Press Box

Screw You, Mr. President

Helen Thomas used to ask questions in press briefings. Now she makes speeches.

Thomas chews the scenery

At his televised news conference last week, President George W. Bush deliberately snubbed several reporters he ordinarily calls upon, including journos from the Washington Post, Newsweek, and USA Today. But the most conspicuous recipient of the 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. freeze-out was longtime UPI reporter Helen Thomas, who has barbed and grilled every president since John F. Kennedy and almost always gets to ask a question. Bush pointedly ignored her.

Bush then dealt Thomas a second slight. By custom, Thomas concludes White House press conferences at the president’s signal by saying, “Thank you, Mr. President.” Bush denied her that supporting role, ending the conference with his own sign off, “Thank you for your questions,” and flushing a decades-old White House custom.

Bush’s slaps at Thomas are consistent with the psy-ops his information wranglers conduct day-in and day-out on the White House press corps. Bush’s news conferences have become increasingly scripted, with the president calling on reporters from a preset list and refusing the follow-up questions that might trick him into saying something substantive. Press Secretary Ari Fleischer has lobotomized the White House press corps in official briefings by jawing more and more and saying less and less. (The smarter reporters play hooky these days rather than endure Fleischer obfuscations.) Last October, Fleischer maliciously tampered with the corps’ self-esteem by reassigning seats in the briefing room. The new chart demoted scribes from Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report from the Park Place of the second row to the Siberia of the sixth. (Pressies live for their little perks, and the White House reporters revealed their Ted Baxterian pettiness for all to see when they bellyached about the reshuffle.)

But the reason behind Bush’s double dissing of Thomas isn’t directly related to his basic contempt for White House beat reporters. Bush ignored Helen Thomas because she is no longer the Helen Thomas of yesteryear, a deadline artist writing news for tens of millions of UPI readers. She left the waning wire in silent protest, after convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s News World Communications rescued it from collapse in 2000, and took a job at the Hearst News Service. There, Helen Thomas the Pundit writes a sharply partisan syndicated White House column about what she thinks—as opposed to Helen Thomas the Reporter, who wrote about what she’d learned. How bad is the column? Only a couple of Hearst papers, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Houston Chronicle, publish her pieces with any regularity.

I dare say that if you were Bush or his handlers, you’d pass her over at a press conference, too. Her loathing for Bush is palpable. “This is the worst president ever,” she told the Torrance, Calif., Daily Breeze in January. “He is the worst president in all of American history.” Though Thomas never masked her crush on Democrats when she worked as a news writer, she comes completely out of the closet in her columns, ripping “Bush’s headlong drive into war, his favor-the-rich economic policy and his campaign to put right-wing ideologues on the Supreme Court.” As the child of Lebanese immigrants, Thomas knows exactly which religious button she’s pushing when she repeatedly condemns Bush’s plans for war on Iraq as a “crusade.”

But Thomas’ opinion columns are a model of restraint when compared with the snarky speeches she delivers in lieu of asking questions at White House briefings. In the past, Ari Fleischer usually gave Thomas first shot, and in recent weeks she rode a constant theme:

Thomas to Fleischer: Will you state for the record, for the historical record, why [Bush] wants to bomb Iraqi people?
March 5, 2003Thomas to Fleischer: [W]hy is [Bush] going to bomb them? I mean, how do you bomb people back to democracy? This is a question of conquest. They didn’t ask to be “liberated” by the United States. This is our self-imposed political solution for them.
Feb. 26, 2003Thomas: At an earlier briefing, Ari, you said that the president deplored the taking of innocent lives. Does that apply to all innocent lives in the world?
Fleischer: Well, Helen
Thomas: And I have a follow-up.
Fleischer:I refer specifically to a horrible terrorist attack in Tel Aviv that killed scores and wounded hundreds. And the president, as he said in a statement yesterday, deplores in the strongest terms the taking of those lives and the wounding of those people, innocents in Israel.
Thomas: My follow-up is, why does he want to drop bombs on innocent Iraqis?
Jan. 6, 2003

Thomas’ talent for speechifying at news conferences dates to her career as a reporter. The day after the allies started bombing Iraq in 1991, President George H.W. Bush denounced Hussein’s Scud attack against Israel in a news conference. Back then, Thomas had a very different idea of who qualified as an “innocent civilian.”

Thomas: Mr. President, two days ago you launched a war, and war is inherently a two-way street. Why should you be surprised or outraged when there is an act of retaliation?
Bush I: Against a country that’s innocent and is not involved in it? That’s what I’m saying.
Thomas: Well …
Bush I: Israel is not a participant. Israel is not a combatant, and this man has elected to ato launch a terrorist attack against the population centers in Israel with no militaryno military design whatsoever. And that’s why. And it is an outrage and the whole world knows it and the whole world ismost of the countries of the world are speaking out against it. There can be nono consideration of this in anything other than condemnation.

Bested by Bush, who was never particularly quick on his feet, Thomas changes the subject with a new speech.

Thomas: Why is it that any move formove for peace is considered an end run at the White House these days?
Bush I: Well, youyou obviouslywhat was the question? End run?
Thomas: Yes, that is considered an end run, that people who still want to find a peaceful solution seem to be running into a brick wall.

As someone practiced in the art of vitriol, I’d be the last to deny Thomas her right to extend a middle finger at the president. And as an 82-year-old, Thomas possesses more energy and exhibits a stronger work ethic than anybody on her beat. One reporter says she’s the only person with any testosterone in the White House press room. She starts each day at 5:30 a.m., reading the newspapers at a coffee shop near the White House. She responds to e-mail and answers her own phone—although she’s known to hang up quickly if she doesn’t like the direction the conversation takes.

But she can’t give Bush the what-for and expect the White House to treat her like the grande dame. And I don’t think she does. For a crabby person with a big mouth, Thomas complains very rarely. When the Moon cult bought UPI, she left in protest but didn’t trash the place on the way out. Nor has she griped about receiving Bush’s cold shoulder. “That was his privilege, I guess,” Thomas told the New York Observer. “I think he had a right to do that.”

We could applaud her for stripping the varnish off standard-issue White House lies with her acerbic questions, but rarely are her questions tailored to produce an intelligent response from Fleischer. When you repeatedly ask the question, “Why does he want to drop bombs on innocent Iraqis?” you’re mostly venting your spleen.

Not that Fleischer would give a useful answer to a direct question in any case. The same goes for his boss. White House briefings and presidential news conferences have become so ritualized and substanceless that many of the beat reporters have begun exhibiting all the classic symptoms of depression: guilt, worthlessness, pessimism, restlessness, and irritability.

While Bush dislikes Thomas, he and his news managers are still savvy enough to recognize her usefulness to the administration. When Fleischer changed the seating chart in the briefing room last year, he could have exiled Thomas to the back row. Instead, he kept her down front, where he uses her as his foil, addressing her liberally by first name so other White House officials reading the transcript can chuckle to themselves—We’re safe! It’s another question from that wacky Helen Thomas. When Fleischer calls on her, he hopes she’ll heckle him and savage Bush with her eccentric, combative, accusatory, and unreasonably phrased questions—because they’re so easily evaded. “We will temporarily suspend the Q & A portion of today’s briefing to bring you this advocacy minute,” Fleischer responded to a line of Thomas questioning at the Feb. 26 press briefing. The moment of comic relief lifts Fleischer and soils Thomas.

Which brings us to the saddest part of Thomas’ decline: She often raises serious questions that are on lots of people’s minds—questions that other critical journalists in the press corps might want to pose. But when spoken by Thomas’ lecturing lips first, the questions sound absurd. She ends up taking the air out of the room for intelligent criticism of the president and helps make the press corps look like a Saturday Night Live skit. You can almost hear Fleischer squealing behind closed doors after the briefings: Thank God for Helen Thomas!


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