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2009-01-13

"An Unconscionable Legacy"–Veteran White House Correspondent Helen Thomas on the Bush Presidency

Guests

Helen Thomas, served as White House correspondent for United Press International for almost sixty 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." Helen is currently a syndicated columnist for Hearst Newspapers. Her latest column is called "History Cannot Save Him."

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President Bush held his final news conference Monday. Bush fervently defended his record, saying he made the nation safer following the 9/11 attacks, rejected the idea that the nation’s moral standing has been damaged over the past eight years and defended the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. We speak with veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas. She’s the most senior member of the White House press corps and has covered every president since Kennedy. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

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

AMY GOODMAN: With a week to go in his two-term presidency, President Bush gave his final White House news conference Monday. Bush fervently defended his record, saying he made the nation safer following the 9/11 attacks. Asked whether he could now admit to making any mistakes, Bush cited the “Mission Accomplished” banner soon after the invasion of Iraq. He also listed what he called his “disappointments.”

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: There have been disappointments. Abu Ghraib obviously was a huge disappointment during the presidency. You know, not having weapons of mass destruction was a significant disappointment. I don’t know if you want to call those mistakes or not, but they were — things didn’t go according to plan. Let’s put it that way. And anyway, I think historians will look back, and they’ll be able to have a better look at mistakes after some time has passed. I — along Jake’s question, there is no such thing as short-term history. I don’t think you can possibly get the full breadth of an administration ’til time has passed.

AMY GOODMAN: The President also responded to a question about the responsibility of the office of the President of the United States and how he thought President-elect Barack Obama would handle it.

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I believe this — the phrase "burdens of the office" is overstated. You know, it’s kind of like, “Why me? Oh, the burdens,” you know. “Why did the financial collapse have to happen on my watch?” It’s just — it’s pathetic, isn’t it? Self-pity. And I don’t believe that President-elect Obama will be full of self-pity. He will find — you know, your —- the people that don’t like you, the critics, they’re pretty predictable. Sometimes the biggest disappointments will come from your so-called friends. And there will be disappointments, I promise you. He’ll be disappointed. On the other hand, the job is so exciting and so profound that the disappointments will be clearly, you know, a minor irritant compared to the -—

    REPORTER: So it was never the "loneliest office in the world" for you?

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: No, not for me, uh-uh. We had a — you know, people — we — I had a fabulous team around me of highly dedicated, smart, capable people, and we had fun. I tell people that, you know, some days happy, some days not so happy, every day has been joyous. And people, you know, they say, I just don’t believe it to be the case. Well, it is the case. Even in the darkest moments of Iraq, you know, there was — and, you know, every day when I was reading the reports about soldiers losing their lives, no question there was a lot of emotion, but also there was times where we could be light-hearted and support each other.

AMY GOODMAN: Bush was also asked about the federal government response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Systems are in place to continue the reconstruction of New Orleans. You know, people said, “Well, the federal response was slow.” Don’t tell me the federal response was slow when there was 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed. You know, I remember going to see those helicopter drivers, Coast Guard drivers, to thank them for their courageous efforts to rescue people off roofs. 30,000 people were pulled off roofs right after the storm moved through. It’s a pretty quick response. Could things have been done better? Absolutely. Absolutely. But when I hear people say the federal response was slow, then what are they going to say to those chopper drivers or the 30,000 that got pulled off the roofs?

AMY GOODMAN: Bush also talked about his relationship with the media, professing what he called his "respect" for journalists.

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Through it all, it’s been — I have respected you. Sometimes didn’t like the stories that you wrote or reported on. Sometimes you misunderestimated me. But always the relationship I have felt has been professional. And I appreciate it.

AMY GOODMAN: Despite his avowed respect for the media, Bush refused to call on the journalist Helen Thomas, widely known as “the dean of the White House press corps.” Thomas is the most senior White House correspondent, covering every president since John F. Kennedy. Throughout the two-term Bush White House, she has asked some of the most critical questions in the White House press newsroom. She has challenged the Bush administration on issues including the Iraq war and its massive civilian toll, the threat of an attack on Iran, the refusal to sign a cluster bomb treaty, the ongoing killings of Afghanistan civilians, and its critical support for Israel’s attacks on Gaza and Lebanon.

One of the last times President Bush answered Thomas came in July of 2007. Bush reverted to a presidential press conference tradition he had long ignored: giving Thomas the first question. She asked him about his decision to go to war.

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Now, I will be glad to answer a few questions, starting with Ms. Thomas.

    HELEN THOMAS: Mr. President, you started this war, a war of your choosing, and you can end it alone, today, at this point, bring in peacekeepers, UN peacekeepers. Two million Iraqis have fled their country as refugees. Two million more are displaced. Thousands and thousands are dead. Don’t you understand? You have brought the al-Qaeda into Iraq.

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Actually, I was hoping to solve the Iraqi issue diplomatically. That’s why I went to the United Nations and worked with the United Nations Security Council, which unanimously passed a resolution that said disclose, disarm or face serious consequences. That was the message, a clear message to Saddam Hussein. He chose the course.

    HELEN THOMAS: Didn’t we go into Iraq —

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: It was his decision.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush answering Helen Thomas in July of 2007.

Well, although the President did not call on her for his last news conference yesterday, we did call Helen Thomas, and she joins us today from Washington, D.C. Helen Thomas served as White House correspondent for United Press International for almost sixty years. She was the first female officer of the National Press Club, first female member and president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, first female member of the Gridiron Club. She has written a number of books. She is currently a syndicated columnist for Hearst Newspapers, King Features. Her latest column is called "History Cannot Save Him."

Welcome to Democracy Now!

, Helen Thomas.

HELEN THOMAS: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: ”History Cannot Save Him.” Tell us what you wrote.

HELEN THOMAS: Pardon?

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us what you wrote in this last column, which is called "History Cannot Save Him."

HELEN THOMAS: Well, I wrote that President Bush is passing on to President-elect Obama two wars and an economic debacle. I call it a depression. And he is arming Israel against the Palestinians in every way in Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you expect to see a change of policy, Helen Thomas?

HELEN THOMAS: I think it’s an unconscionable legacy.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you expect to see a change of policy, for example, on Israel and the Occupied Territories?

HELEN THOMAS: No, I don’t.

AMY GOODMAN: Why not?

HELEN THOMAS: Because I think that Obama, during the campaign, made many promises, as every president, potential president does to Israel, that they seem somehow bounded by their promises, promises to uphold all Israeli goals.

I don’t see how the US can provide F-16s, gunships, Apache gunships, phosphorus, possibly phosphorus, and cluster bombs and so forth to kill helpless people, children who are starving to death. They control the checkpoints. They control the arrivals and departures, supplies and people. And the Americans — President Bush has remained silent to that suffering. He has blocked by a veto at the UN any stoppage of the warfare, and he continues to supply Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: Helen Thomas, what did you think of President Bush’s last news conference?

HELEN THOMAS: I thought it was nostalgic. I understood the reporters’ soft questions. Obviously, they’re all writing about his legacy, wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt as to what his position was. And I think they gave him a platform of self-defense and self-delusion. The whole idea that it was a disappointment not to have weapons of mass destruction? A disappointment? “Significant disappointment,” he said.

AMY GOODMAN: Helen Thomas, what would you have asked President Bush if you got a chance yesterday? Did you expect that he would call on you?

HELEN THOMAS: No, but I wish that he had, because I would have — I mean, I would have asked a news question. I would not have gone into the nostalgia, though I’m not criticizing it, because I do think the reporters had to wrap up to find out what he really thought about himself and his legacy. But I would have asked why — why do you continue to support the killing in Gaza? And that’s what we’re doing.

I mean, you can’t remain neutral. I remember the rabbi who spoke at the Martin Luther King march on Washington. Heschel had a cameo appearance, and he said, “The greatest sin of all in the Nazi era was silence.” When you remain silent to the suffering and the incredible aggression against a people, then you are culpable.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you cover the march on Washington in 1963, when Martin Luther King spoke?

HELEN THOMAS: I did, I did. Not on spot, but I was there, certainly. And I was, of course, entranced with this "I Have a Dream." And it’s amazing that I think maybe this dream is actually coming true, although I do think that President Obama, to be, needs a lot more courage.

AMY GOODMAN: Helen Thomas, we’re going to break. Then we’re going to come back to this conversation. Known as the First Lady of the Press Corps, she has covered nine presidents. As of next Tuesday, it will be ten. We’ll be back with Helen Thomas in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Helen Thomas, UPI correspondent for almost sixty years now, writes a column for King Features.

When I said “First Lady of the Press Corps,” you shook your head, Helen Thomas. Why?

HELEN THOMAS: There’s no such thing. It’s nice to have a title like that, but it’s not real.

AMY GOODMAN: For many years, you threw out the first question at the news conferences. I wanted to go back to the issue of Gaza. You asked White House Press Secretary Dana Perino last week about Gaza. This is an excerpt of your exchange.

    HELEN THOMAS: Why is the President letting more people be killed in this situation, instead of going for a ceasefire and calling for restraint, as they have in the past, on both sides?

    DANA PERINO: We are calling for a durable ceasefire. That’s what we were trying to establish.

    HELEN THOMAS: But why don’t you call it today and stop people from being killed?

    DANA PERINO: Well, I think, Helen, strong views are held on this by all sides. We believe that Israel has a right to defend itself, and —

    HELEN THOMAS: Do the Gazans have a right to defend themselves?

    DANA PERINO: I think that what the Gazans deserve is a chance to live in peace and security. What President Bush has worked for is a chance to establish a two-state solution, so that the Palestinians could have their own state, so that they could live in their own democracy. And that’s what President Abbas, who is the president of all Palestinians, has been working towards.

    HELEN THOMAS: The President did not recognize their election, which was fair and square under international law, as observers —

    DANA PERINO: Look, when — the President did call for the — did support the elections. And when the elections were held, I don’t think that Hamas was elected because they said, “Vote for us, we’ll take you to war” or “We’ll hold you hostage” or “We’ll send rockets into Israel every day.” But they won because they were tired — the people of — the Palestinians, people of Gaza, were frustrated with the services that they were getting from the Fatah party, which was a wake-up call for the Fatah party as well. And they have worked to try to improve what they could provide governance-wise for all of the Palestinians.

    HELEN THOMAS: So knowing that, why did the US cut off all relation — all aid to the people?

    DANA PERINO: We certainly have not done that to the people of Gaza. We do not deal with the terrorist organizations, of which Hamas is designated as one.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Dana Perino answering Helen Thomas’s question last week.

I wanted to ask you, Helen Thomas, about Scott McClellan, the former White House press secretary who became a vocal critic after stepping down, a critic of the Bush administration. I interviewed him last June. He spoke about your role in the White House press corps.

    SCOTT McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, I think we need more Helen Thomases in the press corps, both the national press corps, even in the White House press corps, as well. She is someone who is not afraid to ask the tough questions and hold people accountable for the decisions that are made. So I think that’s important to state right up front.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Scott McClellan after he stepped down as press secretary. Helen Thomas, are you surprised by his praise?

HELEN THOMAS: Somewhat, having been called Hezbollah and everything else probably. Well, I mean, I suppose it’s the position that you’re trying — if you — how can you speak for the President of the United States? I mean, you cannot go off the curve. And so, everything is forgivable. And you always have to understand what position a spokesperson is in. I think it’s the toughest job in the White House being a spokesperson for the President and for American policy, which is sometimes very unacceptable.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your assessment of the White House press corps? Has it changed over the decades? And what did you think of the White House press corps that covered — all of the press covering President Bush?

HELEN THOMAS: I think they lost their guts after 9/11. No one wanted to ask penetrating questions for fear of being called un-American, unpatriotic. And I think their publishers, wherever they are, maybe Wall Street and so forth, were saying, “Lay off. You know, we’re all Americans, and we have to stick together no matter what.” So I don’t think reporters should — I mean, obviously, the ideal is to seek the truth, no matter where the chips fall.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to a late White House press secretary. That was Tony Snow. In 2006, you questioned him about the US response to the Israeli attack on Lebanon. This is the exchange.

    HELEN THOMAS: The United States is not that helpless. It could have stopped the bombardment of Lebanon. We have that much control with the Israelis.

    TONY SNOW: I don’t think so, Helen.

    HELEN THOMAS: We have gone for collective punishment against all of Lebanon and Palestine.

    TONY SNOW: No, what’s interesting, Helen —

    HELEN THOMAS: And this is what’s happening, and that’s the perception of the United States.

    TONY SNOW: Well, thank you for the Hezbollah view, but I would encourage you —

    HELEN THOMAS: Nobody is accepting your explanation. What is restraint? You call for restraint.

    TONY SNOW: Well, I’ll tell you, what’s interesting, Helen, is people have. The G8 was completely united on this. And as you know, when it comes to issues of —

    HELEN THOMAS: And we stopped a ceasefire. Why?

    TONY SNOW: We didn’t stop a ceasefire. Let me just tell you — I’ll tell you what.

    HELEN THOMAS: We vetoed —

    TONY SNOW: We didn’t even veto. Please get your facts right.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Tony Snow. Your response, Helen Thomas?

HELEN THOMAS: My response is I was right to press him. I think that, you know, any world leader, no matter who’s right and who’s wrong, you stop the killing of innocent people. And all the people really are basically innocent, on all sides.

AMY GOODMAN: Helen Thomas, you were born in Kentucky, your parents, Lebanese Christians. Your Arab American background, do you think that informs — or how does it inform your reporting?

HELEN THOMAS: Of course. I have a background and an understanding of what’s happened in the Middle East that a lot of people don’t have, because there’s been no interest. But why shouldn’t I project some of my feelings and so forth? I mean, I have that right, as an opinion column. But also, I hope I seek justice. And I don’t think that I go off the highway.

AMY GOODMAN: You have covered, well, starting Tuesday, ten presidents. You were the only woman on Nixon’s flight to China. What was it like to cover Richard Nixon?

HELEN THOMAS: I wasn’t the only woman. I was the only woman —-

AMY GOODMAN: Only woman reporter.

HELEN THOMAS: Yes, in the print department. There was one woman in radio and Barbara Walters for TV. So, there were other women in that respect. What was -— pardon me, I — what was your question?

AMY GOODMAN: What was it like to cover Richard Nixon going to China and also his demise?

HELEN THOMAS: Well, it was thrilling, because every reporter in Washington wanted to be on that trip, maybe in the whole country, because we knew it was a tremendous historical event, that it was a breakthrough, twenty-year hiatus in relations with China. Everything — nobody knew anything about what was happening, except CIA and India, and so forth, surrounding countries. So we knew that we would be really writing history. And it was really like landing on the moon. Everything was a story — what the people ate, what they looked like, what they wore, and so forth. Well, I can assure you, we had a field day for eight days.

AMY GOODMAN: And now, will you be covering the inauguration of the forty-forth president, of Barack Obama?

HELEN THOMAS: I’ll be writing a column about it and his speech and so forth, but I won’t be doing the minute-to-minute. I will be seeing what everybody else is seeing, I hope, mostly on TV.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what advice do you have for young journalists?

HELEN THOMAS: Go for it. It’s the greatest profession in the world. You’re making a real contribution to democracy by keeping people informed. And have some courage to tell the truth. I think it’s difficult at times. There are many barriers, but go for it. It’s a great, great profession.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, do you have your first question planned for President Barack Obama?

HELEN THOMAS: Sure. I have a thousand of them. I say, you know, what are you going to do to fulfill your ideals that so expressed on the campaign trail? Or are you going to submit, like most presidents, just follow through, make — try to carry out your promises that don’t — that have no meaning except for how many people gave you money?

AMY GOODMAN: Today, Hillary Clinton goes before the Senate, before her colleagues, to be questioned before her confirmation hearing as Secretary of State. Your thoughts on the First Lady, who you covered for many years, now becoming the Secretary of State? And the question you would ask her?

HELEN THOMAS: Question I would ask here is, what’s she going to do about the Middle East? She’s been all on all sides of the question. She first proposed a Palestinian state when she ran in New York. Understandably, she pulled back on that. I don’t know where she stands, and I don’t think it matters where she stands. It’s probably where does Obama stand?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Helen Thomas, I want to thank you for being with us. You’re famous for saying at the end of every news conference, “Thank you, Mr. President.”

HELEN THOMAS: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: I say to you, thank you, Helen Thomas.

HELEN THOMAS: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Helen Thomas served as White House correspondent for United Press International for almost sixty years. She’s currently a syndicated columnist with Hearst Newspapers. Her latest column is about President Bush; it’s called "History Cannot Save Him."

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