Doug, you’re right about this: Helen Thomas will, in one capacity or another, outlast Scott McLellan in his role as White House Press Secretary.
But are you really telling us that she is respected as “dean” of the White House press corps? Because I find that really hard to believe. Her partisan credentials are well established, and I’m not the only one who thinks so:
[S]he 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, 2003
Thomas 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, 2003
Thomas: 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 a—to launch a terrorist attack against the population centers in Israel with no military—no military design whatsoever. And that’s why. And it is an outrage and the whole world knows it and the whole world is—most of the countries of the world are speaking out against it. There can be no—no 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 for—move for peace is considered an end run at the White House these days?
Bush I: Well, you—you obviously—what 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.
That was over ten years ago, and her partisanship has only gotten worse. Why should her questions, in 2005, be taken seriously after a track record like that?
I once asked her the following in an email:
You maintain several times in your article that President Bush deceived the U.S. and based his policy on falsehoods. What are these falsehoods?
No wmd; no threat; no ties to al qaida-helent
That’s an argument? That’s a trope. And that’s not a reporter — that’s a partisan, Doug! (Not that Helen Thomas invented that.) As the article I quoted above, by Jack Shafer in the (liberal) Slate magazine, puts it:
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. . . . 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!