Helen Thomas: A Troublemaking 84-Year-Old

<p>Edited by Louis Standish</p>

Helen Thomas, who is of Arab [Lebanese] origin, is famous for being America’s First Lady of journalism. U.S. presidents have known her as UPI’s White House correspondent for 57 years, making her the longest-running White House reporter. Until recently, every president gave her the opportunity to ask the first question at his press conferences, and it was usually the deepest and most probing question, especially when it related to Arab issues.

She also used to conclude every press conference by saying, “Thank you, Mr. President.”

Although she is 84-years-old, she keeps on working and cornering U.S. politicians. Thomas is described as a source of pride for Americans and Arab-Americans alike, because all along her long journey at the White House, she has consistently defended Arab causes.

Since the Iraq War, Thomas has been subjected to a powerful hate campaign. The fanatical right accuses her of being unpatriotic and an America hater. They want her expelled from the United States and they urge people to cancel their subscriptions to newspapers that carry her column.

She describes Bush as a dictator, Cheney as a liar and the American press of being politicized and spiraling downward, as she relentlessly barrages U.S. policy. After having been forbidden to ask questions of the president, she has recently been granted permission to ask a question at a White House press conference [Mar. 21 ].

Helen Thomas was born in Winchester, Kentucky on August 4, 1920, was raised in Detroit, Michigan and went to public school there. She entered Wayne State University, earning a degree in journalism, and then worked as a copy girl at the Washington “Daily News.”

Then in 1943, Thomas moved to Washington and worked as a reporter for United Press International, writing for radio news broadcasts and covering the federal government, particularly the FBI. It was a move that set the course for her professional career.

During the 1960 presidential campaign, she started covering John Kennedy and followed him to the White House in 1961 as a UPI reporter, where she became famous at presidential press conferences by saying “Thank you, Mr. president, when she concluded her questions.”

Thomas was the only woman reporter to accompany the late President Richard Nixon on his trip to China in 1972.

In 1976 Thomas was chosen as one of the 25 most influential women in the United States.

It is well known that Thomas has covered a large number of presidents, from the moment they entered office until their resignations or even deaths. She traveled the world with Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush senior, Clinton and Bush Jr., and she has covered every summit, conference and important economic meeting.

Thomas wrote a large number of books and publications, including “Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President: Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House.” In 2002, Thomas told a group of journalists and politicians that after 50-years-of-experience, she thought Bush was the worst president in all of American history.

At the beginning of 2003, Thomas’ seat at presidential press conferences was moved to the back row, and she began to refrain from saying her famous phrase “Thank you, Mr. President.” When she was asked about the reason, she said that this is due to the fact that presidents no longer love her.

Thomas has described Vice President Cheney as a “liar,” saying, “The day I say Dick Cheney is going to run for president, I’ll kill myself. All we need is one more liar.”

Thomas has been criticizing U.S. policy for many years, once describing the U.S.-Vietnamese war as a “swamp,” and writing that the administrations of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon insisted that they couldn’t remove our troops from Southeast Asia because there would be chaos, anarchy and a blood bath. The result was that Johnson and Nixon drowned the U.S. in a sea of blood and that 58,000 Americans gave their lives, as did hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese.

According to her, the Bush administration is creating the same scenario in Iraq.

Helen Thomas also has been thinking this since the 9/11 attacks. President Bush sees anyone that opposes his policies, especially in Iraq and the Middle East, as standing with the terrorists; and if the opponent is American, he or she is described as unpatriotic. Thomas believes that this twisted logic has caused a rapid loss of respect for America and its authority in the world, and damaged its image as a beacon for democracy.

Thomas describes America’s policy of invasion, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, and its policy toward Israel, which has a policy of killing Palestinians and turning them into refugees, as oppressive and mean, and having continued through the terms of previous U.S. presidents.


Thomas says she has noticed during the years of the George W. Bush Administration a deterioration of the courage and freedom of the press, as American journalists were hit by what she calls a kind of coma. By failing to ask probing and difficult questions of officials in the State and Defense Departments and the White House, Thomas is of the opinion that journalists have abdicated their traditional role as the Fourth Estate.

She said that the coma “infection” soon moved to Colin Powell, who allowed President Bush to exploit his credibility and his reputation for decency, by misleading the American people during his famous presentation to the U.N. Security Council to justify a war against Iraq .

Thomas also said the greatest American newspapers, including “The New York Times” and the “Washington Post,” allowed people like Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi to use them, in order to push Bush into war with Iraq. She charges that the newspapers didn’t allow journalists to question what the president wanted to portray as undeniable evidence of Iraq’s possession of WMDs and its ties to al-Qaeda, which the White House portrayed as an imminent threat to national security.

Rather, the U.S. media served to promote the war as Bush beat the drums of war and accused anyone that disagreed with him as being unpatriotic, and as all eyes averted their gaze from what this war was destined to inflict in Iraq, in terms of destruction, death and suffering for its people.

In Thomas’ opinion, U.S. newspapers competed with one another to describe peaceful nations as “rebels, terrorists and enemies,” and American journalists forgot that European resistance to Nazi invasion was considered honorable and courageous. She also notes that during the Bush years, Palestinian resistance fighters have been described as killers and terrorists, and the publishing of pictures of victims of “Israeli aggression” and its targeting of Palestinian women, children and the elderly was discouraged, along with photos of the civilian victims of American bombing in Iraq.

She also notes that after 9/11, as the U.S. media entered into its coma, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice pressured U.S. television networks, and Secretary of State Colin Powell asked the government of Qatar to stop Al-Jazeera from turning Arab public opinion against the United States. When it prevented press coverage of the return of the flag-draped coffins of fallen U.S. soldiers at Delaware’s Dover Air Force Base, Bush Administration officials forgot that the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of the press and the right to free speech.

Helen Thomas has described the Bush Government as the most secretive ever, arguing that it classifies almost all information as secret. Moreover, the Bush Administration spins every development to its own advantage, and it receives the cooperation of the U.S. media in putting forth its views.

Thomas says that over successive administrations, the White House has provided opportunities for journalists to ask probing questions of the president, and that without such questions, she warns that the president can behave like any king or dictator.

Since coming to power in 2000, President Bush has been careful to reduce the frequency of these opportunities, holding only 13 White House press conferences. In spite of the torrent of development that has taken place, this is a very small number. Thomas says that the late President Franklin Roosevelt, even at the height of WWII, held two weekly White House press conferences.

Thomas said that the White House began preventing her from asking President Bush questions after she asked him: “Mister President, why don’t you respect the wall of separation between church and state? Why do you disrespect the separation of Church and State? When he answered. ‘I do respect it, Thomas replied, “Well if you did, why would you have a religious office in the White House? [The Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives].

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