas about the state of the White House press corps today.

  • Helen Thomas, veteran White House correspondent.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!. I’m Amy Goodman. The war and peace report. For more than a year, people have been asking, Where is the independent press in this country? Where are the critical questions being asked of Donald Rumsfeld and General Colin Powell, George Bush and Condoleezza Rice? As people like the National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said, We don’t want the smoking gun to become a mushroom cloud, as they talked about the direct threat of Saddam Hussein. Where were the reporters asking for the evidence, and dissecting the information being presented. On March 6, 2003, right before the invasion, President Bush conducted just the second White House press conference since taking office 14 months earlier. The only previous news conference he had given was one month after 9-11, as the US was beginning the so-called War on Terror. This time, in March, it was on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. Although reiterating several times that the news conference that he had not made a decision to go to war, Bush repeatedly told reporters, Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass terror, and that he was a direct threat to the United States. With the nation watching, the White House press corps assembled in the East Room, lobbed softballs at Bush, refusing to challenge the president for his reasons to lead the country into war. New York Times White House correspondent Elizabeth Bumiller, who was at the now-famous news conference, responded to criticism that reporters were too easy on Bush. She was questioned recently at a forum on the press and the presidency, organized by Towsend University and the University of California Washington Center last month. This is an excerpt of what the New York Times reporter, Elizabeth Bumiller had to say.

ELIZABETH BUMILLER: I think we were very deferential, because in the East Room press conference, it’s live. It’s very intense. It’s frightening to stand up there. I mean, think about it. You are standing up on prime time live television, asking the president of the United States a question when the country is about to go to war. There was a very serious, somber tone that evening, and I think it made — and you know, nobody wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time. It had a very heavy feeling of history to it, that press conference.

AMY GOODMAN: New York Times White House correspondent Elizabeth Bumiller, speaking just a few weeks ago on the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. To get a response to Bumiller’s eyebrow-raising comments, we called veteran White House correspondent, Helen Thomas, commonly referred to as the first lady of the press. She is the most senior member of the White House press corps. She served as White House correspondent for United Press International for some 57 years, and has covered every president since John F. Kennedy. President Gerald Ford once remarked, quote, "If God created the Earth in six days, He couldn’t have rested on the seventh. He would have had to explain it to Helen Thomas." In response to Elizabeth Bumiller’s comments last week, I asked Helen Thomas about the state of the White House press corps today.

HELEN THOMAS: My answer to that is she is absolutely right. It is intimidating, but that’s when we should have had more courage. We should have definitely asked for motives for going to war, proof of weapons, and so forth. He should not have been given a free ride, because when you are going to war — war is killing and being killed. And if we don’t have the courage to stand up and ask a question when we are so privileged, we have defaulted on our profession.

AMY GOODMAN: You include yourself, but at that news conference, if I recall correctly, you were sidelined. You’re no longer welcoming the president. You didn’t even get a chance to ask a question.

HELEN THOMAS: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe what happened? We didn’t see you in the front row anymore?

HELEN THOMAS: Well, I am still in the front row. I have a front row seat at the briefings, but not at the news conference. The president is given a certain list of reporters to call on. Well, when I walked in to the room, I guess I was a little bit miffed to be put in the back, but at the same time, you know, as Elizabeth said, it is intimidating, so I said, well, I’ll relax and enjoy it. Maybe — and pray that the reporters will ask the tough questions that should be asked.

AMY GOODMAN: In a situation like that, if I recall correctly, Dana Milbank of the New York Times was also not able to ask a question. In a situation like that, where it has been tradition for you to ask questions, Helen Thomas, you have covered every president since John Kennedy — the reporters could have bucked the protocol, could have stopped you being iced out simply by saying, I defer to Helen Thomas. Isn’t that right?

HELEN THOMAS: Oh, no. You know what really happened. I had changed my position as a wire service reporter. Both UPI and AP used to get the first two questions at any formal news conference. It’s a tradition that goes back to FDR, and long before the advent of television. But I was no longer with UPI, so, I really didn’t deserve one of the front row questions at all. But it didn’t mat matter where I sat, it would have been nice to be called on. But it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the president did get a free ride that night, and it was a very, very important night. It was important to the American people it know why we were going to war. And my colleagues have been wonderful. I didn’t want to become a cause celeb, and I certainly didn’t want to be defended. I think I can hold my own.

AMY GOODMAN: Dana Milbank, I just want to correct, works for the Washington Post. Perhaps it had to do with the line of questioning that you were pursuing. I want to play for the listeners and viewers for a moment, your questioning. It was about a month and a half before, and it was then your confrontation, if you will, with White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer.

HELEN THOMAS: Ari, you said that the president deplored taking innocent lives. Does that apply to all innocent lives in the world? I have a follow-up.

ARI FLEISCHER: This refers specifically to a horrible terrorist attack in Tel Aviv that killed scores and wounded hundreds. The president said in a statement yesterday, he deplores in the strongest terms the taking of those lives and the wounding of those people, innocents in Israel.

HELEN THOMAS: My follow-up is why does he want to drop bombs on innocent Iraqis?

ARI FLEISCHER: Helen, the question is how to protect Americans and our allies and friends from a country —

HELEN THOMAS: Have they laid [ … ] on you and the United States in 11 years.

ARI FLEISCHER: I guess you have forgotten about the Americans killed in the first Gulf War and Saddam Hussein’s aggression then?

HELEN THOMAS: Is this your revenge, 11 years of revenge?

ARI FLEISCHER: Helen, I think you know very well the president’s position, he wants to avert war. The president has asked the United Nations to go into Iraq to help for the purpose of averting war.

HELEN THOMAS: He’s going to attack innocent Iraqi lives.

ARI FLEISCHER: The president wants to make certain that he can defend our country, defend our interests, defend the region and make certain that American lives are not lost. There’s no question that the president thinks that Iraq is a threat to the United States.

HELEN THOMAS: The Iraqi people?

ARI FLEISCHER: The Iraqi people are represented by their government. If there was regime change —

HELEN THOMAS: They’re vulnerable.

ARI FLEISCHER: Actually, the president has made it very clear he has no dispute with the people of Iraq. That’s why the American policy remains a policy of regime change. There’s no question that the people of Iraq —

HELEN THOMAS: That’s a decision for them to make, isn’t it? It’s their country.

ARI FLEISCHER: Helen, if you think that the people of Iraq are in a position to dictate who their dictator is, I don’t think that’s been what history has shown.

AMY GOODMAN: As you listened to that questioning, you did of then White House press secretary Ari Fleischer —

HELEN THOMAS: I wish I had thought of better answers. I think it’s Monday morning quarterbacking here.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you see your role as, as a reporter?

HELEN THOMAS: I’m a columnist now. I have so much more freedom to express my opinions and so forth. I do think we have to be constantly skeptical of what they’re dishing out these days and constantly questioning and putting them on the spot and making them explain, and of course, they don’t.

AMY GOODMAN: You wrote a piece today about two people who have spoken out from within the Bush administration, two career government officials, Richard Clarke, the former counter-terrorism chief, and another long-time civil servant, Richard Foster, the Medicare program’s chief actuary. Can you talk about the effect of their statements, and what they said and how it has changed the White House?

HELEN THOMAS: Well, I think that they’re circling the wagons. They definitely went on the defense. They pushed the panic button. They’re not — you know, everyone in this administration has been on board, with us or against us. There’s no room for devil’s advocate or dissenter. These breakthroughs were, I think, moments of truth, and refreshing, to put it mildly, and I think people have a right to know what they said. And they obviously are telling the truth, in my opinion.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the president, somewhat backing down on Condoleezza Rice saying now that she would be able to testify before the 9-11 commission?

HELEN THOMAS: He changes his mind a lot, depending on the atmosphere. That’s why I keep telling my colleagues, we should push for more news conferences, because eventually, every president has felt that pressure, not just President Bush, but all of them. None of them want to hold news conferences and be accountable to the American people. So, I you think that, sure, he changes his mind a lot.

AMY GOODMAN: President George W. Bush has held far fewer news conferences than any other president in recent history, including his father. When was the last time that you got to ask him a question?

HELEN THOMAS: Well, the last time that he held one was December 15, so that’s pretty bad. I forget — I think he had held one two months earlier — which I attended. So, anyway, it’s — it doesn’t matter whether I’m there or not. What matters is that he be quizzed.

AMY GOODMAN: How does President Bush compare to his father, compare to President Reagan, Carter, going right back to John Kennedy?

HELEN THOMAS: Compare in what way?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, compare in how — what it’s been like to cover them — cover their White Houses?

HELEN THOMAS: Much more secretive. The others were more free-wheeling. I mean, I think President Reagan was pretty detached, but people did have the feeling of morning in America and the Mr. Nice Guy and so forth. The others were — you know, they all keep us at arm’s length, no question about that. Except back in the early days, we used to do the Bataan Death Marches around the south lawn with President Johnson. He would let us hair down and tell us a lot that we didn’t expect to learn, personal, and what he was going through on the Vietnam War. But more and more presidents are more detached. They’re more encircled by their security. They’re more handled and they’re more wary, so, it is different. Except President Bush’s father used to drop in to the press room and chatter a lot, and he was a hale fellow in many ways. He didn’t — I don’t think he had the real barrier against the press, but he did — he and his wife did blame the media during his re-election campaign in 1992. They thought he had not been given a fair shake.

AMY GOODMAN: Is George Bush’s White House right now a White House under siege, or simply one in an election campaign?

HELEN THOMAS: Oh, I think they’re — it’s calculating every inch of the way, every minute, every day, all pointed toward the election. They’re not under siege, per se, but every new crisis that comes up, they obviously have war games and figure out what they’re going to say. Their spokesperson is on one page, never gets off the reservation, and has no running room. So everything is locked down.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the investigation going on at the White House of the leak, Joseph Wilson, the former acting ambassador in Iraq during the Persian Gulf War comes out and says that the Bush White House knew that Saddam Hussein had not bought uranium from Niger, and the response being, someone in the White House leaking that Joe Wilson’s wife was a CIA operative in retaliation. How has that affected the White House press corps, and what do you think that the White House press should do?

HELEN THOMAS: I’m going to be shocked when they come up with the answer, which everybody seems to know, at least I would say they would know. At least eight reporters know, and their bosses probably know. We’re all — you know, I don’t know personally. But it seems to me it’s an awfully long investigation for a very small matter, not in terms of the importance of the matter, but it shouldn’t be that difficult to track down if they want to.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you say that the press in this country has reached an all-time low, a kind of drumbeating for war leading up to the invasion.

HELEN THOMAS: Oh, I would never say that. There are always reporters who are driving, alert, waiting for the end, who have a lot of courage all over this country. No question about that. I do think that, of course, in wartime, there is a certain aura and atmosphere where you don’t really want to rock the boat too much, or hurt anyone.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you leave UPI, Helen Thomas?

HELEN THOMAS: Why did I leave? It was time to go.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the ownership change?

HELEN THOMAS: Well, that had something to do with it, obviously. I wish them well. I mean, I want us to have two wire services, at least, in this country. Monopolies are not good.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think is the most important issue right now to be pursued at the White House?

HELEN THOMAS: I think the war, the commitment of this country, people dying every day for us, and I would — maybe the American — you know, it’s kind of out of sight, out of mind. We don’t really see war, per se, as they do in Iraq, or maybe the Arab TV shows a little bit more of the horror of war. We have been pretty protected from that. We don’t see the body bags. We don’t see — we don’t go to the Honor Guard ceremonies. When you ask about Iraqi casualties, they say they don’t count. I would say, but you’re liberating them, I thought they did count. Well, the numbers don’t count, they say and so forth. I think that maybe war is not as important to some people, but I think it should be, because it’s our whole country’s commitment. It’s our honor.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that reporters in this country should treat the casualty counts of Iraqis any differently than they treat the casualty counts of people from the United States?

HELEN THOMAS: I’ll go with John Dunn, each man’s life diminishes us all. Everybody counts.

AMY GOODMAN: Your colleagues, Dan Rather, the day the bombs were falling on Iraq a year ago said, good morning, Baghdad. He also said on David Letterman, George Bush is the president wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where, and he will make the call. That was right after September 11, 2001. And Tom Brokaw, on the night of the bombs falling said, one of the things that we don’t want to do is to destroy the infrastructure of Iraq because in a few days, we’re going to own that country. Your response?

HELEN THOMAS: My response is they were being — you know, it’s my country, may she always be right but my country, right or wrong. And I think they were being patriotic. Or trying to be.

AMY GOODMAN: What does that mean when it comes to being a reporter?

HELEN THOMAS: I think it’s very difficult to break out of the mold, and know in the heat of the battle, I don’t think you really break loose from your own country, even if you think she’s wrong. I don’t think — maybe they thought she was right. I don’t know what was in their minds.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me read you something from the Columbia Journalism Review, "Tip of the Hat," its critique and analysis of the 2004 campaign coverage. It’s by Zachary Roth. He starts, "An extraordinary piece in the January 19th New Yorker, Ken Auletta explores the Bush administration’s deeply held conviction that the press is just another special interest group, not a champion of the public interest." What’s striking is the candid, on-the-record comments that he elicited from the administration top down. He leads off with an anecdote from a Crawford, Texas barbecue last August. "During a conversation with reporters, Bush explained, perhaps without intending to, why his White House often seems indifferent to the press. 'How do you know then what the public thinks?' a reporter asks, according to Bush aides and reporters who heard the exchange. Bush replied, ’You’re making a huge assumption that you represent what the public thinks.’" Another money-quote comes from chief of staff, Andy Card, who said, acidly, of the press, "They don’t represent the public more than any other people do. In our democracy, the people who represent the public stood for election." Bush has given far fewer press conferences in his tenure than any of his predecessors since the advent of television. He hasn’t given an in-depth interview to the New York Times since taking office and staffers boast of not answering reporters’ questions. He gets more gems out of Karl Rove, when says of Bush, he understands that the press’s job is not necessarily to report the news, it’s to get a headline or get a story that will make people pay attention to their magazine, newspaper, or television more. What’s unnerving about Rove’s comment, of course, is there’s obviously a grain of truth to it. Your response, Helen Thomas?

HELEN THOMAS: I think those are the most superficial comments have I ever heard about a democracy. We try to tell the people what they should know. We try to ferret out the secrets that are ultra-secret in this White House. We know that the people have a right to know and that you cannot have a democracy without an informed people. Their aim is to keep — to run the show as they would in their power-bound ways and try to deny the people their right to know. At some point, people will break loose. I think that we are absolutely essential. We are so necessary that you cannot have a democracy without a free press.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the angriest that you have gotten in the White House?

HELEN THOMAS: My diatribe there. What is the angriest? I’m just outraged at secrecy when I know that these are not secrets that should be kept from the people. I think that makes me the most unhappy. You know, these people are in power, and they can call the shots, and they can call the reporters. But what they have to do is to respect the people’s right to know, and we are there. We are representing the pipeline to the people. They can’t do without us. They need us.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that your heritage, being a Lebanese-American, has an impact on the way you view your job, your role as a reporter, especially now?

HELEN THOMAS: I think I’m an American. I think from the day I was born, I was so proud to know that I lived in a free country, and that my father didn’t miss the boat. Of course, I have certain cultural ties, and I guess I have a better understanding of the tragedy of the Middle East than a lot of people, because I’m really interested. But I don’t think it turns me off. I mean, wherever people suffer, I think reporters want to be there. We are so lucky, because being there is everything for a reporter. And caring.

AMY GOODMAN: What advice do you have for reporters coming to the White House as a person of great experience, having covered the White House for more than half a century?

HELEN THOMAS: I would say be challenging, be probing, be courteous, and understand that your mission is to find the truth wherever it leads you.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about when they say that kind of probing, the kind of aggressive questions that you might ask will cut off access?

HELEN THOMAS: I would say so what. There are other ways to go down. There are other roads.

AMY GOODMAN: Helen Thomas, I want to thank you very much for being with us.

HELEN THOMAS: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Helen Thomas, White House correspondent for over half a century. She is author of three books, her latest, "Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President — Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House", and "Front Row at the White House, My Life and Times." Helen Thomas resigned from UPI in 2000 when Reverend Sun Young Moon bought it. Reverend Moon also owns the Washington Times. Helen Thomas is now a columnist for Hearst news service. This is Democracy Now!.

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