served as White House correspondent for United Press International for almost 60 years and has covered every president since Kennedy. She is the most senior member of the White House Press Corps and is commonly referred to as "The First Lady of the Press."
Commonly referred to as "The First Lady of the Press," Helen Thomas is the most senior member of the White House Press Corps and has covered every president since Kennedy. Democracy Now! interviewed Thomas last week at the National Conference for Media Reform. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: One of the other featured speakers was veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas. Commonly referred to as the "First Lady of the Press," Thomas is the most senior member of the White House Press Corps, has covered every president since John F. Kennedy. Thomas has been a leading critic of the Bush administration and of the Press Corps during the lead-up to the Iraq invasion. Her new book is called Watchdogs of Democracy?: The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public.
Well, on March 21, 2006, Thomas was called upon directly by President Bush for the first time at one of his news conferences in three years. Thomas asked him about Iraq.
HELEN THOMAS: I’d like to ask you, Mr. President, your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is: Why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, from your Cabinet — your Cabinet officers, intelligence people, and so forth — what was your real reason? You have said it wasn’t oil — quest for oil. It hasn’t been Israel, or anything else. What was it?
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I think your premise, in all due respect to your question and to you as a lifelong journalist, is that, you know, I didn’t want war. To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect —
HELEN THOMAS: Everything —
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Hold on for a second, please.
HELEN THOMAS: —- everything I’ve heard -—
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Excuse me, excuse me. No president wants war. Everything you may have heard is that, but it’s just simply not true. My attitude about the defense of this country changed on September the 11th. We — when we got attacked, I vowed then and there to use every asset at my disposal to protect the American people. Our foreign policy changed on that day, Helen. You know, we used to think we were secure because of oceans and previous diplomacy, but we realized on September the 11th, 2001, that killers could destroy innocent life. And I’m never going to forget it. And I’m never going to forget the vow I made to the American people that we will do everything in our power to protect our people.
Part of that meant to make sure that we didn’t allow people to provide safe haven to an enemy. And that’s why I went into Iraq —- hold on for a second -—
HELEN THOMAS: They didn’t do anything to you or to our country.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Look —- excuse me for a second, please. Excuse me for a second. They did. The Taliban provided safe haven for al-Qaeda. That’s where al-Qaeda trained -—
HELEN THOMAS: I’m talking about Iraq —
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Helen, excuse me. That’s where —
AMY GOODMAN: And so it went. President Bush being questioned by Helen Thomas at the news conference last March. Well, Democracy Now! caught up with Helen Thomas at the Media Reform Conference in Memphis. I began by asking her about President Bush’s recent prime-time address to the nation from the White House library, where he vowed to send more troops to Iraq.
HELEN THOMAS: Well, I don’t think I’ll be unique in saying it escalates the war, obviously. I mean, to send more troops in is a debacle. Last year, they were talking about drawing down. I just think it’s a tragedy.
AMY GOODMAN: Condoleezza Rice said it’s not an escalation; it’s an "augmentation."
HELEN THOMAS: Euphemisms have marked this administration. They’re great at it. Nothing is real.
AMY GOODMAN: You have covered many presidents, and you have covered a number of wars.
HELEN THOMAS: On the sidelines. I haven’t been to war itself.
AMY GOODMAN: Administration policy, from the White House perspective, from Washington.
HELEN THOMAS: Washington, right. So I don’t feel very brave about it.
AMY GOODMAN: But how does this compare? Does it bring back any memories of other wars?
HELEN THOMAS: It’s deja-vu all over again with Vietnam, except the difference is our passive society. At least during Vietnam, they hit the streets. The people hit the streets finally, when they realized there had been deception, and it was a no-go. Too many — we were killing people 10,000 miles away, and the reason could not be explained, except the domino theory, which was fading. In this case, I think that because every home isn’t really affected, you don’t have that same kind of — but I’ll tell you this. I do think that the president’s speech was a turning point. All the broadcasters, mainstream, were calling it the last chance. I call it merely — I don’t think the president expected that the people, the polls, Congress, would line up against it as they have. And it’s a groundswell, really. It’s a big change.
AMY GOODMAN: You talked about euphemisms. What about the word "surge"? The word "surge"?
HELEN THOMAS: I never have used it. I have never used it in my copy. "Escalation" is more a propos.
AMY GOODMAN: Also in that library address — and actually, before I ask you the question, I want to ask, what about his going to the White House library? What is the significance of this?
HELEN THOMAS: I don’t know. I think that they’re staging for all presidential addresses. They try to think, "What will project?" And I think what they were trying to project is this is a man who is intellectual, he reads, and so forth. What do books personify? But I think that was the message, that he does read Shakespeare, Camus, whatever. But does anything get home?
AMY GOODMAN: Your last question to President Bush was — wasn’t it more than a half a year ago?
HELEN THOMAS: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: March, maybe?
HELEN THOMAS: March.
AMY GOODMAN: Of 2006.
HELEN THOMAS: It’s almost a year.
AMY GOODMAN: And you asked about his real reason for going to war. Can you repeat the question and why you asked it, and respond to his response?
HELEN THOMAS: Sure. I think the astounding thing, if you were in a room with many people and you went to 10 people and asked them why we’re in this war, you would get 10 different answers, and that’s no way to go to war. So I asked the president, what is the real reason, when every reason turned out to be untrue? Weapons of mass destruction, no. Ties to al-Qaeda, no. A threat from a Third World country, no, to the world’s only military superpower. So I asked him, what was his real reason? And then he said the Taliban. I said, "I’m talking about Iraq, Mr. President." Then he said 9/11. I said, "But the Iraqis had nothing to do with 9/11." And on it went.
The thing is, I certainly didn’t get a clear-cut answer. It isn’t for me. It’s for the world. It’s for the country. Why are you being asked to die? What is the valid reason? There are reasons. We have been in wars that I think people feel were — it was the right cause. Certainly World War II. But to send people to war, and under what pretenses now? Now, it’s nuclear war, I think, in terms of Iran.
AMY GOODMAN: In fact, on the issue of Iran, that was a key part of President Bush’s library speech, was being extremely aggressive about Iran and Syria. Can you talk about that?
HELEN THOMAS: Well, I think that he certainly should talk to them, as the Iraq Study Group said, and I think we should keep talking. Jaw-jaw, not war-war. This is what Churchill said. No, I mean, why would you not talk? Why would you not use every resource, every resort to keep from war, keep from killing?
AMY GOODMAN: Well, why do you think he would not use every possible option before war?
HELEN THOMAS: I think he still thinks that he can call the shots, in terms of preemptive war and our power. Somebody seems to have — or he has convinced himself that he really — that it’s his legacy to go down in history as having saved the world. Well, I think that won’t be his legacy. Also, he’s identifying with Truman, very courageous moves. But he’s out there alone. It’s lonely at the top, and I think he doesn’t realize — I’m sure he must be quite shocked — maybe I’m wrong — at the opposition that he’s facing now from all sides. The polls, the people, the Congress, congressional leaders he would automatically expect to be with him. There are a handful of Republican leaders who are with him, but they don’t seem as enthusiastic as they have been in the past. I mean, there’s McCain, there’s Lindsey Graham and a few others, Lieberman, who’s independent.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of his rejection of the Baker Iraq Study Group and the significance of who Baker is in George Bush’s world — George W. Bush?
HELEN THOMAS: Well, he certainly represented the president’s father’s realm, and he certainly is a man who has experience as a politician. He was secretary of state, he was secretary of treasury, and so forth. I think he was sent in, really, basically, by at least his father’s friends to see if there could be some sort of last chance to pull the president out of this hole. And he slammed the door.
AMY GOODMAN: What was President Bush, George W. Bush, what was the message he was sending back to his dad?
HELEN THOMAS: Well, he would deny any message. I mean, publicly, he always wholeheartedly supports his son, and that’s about as natural as there can ever be. You always do that. That’s family. But I think — and I have not spoken to him. I don’t think he wants to speak to me either. But I just have an idea that the way he ran things, of course, was totally different, and I think he knows in his heart — has got to know — that this is wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ll return to my interview with veteran White House correspondent, Helen Thomas, in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to veteran White House correspondent, Helen Thomas, who has covered the White House for, well, more than 57 years. I was interviewing her at the National Conference For Media Reform in Memphis, Tennessee.
AMY GOODMAN: Helen Thomas, former President Jimmy Carter just wrote a new book called Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid. Can you talk about the significance of this book and also the reaction to it? You covered Jimmy Carter as president.
HELEN THOMAS: I did. And I think he’s certainly — President Carter, I believe he has credibility. He has faith in humanity. He’s trying to do the right thing. He’s trying to tell the other side of the story, and I don’t think the Palestinian side has ever been told in a way that people might accept it. So I think he’s done a good thing. I think, obviously, the reaction to the book by the Israelis — some Israelis, but probably not all, is that’s understandable. But he’s out there. It’s open for debate, and I think he started a good trend.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you think the Palestinian story should be told for people in this country?
HELEN THOMAS: Truthfully, from the beginning. If you were a Palestinian — and they were 85 percent in the majority, when the British decided that that could be the Jewish homeland — I mean, what would you think? Americans have to put themselves in other people’s positions. Put yourself an Iraqi. I mean, we invade a country without any cause, because it was there.
AMY GOODMAN: This — you’re talking about Iraq.
HELEN THOMAS: Well, I’m talking about being able to do what you think is [inaudible]. The British have no right to give. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire was falling apart. They didn’t own Palestine. They got a mandate through the League of Nations, but they had no right to give it away. They also had no right really to annex Jerusalem, because the U.N. had voted actually not in that direction, and it’s still, you know, up in the air.
I think there is a settlement. I do think there are two countries there, and they could live side by side, and I’ll bet you when there is real peace, they will be hugging each other and, I mean, they are so close to each other, really. Having lived through wars, World War II, French, Japanese and Germans are good friends. Vietnam, good friends, and so forth. What is this? Why do we have to fight? Why can’t we talk to each other and understand each other?
AMY GOODMAN: President Carter, in interviews since his book came out, did talk about the power of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. What about the scope of debate on this issue in the United States, in the U.S. press, among your colleagues?
HELEN THOMAS: I think that the fact that it’s starting up is good. Good. People should hear both sides of the story.
AMY GOODMAN: But do we hear it in the United States?
HELEN THOMAS: Pardon?
AMY GOODMAN: Do we hear it in the United States? I mean, some say that the scope of the debate here is more narrow than it is in Israel, in the press there.
HELEN THOMAS: I think that’s true. It’s probably true. I think that since World War II, it’s that if you took a position against Israel, they were automatically —- you would be labeled anti-Semitic. I am more Semitic than most journalists I know. But this is -—
AMY GOODMAN: Say that again.
HELEN THOMAS: This is the way they go around branding you. You get branded, because, I mean if you take an opposite position to Israel, you will be automatically considered anti-Semitic. Well, there are solutions to this. I mean, there are great peace groups in Israel and Palestine, and so forth. People are trying.
AMY GOODMAN: President Ford recently died. Talk about his tenure, the significance of his pardon of Nixon and the questions you asked Ford. They were repeated over and over again in the last few weeks.
HELEN THOMAS: Fame, at last. Well, I think that he made a great contribution by really giving a new sense of confidence to the Oval Office, security in the nation after the unraveling of the Watergate scandal and really the trauma that everyone felt afterwards: who can you trust and trusting the government, and so forth. I think he brought in this good old — let’s call it Midwestern — sense of belonging. And people felt very comfortable about that.
I think the pardon hurt him, obviously. It came too soon — it was the timing — left too much suspicion. And it was one month almost to the day after. And so, I had my first question to him at a news conference, his first news conference, two weeks after he had taken office, and said the long national nightmare was over. I asked him if he was going to follow the judicial process or pardon. And I misinterpreted totally. I thought he would follow at least [inaudible] you know, that that had played out. But as time goes on, all things are forgivable, I guess.
AMY GOODMAN: But could you envision a world where the process had been carried out, either of impeachment or actual criminal prosecution of President Nixon? What would that world look like today, when talking about accountability?
HELEN THOMAS: I mean, in the crassest way, it would show that no president is above the law.
AMY GOODMAN: Instead, the way the media framed it, even those who were very opposed to the pardon at the time, the media after President Ford died, everyone was saying, "Upon reflection, I was wrong."
HELEN THOMAS: Well, I never said I was wrong. I thought it should probably go through the court process. But that’s over and done with. And I know the pain it caused. But, look, President Clinton didn’t know one second for eight years in the White House when he was not being impeached by all of the Ford friends, probably. I mean, it was excruciating. I don’t know how the man stood it. Eight years. Not one second. They denied him legitimacy. And he took it. And he took it like a man. He really did.
AMY GOODMAN: For young journalists —
HELEN THOMAS: Or like a president should, maybe.
AMY GOODMAN: For young journalists watching you ask tough questions and comparing that to the kind of questions that most of the White House Press Corps — and I know they’re your friends —- asked, for example, in the lead-up to the invasion, it’s very different now. They’re asking some questions -—
HELEN THOMAS: They’re coming out of the coma. Thank goodness.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, what caused the coma?
HELEN THOMAS: I think Katrina — they were unleashed. They’ve really began to understand their role, to question the president, to question the way things went. And they were allowed, it seems, from the powers that be, whoever controls, to show more emotion, and so forth. I think in the run-up to the war, there was a whole — the fear card was played very well, and reporters were afraid of being called un-American, unpatriotic. I know I’ve told you this 50,000 times, but I think that they got more courage, and it was a less critical question. Katrina was there, and everybody could see it, and they knew something was terribly wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: Compare your questions before the invasion, in the lead-up, to your colleagues’ questions.
HELEN THOMAS: I wish they had piled on more. I honestly believe that if the press had really said, "Why? Give us the proof" — and that Congress, too. Congress rolled over and played dead, as well. I honestly believe that there might have been a chance to avoid this debacle, the killing.
AMY GOODMAN: Would you say that the way the Press Corps operates is they will cover the spectrum of debate between the Democrats or Republicans, and when that’s almost nil, like in the lead-up to the invasion — Democrats voted with the Republicans for authorizing the war — then the press doesn’t go further, even if the American people have gone far further?
HELEN THOMAS: Well, you know, when you speak of the press, of course, you have to speak of different segments of the press. Reporters, straight reporters, wire services, you stick to the facts; you don’t create the story, per se. You cover what is happening. In terms of opinion, and then you have the spectrum of that, and I think that we do drop the ball in terms of everything has to be current and there’s no backtracking. Certainly, I think this administration is very happy that nobody’s going back to say, "How did we get into this?" You don’t see any story saying, "We invaded Iraq. That’s why we’re there." No, that’s past history, right? We just go on. Now, the new alliance euphemism is the "path forward." And so, forward from what? So, none of these stories really give you some sense of perspective, otherwise.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think has to happen right now?
HELEN THOMAS: Pull out of Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: Today?
HELEN THOMAS: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: What would it mean?
HELEN THOMAS: What would it mean? Well, it wouldn’t mean any more of the killing. I mean the match has been struck across the whole Middle East. We’ve got to try to put out these fires. And you start by, I mean, getting out. I don’t know whether Iraq — have the Iraqis spoken yet?
AMY GOODMAN: It sounds like they are not saying what President Bush did, that they are in accord with this.
HELEN THOMAS: No, well why would they be? Who wants — I mean, we get this mythology every day of how sovereign Iraq is now. You can’t be sovereign with an American soldier on every corner. That’s sovereign? An occupying force?
AMY GOODMAN: Much of the press says Congress doesn’t really play a role here. This is the president’s war. What could Congress do?
HELEN THOMAS: Well, I don’t think they’re going to cut off funding, which they probably could. They could leave money in the pipeline, as Kucinich wants, just to bring them home. But I don’t think that’s going to happen, because they will be accused of letting the troops down, and so forth. Congress can take a stand and say, "We’ve got to get out, and we’ve got to get out at least within the next six months." It could be gradual and everything. And this whole business — "How ungrateful the Iraqis are! By God, they won’t do exactly what we want them to do! They don’t shape up! They don’t understand democracy!" — what is this? Blaming the Iraqis? You go in, you destroy a country, you kill thousands, tens of thousands of their people, now you say, "They just don’t — they don’t understand. We did them a big favor, the grateful dead."
AMY GOODMAN: Helen Thomas, President Ford said in 1975 at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner: "If God had created the world in six days, he could not have rested. He would have had to explain it to Helen Thomas."
HELEN THOMAS: And I would have been asking "why?" My favorite question.
AMY GOODMAN: Why is that so important?
HELEN THOMAS: You’re getting me into a lot of trouble.
AMY GOODMAN: In what way?
HELEN THOMAS: I’m too wound up.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you say to your colleagues?
HELEN THOMAS: I don’t say anything to them. They hear me loud and clear when I’m questioning Tony Snow or someone else.
AMY GOODMAN: What is your assessment of Tony Snow, the man who came from Fox?
HELEN THOMAS: I think he’s well meant, but I think he’s very slick, very smooth. And he’s walking the line in lockstep with everyone else —
AMY GOODMAN: What is the relationship —
HELEN THOMAS: — in the administration.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the relationship of the White House correspondents with the White House? Is there a protocol that you would criticize there?
HELEN THOMAS: I don’t understand.
AMY GOODMAN: The relationship, the kind of understanding between the White House Press Corps and the president, a kind of —
HELEN THOMAS: Well, I think they tolerate us. I mean, they think that we’re the necessary evil, in that respect, and they do hold — I mean, Tony Snow does hold regular briefings and so forth. They know they have to be answerable. They know they have to be accountable. I mean, every president has to be.
AMY GOODMAN: But does the press hold them accountable? I mean —
HELEN THOMAS: Not in my opinion, not enough. And they should press for more news conferences, obviously. The news conference — presidential news conference is the only forum in our society where a president can be questioned on a regular basis and held accountable. That’s why we should have more and ask him the whys. That’s the only way that democracy works. We have to understand what we’re doing and why.
AMY GOODMAN: When does President Bush hold a news conference?
HELEN THOMAS: Well, he’s been holding more this year, actually, on his own terms. But I think there’s no real — I never hear a big clamor for a news conference, and there should be.
AMY GOODMAN: What can the journalists do? What do you mean when you say they should clamor for —
HELEN THOMAS: More and more reporters to ask Tony Snow every day, "Why aren’t we holding a news conference?" It would come home. It gets to them finally. I have seen that happen. Even the most hard-shelled administrations, at some point there’s a public pressure, and that’s what we should have done in the run-up to the war.
AMY GOODMAN: The story of big media, that’s the topic of this conference of thousands of people in these few days, of holding big media accountable, what is your take on that?
HELEN THOMAS: What is big media?
AMY GOODMAN: The handful of media moguls that own most of the networks and the press outlets in this country.
HELEN THOMAS: I’d tell them, forget about all those profits, and help the country, that the media should be a public service. You cannot have a democracy without an informed people. And that should be their role. They can make their money everywhere else.
AMY GOODMAN: Veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas. She’s covered the White House for 57 years. We spoke to her in Memphis at the National Conference for Media Reform.