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Veteran White House Correspondent Helen Thomas on Iraq: “We’ve really Damaged Our Psyche, Our Soul, Our Image”

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Veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas joins us in our firehouse studio to talk about the convention, the media and the war in Iraq. Thomas has served as White House correspondent for some 57 years and has covered every President since Kennedy. [includes rush transcript]

We are now joined by 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.”

  • Helen Thomas, veteran White House correspondent.

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

AMY GOODMAN: We’re now joined by 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 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 to Helen Thomas.” Helen Thomas went from U.P.I. to working for the Hearst newspapers, and we welcome you, Helen Thomas, to Democracy Now!

HELEN THOMAS: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us, we’ve spoken to you on the phone. You’re here for the Republican National Convention. We bumped into you at the Time-Warner party. And your thoughts were not really right there in that corporate celebration. You were talking about Fallujah.

HELEN THOMAS: Yes. And in fact, on Saturday itself, 14 people were killed, in one story that I saw, and eight of them were children. I mean, why isn’t every American upset? Our conscience.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In terms of the — as you’ve seen these conventions develop over the years, your thoughts on how they have evolved, especially the enormous impact now obviously that television has in either covering or not covering the events at the conventions.

HELEN THOMAS: Well, I think they’re so cut-and-dried now since we do have the slate. And they’re basically a celebration, and everybody has been homogenized to a point where their unity, harmony is supposed to be the name of the game. And I must say that I don’t think that that’s America. We usually have a difference of opinion, and it’s allowed to be spoken. I like the conventions that were contested, where you had real opinions cited. Except everybody has been dumbed down.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your assessment of the George W. Bush presidency? You’ve covered nine presidents moving on to, well, we’ll see what happens in November.

HELEN THOMAS: Well, it’s the most muscular foreign policy that we’ve ever had. I think that America doesn’t invade countries without provocation, and that’s what we’ve done. And I think that it has tainted us throughout the world. We’ve really damaged our psyche, our soul, our image. The very fact that Secretary of State Colin Powell couldn’t go to Athens, because, I mean, which is the heart of democracy, because of our war policy. I never think of my country as being pro-war. I think it’s a last thing that would happen to us. Of course, if you’re attacked, it’s different. But for us to invade a country? It’s shocking to me.

JUAN GONZALEZ: How do you see then, given that reality, why is there still among the public, a considerable support for the war? Clearly it’s been turning, but why so many Americans are still supportive of the president’s policies?

HELEN THOMAS: He plays the fear card. From 9/11 on, everybody felt they had to be a patriotic American. And then it segwayed into a war where they continued that. And I think reporters contributed a lot by not rocking the boat. And afraid of being also tainted as called un-American. But I really think that we fell down on the job, from that aspect. In terms of the Americans, I think that the very fact that the president keeps saying that he had a right to go in and so forth, they want to believe him. But pure logic shows us that everything he said about going into war, the reasons, have proved to be untrue. And I don’t know how that can be acceptable to any human being.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what about the role that the press has played? We’re seeing some mea culpas, or maybe kinda culpas. You have that New York Times A-10 box that says, letter from the editor.

HELEN THOMAS: But actually New York Times was a lot more reluctant to support the war than The Washington Post. Day after day for two years, they drummed up the war.

AMY GOODMAN: Now you’re with your colleagues every day. What do they say to you about this? What do The Washington Post, The New York Times reporters say to you?

HELEN THOMAS: Well, after New York Times did the mea culpa with a couple of editorials, I went up to The Post reporter and said, when are you guys going to cave? And he looked at me as though I had dropped from Mars. Anyway, I guess each has to make their own decision. But The Post never came around. In 3,000 words they basically said, maybe we should have put the story on page 1, instead of page A-20, which showed that there was some doubt about what the President was saying, but, I mean, that’s not a full-fledged apology. And I think the apologies are forthcoming. They should be. But more than that, you can’t restore the lives. Thousands of people are dead.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, you’ve also, you’ve talked about the muscular foreign policy. What about the Bush administration’s relations with and discussions with the press? Clearly, you have not been a favorite of the White House.

HELEN THOMAS: No, I’m on the black list. But that’s ok. Just so the questions are asked. But the president has not held a full-fledged news conference since April. And if he’s re-elected, I think there will be even fewer and far between. These people are so strange. They think they have the authority. I mean we are, we should be the power. We have the authority. And he thinks he’s president, and therefore, he doesn’t have to answer questions from the lowly press. And I think that even Kerry has some sort of strange idea about presidential authority. I mean, it’s —presidents have to be questioned early and often. And this is the only accountability that we have for them. It’s the only forum in our society where a president can be questioned is a press conference.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

HELEN THOMAS: Congress can subpoena a president, but they’re not going to do that unless it’s very dire.

AMY GOODMAN: You said even Kerry. What do you mean?

HELEN THOMAS: Well, when he’s — was supporting, he would still support the war, despite the fact that none of the facts stack up. And then he said the president should have the authority. Authority, you know, I mean, it was shocking. I think that’s very misplaced; dictators have authority.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But what about the current crop or generation of journalists who take this, who allow it to happen day in and day out and really don’t raise much of a furor about it?

HELEN THOMAS: Well, I think that the hold, as I say, the onus of being a patriot and being on television and also the fear of jeopardizing the truth, worrying that you’re not supporting the troops if you ask questions that seem to be penetrating or challenging.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re unusual in the news corps over the last more than 50 years, close to 60 years. A woman —

HELEN THOMAS: I’m expressing my opinion now, which I didn’t do for 57 years.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re a woman —

HELEN THOMAS: I said I’m expressing my opinion now.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re a woman, and you’re Arab American. How —

HELEN THOMAS: I’m American. I don’t like hyphens. It’s true my parents came from Syria. But what does that go to do with? Everybody’s parents came from somewhere else.

AMY GOODMAN: Does it have an influence for you, do you feel, that gives you a unique perspective?

HELEN THOMAS: Of course, I have a cultural background of knowing that, but I don’t think that — anybody who knows me, throughout the Vietnam War, I was equally adamant against the war of our choice. I felt as equally passionate in the sense that I don’t think you should go into anyone’s country without any reason that you can justify or explain.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to touch base with you throughout the week. Helen Thomas has been our guest. We’ll also link to our previous interview with Helen Thomas, who has written the book Front Row at the White House: Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President. And we’ll link to some of her questioning of the White House press secretary. Thank you very much, Helen Thomas.

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