Helen Thomas shattered the Fourth Estate’s glass ceiling in becoming the most prominent female White House reporter in history.
She speaks candidly about her life and career to documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy for the new HBO featurette Thank You, Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House.
Thomas has an ideological ally in Kennedy, daughter of slain presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy and the woman who gave us last year’s Ghosts of Abu Ghraib.
But a truly sympathetic filmmaker would have concentrated more on Thomas’ early career highlights rather than let her diminish her legacy by showing her recent behavior.
And anyone who’s seen Thomas’ cartoonishly biased questioning of President George W. Bush knows precisely what we mean.
Still, Thomas at 88 remains a gifted storyteller, and her own remarkable life gives her plenty of tales to tell in this 40-minute feature which debuts at 9 p.m. tonight [Monday Aug. 18].
It’s essentially a one-woman show. Thomas chats to an off-screen interrogator, presumably Kennedy, but no other talking heads appear to testify to her tenacity or put her work in perspective.
That’s fine so long as Thomas is sharing anecdotes about her White House duties, like how she could barely hear what President Lyndon B. Johnson was saying thanks to his nearly inaudible muttering.
But Thomas puts her foot in her mouth more than once here, first contradicting her own statements and then assessing the current presidency with all the nuance of a Daily Kos diarist.
It all began for Thomas in 1943 when she first signed up with UPI to cover the news. At that time, women rarely if ever covered the White House beat, but over the years she broke through the all-men’s club. And she didn’t waste her chance, keeping up with her peers even if her pointy toed shoes were killing her feet long before she met her deadline.
Thank You, Mr. President works best when Thomas explores the odd relationship between herself and the president of the moment. She’s there to grill them, to hold them accountable to the best of her ability, but she ends up having oddly personal attachments to each and every one. She even has pictures of herself smiling like a school girl with each one, even President George W. Bush.
She can’t quite explain the relationship, but at least she acknowledges its mercurial nature.
Thomas was far more balanced before the current administration came along, but she often regretted how vigilant she had to be. She winces at the memory of President Clinton’s impeachment scandal, embarrassed that she had to ask the questions she did. Everyone was doing it, she claimed.
So why didn’t she buck the system? Here was a woman who blazed a trail when she had very little clout, and years later had all the gravitas necessary to do so again. And how does she square his behavior with her contention that character counts for White House occupants?
The biggest howler comes toward the end, when Kennedy asks Thomas, “Do you believe there’s a liberal bias in the press?”
“Hell, no,” she cries, as if she had been asked if the earth was flat. “I wanna find one fellow liberal!”
Maybe she never heard of a smooth talking Texan named Dan with a penchant for forged documents.
Thomas’s honest answers do help paint a portrait of the current media that’s far more accurate, and alarming, than even she realizes. One moment she discounts the notion that the press can destroy a presidency. The media isn’t that powerful, she implies. Later, she insists that if the press had piled on in the run-up to the Iraq War, the conflict may never have happened. Somehow, the press in her eyes could have done what every major intelligence body in the world couldn’t — suss out the fact that Saddam Hussein was bluffing regarding his weapons stockpile.
Like Walter Cronkite, Thomas has let her liberal ideology run unchecked in her later years. That’s fine for an opinion columnist, but she still brings her biases along with her when she plops down in the front row of the White House press conferences. The special plays out a clip where Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly labels her a “pinhead” for asking press secretary Dana Perino how many innocent civilians are being killed in Iraq. It’s meant to show her ability to hold the powerful accountable hasn’t ebbed with age.
Instead, it reveals her as a truly shallow thinker, for her initial query assumed the U.S. military was directly targeting civilians.
In her later years, even left-leaners have soured on Helen Thomas circa 2008.
She still hasn’t let age — and a recent illness — stop her from reporting the news as she sees it. It’s hard not to respect the fact that her tenacity hasn’t ebbed a whit. That is all the more reason the Thank You, Mr. President should have focused more on her contributions to an unfettered and gender-neutral press rather than her recent career lowlights.