Q: This is Karen Frenkel, and with me is Helen Thomas. This is an oral history interview for the National Press Club Foundation Project on Women in Journalism. I would like to say that it is a great honor to be able to interview you.
Thomas: Thank you.
Q: I'm very excited about the assignment.
Thomas: Thank you.
Q: We've decided we would try as much as possible not to repeat the material in Miss Thomas's books, so the structure of the interview will refer to Front Row at the White House -- which is the second book --
Q: -- and Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President, the most recent, which is about humor in presidents. And the first book --
Thomas: -- was called Dateline White House, and I've written another book that could come out in the spring.
Thomas: It's mainly on the press.
Q: Okay. Well, then there will probably be some overlap.
Q: Anyway, I wanted to start by asking you what has motivated you all these years, to report and be the first to know, and if you could talk about your feelings about journalism.
Thomas: Well, I think it's the greatest profession anyone could ever be in because you always have to keep learning. It lends itself best to anyone who has great curiosity, and I'm nosy. I'm allowed, now, to be nosy all my life, in my profession. Any profession that makes you feel it's an education every day, that you're always increasing your knowledge, and that you have to know things and have to keep reading and so forth -- I think all those things made me realize, from working on the high-school paper, right off the bat, that I had a one-track mind; that that was what really I wanted to be, and I think I was very lucky, early on, to pick a profession that I knew that I would love. I've never had any regrets. I've never known anyone in this field who has had to leave it, who has not looked back with great regret.
Q: Where do you think that curiosity came from, in your childhood and formative years? In your upbringing?
Thomas: Well, there was a big, big family. I don't know where it came from. All I know is I'm glad I have it, because I think there's a great impetus to seek out -- I think that journalists have a real important role -- to seek out the truth -- in so far as is humanly possible, so you sure need curiosity for that. I remember when I was maybe five years old and a friend came to our house, I kept asking her, "Do you have a boyfriend? Where did you get your dress?" She said, "You're so inquisitive!" I went to my older sisters and said, "What does that mean?" But I think most children do ask questions, and they become very annoying, I'm sure. I think I was a pain in the neck.
Q: When you were a young woman and you were working in journalism, I guess right after the war, or in the early '50s --
Q: -- can you describe what kind of resistance you encountered, as a young woman, in the profession?
Thomas: Well, I was very lucky. I grew up in a family where no one ever told me it was a man's world, or that you had to pick a certain profession -- that it was best to be a teacher or a secretary or whatever, because this was your security. Never once did my parents ever tell me that. I certainly had no idea that it was really a man's world, and that I was certainly going into an area -- although I knew that there were not that many women doctors, not many women lawyers, etc. In working on the high-school paper, I encountered no real discrimination, once you're on it. But in the real world, I really realized that, at that time, women applying for reportorial jobs would mainly be assigned to the women's pages. What were in the old days women's pages now have become Style. So, sure, I knew there was discrimination, but, also, I was determined I wasn't going to let it deter me.
Q: When was your first encounter with it, where you realized, in the moment, that that's what it was?
Thomas: Well, I saw it all around me. I was very lucky, fortunately -- to others’ misfortune -- because it was the tail-end of World War II, and they had been drafting every young man who could breathe. If he had a pulse, he was going to war. So there were slots open to women, and I got a job as a copy-boy, then moved into cub reporting on the old Washington Daily News. Then I went on strike with about eight or ten other reporters, who wanted about $5.00 a week more, and we were all fired. It was a Scripps-Howard paper, so I went to the National Press Building and knocked on doors, and got a job with the Scripps-Howard United Press International. They called and the managing editor at the Washington Daily News said, "Give her a chance. She didn't have it here," or something. So I was very lucky. So I got hired to write radio news.
Q: Now I remember that you had a very early morning shift that nobody else wanted.
Thomas: Oh, absolutely. But I tell anybody, who wants to go into anything -- get your foot in the door and sweep the floors.
Q: So you saw it as a temporary stepping-stone.
Thomas: Absolutely. I think it's very important to show up, watch the pros, and know that that's an opportunity. And later on learn that it's also great to have the right attitude, toward any job, no matter what they ask you to do. Smile.
Q: Be willing to do anything?
Q: I know that from your books that even when you were starting to gain recognition as a reporter, you and all the other women had to sit up in the balcony of the National Press Club.
Thomas: Well, at first we couldn't even get into the Club. It was Liz [Elizabeth S.] Carpenter, who was a Texas newspaperwoman -- she and her husband have a mural in the National Press Building. Through her intervention, we were able to -- because they allowed wives to come to the dinners and so forth, in a certain room -- and she was the one who got the reporters into the balcony, in 1956. But up to that time, we could go as a date, to the Club, but we certainly could not join as members, simply because we were women.
Q: What was the atmosphere like up in the balcony?
Thomas: Well, we weren't in purdah. We didn't have to wear veils. We did look down -- contemptuously -- at our colleagues, whom we knew we were going toe-to-toe with on some beats, and they could sit there, on the floor, having lunch, and we had to watch them. Often, they would have a major speaker. In fact, once the Attorney General -- I was covering the Justice Department, and he appeared at the National Press Club, and I couldn't sit down on the floor -- I had to be up in the balcony. So my AP [Associated Press] competitor had a big jump on me, could get right to him, and ask him a question. So there certainly were disadvantages, as there always are in discrimination, and that was true discrimination -- not for me per se, but for all women reporters.
Q: Was there much grumbling up there, because of that?
Thomas: Not up there, because we had to be quiet. But they wanted to be sure that we left. They were so afraid -- I mean, the joke was that we all wanted to go into the all-male bar, which was farthest from our desire. We wanted equality.
Q: So I guess when you say you were "looking down on them," you were both physically and mentally looking down on them --
Q: -- as a way of coping with the cards being stacked against you.
Thomas: Yes. Well, there was a certain resignation -- acceptance -- "they're a club." But we realized also, if they wanted to call themselves a professional club, they should not have kept us out for so long. But it was true of all the clubs in this town -- Overseas Press Club, the Cosmos Club, which is made up of Nobels, Pulitzer Prize winners, great physicists, great poets, great novelists, and so forth -- all male. Three times, up to the 1980s, they voted against taking women in. Now they do take women in. So you can see how far into the twentieth century we went before --
Q: It took until the 1980s for women not to have to sit in the balcony?
Thomas: Until the Cosmos Club -- No. No, we got into the National Press Club in 1971, and I had been president of the Women's National Press Club, and when [Nikita S.] Krushchev was coming to town they made this one exception, because we really protested and made a big hullabaloo out of it. We got to Eisenhower, through his press secretary, so we had a meeting at the State Department with the president of the National Press Club, and for the first time in history they allowed thirty newspaper women to sit on the floor and have lunch with their male colleagues, when Krushchev spoke before the National Press Club, his one appearance before the press. It was a very exciting historical era, the beginning of co-existence, so every woman reporter wanted to be there, and that's when Khrushchev made his famous "We will bury you" speech. I sat at the head table, because I was president of the Women's Press Club. But after that -- that was a one-shot deal. We were never allowed, until 1971, to totally join.
Q: Was it because of your leadership, as president of the Women's Club? Was it on your initiative that it occurred?
Thomas: For this one time?
Thomas: No. Well, I certainly was very adamant on it, and I was certainly interested in foreign affairs. But it was a cabal. A lot of the women, a lot of the other officers of the Club, we all joined in, and sent a cable to Moscow saying, "We would certainly like to invite you to our club." So the Soviet ambassador went to the State Department and said, "Well, what shall I do? We've got the National Press Club, the Women's National Press Club, Overseas Press Club, American Newswomen's Club, and so forth." "Of course, you're going to the National Press Club," and we said, "Of course, he's not." We were very adamant. So we fought it out. That was one time.
Q: One time. Why do you think -- ?
Thomas: There was a lot of resistance on the part of men. It was their club -- not just the Press Club, but all the clubs in this town. When they would let the women in for certain occasions, you would go in the side door or the back door.
Q: Oh, my god. That I'm really shocked to hear. So then you had to try again, and exert pressure all over again, for another, I would say -- what? -- ten years?
Thomas: Well, from '59 to '71.
Q: Longer. So what took so long? How many women were there in the press corps?
Thomas: We had a big club. We had at least 100 women.
Q: Against how many men?
Thomas: Well, in the Press Club, of course, it was much bigger, and a lot of those women had retired, basically, but they were still members of the Club. We'd had newspaper women for at least 150 years, so it was not exactly unique. But they were few and far between. We had no television, no cable, and so forth.
Q: You know, it's hard for me to imagine how you could have tolerated it for so long. Why did it take twelve years? Was there just a sea change, where the timing was right?
Thomas: We fought, and we staged all kinds of demonstrations. Then, for the Gridiron Club, a group of women staged what they called the Counter Gridiron, and they got every VIP and told them not to appear at the Press Club. It was a very effective boycott. Then they would give an event with all kinds of fun games, entertainment, food, and so forth, on the night of the big Gridiron dinner, which was white-tie, with the president, and the Cabinet, and the Supreme Court, and when they started boycotting it, it began to gel. Then I became the first member -- woman -- to be taken into the Gridiron Club. This was in 1975.
Q: So 1971, when you were all admitted, was really the second feminist movement's peak.
Thomas: It was a turning point for us.
Q: That was the height of -- Betty Friedan's The Female Eunuch [sic] had come out, and Germaine Greer --
Thomas: We were feminists and working for equality long before she came on the scene. Her book was very effective, but it didn't mean anything to me. I had been fighting since I was born. Not to diminish her role, but from the moment I stepped into the real world, I was fighting for equality.
Q: I ask that because I was wondering how many of the women you were with were covering the feminist movement.
Thomas: That came later on. A lot of the young women did. But the women I was with were feminist suffragists. We were suffragists. [laughter] We were so happy we got the vote.
Q: So before you, who would you say broke through into the world of Washington politics and political coverage?
Thomas: Oh, there were so many women. There was Dorothy Thompson; Doris Fleeson; May Craig. There was a whole roster at the Press Club of the women who were heads of the Women's National Press Club. They were wonderful, magnificent reporters. Great reporters. And they wrote hard news, too.
Q: You knew them personally?
Thomas: Oh, yes. A lot of them I did. Not all of them, but I knew a lot of them. And Mrs. [Anna Eleanor] Roosevelt would have news conferences just for women reporters, to try to give them a leg up, during the late '30s, '40s, while she was First Lady.
Q: Could you tell me about some of these women, whom you particularly admired, who might have been role models for you?
Thomas: None were role models for me. I didn't have that kind of contact. I just knew what I wanted to be. I was glad they were there, and they certainly had made their mark, a lot of them -- like Dorothy Thompson, like Doris Fleeson had columns, and May Craig, and so forth. There were so many great newspaper women, really. They were much more mature than what you'll see today, and they had knocked around. They really knew how to cover crime, politics, and so forth, but they didn't get the kind of breaks. Some of them did. Some of them made the breakthrough and really became outstanding-- Margaret Higgins, in the Korean War, and so forth -- but you could name them, really, on a couple hands.
Q: And they had by-lines?
Thomas: Oh, yes.
Q: So they were highly visible, and the public had no problem reading --
Thomas: No. But they were so few and far between, and there was still discrimination against women. Well, women in medicine and law found the same thing. Science, even today, as we know --
Q: [Interruption] I guess you were following Eileen Shanahan, who was with the New York Times.
Thomas: I wasn't following her. She worked with me, starting out. She came on later than me.
Q: I mean watching the discrimination case that was filed with the New York Times -- could you talk about your perception of what was going on there?
Thomas: Well, it took so long for all these things to gel. The same thing with the AP -- ten years. I wasn't watching it blow by blow, but I knew some of the women involved. It came time when it should have been done. I'm so surprised it took so long.
Q: I guess there must have been a feeling of solidarity.
Thomas: Oh, absolutely.
Q: How did the women in the Women's Press Club help one another, against the resistance?
Thomas: We stood together, but when you are a newspaper woman, you are alone. You are independent. You have your own stories, and so forth. There's a camaraderie, and certainly in the clubs I think, there is, how shall I say? A bonding. But as a reporter, you're always alone, really. You're doing your own thing. So we all were very supportive of the things that we knew about in terms of discrimination, but it was every man for himself, really, in our field.
Q: That must have made it that much more difficult, because you needed to have some solidarity with your competition.
Thomas: Well, we knew that they were sympathetic, but you still have to do it yourself.
Q: Right. Okay. I wanted to talk to you about your decision to retire from UPI [United Press International].
Thomas: I didn't retire, I resigned.
Q: Oh. Would you tell me about that, please?
Thomas: Well, what's the difference? Retirement -- I'll never retire. I haven't retired yet. I resigned from UPI.
Q: I'm sorry. I thought you had decided you weren’t going to work anymore.
Thomas: Oh, no, no. I decided I wasn't going to work for UPI anymore.
Q: Can you say anything more about why?
Thomas: Oh, it was a bridge too far when the Moonies took over, when Reverend [Sun Myung] Moon -- so that was it. I couldn't work for them, but I certainly didn't want to bow out of the field. I would get another job.
Q: Did you see evidence of editorial control?
Thomas: I didn't know whether there would be. All I knew was that I would not work for that man. Never.
Q: And then Hearst came along and wooed you.
Thomas: Yes. Within two weeks, practically, I was back to working again.
Q: You had said, in one of your books, that you felt that it was important for all reporters, for all members of the press, to operate as if they had their own Hippocratic oath; that it was important to do no harm when you report. I was wondering -- it's kind of loose today. Do you think there should be something more formal for journalists to follow?
Thomas: No. When a journalist makes a mistake, it is so transparent, and the retribution is so fast, that you don't need that kind of thing. It's ridiculous. All I know is, your mistake is on the front page every day, or whatever. Our report card is on the front page. So I have seen, most of the time, very few -- maybe Jack Kelly, with USA Today, got by for a long time, longer than usual, in fabricating a story. But the others are quickly exposed. I think it's the nature of our business that you can't last long. Too many people know too many things, and now we have these extra people -- the bloggers, and so forth -- and also a very ultra-right -- what will I call them? Critics? Whatever -- who are deliberately out to demonize the liberal press. They want to call everybody a liberal, who disagrees with them. So I don't think you get by with too much if you make a mistake. You don't survive, on a paper, or on television or radio. It's very intolerant of those kinds of mistakes.
Q: I can recall about four or five incidents like the one with Jack Kelly. There was one in the '80s, I think with Janet Cook at the Washington Post --
Thomas: Yes. Those stand out like sore thumbs because they were rare.
Q: Then there was one at the Times recently.
Thomas: Yes, Jason Blair. Of course, the top scion of the Times had to resign because of that. You can see what the retribution is -- with Blair. Then, of course, the phony ones, and being paid, and so forth -- Armstrong Williams, promoting -- there have been a lot of transgressions lately, but easily found out, I think.
Q: Why do you think that's been happening? It seems to me -- I was a kid in the '60s and I don't recall anything like that. Is it correct that that's happened more now?
Thomas: Oh, I think it's much more so. We became a celebrity business. Everybody wanted to go into the media, so-called, and I think they never understood that we did have ethics and standards, and we still have them, even though there has been such an explosion in the information world. Everybody with a laptop thinks they're a journalist, and they want to get into the act. But a blogger is not a reporter. A blogger is not a journalist. They're just simply expressing themselves. So it's very, very difficult now to find out what is really accurate, and what is the truth, because everybody's on the wire.
Q: It's very disturbing, because the public doesn't really seem to discriminate very much.
Thomas: That's right. Well, the whole Swift Boat business, and all these things where they can attack you and you don't even know you're being attacked, but you have to defend yourself against this kind of thing. It's gotten much more dangerous, really, in that respect. But, at the same time, I think that our profession is still maintaining the high standards, which is to seek the truth, and to print and broadcast only the truth -- as far as you can find out. But so many things go wrong, and can go wrong. I think there's a lot of jealousy of our profession. A lot of people want to be in it, but don't really want to pay the dues that we paid. I mean, to be on TV twice is to have a celebrity. You could write for a newspaper for fifty years, and your friends and family know your by-line and are very happy to see it, but it's nothing like on TV. They've seen you twice -- "Haven't I seen you somewhere before?" You gain a certain celebrity-hood. And if you're on often, your celebrity-hood grows. That doesn't mean your talent grows.
Q: I'm a little unclear, though. When you say there's jealousy -- whose jealousy?
Thomas: I think the critics, the media critics, are a little bit envious. I think they want to cut you down to size -- especially if you have a different opinion. I write an opinion column now, so I get it with both barrels.
Q: Is it a weekly opinion column that you write now?
Thomas: Two a week.
Q: Are you getting a lot of mail?
Thomas: Oh, yes. E-mail, and very angry -- because I'm very liberal. I've always been a liberal, I'll always be a liberal. When I was writing for a wire service, I didn't let my opinion get into my copy, just the facts. But now I'm supposed to have an edge, and have an opinion.
Q: Do you think that the role of journalism is to inform or to educate the public, or both?
Thomas: Both. They're almost synonymous, in that respect. I guess if you have an opinion column, you might want to persuade to your point of view.
Q: What do you think accounts for the rise in popularity of the Rush [H.] Limbaughs and the [William J.] O'Reillys?
Thomas: The Reagan revolution. The women's movement hit a plateau in the Reagan administration, when women started going back to their homes. There was a real conservative bloc against women, and it was Open Sesame for the haters on the ultra-right to take over -- Social Darwinism: "Can't make it? Tough. Survival of the Fittest." And, "We’ve got to get rid of 'big government,' those big social programs, that take care of the poor, the sick, the maimed.” They're all riding around in their gold Cadillacs. Terrible. I think it opened the way for those kinds of critics, then the attacks on the press. Well, everybody has always wanted to attack the messenger -- Democrats, liberals, and the right -- but the right really made the press their nemesis. And, anyway, they started making money out of attacking the press. Attacking became a big business. Look what happened to PBS! There isn't a liberal hut left, hardly, except for Al [Alan S.] Franken on Air America. They have wiped out the liberal thought in the broadcast business -- Bill [D.] Moyers. [Daniel I.] Rather was a straight reporter, but he also was considered on the liberal side, and they had to go after him. [Phillip J.] Donahue -- everybody who had any -- annoyed them.
Q: You say they went after the so-called liberal press because they could make money.
Thomas: That’s a non-sequiter. They found out it was big business to attack the press, and to attack liberals. Who's paying these people? The [Richard M.] Scaifes and so forth, keeping these people alive, and so forth. It's a big business.
Q: But if the public were not ready to tolerate it, then they couldn't make money.
Thomas: Well, they don't have much alternative. You turn on the television, you turn on the radio -- you don't have many choices. The conservatives were able to buy up a lot of cable. The big corporate heads in New York -- who owns NBC [National Broadcasting Company]? GE [General Electric]; Viacom for CBS [Columbia Broadcasting System]. Disney. It’s amusement. What pays off? What gets the audiences? Attack, attack, attack gets audiences.
Q: So the audiences like the attack.
Thomas: I don't know. I don't listen to them. Never.
Q: So are you suggesting that there's the military-industrial complex -- because, after all, it's GE that owns NBC, on the one hand --
Thomas: I would say that they fired a lot of people in the news division. In the old days, [William S.] Paley and [David] Sarnoff, yes, they wanted to make money. They did make money. But they kept the news division separate, independent, and they did not expect to please the shareholders with huge profits. All that has turned now. The corporate heads think in terms of, "Will this make money?" I never thought that news -- news is a business, true, but it was never supposed to be taking care of Wall Street. I’m speaking so generally, but what I'm saying is that there has been a tremendous chance. Before, I think there was much more respect for straight news. Family-owned newspapers, and so forth. We've been reduced, now, to one-newspaper towns. New York had twenty. Every major city had two to three, most of them three newspapers. Now it's all reduced to one, monopolies. They were family-owned, which was great. They didn't expect to make their money from the newspapers, either. But now they’re buying and selling stations as if they were hotcakes, and they have no interest, really, in serving the community or the news -- a lot of them. There may be some still around, I'm sure, to try to preserve the ethic of the profession.
Q: So I hear three factors: The decline in family-owned media, where there's a personal stake in the desire to educate or inform the public, and then it's protected by --
Thomas: -- an interest in the community --
Q: -- accountability, the community.
Thomas: -- and not trying to become billionaires.
Q: Then there's the entertainment aspect you alluded to, with Disney and ABC [American Broadcasting Company], and then you--
Thomas: -- which is superseding the real intent for news. Unless you have a 9/11 or the start of a war or something, where you have something cataclysmic -- then you have some real performance. But, I don't know --
Q: And the third thing being the GE and bottom-line oriented corporate ownership.
Q: You mentioned 9/11. I'd be interested to know what you thought of the coverage of 9/11 generally, but also, from your point of view, what you thought was going on with the White House response.
Thomas: Well, I think it was very debilitating for the press corps at the White House. I thought the coverage was very good in New York and so forth, but what happened to the reporters was everybody had to put their flags on their lapels, and they lost their way. They rolled over and played dead. They were fearful of being called unpatriotic and un-American. They should have been challenging. They should have been trying to find out more and so forth. I think the fear card was played to the hilt, and reporters just submitted to that kind of atmosphere of not wanting to rock the boat and so forth. Then it segued into the war, where questions that were penetrating would be considered jeopardizing the troops. So you had a terrible quiet in the press room, when people should have been very challenging, demanding. Going into the war, in the run-up to the war, I think the press let the country down. They should have demanded -- demanded -- proof from [George W.] Bush on all of these things. Well, Congress did, too. They rolled over and played dead, too.
Q: Why is it so easy now to accuse someone of being unpatriotic when they ask a question, and getting away with that accusation?
Thomas: Because I think there are these ultra-right critics out there, watching the press. There's a certain amount of subtle fear that is in the atmosphere; of not wanting to step over the line, otherwise you'll be considered -- well, [Ronald W.] Reagan and [George H. W.] Bush I demonized the word "liberal." They didn't say it, they hissed it, and soon they made it into a four-letter word on the national scene. "You're a liberal?" People were afraid that they would be considered a liberal or anything else. So this is all part of a pattern that, I think, has been so detrimental to our country. Because what is a liberal? A liberal cares about his fellow man. He is his brother's keeper. He believes, like Lincoln did, that government should do for the people what they cannot do for themselves. Nobody in this country should starve, or lack for medicine, or shelter. This is what a liberal cares about.
Q: It almost sounds like a very Christian kind of way of approaching your fellow man. The words have been kind of twisted.
Thomas: Totally. When "liberal" is demonized -- FDR [Franklin D. Roosevelt] was a liberal; LBJ [Lyndon B. Johnson] was a liberal, domestically, and so forth. They tried to put that foundation, wherein people are not supposed to suffer for ordinary food or medicine, in this country. It's so rich, the country is.
Q: Does it seem to you like this kind of demonization of other kinds of thinking and points of view -- despising pluralism in our society -- does it seem to you like the [Joseph R.] McCarthy era?
Thomas: That was, you know, a basic, small cancer, for Washington-New York-Hollywood. I don't think it affected people so much as it did the artists, and that was a horrible period. But I think now it is just all-encompassing, in the whole country; that the whole attitude is scary. We have lost our way in terms of -- you put it very well. The very fact that you could have the acceptances of different points of view, and so forth. Now I think that 9/11 really made us into monolithic thinkers, so afraid to deviate for fear we would be considered off-the-wall.
Q: How does it make you feel to see something that was a small and horrific time, with McCarthy --
Thomas: I loved the '60s, not the '50s.
Q: I would love to come back to that, but if I could just ask this question --
Q: How does it make you feel to see something so large and all-encompassing, on such a scale, with perspective --
Thomas: These people -- the Patriot Act is so frightening. They can grab you off the street, and you could never be seen again. It's [Franz] Kafka! It's the-end-justifies-the-means. Can you imagine the Secretary of State defending torture? Not in those words, per se, but definitely sending people off to another country, to be interrogated?
Q: It's appalling.
Thomas: To be treated like -- no information is worth that. A lot of the detainees have been killed. I mean, they have died under the torture. Who wouldn't? There's a certain amount of pressure you can take, physically or mentally. We have shamed our country. [laughs] You're getting the lecture now. I really do think. So this is worse than McCarthy. McCarthy was horrible -- the blacklisting, the fear. There was fear everywhere. You were afraid to say anything, lest you be considered a communist. But it was not that contagious, all over the country. It hit Hollywood, it hit New York, and Washington, in certain segments. It’s no question it was all-pervading, in the sense that you had loyalty oaths and so forth. It was fascist, really. But this is worse, because it's so widespread, I think, in terms of the total control of the country. And no challenging. I mean, you have a Congress that's been so acquiescent.
Q: You say that you write a liberal column, and one of my questions was going to be, is there really this so-called "liberal press" anymore? Because I find that there are not enough even moderate voices speaking out. Do you feel alone, with your colleagues?
Thomas: Well, they have another columnist here, Marianne Means who writes liberally. She's not as liberal as I am, but she's very liberal. I certainly do feel like I stand out like a sore thumb, mainly because, in the briefing room -- I'm sure they'd like to kick me out, because “You're a columnist, you're not a reporter!” and this and that; because I'm sort of grandmothered in, I guess, and I make these asides.
Well, this is what they had, on the drum-up to the war. Every day [Lawrence] Ari Fleischer came out, for two years, and then Scott McClellan, before we invaded -- we invaded March 19, 2003 -- so from 9/11 to that day, "Saddam Hussein-9/11; Saddam Hussein-9/11; Saddam Hussein." It was the [Paul Joseph] Goebbels repeated. [laughs] Is it any wonder that anybody would think? Right from the White House, the official podium, this was the message. Then the president said no, there was no tie between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Well, by this time, you can imagine. And is it any wonder that the polls said the American people -- So that was the drum-up to the war. That's part of the whole spin-up.
[END TAPE ONE, SIDE ONE; BEGIN SIDE TWO]
Thomas: There aren't many liberals in the press room, no. And there certainly aren't many liberal columnists left. I think everybody got scared, really. They didn't know what really is the atmosphere, or how much your bosses would tolerate.
Q: Do you think that Karl Rove and spin-masters have become more sophisticated over the years you've been covering the White House?
Thomas: I think they had the advantage of fear, an atmosphere of "darkness at noon," so they were able to get by with anything. They could say anything. In this administration, everyone walks in lock-step. They all are on-message. The press secretary, who I think should wear two hats, be responsive to us, and so forth, sees himself as an advocate. So everything is their message from the White House and few challenges, because people don't even know how to challenge or what to say. You've got to say, "Well, prove that," and then they can go on to the next question. One day Scott McClellan said, "We're in Iraq and Afghanistan by invitation." I read that in the transcript; I wasn't there when he said it. I came in the next day, and I said, "Scott, I've been reading that you said we were in Iraq by invitation. Would you like to correct that incredible distortion of American history?" [laughter] "Well! They're a democratic people. They're a democratic state!" And I said, "If they asked us to leave, would we?” "No." [laughs] I get by with all that stuff every day, and I'm pulling their chain. It’s fun.
Q: Well, you know, when reporters fail to ask probing questions, tough questions, we're told that they fear that there will be reprisals, that they'll be cut off --
Thomas: No access. Yes.
Q: -- no access. That doesn't seem to have stopped you.
Thomas: Well, I don't have any access. I cover the briefings. I still have my front-row seat there. I must say, when I go to the White House, I look to see if it's still there, every day. I'm becoming the enfant terrible. But for news conferences, he won't call on me, and they put me in the back row. [laughs] Sometimes I don't go. I don't want to be a prop.
Q: But when you say you have no access, you mean that --
Thomas: What I mean is, I don't even try to talk to these people, because I know they don't want to talk to me. But other reporters do. I don't know what motivates them, or whether they feel that if they ask a tough question they would be cut off. I don't think they feel that way. But, certainly, in the White House, they have to feel that you're a friend, and they know I'm not.
Q: I heard that as a result of your question to Bush, about the separation of church and state, they had put you in the back row.
Thomas: Well, that was my first question to him, and it threw him for a loop, because a couple weeks after he became president, first term, he dropped into the press room, being very affable, and started an informal little impromptu news conference. Every reporter asked about the impending tax cuts. When it got to me, I said, "Mr. President, why don't you respect the wall of separation of church and state?" Well, there's a video that looks like I shot him. He pulled back. "I do." I said, "No, sir, you don't. If you did, you would not have a religious office in the White House. You're secular?" I'm putting it on. "You're secular?" He said, "I am secular." And I said, "Well, I just think --" Well, that afternoon, I got a call from Ari Fleischer. "What's the idea of blind-siding the president?" I said, "What do you mean?" "Well, you asked him --" I said, "That was a legitimate question." But anyway, I'm persona non grata with these guys. It doesn’t matter.
Q: Are you the only one who raised the question about church and state, or even faith-based initiatives?
Thomas: They set up this office -- it's terrible. They put funding of religious charities on a par with government social programs across the board that apply to everyone. In my speeches I say, "Atheists pay taxes, too." This kind of money should not be going -- if you want to give to a Catholic charity, be in the Catholic charity, then let the congregations do it, as we always have. It should not be from the White House. It should not be in government. No, I don't believe in that -- proselytizing and so forth. The Salvation Army will only hire people who have a certain religion, and so forth. And there have been so many intrusions and breakdowns. The breakdown of that wall is very important, I think, in terms of our democracy, and, truly, the way our country -- the things we cherish about it -- the legitimacy. These people have done it, starting from Reagan on. The country went to the right, it became very conservative, and that's what it is today.
Q: When you challenge the president, as you have, in the little dialogue you just replayed for me, and other examples in your books, you usually start your question with a couple of sentences, a kind of preface, one or two sentences and then the question -- you get sort of an answer, and then you challenge, you probe.
Thomas: Yes. They don't allow follow-ups, which is bad. He comes in with a list of names -- I've never seen this done before -- of who he's going to call on. They're all designated by the insiders. "This is who you call on." It's true that when I was with the wire service, the wire services, UPI and AP, got the first two questions. So you had an automatic question. But when they called on the rest of the reporters, they didn't have a list of who we should call on, who would be friendly.
Q: I have to say, I remember seeing one press conference where I thought that the president knew what questions were going to be asked. Have they gone that far?
Thomas: I don't think so. I think the reporters have more integrity than that. But you can pretty well tell. They're prepped. With Reagan, it was almost like he was studying for a Ph.D., going into the tank. So they know the questions that the reporters have been asking. They know what the headlines are of the day. So they can pretty well predict what's coming up.
Q: So it's a way of knowing what questions will be asked, by the history of the reporters.
Thomas: Well, also what is happening, and also the briefings day after day after day, when certain reporters are asking -- there's one Indian reporter who's always asking about India and Pakistan. The black women reporters are always asking about blacks, civil rights and -- they pretty well know.
Q: So they can take the time up with questions from people who they know are not going to ask the questions that are of main interest to the American people.
Thomas: Right. They don't want to be taken off guard, or hit between the eyes. No.
Q: So what's the farthest out on a limb you've gone to get a story, when you've encountered this kind of resistance?
Thomas: I don't understand that question. How do you mean?
Q: Well, I was just thinking -- How do you work around it, when there are these walls being thrown up?
Thomas: Well, I'm not in the business of having to get scoops anymore, or getting the kind of exclusives. I'm writing opinion, so I'm reading papers and trying to observe around.
Q: I meant in the past.
Thomas: In the past? Oh, well, then I had friends in other administrations, people I got to know and who would level with me. I think when you give your word of trust, of confidentiality, that you certainly should stick by it, and protect your sources. But I haven't gotten into trouble, like Judy [Judith] Miller and the others, because I've never had any great exclusives on that score -- war and peace.
Q: I wanted to ask you your opinion about what's been going on with the pressure of Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper, and the grand jury testimony, and the fact that she went to jail. Having anonymous sources is somewhat controversial. I wonder what you think about how far she went, to wait to get the go-ahead from him.
Thomas: Well, I think she was very legitimate. I signed two petitions to get her out of jail. I thought she was very noble to go, because, clearly, she could have probably worked around it. The others didn't want to go to jail. That's good. They really didn't, and they were able to work out something. But I thought she showed a lot of guts to do that. But there's no question that she should have been more perceptive about the defectors, who gave all these stories about the weapons that didn't exist. But part of the fault, certainly, lies with her editors. They should have said to her, "Judy, how many sources do you have on this, and who are your sources?" So I think that all the editors at the New York Times were very upset with themselves. But I thought, in the aftermath, for them to take it out on her was horrible.
Q: But some people would argue that an experienced investigative reporter like her should have been more discerning. You said, very nicely, that she could have been more "perceptive." But she seemed to have almost been, some people say, promoting the weapons-of-mass-destruction argument.
Thomas: I think she was used. No question she was used. I think she trusted, too much, her informants, and should have been much more curious as to why they were passing on this stuff, and just being a transmission belt for them. No, there's no question that she made a mistake in that respect, I think. But you always think, "There but for the grace of God go I." You think, "Oh, well, I've got a big scoop here," and you don't realize, also, that somebody might be using you.
Q: Do you believe the stories we've been hearing about how the news room at the Times has turned against her because she's been so difficult and possessive about her stories?
Thomas: I don't think it was vengeful. I think some of them might have been happy, that they might have had their little friction with her, but I think when they began to realize the importance that her stories -- I mean, to be at the New York Times and be on the front page is top of the mark in journalism. And I think that they defaulted themselves by not scrutinizing the copy more. So I think she was getting it, and she admitted she shouldn't have done that, but I think there was a little bit of self-guilt there, too. I don't know. I'm not a psychiatrist, but I think it was very rude and mean. First they put her on a pedestal, then they knocked her down, or seemed to. Some of their self-justification was -- I don't like to see anybody hurt like that. But she's holding her head up, I must say. She's fighting back, which is good.
Q: You have sometimes said in your books that you got a tip for something that you ended up following. Can you say, generally, who these kinds of tips were from? You say now that you have no access. But you must have been cultivating people, aides in the White House, for years.
Thomas: I wasn't very good at that, but some people did trust me and would call me and tip me off to things, a few times. I certainly did not make breakthroughs on a lot of big stories, but once in a while something would come your way-- someone from the inside, in the White House, who wanted something out, usually a whistleblower. You wish you had known more of them, because they really are upset about something that they consider an abuse of power, or the abuse of the American people. I wish we had more whistleblowers, and I would like to know them all. [laughter] Pass it this way!
Q: What do you think about the use of anonymous sources? Is it happening more now?
Thomas: I think you have to. I think you have to. I think otherwise we would know nothing, if you can’t protect people. Whistleblowers are treated like pariahs. They're treated badly. They lose their jobs, they can't support their families, and so forth. No, I think they need protection, and I think there should be a federal shield law. It's true, it would give us an extra privilege, but I think we should have it. And I think the people would be better off the more they know, because of what we know, and what we're able to find out. People shouldn't have to lose their jobs to tell the truth, and expose malfeasance.
Q: You said something very interesting about President Truman. He had the attitude that the press helped him to get a sense of what the public was thinking.
Thomas: And what's going on. Bush has had twenty-one news conferences in five years. That's a long time between drinks and, obviously, it wasn't conducive for him. Because he would at least know what was on people's minds. I don’t know if he reads papers or not. He says he doesn't, but he should, if he doesn't.
Q: You just made me think of something you said in your book, the third book, on presidents and humor. You said that Americans have always wanted their presidents to be charismatic. You're not clear on how much they want their presidents to have a high IQ.
Thomas: That's true.
Q: So what do you think of a president who says he doesn't read the papers, his staff tells him?
Thomas: I think it's very sad. I think it's in line with our perception of him, which is a lack of intellectual curiosity. And I think that's sad, because what you want a president to do is ask all the questions, and to be able to face the truth. And to be able to admit they're wrong, and do something about it.
Q: You know, when you were writing about Reagan -- and I bring up Reagan, because some of the things you observed about his administration I find reminiscent in this administration. I wonder if you do, too. The reason why I ask that is because everything seemed so scripted then, and now we have these so-called "talking points." I just wonder if you see a pattern there in these two presidencies.
Thomas: Oh, I think there is a lot of similarity. I do think Bush tries to emulate Reagan in many, many ways. A lot of the same people are around. Definitely, the M.O. is there, putting on the charm, and so forth. Yes. But Reagan had been in politics, and he'd been six times president of the Screen Actors Guild. He had done commentaries on foreign affairs, and, of course, communism really was his nemesis, and so forth. But he was much more attuned to what was going on than this president.
Q: Well, I have the impression that you thought that when [Edwin] Meese and [James] Baker switched jobs, without telling Reagan --
Thomas: Oh, it was shocking.
Q: -- and then, later, Reagan thought it was a good idea --
Thomas: Well, his aides always thought they were smarter than Reagan. They thought they knew more, etc. With this president, he thinks he's president! He can't stand anybody to leak anything. He wants everybody in lock-step, onboard, part of the team, and he really is a mama's boy. He doesn't want men telling him what to do. I think he can take it from -- There's a rumor now that he's only talking to four people: his wife, his mother, Karen [P.] Hughes, and Condoleezza Rice. I don't know if it's true or not, but I do think he takes umbrage at somebody telling him what to do -- the father figure, and everything else.
Q: That's interesting. Where I was going with my question about Reagan was different. I had the impression that --
Thomas: He was not dumb, in my opinion. No.
Q: But I had the impression that you thought he was not in charge. Because they went and did this switch in jobs, and didn't discuss it with him.
Thomas: Well, I think in many ways he delegated. He always had this plaque -- "It doesn't matter who gets the credit --" on his desk. He delegated a lot of responsibility, which he shouldn't have done. And I think they took a lot of privilege, which they shouldn't have done. They certainly should have let him know when they were shooting down some planes. And I also had this feeling that they thought they were smarter, but they weren't. He just wanted the big picture. He didn't want to be bothered with the tricky-track. Jimmy [James E.] Carter was accused of being the opposite; of "Who's using the tennis court?" and that kind of thing. Micro-managing.
Q: Do you think W. is in charge? Or is it [Richard B.] Cheney and Rove, in your opinion?
Thomas: I think they dare not do anything they don't tell him about. I think he's very possessive of being president, and so forth. But, at the same time, he's very beholden to them for their advice, because he doesn't know what to do. He's scared to death that he won't be considered "in charge." They started subduing Cheney early on in the administration, in terms of -- when people were saying, practically, "Mr. President, Mr. Prime Minister" -- they kind of cut him down to size. They wanted everybody to know who was president.
Q: Okay. I'm going to save some of the questions I have about the current president for tomorrow. Maybe we can return to some of the journalism discussion we were in earlier.
Q: I remember asking you, over the phone, if you would care to comment on the revelation of who Deep Throat turned out to be, and whether or not the kind of investigative work that [Robert U.] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein did in the '70s could be done today, in this climate.
Thomas: I don't think newspapers are willing to put the money out. The Washington Post had eighteen reporters on this story. I think if it's big enough they may do it, but there's lots of -- In fact, there are very few newspapers anymore who have any investigative reporters. It's sort of a dying art. Some have, but, unfortunately --
Q: But you have said that we-- "we" the press; I included myself there, because I'm also a journalist-- are the only check, really, about what the president --
Q: --who he’s accountable to.
Thomas: Absolutely. That's why I think the job is so, so important. People don't understand. You could have a king, you could have a dictator, unless they're being questioned. As it is, this one is hardly ever accountable, for anything. He hardly ever explains, or has been put on the spot at all.
Q: What do you think it will take for that to happen? For a while I thought --
Thomas: Early on I used to get these calls: "How dare you? Who in the hell elected you? Why did you ask those questions? You are mean. You're this. You're that. Why don't you retire?" Now I get calls -- "Where are you? Where's the press? How come you people aren't asking this?" They see all this televised, and they think of the questions that should be asked, and they're shocked. They think the press has just fallen down on the job.
Q: When we spoke on the phone, the effects of the hurricanes, and the public's good perception of the reporting we saw about the disaster in New Orleans, seemed to be fresher and started to look like the press had gotten some --
Thomas: That was the turning point. I think they came back to their senses, and dropped some of the fear card. Because they were getting the go-ahead from the corporate heads. "You can show emotion now. You can be a human being now. You can ask the tough questions now."
Q: You don't think it came the other way? From the reporters in the field? It came from the top?
Thomas: Well, I think they became more daring, yes, because it didn't rock any boats in terms of -- but they got a basic go-ahead from the top side.
Q: Why, all of a sudden?
Thomas: Well, because I think that was such a horrendous domestic crisis, and you had to find somebody to blame. There were so many faults along that they finally really had to challenge the president. Things were so bad, and they could hear the people griping all over: "Where's the government? Where are the cars? Where's the help?"
Q: Was the White House having press briefings in the middle of all that?
Thomas: They were trying to say what they were doing, but they were getting the feedback, too. Then Bush was running there every five minutes. He made more trips to the flood areas. I don' know how many times he went to Louisiana, Mississippi, and so forth.
Q: At least four or five times, I think.
Thomas: That's right. At the very high-profile times.
Q: But you attend all of the White House briefings, every day, still. Right?
Thomas: When I'm in town and he's in town. I do speak occasionally. But yes, I try to go every day, when he's there, and when there's a briefing.
Q: Were you there during that period of the hurricane?
Thomas: Yes, most of the time.
Q: What kind of stuff were they telling you?
Thomas: Well, they were telling us what they had done, what FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] was doing in terms of how many troops were getting there, the National Guard and this and that. You know. How much food was being sent. All the actions that they said Homeland Security and FEMA were doing.
Q: Did you feel they were more forthcoming in the crisis?
Thomas: Well, you certainly felt that they wanted to show you that they were active, and doing everything possible in a humanitarian way that they could.
Q: I was going to say, did you feel they were more forthcoming than usual? Because of the intense need for damage control? Because of the head of FEMA and his incompetence?
Thomas: Probably part of that. But also, it wasn't touchy, like the Iraq war. It was a very human thing, and they felt that they had the upper hand, where the president was going and showing so much concern, and sent everybody down there. He had moved a mountain, providing all this money, and so forth. Sure I think they felt, definitely, they could put their best foot forward, and they were proud of what they were doing after.
Q: How do you know, as a reporter, when you did have access, and you were asking your questions at conferences -- how did you know when you were being lied to?
Thomas: Because they weren't offering any proof. When [John F.] Kennedy announced that the Cubans had Soviet missiles, he showed them on television. These people had no proof of anything. From the moment Bush set foot into the White House, I knew he wanted to go to war. Suddenly, on the radar screen, out of nowhere, after twelve years, every day we were getting “Saddam Hussein, Saddam Hussein, we have to have a regime change, we have to have--.” And we said, "What is this? What did he do? Where is the threat? What is this all about?" Well, you knew you were being brainwashed. You knew they were trying to establish it. No, I didn't trust anything they were saying, at all. Because I saw there was such a concerted attempt to brainwash us and to propagandize a cause.
Q: But they were not taking your questions, right? Because that was after your question --
Thomas: No, they took my questions. But by this time, [Paul H.] O'Neill and Richard [A.] Clarke and everyone were saying -- they were looking for a cause. Bush took the counter-terrorism guy aside and said, "Find me a reason to go into Iraq." In Woodward's book, he said that the war council on 9/12, day after 9/11, [Donald H.] Rumsfeld -- They knew by this time it was [Osama] bin Laden, it was foolproof, they knew who did it, they knew basically, generally, where he was, and Rumsfeld said, "Let's bomb Iraq." That was all on the agenda. Project for a New American Century. You're aware of that? That was it. The agenda. The neo-cons, for the last dozen years or more, have been trying to sell that. They tried to sell it to Reagan, they couldn't do that. They tried to sell it to Bush I, they tried to sell it to Clinton and couldn't. They sold it to this man, the neo-conservatives. They're backing away from it now, but they had an agenda. [Paul D.] Wolfowitz, Douglas [J.] Feith, William Kristol, Rumsfeld, Cheney, [R. James] Wolsey.
Q: What do you think the agenda is?
Thomas: Take the whole Middle East. Take the oil. Take the geo-political position. Get your permanent bases in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and all the "stans" surrounding China and Iran, for the next war, the Third World War -- if necessary. Have control of the oil. Empire. It's not going to work. They've already flunked. They'll be lucky to get out.
Q: Have you written what you've just told me?
Thomas: No, but everybody knows it. The Project for the New American Century -- all you've got to do is call it up on your internet. They've made no secret of that.
Q: But the American public thinks it's all about the Christians vs. the Muslims. So they don't know.
Thomas: I do think he's messianic. I do think there is a certain crusade in Bush, in his own mind. He has put a religious taint on it. There's no question about that.
Q: Do you think that's a smokescreen for the agenda?
Thomas: No, I think it's all part of the same parcel. The neo-cons certainly don't resent him building up this wall against the radical Islamic people, because they're the ones who would be thwarting this. But it's not going to work. Too many people are dying.
Q: Why have you not written about it in your columns?
Thomas: It's my opinion. I don't have any fool proof, except that it is written down, and it's very clear that we had no reason to go into Iraq. They didn't do anything to us. They didn't threaten us. [laughter] I am perfectly willing to go after any country. I think it was right to go into Afghanistan. Get bin Laden, get those people. But Iraq? It's so far-fetched. But he wanted to upstage his dad. He was told, "If your dad wouldn't go to Baghdad --" Because his dad warned that there would be urban fighting in Baghdad; that there might be some resistance.
Q: So you really do buy some of what I read in a book called Bush on the Couch, where it shows that he has a very cool relationship with his father --
Thomas: Oh, yes.
Q: -- and he's in competition with his father.
Thomas: Oh, yes, I do buy that. I don't think that was the number-one thing. I think getting Saddam and getting the oil, and getting a geo-political -- getting empire in the Middle East, I think all those were much more -- but there is a certain amount of ego here. "I'm the president now, and I'll act and do what you didn't do." Dad knows that and handles him with kid gloves, because he knows how sensitive -- he wants to prove he's president. He knows that. That's subjective and my observation, but just the way they act together, you can tell. There's a certain amount of deference -- "I'm the president." It's funny. [laughs] Oedipus.
Q: I know that you are an Arab American, that your family came from Lebanon, and you --
Thomas: Really from Syria, but then it became Lebanon, after World War I, when oil was discovered by the French and the British. They got all these mandates from the League of Nations and took over all these. So Lebanon, then, was sort of cut off from Syria and made into a separate country. But the part my dad and mother came from -- Tripoli -- was on the Mediterranean. It was part of west Syria, originally.
Q: I know that you hang out at Ayesha's, is that how you pronounce it?
Q: So you must hear a lot about the Arab American community here.
Q: What do they think about the Middle East being this kind of target?
Thomas: They think -- well, you know -- when Bush calls [Ariel] Sharon a man of peace -- their idea of Sharon, who presided over a few massacres, and so forth, of Palestinians -- I mean, Bush is just very, 100%, pro-Israeli. So they're very unhappy about that, but they live with it. They've never had an administration that is in favor of the Arabs, really, because they don't have the votes. They don't have money. They don't have the political clout in this country.
Q: I'm surprised that they see it in terms of only Israel -- or that that's the first thing that came to mind, in your response. Because I would think that they would deeply resent this kind of American neo-imperialism in all of the Middle East.
Thomas: Well, now they're worried. But the original sore point was through the creation of the State of Israel and the displacement of the Palestinians. So every Arab has a certain feeling about that.
Q: I'm asking -- I wonder -- don't they feel that their Arab brethren are constantly being invaded. If you're a Syrian, and you see the Iraqis suffering extraordinary tolls --
Thomas: Yes, but I'm telling you what the original feeling was, and the realization that America was never going to side with them. The Jewish influence here, in terms of -- they participate. They're the intellectuals in our country. They're the professors. They really put their money where their mouth is. They're into politics, and so forth, so there's no way that Arabs, in this country, could offset that in terms of even -- and they don't want to. I think they have no interest in that. Most of the immigrants in this country were Christian, and they were anti- -- my mother -- if you had mentioned Mohammedan, who was the Muslim, she would go up in smoke, because they were fleeing from the Sultan, the Turkish -- Ottoman Empire, when they emigrated.
Q: I know your family is Christian. I was distinguishing in my mind --
Thomas: For Arabs, I think they're reconciled. They certainly reconciled to the State of Israel. But, at the same time, they want justice for the Palestinians. They don't want the whole West Bank taken over, and the Israelis did annex Jerusalem, which I think should be international, an open city.
Q: But why is it that they're not offended by the Middle East becoming this kind of colony?
Thomas: Oh, they are. They are. But they can't do anything about it. They don't have that kind of power. This is the horror of bin Laden. In my opinion, he was a very ambitious man. He wanted to depose the royal family in Saudi Arabia. He feels he was not treated right by them, even though his father became a billion-billion-billionaire in Saudi Arabia. He was really a Yemenite. Bin Laden became part of a radical group, and he thought he should win. So he was trying to get rid of the Americans in Saudi Arabia, and get rid of the royal family. So that's the part of that. No, I don't know any Arab who enjoyed the invasion of Iraq, and they did feel sympathy. And when they see Al Jazeera, and they see the Iraqis being killed, and the children and the mothers and everything. El Arabia -- the two television stations they U.S. keeps trying to suppress. They don't allow the Al Jazeera in Iraq. There's a lot of feeling, but they don't feel they can do anything about it.
Q: I'd also like to ask you about what was being said in the Arab community, Christian and Muslim, here in Washington, when 9/11 happened, and there was such fear in the American public, and there was tremendous hostility expressed toward --
Thomas: Anyone with dark skin was being swept up. In Dearborn [Michigan], you can imagine how they felt. The kids were afraid to go to school, because they knew the Arabs were being demonized.
Q: This is in Michigan, where you're from, that you're describing.
Thomas: Yes, and all over. In Virginia, they have lots and lots of Arabs and Palestinians. So it was very hard for those families to adjust. Even though they knew they were in America, and in America you have certain civil rights. They certainly felt a certain shame and blame for what happened, because they were all Arabs.
Q: Christian and Muslim Arabs alike felt shame?
Thomas: Well, I think that -- yes. I do think there definitely was an empathy there, and a feeling that they were all being blamed in the same way. But the Lebanese Christians are pretty arrogant. They probably added more antipathy to the Muslims. There's always this tremendous -- They got along in Lebanon, some way, somehow, in these different sections. But there's still a lot of antagonism. They had civil war, and they had everything.
Q: I have one last question, because it's almost 5:30. You had mentioned at the very beginning, when we were talking about your family, and I asked you about your inquisitiveness, you mentioned that your family had left Lebanon, but it was Syria before, and that your parents were very liberal about what a woman could do.
Thomas: I am amazed, in retrospect. I didn't know it at the time. I just thought they let me be what I wanted to be, which was sort of incredible, because all the ethnic families and so forth wanted their daughters to get married. I don't know. They were very different.
Q: Were they different from the family that stayed in Lebanon and Syria?
Thomas: My mother never told us to get married. Maybe she didn't think it was a great idea. [laughs] She had nine children. She had one sister with fourteen.
Q: Where did they fit in? Were they just oddballs in their own community?
Thomas: No, no. They were very close, always went to church on Sunday, the Greek Orthodox church, and they had a lot friends. Some way, I don't know -- I think I got into the looser part. I was third from the bottom. I think the older ones got it a little stricter, but not that strict. I never once heard my parents say, "You have to do this, you have to do that, for security and so forth." They wanted us all to go to college, but it was the Great Depression, so we didn't go to the ivy leagues, and I wouldn't have qualified under any circumstances. But the whole thing is, they understood what education was, and I'll be forever grateful.
Q: So they were just very unusual.
Thomas: I think so. Now, when I begin to think about it I think, gee, on one side --
[END TAPE ONE; BEGIN TAPE TWO]
Thomas: We were just trying to be American, and we thought Americans are free, right? You can do anything you want to do.
Q: Why did they leave?
Thomas: Why did they leave?
Q: Yes. Why did they come here?
Thomas: My father came at the age of about fifteen or sixteen. He had two brothers who had preceded him, and they probably wrote, "Come to America." I don't think they told him the streets were paved with gold, but still, it was the time of immigration. He came in the 1890s. Then he went back to Syria and married my mother, I think in 1903 or 1906. I'm not sure which. And he came here. Came back to Kentucky.
Q: Oh, first he came to Kentucky.
Thomas: Yes. That's where I was born, in Kentucky. But when I was four years old, we moved to Detroit, because there was a big auto boom -- $5.00 a day for the workers. My dad never went into the auto factories, but he did have a grocery store.
Q: So there wasn't something about the culture there that they wanted to get away from?
Thomas: Well, I think definitely that my father was thinking in terms of opportunity. And the Ottoman Empire was pretty restrictive, and they were trying to take people into the army, of course. But my dad was too young for that.
Q: I see. Well, I promised we would stop at 5:30, so I have to keep my promise --
Q: We'll call it a day?
Q: Thank you so much for your time. We'll pick up tomorrow on videotape, where we left off today.
[END OF SESSION]
Interviewee: Helen Thomas
Interviewer: Karen Frenkel
Date: December 9, 2005
Q: I just have a few follow-up questions, and then some new ones. When we left off, we were talking about your parents, and how they were unusually, I guess you would say, liberal, in the way that they brought you up. Or since, as you were saying, you were third from the bottom, you seemed to have escaped certain directives, such as no one ever telling you that you should marry. There was no pressure from your parents.
Q: I just wonder, since you didn't marry until quite late, whether you had wanted to have children, and what you feel you may have given up for the sake of your career.
Thomas: I don't feel I gave up anything. I pursued my own life and my own career, and that was what I wanted. I don't have any regrets in that respect.
Q: When you were speaking with First Lady Nancy [D.] Reagan, she had said that she wanted to just take care of Ronnie. And you said that you felt that that, in fact, was a wasted opportunity for her.
Q: You also said that, after a while, she eventually figured out what you meant.
Q: I find a certain -- I wouldn't call it condescension, but perhaps a little bit of amusement, that it wasn't quite clear to her right away that this was a major opportunity.
Thomas: It wasn't a condescension. I just thought that she should know that when you get into the White House you have ten maids, ten mops, everybody does everything for you, and that you only personify, you only get your identity, by doing something. A modern First Lady can no longer just sit there. It wasn't condescension; I just felt that she would learn that, and she did. Her polls went down; she was considered a Rodeo Drive matron, interested only in high fashion and expensive china. The White House got very worried, and I'm sure she did too. They turned that around by having her have a big crusade against drug abuse among youth, and change her image totally. She became, then, Nancy Reagan, instead of Mrs. Ronald Reagan. It gave her a great idea and a great sense of confidence. She told me herself that she understood the transformation.
Q: So would you say that you made that remark out of concern about a potentially missed opportunity?
Thomas: Absolutely. Why else?
Q: Well, I was going to say, or did it also come out of your feminism, which you alluded to yesterday.
Thomas: Well, of course. I've always thought that we should have equal rights, from the day I was born, but I wasn't trying to press that on her. I honestly thought that you don't live in a vacuum, and when you live in the White House, you can wave a magic wand.
Q: Okay. I was wondering if we could talk about Hillary [R.] Clinton as a First Lady. What do you think accounts for why she was so disliked?
Thomas: I think she was a very dynamic, strong woman, and she came in with this total sense of the aftermath of the Reagan era, still. This country is still very conservative, and the whole idea that was spread that she wanted to be co-president -- I think this was fair game for the ultra-conservatives. So they thought she was not going to fit into the traditional pattern, and they went after her. She certainly did not fit into the traditional. She didn't want to be typified that way either, and I think she missed a lot of great opportunities. Because if she had performed more as First Lady, she would have met a lot more people, and made a lot more people happy. When you're in the position of opening the doors of the White House to the multitudes, you can do so much.
Q: What do you think was the objection to the health care plan that she worked on?
Thomas: She worked by candle light. It was darkness. She didn't allow any press coverage of anything. She didn't let the press or Capitol Hill in on the ground floor of where she was headed. So then when she presented the fait accompli, it was a Rube [Reuben L.] Goldberg plan. Nobody understood it, it was so complicated. She didn't lobby the Democratic leaders, and so forth, so it was dead on arrival.
Q: So to a large extent you blame the secrecy of the Clinton White House?
Thomas: Absolutely. Because you really need the people going along with you, and selling it every inch of the way. And I don't think it was salable. It was too complicated. Just propose universal health care; that's all she should have done -- payroll check-off, just like Social Security -- and millions of people would have it today. She blew it.
Q: Okay. If I could just go back, then, to some questions about the press. You mentioned in passing what happened at CBS recently, when Dan Rather and his producer were in the middle of a scandal because of the reporting that they did on President Bush's activities when he was in the Reserve. I was wondering if you think that they were, I wouldn't say, framed, but if the mistakes made were used as a distraction, so that the country's attention would be focused on them rather than the President's record in those years.
Thomas: Well, obviously, the best defense is offense, and they're masterful in the White House at turning the tables on you. So I think they ran up against the very skilled people who know how to manipulate, in politics. But I think their story was legitimate. There may still be some developments in it, who knows? Some day.
Q: You spoke of the mantra that was repeated over and over again, to go after Saddam Hussein, Saddam Hussein, after 9/11.
Thomas: Repetitive -- to repeat something over and over again. Of course. You try to sell it to the people.
Q: You also mentioned the name of the Nazi, Goebbels, as a kind of technique.
Thomas: Well, everybody knows that that was the technique. This was very well known; that if you repeat something often enough, people will believe it. And it turned out not to be true. But by that time, they had public-opinion polls. They still thought Saddam Hussein had a lot to do with 9/11. So it was a very effective technique.
Q: You also mentioned, when I was asking you about the McCarthy era -- which, you explained was a much smaller offensive that affected far fewer people than the kind of punitive administration we have today; that the McCarthy era was a fascistic era. There are people who feel that Bush is really synonymous with big corporations and big oil. Do you think that the neo-cons are fascists?
Thomas: I don't know what they are. All I know is that they have very aggressive goals -- empire. No question. Their whole plan is laid out on the internet, of what they would like to do to the Middle East, to transform it. I don't know what you want to call it, but they obviously did not rule out war.
Q: You also spoke yesterday of bin Laden's agenda. He would like to see Americans out of Saudi Arabia --
Thomas: That's my theory as to what motivates this man, why the hatred of Americans, and so forth.
Q: -- and that he wants to get rid of the royals, because he feels it's corrupt.
Thomas: That's my theory, too. I have no factual -- but I think that's the motive. Yes.
Q: There are reports that the Bush family has very close ties with the Saudis. Do you, in your years of watching the Bush family business, see that?
Thomas: I honestly don't know, from behind. They have been close to the Saudis, but I don't know whether it was the bin Laden family or not. I haven't watched it that closely, although I do know that the first President Bush was close to the Saudis, certainly in the Kuwait war.
Q: In discussing the Valerie Plame case, and Judith Miller, you had blamed her editors for not asking how many sources she had and who they were, the editors of the Times.
Thomas: Well, at some point somebody should have found out where she was going and whether she was relying on one person, one defector. They always have a motive, obviously.
Q: I was just wondering what your relationship, over the years, has been with your editors, at UPI.
Thomas: Screaming and yelling. [Laughs] Pretty good. Very good. I love being edited and I hate being edited, if that's possible. I know they're doing the best thing they can, and maybe saving you from your excessiveness, and so forth. But, at the same time, as a writer, you're always resentful. In the end product, you're glad they've looked it over because I don't think, really, I can read my own copy. I think I should have somebody else reading it, for sure, maybe two other people. But I've always had great rapport, in the sense of when the day is done, you have the camaraderie of the people you work with.
Q: When you were at UPI you were doing news. So now that you're at Hearst, and you're writing a column, how is the writer and editor relationship different?
Thomas: Well, I do have an editor, and he's very, very tight in the sense of very, very -- you have to be very explicit and describe everything. I like to broad-brush everything and not explain it. I always assume everybody understands the idiom and the clichés, but I have to really explain everything. He feels it's very necessary. We clash a little bit, but basically I think he saves me a lot.
Q: What's the hardest you've ever had to work to really get a story accepted, where there was a lot of skepticism about what you were reporting?
Thomas: Well, if my boss really thought I was writing something that was off the wall and really so far-fetched, he wouldn't carry it. I take the news, and I take off from there, in terms of my own opinion of what has actually happened. So it doesn't get too far afield from what's going on. In fact, I've been writing today -- I shouldn't say that should I?
Q: Oh, you can.
Thomas: -- about how there's a real split in the Democratic Party between those who are standing by the administration and those who say no, in terms of Iraq -- "Let's pull out," and so forth. I like to see the split. I think people now should not think that the Democratic Party is marching in lock-step -- “me too” -- with everything the president does, especially with the things I think are wrong.
Q: Since you write your column twice a week, how do you decide which topics are appropriate or worth it, are the ones that you should be singling out, out of so many things that happen in the week?
Thomas: Well, it's only the things that I think could enter the national scene that I have some sort of acquaintanceship with, something I'm covering at the White House, and so forth. I think it has a lot of relevance on the national scene. Once in a while I think they like a personalized column. I don't know if they do or not, but most columnists finally bare their soul that way. But I stick to the main issues, the national issues.
Q: When you've gotten the most opinionated letters as a result of your column, what was it that you wrote that caused --
Thomas: I criticize the president for going into a war without any validity. I think we went into the war under false pretenses. I think there's no question about that. No weapons of mass destruction, no ties to al-Qaeda, and everything else they wanted to charge. The rationale now is that we're spreading democracy. Well, he needed a fallback position, so I write about that a lot, and that irritates a lot of people who are his supporters and devotees. I don't blame them for being angry, if they see their idol falling, or I remove the halo from the U.S. I don't think we should torture people. I wrote about torture. I think that Condoleezza Rice has an impossible task, when everybody knows that what she's saying is not true. She says we don't torture. So why doesn't the president issue an executive order saying absolutely no torture anywhere against anyone? We don't do that to serial killers. We have photographs. They're asking us not to believe our own eyes.
Q: Did you put that in your column?
Thomas: I did.
Q: Did you get a call from the White House Press Secretary?
Thomas: Not yet. [Laughs] I don't think they saw it. It takes a little while.
Q: Have you gotten a call from the press secretary on the basis of something you wrote in your column?
Thomas: No, not on what I wrote. No.
Q: I asked you yesterday about some of the tips you said you had gotten over the years, when you were covering news.
Thomas: Well, I'm not known for having gotten a great many scoops or exclusives. Not at all.
Q: I was going to ask something else. I had asked you about cultivating sources, and I was very surprised that you basically said you didn't have relationships with sources. Maybe I'm mistaken. I understood that mainly people came to you; that the whistleblowers approached you, rather than you having cultivated sources whom you could go to with your questions.
Thomas: That's right. Believe me, when you work for a wire service, you're on a "body watch" every minute. You don't have time to take people to lunch. You don't have time to schmooze, and so forth. You're on the job. Anything can happen. They can run in and say, "The president's leaving in five minutes," so you're leaving. Whenever the president is in public, you go with him. So I had no time, really, to do that. That was a fault of mine, but I'm telling you the truth.
Q: I would like to quote something that I thought was very interesting that I found in my research on you. I went to the Museum of Broadcasting and looked at some archival tapes, and in one exposé on the press they quoted I.F . [Isidor F.] Stone. He said it's important to understand your source's point of view, but reporters can be prone to the same errors and delusions as those on their beat. He issued this sort of warning, and I wonder what you think of what he said.
Thomas: That they can return to what?
Q: That reporters can be prone to the same errors and delusions as those on their beat; that you can get too close to the circles --
Thomas: I never got close to them, or they never got close to me. I called them as I saw them. I made, really, no strong personal friends among them. I think they knew that from the beginning. But I imagine that if you really got close to someone in the White House, you might hesitate to use something that might hurt. Nothing in terms of a major, damaging story, but you might skip a little few things.
Q: In all your years covering the presidents, have you ever been used as a messenger to the president, by, maybe, a government, to play a story.
Thomas: People call you. They think you can just walk right into the president's office. "I want you to know, I want you to tell him, tell the president that -- " and usually it's some big personal problems. Those are the calls you get, or a letter saying, "Will you please tell the president -- " Well, once in a while you might be able to approach the press secretary and say, "Is this a problem? What's going on?" But you certainly don't walk into the Oval Office.
Q: But these are citizens who are asking you to be a conduit?
Q: Has that ever happened with other government officials?
Q: I mean other governments than ours.
Thomas: No. Not in my terms.
Q: I'd like to ask for your comment about this scandal, where there was a fake White House press corps reporter, a guy who was masquerading as if he were a journalist, who then turned out to be a gay pornographer. His name escapes me at the moment. [Jay Gannon]
Thomas: A pornographer?
Q: There was a scandal, I would say in the last two or three months --
Q: How could that happen? I ask it, because I imagine, and from my readings, that the White House press corps is a pretty tight group. You all know one another. You chat, while waiting for the president.
Thomas: We don't know each other that well. We see each other at briefings, we say hello, we say goodbye, but that doesn't mean that we're that chummy with everybody who's there. We feel, if they are there, they have established some legitimacy with the press office. In the case of this man, he was getting one-day passes. He never had a "hard pass," but he was able to get in, and it was clear that he was friends, in the kind of questions he asked. But he also had ties to a Texas congressman, and kind of worked for him, on the internet. So I think that's how he got in so often, day after day. He was very pleasant. He would say hello to everyone. It's very clear that Scott McClellan would call on him when he wanted to ease the tension in the room, because he knew they'd get a softball question. But none of us knew who he was.
Q: Was he allowed access for quite some time? How long was he there ?
Thomas: I don't know. I know he certainly attended at least over a year, the briefings that we had, usually twice a day. I guess he would more come to the afternoon briefing.
Q: What did you think when that story broke?
Thomas: I thought it's sad, and I thought that we certainly suspected -- not that he was a ringer, but that he was very close to the administration, with the kind of questions that he asked. Obviously, his credentials were not scrutinized very closely.
Q: You've attended many White House parties, given especially for the White House press corps. I wonder if you could talk about their purpose, their function. How much of it was social, how much of it was business?
Thomas: Well, a White House party, where you're invited as a guest, is social. But the parties I covered as a reporter, a wire-service reporter, a State Dinner, covering the entertainment, covering the toast -- that was business.
Q: In all my research on you, I only found one expression of regret about something that you failed to ask a president, and that was when you said you regretted not asking [Gerald R.] Ford about whether or not he was going to pardon [Richard M.] Nixon.
Thomas: Well, I did ask him, really. That's the first question I asked him at his first news conference. I don't know why I said that. Maybe I regretted not putting it more pointedly, but basically I asked him if he was going to go the judicial route or a pardon -- the first question, at Ford's first news conference, when he was president. He gave it within a couple of weeks, and he fuzzied it up, the answer.
Q: I was just wondering if there are any other events over the years that you had wished you had been able to cover, but for one reason or another you weren't with the president at the time the story broke.
Thomas: Well, I think every reporter, at the time of Watergate, obviously, felt that they had defaulted. We didn't catch all the nuances that two outside reporters were able to dig in. So I think all of us feel that we missed the boat, certainly, on Watergate.
Q: Any other thoughts? Any other events?
Thomas: You always Monday-morning quarterback. You can always say, "Why didn't I put the question this way? Why didn't I ask that?" Especially when you know it's a privilege to ask the president a question. So I think you can always improve on yourself.
Q: Conversely, what stories are you most proud of having covered or broken?
Thomas: Well, I think I'm just proud of the fact that I was able to keep up with these presidents, and day to day know what was going on -- maybe in the most broad-brush, superficial way. But I did feel a certain responsibility to let people know what was going on, to the best extent of my ability to observe. I do think that wire services are very important, because they write straight stories and they don't mess up with the facts. Everything has to be very factual. I think it's very important that the American people know what's going on in a straight way, without my opinion or anyone else's.
Q: In discussing the private lives of those in public office, you said, when talking about the Wilbur [D.] Mills scandal -- jumping into the Tidal Bowl and chasing a woman -- that that was news. But you also qualified that story, and said that you generally don't feel that we have the right to expect reporting on what goes on in the bedrooms of public officials.
Thomas: No, not unless it impacts on their official life. There would be no reason to intrude on a personal life. But I think anyone who runs for public office -- I've said this in the most quipping way, for years -- that you have to decide at the age of five and live accordingly, because there will always be something in your background. And reporters, it behooves them to find out what it is.
Q: You mentioned how much you enjoyed the Kennedy years and the '60s. I know that it was widely known that Kennedy had many women.
Thomas: I didn't know that.
Q: Not at the time?
Thomas: Well, we knew gossip, but we never really tracked it down, because it wasn't important then. And there was also a basic gentleman's code. Now, it would be written immediately by a tabloid, and we would have to follow it up because we would be accused of covering up, even if we thought someone had the right to a personal life, a private life. We'd have to write it.
[END TAPE ONE, SIDE ONE; BEGIN SIDE TWO]
Q: We were just speaking about Kennedy. At that time, you said, there was kind of a gentleman's agreement, that if something was known about the president's private life, it wouldn't be reported.
Thomas: Unless it impacted on your official responsibilities and duties. But those days are gone, and they're gone forever.
Q: Why did Clinton's peccadilloes come out and get such coverage? Was there evidence that Monica [S.] Lewinsky was affecting his ability to function in government?
Thomas: No. I told you that if the tabloids or if Drudge revealed it, and we didn't write about it, we would be considered covering it up. Ordinarily, we would not have written it that way. But you have to jump onto the story once it becomes a story.
Q: Once it's out, you must cover it.
Thomas: That's right. Because, otherwise -- you'd have to.
Q: Okay. Just jumping back to the Reagan years for a moment -- you wrote that he was thought of as "Mr. Nice Guy," yet he was cutting programs. You also said that, in many ways, the current Bush administration emulates the Reagan administration. Some people would say that our current president is "Mr. Born Again." I was just wondering what you think of a president who, in the case of Reagan, was said to have been relying on the word of astrologers, in the Reagan years, and Bush, who says he's hearing the voice of God. What's your take on that?
Thomas: Well, my take is that everybody's looking for some sort of assurance [laughter], whether it's God, or an astrologist. It's an understandable thing. Who can I cling to? I think everybody has doubts about themselves and they want some reassurance. If they've decided it's in the stars, or in religion, or --
Q: I have another question about the president's father. When Bush Sr. was president, he made a remark about [Manuel A.] Noriega, and how he thought that the people of Panama should get rid of him. And you and your colleague Rita Beamish said you couldn't believe your ears. Was the president of the United States advocating the overthrow of the leader of a sovereign country?
Thomas: And making us do it, practically. Telling the world. Yes, he was.
Q: Back then, you expressed your shock. Given what we've been through since, does that reaction -- the reaction you and your colleague had -- seem quaint to you now?
Thomas: No. It still seems shocking to me that any president would be -- not inciting to revolution and so forth, but I just thought it was not well-put, certainly not diplomatic. He just wanted us to get the word out, and he did.
Q: Do you think there will ever be a time when you will be surprised by something that comes out of the White House?
Thomas: Sure. You always assume a lot. You assume you know a lot, and you assume you know who these people are, the players. But always something can come out of the blue. Definitely. That's what news is.
Q: I wanted to ask you about some of the activities today of our past presidents. I wonder what you make of Bush I and President Clinton, and the work that they're doing together, abroad. Do you find that an unusual alliance?
Thomas: Not really, because Ford and Carter got together, very close, became good, good friends, when all the shouting was over. They had called each other everything in the book, and campaigned against each other. When they're asked to do something, in terms of the country and representing something, I think they all rise to the occasion. Pretty soon they get acquainted and they kind of like each other. Past presidents have a certain caché, and they do feel like they're in a little club. They have experienced what nobody else has, and it brings them together in that sense, even when they've been on opposite sides of the fence. Neither one really concedes their philosophy. Nothing emerges in that way, but they develop a friendship.
Q: That's interesting. You also mentioned that Nixon was quietly advising his successors. How did you find out about that?
Thomas: Well, for one thing, when we went to the U.N. [United Nations] in New York, we knew that there were a couple of hours that were unaccounted for, and we found out that Reagan had met with Nixon on the quiet. But Nixon was still persona non grata, basically, politically. So they wanted to keep it a secret.
Q: Okay. So if I now could go back to the current President Bush. We talked yesterday about 9/11 and coverage of 9/11. I wonder what you think of the way the White House responded to Cindy Shehan, down in Crawford. Were you back here, covering the White House?
Thomas: Yes. I was not in Texas.
Q: What were they telling the White House press corps about his reasons for not talking to this woman?
Thomas: Well, I think they said he was too busy, or else he had already seen her with a group of other families, and didn't feel it was necessary. They were reporting that to reporters who were covering him at the ranch, and we would get that feedback. It was very clear. I didn't think she was treated right at all, and the very fact that they almost made it no-man's-land for any protesters to be near the ranch. I think it played to his detriment, played against him. He shouldn't have done it. But I don't think he takes very well -- no president does -- to someone who is obviously against his policies and philosophy.
Q: The next big story -- this is actually not chronological -- but another big story has been the president's intention to change Social Security policy. What has that been like to cover for you?
Thomas: Well obviously I'm very against that. I'm against privatizing Social Security. It works. It's worked since 1935, and I could not understand why he would want to. Our experiences with Wall Street are certainly not reassuring. To put the lives, really the livelihoods, of the elderly, of orphans, of the disabled, of widows -- people don't understand. That's the whole blanket of people who are covered by Social Security. To put them in jeopardy I thought was terrible. So I'm so glad that so far his plan is not getting anywhere.
Q: I guess the next mistake, in a series of mistakes, in your view, has been the foiled nomination of Harriet [E.] Miers.
Thomas: I didn't think that was a mistake. The ultra-right in this country thought it was a mistake. I thought she might have done pretty well. I really do. I think she's a good lawyer. She was respected in Texas. I'd rather have her than these people who are in concrete. The ultra-conservatives wanted a -- they had looked to this court -- they had built on this whole idea that once they get the court, they'll have the country into eternity in terms of their philosophy. They wanted that one spot to be assured; that whoever was chosen would be against Roe v. Wade, and all the other things they hold very dear. That's why they were up in arms. They weren't up in arms against her, per se, but they weren't sure that she might not turn into a Sandra [D.] O'Connor, or even deviate a little from their ironclad ultra-conservative views.
Q: Has the way he went about selecting her as a nominee, and the current nominee, been any more secretive than past administrations, when they were seeking to nominate?
Thomas: No, it's always a secret, who they're going to pick. It used to be that they would get suggestions from the American Bar Association, but that's long by the board. Now it's played close to the chest -- big surprise.
Q: You've written about a sense of isolation that other presidents seem to have had. They seem, for example, to have been out of touch. Nixon, in particular, seemed to have been out of touch in not having quite the pulse of the country, the mood of the country, when he was bombing Hanoi. And LBJ also, when he was intent on staying the course in Vietnam. Do you see President Bush similarly out of touch in his assessment of what the American people can stand, in so far as the war in Iraq?
Thomas: I see him as a very stubborn man who doesn't really care what the people think. I do think the people have moved away from him on this war, once they realized they were taken in by falsehoods. I think that certainly has been relevant. But he thinks he's right. He's very dogmatic. Of course, he never has to. He holds so few news conferences. You can't say to him, "Mr. President, how many more lives are you willing to give, on all sides, in this war, one of total attrition, day after day: thirty people, thirty-five people, ten marines, and so forth. How long?" You can't do that. No reporter does that, on the rare occasions when he holds a news conference. So he's protected. He has a good shield now. No one pins him down like that.
Q: Do you think it should be required for a president to have a certain number of press conferences?
Thomas: I think you can't require them because they're free, but they're always promised. He promised, when he won re-election, one a month, and he hasn't fulfilled that at all. I think they should have more and more news conferences. But this man is so protected from a lot of what I consider reality, the day-to-day horrors. You pick up a newspaper -- I have a box of Kleenex by my side. There's one tragedy after another. If he doesn't read newspapers, and I don't know if he does or not -- he said he doesn't, but he must have a sneak preview, to see his own photograph.
Q: I wanted to ask you about the president's credibility. You had said that it's very lethal for a president to lose credibility, and you can't govern if you don't have it. This was in the context of LBJ and Vietnam, and Nixon and Watergate.
Thomas: And I'm turning out to be wrong, because this man has no credibility on this war, and there's no outrage and no outcry. So I think I might have to revise my opinion. I thought, truly, that the American people would not be able to stand knowing they're being asked to die, and asking others to die, for reasons you can't justify.
Q: So you think that the weapons of mass destruction fabrication in Iraq may not stick to Bush; that he may be Teflon when it comes to that?
Thomas: Oh, I think he knows there are none. Two task forces, with the U.N. scouring the place. No, I don't think it matters. He wanted to go in there and depose Saddam, get the oil, and whatever reasons that he has not explained.
Q: What do you think is going on in the country, in the heartland, where people can tolerate this?
Thomas: They really are buying this incredible argument, “If we don't kill them there, they'll come here.” But they aren't the same people. They're not the people who came on 9/11. The Iraqis did nothing to us this time around. I have heard that argument -- because this is what he says in every speech: "We are protecting the American people. If we don't fight them there, they'll come here. Then we would have to fight them here, and that would be terrible." Who are "they?" What is this? Why don't you try to find out and explain to people what terrorism really is, what their motive is, what you've learned? Why does everything have to be classified for fifty years, when you're flying blind? Let's know who the enemy is. He's getting away with it. They have everything totally under control, managed, and I blame us for allowing that to happen. I blame press associations. There's no reason not to demand explanations, even in tenuous wartime -- so-called. I always want to try to find out the reasons. I think we all do, and especially if you're asking people to die for a cause.
Q: Is it that the American public has changed and become more complacent, as well as that the spin doctors --
Thomas: I think the American people genuinely have believed his fear card. He has sold them that they are in jeopardy, and he is saving them. I think they definitely have bought that; that if it weren't for him, the Great Savior, carrying this war and fighting these people, that they would be attacked again. That's certainly what he used in the campaign. He is losing a lot of ground and support. People are beginning to turn, but not enough. With Vietnam, thousands marched every day. They had had it.
Q: Yesterday I read that Bush's rating in the polls was getting a little bit better, finally. It had reached this nadir; and then, because of the positive signs of the economy, there was a bit of a lift. You wrote of a very interesting equilibrium between the popularity of the president and an anti-press attitude; that when there was a popular president, popular in the polls, a press that asked questions was considered not respectful, because it was probing too much. But we've seen Bush's ratings plummet, and the press then began to be viewed positively again. So this interesting equilibrium you wrote about, we see examples of that.
Thomas: It's all white men doing that -- this new rise in his ratings. [Laughs] I don't know if that's significant or not, but someone wrote a piece saying it. I think the women are beginning to understand. I mean, do you want your child killed for no reason? And to kill? You ask them, "Would you send your son there?" Well, no.
Q: Do you think if the economy continues to get better, people will forget all about the war?
Thomas: Not totally forget, but probably -- people do vote their pocketbooks. It's natural, I suppose. But I think it will be very sad if they don't understand that human life is more important than your pocketbook.
Q: In your second book you listed a broad-brush set of accomplishments for each president. That book, of course, ended with the Clinton presidency. So if you were to forecast what you think this president will be known for, in broad brush strokes, what would it be?
Thomas: His legacy will be war, and taking us into a war without any validity.
Q: Have you ever seen a president pander so much to his base as this president?
Thomas: No, never. Are we talking about religion?
Thomas: The most religious of the presidents, openly religious, was Jimmy Carter. He taught Sunday School, even as a president, but he never, ever tried to sell his religion, or act like he was so pious. No, no. This man has injected religion, I think very dangerously, into all things American. I really think it abridges the Constitution.
Q: When I was told I was going to have the honor of interviewing you, I mentioned that to some of my friends, and one or two of them asked me to ask you a question. This question comes from an elderly gentleman who is a nuclear engineer. He actually met you. He actually once walked up to you at a restaurant, and you were very kind to shake his hand when he said how thankful he's been for all the questions you've asked of the White House all these years. He said, "Would you please ask Miss Thomas why the president cannot pronounce 'nuclear' correctly. [Laughter] Ask her. Is the president just stupid, that he can't get that straight?"
Thomas: Yes. No, he is the master of the malaprop, and he doesn't do very well with the English language. Every president, in a way, has one word. President Ford used to say "judg-e-ment," spelling it with an "e" in it. They all have their idiosyncrasies. But this one in particular, I think. A lot of words are new to him, that we consider pro forma.
Q: When I finished asking my question, you said, "Yes….No."
Thomas: [Laughter] Well, I was being very rude.
Q: Which did you mean?
Thomas: I think his vocabulary is not that good. I don't think he deliberately mispronounces it, he just doesn't get it.
Q: To some of us, we think that he is a bit of an actor, and that he's appealing to the "Average Joe," who might mispronounce things, and also have malapropisms.
Thomas: Well, I think he tries to do the "good old boy,” but in this case, I don't think so. I think he just plain mispronounces it.
Q: One almost wishes that it were deliberate.
Thomas: He probably does joke around a lot. He gives nicknames to people, but in this case, I would say no.
[END TAPE 1, BEGIN TAPE 2]
Thomas: -- they might give you fifteen minutes, they might give you a half hour, and there's always an aide there trying to call it off. It's all an act, of course.
Q: So in a way, you had a style that introduced a topic --
Thomas: It depends on the president, how you lead in. You can tell, sometimes, they're in a hurry and want to get it over with in a hurry, and they plunge right in. Otherwise, they'll have a little chitchat, an informal, social kind of --
Q: And then you can contrast that with the quick jab, as I think you put it.
Q: So you've been called into the Oval Office to have off-the-record conversations.
Q: How often is that done by presidents, and why?
Thomas: Oh, I don't know how often it's done by them, but it's only happened a few times. In the case of LBJ, he wanted to get things off his chest, and he wanted you to write it, but not source it -- attribute it. You knew that he was trying to get a point of view across, so you helped him to fuzzy it up in a way. It also serves as good background for you to know what was going on.
Q: So that has never happened with Bush or Clinton?
Thomas: No. Not with me. But that doesn't mean that others haven't gotten --
Q: So when you make that agreement, do the things you were told off the record have to remain off the record permanently? It's years now since LBJ --
Thomas: You have to be able to read what they really are trying to say. You'll say, "Well, can I use it saying 'a high official, blah, blah, blah,'" and sometimes they will bend and say yes. You know they want you to get it out in some way or other, or why in the hell would they be telling you?
Q: I was just wondering if it has to be off the record permanently. Could you tell me now what it was that LBJ said?
Thomas: Yes, it has to be off the record permanently, in terms of attribution.
Q: Even now that he's dead and gone?
Thomas: Um -- I think so.
Q: Oh. [Laughter]
Thomas: It wasn't that deep dark a secret, except that their viewpoint -- you could see them -- it can be very helpful at times, and very frustrating that you can't use what the president of the United States said. But everything is helpful in terms of everything you learn at the White House, and certainly if you get it from the horse's mouth.
Q: So he wanted a certain point of view to be circulating, but he didn't want it to be known that it was his point of view.
Thomas: That's right. Or how close it was to the throne.
Q: But he hoped that some people reading it might suspect it came from the White House?
Thomas: I don't think so. I think they just wanted to clear up something, or get something out that they were going to do, that they couldn't actually announce themselves.
Q: Okay. Now I'd just like to ask you a more general question about what advice you would give to journalists today, in helping the public to be more alert. We spoke about the dual responsibility of educating and informing the public. What can we do to wake up people a little bit? I have the sense that they're not that interested in current affairs.
Thomas: Well, there's no question that there's a drop-off in the circulation. We're reduced to one-newspaper towns. The broadcasts are much more interested in entertaining, so there's been a real sea change, I think, in terms of news -- except if something cataclysmic happens, like 9/11, where everybody feels horrified and affected. I think we should just keep on doing what we're doing. I think we should always try to stick to the facts in news stories. I think it would be great if our public schools -- any schools -- would teach young people the importance of reading newspapers, and understanding the differences between what is on the front pages -- the news -- and the editorial columns, and so forth. I just think we are indispensable, and I don't see how anybody can live without a newspaper, myself. If we're not informed, one way or another -- It's the broadcasters who are informed by the newspapers, actually. That goes for all the radio stations and everything. Mostly, if they didn't have a newspaper, they wouldn't know what was going on.
Once upon a time, newspapers had reporters in all the far-flung posts. But they don't want to spend that kind of money now. So I encourage every young person who wants to go into journalism that it’s the greatest profession in the world, in my opinion. The search for truth is so important, and it's so indispensable in a democracy. I've never met anyone who didn't love their work in this business. Those who had to leave it always look back with great regret and longing; that those were the happiest days, when they were starving to death, walking up four flights to get to a rickety office. But they thought they were really making a contribution, and I think that's what everyone in this business really feels; that we're doing something important, a public service.
Q: But I know so many people -- even my good friends, who wanted to be journalists -- and they gave up their dreams to go into law, because it paid better.
Thomas: Well, there's no question, especially if you have to put kids through college -- it used to be not so much law but public relations, which paid much better than just a reportorial job. So I think it's usually the demands on your life, in one way or another -- family life or anything else -- that you do that. But they still look back at when they were reporting, and had the best fun, when you can indulge your curiosity and learn. As a reporter, everything rides on you. You are independent. Sure, you have top editors who are watching, in that respect, reading what you write. But in the last analysis, your judgment and your values are involved, in every story.
Q: It's never boring.
Thomas: It's never boring. I should have put it that way. That's much better. That's putting it succinctly, really. It's never boring. It couldn't be. Not if you care about what's going on, and care about people.
Q: What do you think we can do to get the public to discern more astutely between those who are masquerading as journalists -- the O'Reillys and the Rush Limbaughs -- and get them to understand that their techniques are not the techniques, and couldn't possibly be techniques, of legitimate journalists?
Thomas: I do think that takes an education, to get the point across. In the first place, they use our M.O. [modus operandi] -- the Q and A, and so forth -- but mostly they're injecting themselves. I think that we should in some way get the word across that they are putting their own opinions and it's not legitimate. They cannot be called journalists, should not be. Some of them don't even aspire to be called that. But I think they’re tossing around the term liberal -- trying to call every reporter a liberal -- in a derogatory way. I'm a liberal. I'll always be a liberal. But they act like that is some sort of sin.
Q: For those who are already journalists, those who have decided to follow in your footsteps, what advice do you have for them, in the face of the declining respect the public has for the press?
Thomas: Never think you're going into this profession to be loved or even liked. That's not the criteria for us. Mostly, you'd be suspicious if you were loved or liked. You're the messenger who brings the bad news, and I say go for it. You'll never regret it. It's a great profession, honorable, indispensable.
Q: As I mentioned, I told my friends that I was going to be interviewing you, and everybody I spoke to knew who you were. You're very famous and greatly respected.
Thomas: Thank you. You haven't seen my mail! But thank you, anyway.
Q: In my circles, anyway. I wonder how you feel about your fame.
Thomas: Fame. Fame is so fleeting. I don't feel famous. We had a credo that you're only as good as your last story, and I truly feel that way. There isn't a day I walk into either the White House or into the office here, where I don't feel like, you know, “how can I improve?” You give yourself your Monday-morning-quarterback yourself, and you realize in anything, you're always facing new propositions, so you don't even -- I mean, I prefer it to anonymity. I like being recognized. I like people to come up to me. It does my ego good. [Laughter] But in the last analysis, you know that isn't going to write your story for you, get your story, or anything else. It's nice. It's the frosting on the cake. But it can't do the job, and you don't survive on that.
Q: Finally, what do you hope your legacy will be?
Thomas: Just that I was a fair reporter, as honest as could be, and really believed in the credo of searching for the truth -- always knowing that you can't quite reach that, because of tremendous -- I believe that authority should always be challenged, and I think I was privileged to do that.
Q: Is there anything I haven't brought up that you would like to speak to?
Thomas: I doubt it. I don't think so.
Q: Okay. Thank you again, so much, for your time -- especially on a day where you have another deadline.
Thomas: I've got to go see what happened. I don't know. I expected to get ten calls, because my boss is much more conservative than I am. So I am always surprised and keeping my fingers crossed when I write something. He has the last word.
Q: Okay. Thank you again, so much, Miss Thomas.
[END OF SESSION]
Interviewee: Helen Thomas
Interviewer: Myron Farber
Women in Journalism
Date: April 6, 2006
Q: This is Myron Farber, continuing the oral history interview for the Washington Press Club Foundation of Helen Thomas, here in Washington. Thank you so much for continuing with us. You know, when I came in the building just now -- on K Street here -- there was a huge demonstration. Have you seen that?
Q: One placard after another -- "Lobbyists for Peace." Now you didn't organize that demonstration, did you?
Thomas: No, but I would have if they asked me to!
Q: But are you willing to throw a farewell party for Tom [Thomas D.] DeLay? [Laughter] Someone has to host it. Why not you?
Thomas: Couldn't happen to a nicer man! There is a God.
Q: Well, I want to, a little bit later, get to Tom DeLay's influence on the town. But, actually, the cab driver that I had from the hotel over here -- I mentioned that I was going to see Helen Thomas, and she said, "Isn't she the woman the presidents love to hate?" [More laughter] I said, "Wait a minute. Are you the same cab driver that Helen Thomas said made that remark, twenty years ago?" And she said, "No, all the cab drivers say that." [Laughter]
Thomas: She's right. If it weren't for the honor of the thing.
Q: At the start, could you tell me -- we're going to do this a little bit out of order anyway-- the sign-off, "Thank you, Mr. President." How did that get started?
Thomas: I didn't coin it. It was my boss -- [Albert] Merriman Smith. It was during the Roosevelt era. He had started covering the White House in 1940, and he really created the role of the White House reporter, the wire-service reporter. Roosevelt had two news conferences a week, believe it or not, during World War II, in his office -- the Oval Office. They couldn't quote him directly, but they certainly could get the drift of everything, and he's the one who coined "Thank you, Mr. President."
Q: And he was with AP at that time even?
Thomas: No, UPI. He was with United Press. It wasn't even United Press International.
Q: This is "Smitty." Wasn't he later with AP?
Thomas: He was a rival of AP. He was always UP. And when he won a Pulitzer, in Dallas, he was with UP.
Q: And Doug Cornell, your husband --
Thomas: -- was AP.
Q: That's it. Right. You were willing to go out with someone from AP?
Thomas: Oh, absolutely. We're all pals, really. There is a lot of camaraderie, especially in the wire service, because rain or shine, you're out there. You're all in it together, more so than the other reporters.
Q: Right. I recall seeing photographs in history classes of Roosevelt, sitting behind his desk, just behind his desk, and the reporters, some of them, are actually sitting on the edge of the desk and they’re standing around the desk with their pads or pencils.
Thomas: Right, it was a much smaller circle. And no television.
Q: No, of course not. No Bill O'Reilly.
Thomas: No! Bill O'Reilly. I've been dealing with that for the last several days. He was going to "lay me out," they said. That's what I heard.
Q: That's right. But only if he were president -- and that isn't in the cards, in all probability.
Let me put a little more flesh on these stalwart Kentucky bones than I saw in the first interview. You were born in Winchester, Kentucky. Is that --I assume-- a small community?
Thomas: A very small town. But it was a town, not a village. It was a city, but very small. Main Street --
Q: Anywhere near Lexington or Louisville?
Thomas: Twenty miles from Lexington; I don't know how many miles from Louisville, but that's how you always placed it, really.
Q: Right. Is that the great horse country?
Thomas: It's Blue Grass and horse farms.
Q: Do you have the foggiest idea what Blue Grass is? I don't know.
Thomas: I don't know. I guess it looks blue when --
Q: -- in the wind, maybe. But your father, George -- is that correct?
Q: Your father came to the United States before your mother.
Q: Right. And he came from a part of Syria that later became part of Lebanon.
Thomas: Right -- by collusion of the French and the British, who divided up the whole Middle East and the Ottoman Empire after World War I.
Q: Right. And we're still feeling the effect of that, are we not? Their division of that area. But he had relatives here, your father? Who preceded him?
Thomas: Yes. That’s what brought him here, following his brothers.
Q: Right. He came through Ellis Island --
Q: -- and they changed his name from something like Antonius, was it --
Thomas: That's right.
Q: -- to Thomas.
Thomas: Right. And we were always glad they did. It's nice to have an Irish name.
Q: You used to say in the family, did you not, that you were glad he didn't miss the boat.
Thomas: Right. My brother sort of coined that, and we all picked it up.
Q: Right. But how old a man was he at that time?
Thomas: My father? He was about fifteen years old when he came here.
Q: And did he go to work in Kentucky, right away?
Thomas: Pushcart. Then he had a grocery store in Kentucky. Then they started the big boom -- his brothers also had gone to Detroit, where they were paying five dollars a day on the assembly line. My father never went into the auto factory, but he had a grocery store. It was typical Lebanese, you know. They always were selling things. First he was selling linens, I think, and that sort of thing from the pushcart and then grocery store. They also always believed in having a little property if you can; that was your equity, really.
Q: Would you say that this was a classic American immigration story?
Thomas: I do think it is. Everyone, I'm sure, feels the same way about their own, but I think it definitely was -- opportunity, and the whole sense of hope, I think. Education meant everything to him and my mother, because they couldn't read or write.
Q: Even when they came here.
Thomas: Right. I mean, they understood English and Arabic and everything, but not to write it. But my dad had a cash register for a brain. He could figure out anything mathematically.
Q: Right. Terrific. And he went back--after he was here a little while, he went back and got your mother.
Thomas: He married my mother. From the same hometown, Tripoli
Q: And brought her here, to the United States? And they remained for a little while in Kentucky, and then went to Detroit. Actually to the city of Detroit, or --
Thomas: -- to the city. They were planted right in the middle of the city. Detroit is always divided East Side or West Side. You can meet a Detroiter and you say, "East Side or West Side," and never the twain shall meet. It was almost like a different city.
Q: And they were on the --
Thomas: -- East Side.
Q: And how did he make a living once they went to Detroit?
Thomas: Grocery store.
Q: Same thing. Right. And had relatives there, of course?
Thomas: Yes. He had two brothers in the area.
Q: And you were born there, in --
Thomas: -- 1920.
Q: And you had a number of brothers and sisters, did you not?
Thomas: We're nine children.
Q: And you graduated high school in Detroit.
Q: You joined the school newspaper in high school, is that correct?
Q: Now was that an influence on you, really?
Thomas: Oh, tremendous. Tremendous. I saw my by-line in the high-school paper, and I was hooked for life. My ego swelled. And also, once I started working on the school paper I realized the kind of life you could have -- so much excitement; independence, really. So much is riding on you, and it gave you a little different sense of detachment.
Q: That by-line struck gold there, for you.
Thomas: Yes. I loved that.
Q: That satisfied your ego, did it?
Thomas: My ego.
Q: Do you remember what was the first story you did, that had your by-line on it?
Thomas: I can't. I don't remember. I'm always asked that, but I can't remember.
Q: When you graduated high school -- perhaps it was 1938 -- someone gave you a book of Edna St. Vincent Millay's poems. Do you recall that?
Thomas: I recall the book, yes. I forget the title.
Q: But would you say, at that time, by the time you graduated high school. you were an avid reader?
Thomas: I read a lot, but I should have read more. You have to understand that era. That era was alive. It was going from the Great Depression into World War II. All the world was blowing up, really, but there was a tremendous sense of people who really cared. It was a big difference. We could have had a revolution in the Great Depression. But with Roosevelt's words, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself," I think this country was really the most dignified -- ever -- in going through trauma. And the people all understood, and they were all together. I wish I could describe what I felt about the country at that time -- everybody did, too. Sure, you had your left and your right and so forth -- the right, isolationists and -- but ferment. You had intellectual ferment there. You couldn't escape it.
Q: And your parents, did they follow the politics of this country?
Thomas: They did, but they were not involved, really, except when my dad voted for the first time, and we all applauded and he did an X mark. But friends would come over, and politics was always spoken. Everyone was involved, to the extent. They certainly were interested in what was going on.
Q: Were they pro-Roosevelt?
Thomas: Oh, yes. Very much so.
Q: Your mother, as well.
Q: And when you graduated high school, you went to college in Detroit?
Q: At that time in life, do you recall what you thought was going to happen to you? What you were going to do with yourself?
Thomas: Well, I knew I wanted to be a newspaperwoman. I had already made up my mind. I was so lucky to have had that sense of direction. One way or another, I was determined. I think it's so important to know where you want to go in life, as young as possible. I think the public schools in Detroit were magnificent. They were great. I hate it when people slam public schools, because there were so many great teachers, and they were so inspiring -- history, English, and so forth. They cared. They really cared.
Q: Could you say the same of the college you went to?
Thomas: The same thing, too. I went to Wayne State, because we didn't have any money, really, to go any further. Two of my sisters did go to the University of Michigan, came along later. But I never felt deprived. As I said, there were great, great professors at Wayne. I always felt that if you didn't learn much it was your fault, because it's out there.
Q: And did you continue to have that interest, in being a newspaperwoman, at that time?
Thomas: I started working on the college paper, and I was pursuing this whole -- yes, I loved it. I spent more time working on the school paper than going to class. It gave me a good impetus to cut classes.
Q: But at that time, Helen, how many known newspaperwomen were there? What had been known to you, for example?
Thomas: Well, I know there were women working on the Detroit Times and the Detroit News. I didn't know them personally, but I would see their by-lines. The big name was Dorothy Thompson. I later learned more of the women who were really active when I went to Washington. And there were some women's by-lines in the local papers. Definitely.
Q: Right. And no one said to you, either in the family, or at the university, or anywhere, "Well, maybe that's a little unrealistic a prospect, becoming a newspaperwoman."
Thomas: Never. Never. In our family, we had an incredible freedom to be, and we were never told it was a man's world, or this was off limits in any sense. It was always assumed that you would go to college, some way, somehow, and pick your own profession.
Q: How about pick your own mate? Was there no pressure to get married?
Thomas: No! Thank god! I don't know why I didn't get that, because I know that was a real ethnic trend. I don't think my mother was too fond of it. She never pushed us in any way. We never felt that. It's amazing. Because the families around me, in the neighborhood and everything, you could tell that there was pressure to get married. It was automatically assumed that that was your next step, after high school.
Q: Did you ever have a beau, or some other reason, to stay in Detroit?
Thomas: Hell, no! It's only my family that I still have a tremendous pull. I love Detroit. We would never have won World War II without Detroit. It transformed the whole auto industry into tanks and planes and so forth. Rosie the Riveter. They had a tremendous blue-collar sense of dedication. They knew why they were there. No, I'm very proud. We never could have won the war without Detroit.
Q: Do you recall, while you were still in Detroit, in the '30s, the labor unrest there?
Thomas: Oh, absolutely. The strikes and the unions. The unions, I really believed in them, too. I mean-- tremendous struggle.
Q: Yes. Bloody at times.
Thomas: Now they're practically being wiped out -- or castrated -- totally.
Q: Right. Have you been a union member yourself?
Thomas: Yes. Ever since I got into the newspaper business, I joined the Guild. I went to the Washington Daily News, and about eight of us were fired because --
Q: I'd like to get to that. After you graduated university, how far from Detroit -- leaving aside Kentucky and the exodus from Kentucky to Detroit -- how far had you been out of Detroit by the time you were -- By the time you graduated college you must have been -- what? -- twenty-two or something?
Thomas: I'd been to New York and I'd traveled a little, but not extensively, and not out of the country.
Q: You'd been to New York just on a visit? Not by yourself, I take it.
Thomas: Yes. No, it was a visit with a friend. Then we spent part of the summer on Long Island.
Q: New York didn't cast a spell upon you, in terms of a place to go to work?
Thomas: Yes, it did. In fact, it was a great newspaper town then. They had so many newspapers and so forth. But I was more -- I thought if you were going into the theatre and the arts and so forth, that would be the place to be -- fashion -- but Washington, war-time -- that's why I thought of it.
Q: The year you graduated college was 1942?
Q: And did you go directly to Washington?
Thomas: Almost. Yes.
Q: Tell me what happened there. You graduated university --
Q: You had that cap and gown on. Did they have caps and gowns then?
Q: You had the cap and gown on. What happened between the time --?
Thomas: Well, I had a cousin in Washington. She had a good job with the Social Security Administration. I decided I would go visit her, and look around to see if there were any opportunities. So then I started working in a restaurant, knocking on doors --
Q: Working in a restaurant where?
Thomas: I don't know, downtown.
Q: In Washington?
Thomas: Yes. As a hostess. I then got a job as a copy-boy with Washington Daily News.
Q: So you uprooted yourself from Michigan. You had left.
Thomas: I went to see this friend, and I was looking for a newspaper job. Yes. What's so different about that?
Q: Well, if you hadn't gotten that job, you might have gone back to Michigan?
Thomas: Who knows? But I did. I pursued it, because I knew that Washington was where it was at.
Q: Right. Right. The first job you had -- the Washington Daily News -- when did that paper become defunct? Do you know?
Thomas: Probably the early '70s, late '60s.
Q: And at that time --
Thomas: It was a tabloid.
Q: -- there was the Daily News, the Star?
Thomas: Scripps-Howard, the Star, and the Times-Herald. Then the Times and the Post merged.
Q: Just tell me how you got that job, as a copy-person at the Daily News. You knocked on doors?
Thomas: Yes, of course. You go from door to door, you go from one newspaper to another, and you persist. So I was very happy. I thought I had "arrived," when I got the job -- running for coffee, cutting copy, and being in the ambience.
Q: Were they looking for someone? They needed someone, or you sort of convinced them they needed someone?
Thomas: There was a slot. I was hired. I don't know, but I know they were drafting young men, and if any young man had had that job, they were gone. Anybody who had a pulse was going to war.
Q: Right. Was there a Sunday edition of the paper, also, at that time?
Thomas: No, I don't think for the News.
Q: Do you recall, literally, when you first walked in there -- when you went to work -- the first day you went to work there, what it was like? In the first week or so --
Thomas: Well, you never feel adjusted. I mean, you want to try to learn, and you feel very awkward and so forth, but when you work on a college paper -- even a high-school paper -- you have a sense of people and what goes on. So when they call for you, you jump, and you'd sweep the floors to be there. So I certainly didn't find anything -- I was happy.
Q: But you weren't sweeping the floors.
Thomas: Not quite.
Q: But close to it. Are these the days when the reporters would write something, yell out, "Copy!" and you'd run and get the copy?
Thomas: When the bells would ring on the teletype machine, that's when you'd jump, get the copy to the desk and so forth -- for bulletins and flashes. And this is World War II, so there were many, many bulletins. I remember when Dunkirk, even -- the evacuation -- those stories were heartrending. You're only on the sidelines, but you know it's history.
Q: Right. You were living with your relative that you had here in Washington?
Thomas: My cousins, yes. Then I went and lived in a rooming house, and then in an apartment, with a friend.
Q: In your mind's eye, do you see a different Washington, in appearance, than one sees today? Radically different, than one sees today?
Thomas: It was a sleepy, Southern town then. It was very Southern. It was very discriminating. It was segregation. Blacks couldn't even sit down in a snack bar where we used to go to get coffee and a hamburger. I was certainly aware that there was tremendous discrimination. I'm just angry at myself that I wasn't more angry, and did something about it. Everything was kind of accepted as the mores of the place. Little did we know.
Q: Had you not seen that in Michigan?
Thomas: No. I went to school with them, with blacks and whites and so forth (I shouldn't have put it that way). I had a black girlfriend, a school chum, but there was not that much socializing.
Q: But it stood out in Washington, in that era. When you say it was a slow, sleepy town -
Thomas: It was Southern. All the manners were Southern. It had a definite overhang of -- it was "closed down," in a sense. But the war, then, changed everything, it's true. You saw soldiers everywhere. Things began to break through.
Q: And did you, at that time, or even until his death, see Roosevelt yourself?
Thomas: Yes. I went to a Christmas party for the press, and I saw him about two months before he died. He looked like death warmed over. It was a Radio/Television dinner, and he was gray, and he was in a wheelchair, as he went across the stage. This was a formal dinner, black-tie dinner, for radio and television, and we couldn’t look at him and not see death itself. He was a very sick man. And there were rumors all over Washington.
[END TAPE ONE; BEGIN TAPE TWO]
Q: You were saying that you saw Roosevelt, he looked like "death warmed over," and he was in a wheelchair. My question was -- great lengths had been taken, had they not --
Thomas: -- up to that time, it's true. And there were all kinds of rumors, all over Washington, that he was a sick man.
Q: Do you think that it was important -- From today's perspective, did it make sense for someone in his position to conceal his paralysis, his polio, or whatever it was?
Thomas: You couldn't do it today.
Q: You couldn't do it, but would it make sense even to try?
Thomas: Well, I think in that era, yes, being handicapped -- there would be a lot of prejudice against voting for a president who was handicapped.
Q: Less so today.
Thomas: I do believe it’d be more accepted today.
Q: But, judging from your recent comments, one gets the impression that you think there are some politicians who are mentally handicapped, who are getting around town.
Thomas: They're so limited. I have never seen a time when I though we are so bereft of great people.
Q: We'll come to that. But the Washington Daily News. For someone reading or watching this interview ten years from now -- what could they compare the Washington Daily News to, that exists today? Well, yes, it was like this, or it was like that.
Thomas: The New York Daily News. It was a tabloid; it was lively; the reporters were great. They were "with it," in every sense. Things jumped out of the page, really, and great photographers around, too. Just a tremendous sense of fun and dedication.
Q: Was it independently owned?
Q: It was Scripps-Howard. They made the great mistake of firing you, though, didn't they? Didn't they fire you from that newspaper?
Thomas: Yes -- with around eight others. We went out on strike for $5.00 more. We were all members of the Guild.
Q: But you were still a copy person?
Thomas: No, I had been elevated to cub reporter.
Q: Cub reporter. When you went on strike?
Q: A handful of you, over the issue of a salary increase.
Q: Did you actually picket the place?
Thomas: Hmmm. I can't remember. All I know is we were fired. So I went to the press building, and got another job with Scripps-Howard.
Q: With the same organization -- with Scripps-Howard?
Q: How could that be?
Thomas: Well, because the editor at UPI called, to check with the Daily News, and the managing editor said, "Give her a chance. She didn't have it here." Meaning, that they had fired everybody.
Q: A big-hearted guy?
Thomas: Yes, believe it or not. I never thought of him that way, but he turned out to be okay. Well, there were a lot of slots at that time. They were really drafting young men then. Everybody was going to the army, if they were not truly a conscientious objector.
Q: But when you were a cub reporter at the Daily News, before moving over to the wire service, what were you covering? Did you actually go out --
Thomas: We were covering a lot of families who had lost a son. You'd have to go there and try to get a photograph. It was very sad.
Q: And interview the families?
Thomas: Yes. It was a very poignant time.
Q: Did you shrink from the idea of asking someone who had just lost --
Thomas: You bet. Sometimes you would have to call them up, in fact. I don't think I ever informed them first, but sometimes some reporters actually got to a family before, because the lists were coming out of the War Department, and you automatically picked the people from the Washington area.
Q: What a sad job. But when you went to the wire service, it was not called UPI at that time?
Thomas: United Press.
Q: It later became United Press International. Was that a different kind of job, all of a sudden, you had?
Thomas: Yes, it was. I was editing a wire, where you'd take the main story and cut it down for government agencies; for news bureaus, newspaper bureaus in Washington, who would want shorter pieces, to get an idea of what was going on. I did that, and I wrote radio news for many years, in the morning.
Q: You were not on the radio yourself?
Q: This is after the war has ended, is that correct?
Q: World War II. Are we up to when the Korean War was going on?
Thomas: I was still filing the wires at that time. But it was very, very exciting. History was before your eyes every day. I thought I was very lucky.
Q: And you found yourself mesmerized by the material you were passing on to other people?
Thomas: Absolutely. Then I started covering some of the major departments, like the Justice Department, and some of the agencies, like Health, Education & Welfare, which now is Health & Human Services. Up and down Pennsylvania Avenue, you would touch base with all of them. You wouldn't stay there all day, but you'd pick up the releases, and if they had any kind of a news conference --
Q: At that time, did newspapers have beat reporters at these places, like Justice?
Thomas: Yes. Some of them did. The wire services did. They had people permanently at Justice, Treasury, Pentagon, or War Department, State Department.
Q: But you were not filling that slot.
Q: I'd like you to try to draw for me the contrast between the kind of fast-moving, on-the-go life that is entailed in working for a wire service, as opposed to what most people associate with a reporter -- you know -- he's got his feet up on the desk. In the old days he might be chomping on a cigar, and thinking, if he was lucky.
Thomas: Well, when I was covering all the departments, I was running from one to the other. But I parked myself at the Justice Department, then would tour the others. But when I went to the White House, it was wire service, from 5:30 in the morning until the day was done, and you never knew when that would be. You were on the body watch. It could be a very quiet day, but when it’s really quiet you knew the other shoe was going to fall. There was never a day without news, and you were always following the president. If he's out in public, you're out in public. You go, go, go.
Q: Tell me then -- How did you manage to get from what you were doing --
Thomas: Because I had been president of the Women's National Press Club, and it gave me a certain status. So during the start of the Kennedy campaign, I was basically assigned to cover Jackie [Jacqueline L.B.] Kennedy [Onassis], etc., because there was tremendous interest in the family. Then, after Kennedy won, I was sent, always, to cover him. I covered the N Street house. He was coming out of his door, his very nice house in Georgetown, and making his announcement of the new cabinet people and so forth.
Q: I remember this. Right.
Thomas: Then, when John F. Kennedy, Jr. was born, I was assigned to go to the hospital every day, and Kennedy would come in twice a day, and we would ask him questions about what was going on and so forth, for about ten days.
Q: I want to get to that -- it's fascinating -- but we left off before --
Thomas: I was covering Justice, Health, Education & Welfare, and --
Q: Through the '50s?
Thomas: Through the '50s.
Q: And you also had become president of the --
Thomas: -- Women's Press Club.
Q: How had that come about?
Thomas: Well, because I was a member of the club, and I got elected. That's how it came about.
Q: Well, absolutely. But what was the Women's Press Club at that time?
Thomas: It was an alternative to not being allowed to go into the National Press Club. It had been formed in the '30s. It had many wonderful newspaperwomen who headed it, and we would give two major dinners a year -- one in honor of Congress, where everybody came. We would have the top leadership in Congress; black-tie; at a great hotel. Then we would put on sort of a gridiron show, for a final dinner, usually in the spring, where we would spoof the politicians and everybody wanted to come to that, too, because it was black-tie.
Q: What was the size of the membership of the Women's Press Club?
Thomas: At that time I would say about 125 women.
Q: And among them --
Thomas: Doris Fleeson, [Elisabeth] May [Adams] Craig --
Q: May Craig!?
Q: Did she have her hat on?
Thomas: Always had her hat on. New York Times -- she was wonderful -- what was her name? Anyway, they had very elite women. Ruth [S.] Montgomery, who was New York Daily News.
Q: But these were people who were senior to you -- the names you just mentioned.
Q: They had, in some sense, broken the mold, would you say?
Thomas: Absolutely. Each one had been president of the Women's Press Club.
Q: But what had they been covering? Do you have any idea?
Thomas: They had been covering the whole town, especially during World War II. Every beat was covered by women, as well, because the men weren't around.
Q: Today, it seems --
Thomas: They were around, I mean -- somewhere.
Q: Yes, right. But today it seems sort of bizarre that women were not admitted to the pre-existing National Press Club. But there was a period, you say, when that was the case. Was there some contention between the two organizations? Was there some effort to bring the National Press Club round?
Thomas: Sure. Well, when I got to be president, you're damn right -- not so much because we wanted to be with them but because the State Department -- because a foreign visitor -- president or prime minister -- would come to Washington for three days. He would make one appearance before the press, and they always assigned it to the Press Club, where we couldn't go. This was unconscionable and unacceptable, and --
Q: The National Press Club.
Thomas: Yes. So when [Nikita S.] Khrushchev was coming to town, and opening an era of co-existence, we decided that this was it; to have a showdown. So all the press clubs -- Overseas Press Club, National Press Club, Women's National Press Club, and a couple others -- wired or cabled Moscow that we wanted Khrushchev to appear before our club luncheon, etc. Well, the Soviet ambassador got all these cables, and said, "What should we do?" to the State Department. They said, "Well, of course, they’re going to the Press Club," and we said, "Of course, they're not." We were furious, and wanted definitely to share in this moment. We went to the White House; we got Jim [James C.] Haggerty, who was Eisenhower's press secretary, to make the breakthrough for us. We had a meeting with the president of the National Press Club, who was Bill [William] Lawrence. He had been with the New York Times, and was ABC then, later on.
So, anyway, it was a historic moment, where they decided to allow thirty women, for the first time in history, to sit on the floor, at a luncheon, with their male colleagues. These are male colleagues, whom they had gone toe to toe with on beats for many years.
But that was it. We attended the Khrushchev; it was a very famous speech. Khrushchev said, "We will bury you." I was at the head table, because I was president of the club, etc. But we were never taken into the National Press Club until 1971, and that was 1959, when we sat down for the first time.
Thomas: There was a very big male prejudice against women. They said, "This has always been a male club, and you're trying to get into our bar, and you're trying to --" It was very primitive on their part. They needed our money in 1971, for fees and so forth, so that's when they -- It wasn't any big, soul-searching. The scales didn't fall from their eyes. But that's not unusual. Women have had to break down every door, in every profession. The Cosmos Club, made up of Nobels, Pulitzer Prize winners, great physicists, novelists, chemists, blah, blah, voted three times, in the 1980s, against taking in women. Now they take in women; they've had women presidents. Once you're there, you're accepted, but it was so difficult for the old curmudgeons to accept.
Q: Well, you were going, even in the '50s, you were going toe-to-toe with some of these very same people, on stories, right?
Thomas: We still couldn't go to the Press Club, unless you were invited by a man for dinner, or for lunch. They finally had a ladies' lounge, where the wives could go.
Q: By the time you became White House correspondent for UPI, around the time of the Kennedy election --or would you say that it was significantly earlier, would you say that you had formulated any kind of professional standard for yourself?
Thomas: Well, when I became Women's Press Club president, I had a lot of standing. I would get invitations.
Q: I said "standard." I mean "standard." "This is what I'm going to be. These are the standards that I'm going to follow, as a newspaper person."
Thomas: I think I always had that from the beginning.
Q: And what would they be, if you had to enumerate them? What kind of standards did you hold yourself to?
Thomas: Well, at the wire service, absolutely no slant, no bias, or anything else. I didn't bow out of the human race. I permitted myself to care; to believe; to scream and yell and bitch. But, at the same time, it never got in my copy, because I was writing straight news. So I didn't have to have another standard. That was it. You never deviated from that.
Q: And was that a standard that you would say you had picked up earlier, even? Perhaps even as far back as --
Thomas: Well, as soon as you start writing news stories, it's the first thing you learn -- keep yourself out of it, and even tone down your adjectives or your verbs, so that you don't indicate any kind of bias.
Q: A different kind of world than today, in some respects.
Thomas: Much more interpretive.
So you found yourself caught up in this assignment with the Kennedys. You were assigned, first, to cover Jackie.
Thomas: Yes. Then they started sending me to cover Kennedy, and it was a metamorphosis, really.
Q: Kennedy had been a senator -- I think only for, perhaps, one term. He had married, I think, in 1956 or somewhere around that time. Was he someone who, as you recollect it, who was viewed as "a comer," or "the comer," a "glamour boy?" How would you say? Even before he was elected? Do you recall?
Thomas: Well, in '56, when he made the bid for vice-president, he really came into focus, into profile, I think, then lost out by a few votes. I think that's when we began to realize -- that's when he began campaigning for four years, to pick up the "chits" for '60. That's when I became much more aware of him.
Q: You must recall Adlai [E.] Stevenson [II].
Q: Did you ever have occasion to cover him?
Thomas: Not really. I saw him on occasion, but didn't really know him. In fact, my family revered him and they thought he was great.
Q: Right. Did you allow yourself to feel partisan about a politician at that time?
Thomas: Oh, sure. I could feel it, but I didn't write it. [Laughter] I never felt that I had to give up my right to be, but not to put it in my copy. You really become schitz[ophrenic], but you do the job you have to do.
Q: That's an important point. Many of the reporters I've known have indeed been human beings. Not all of them, but some of them. Ike vs. Adlai. They dominated the '50s, politically. Apart from the McCarthy business and what have you, what were your impressions of [Dwight D.] Eisenhower at the time, vs. Adlai Stevenson? Do you recall?
Thomas: No. I thought he was so conservative. Probably the biggest thrill of my life -- not really, because there were so many other things -- but one of the greatest moments, newspaper moments, for me was being a go-fer, low-man on the totem pole, as part of a team that was sent to the Supreme Court, in 1954, for the Brown vs. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas. I was doing just little chores, and we had a whole team there. Magnificent. A magnificent editor/reporter. We were alerted that the big decision was coming down, and everybody had teams there. They would send the decision down from the chambers by a pneumatic tube. Well, we were all standing by the little booth, and we were watching. He pulled this open and he told in a flash.
Q: Your man did.
Thomas: Yes. Well, I'm sure the AP man did, too, at the same time. But that, to me, was the most thrilling moment.
Q: You were there. You were there.
Thomas: Yes. Separate but equal is not equal. But I had no idea what that decision would do, for our society, for all mankind, etc. It was more than a ripple effect; it was cataclysmic, the effect of it. Blacks couldn't go to the hotels. They couldn't go to restaurants, all the public facilities and so forth. This was absolutely the most dynamic decision, and it was unanimous.
Q: Even in the nation's capital. Even in the nation's capital, at that time?
Thomas: Even in the nation's capital. It was sensational. Eisenhower refused to take a stand on it, and say it was a good decision. He danced around, at a news conference. He did not endorse the decision. In fact, he was sorry he had named [Earl] Warren to the head court.
Q: When that pneumatic tube came down, and the UPI man flashed it right away -- do I understand you to say that you were at the Supreme Court yourself?
Thomas: Yes. We were all hanging around. We had little booths, downstairs, below the chamber. Yes, I was.
Q: Why were you there?
Thomas: Because I was just sort of a go-fer. They needed extra help, in case -- somebody to run copy, or whatever.
Q: But you remember getting a thrill from that decision, and seeing that.
Thomas: Ah! I can't tell you what it meant. And I certainly had no idea how far-reaching it would be, what it would do. It was a transforming moment, of our whole society.
Q: Weren't there other moments, in the '50s, that you recall as being --
Thomas: Before that was V-J Day [Victory over Japan Day], V-E Day [Victory in Europe Day] -- the excitement; the joy; the war is over. And I was in Washington then, for the dancing in the streets, the honking of the horns -- so happy that the killing was going to stop.
Q: Did you go out in the street, yourself?
Thomas: Absolutely. Everybody was. There was a great celebration. Great moments.
No, I do think that a lot happened in the Eisenhower era, no question about it, but we were a different society. It was very passive. The students went back to classes, and everybody was being very benign -- until the '60s, and then they ignited again, with great enthusiasm -- being alive; what government was all about; what the country was all about. Kennedy gave us hope.
Q: Well, wasn't Stevenson viewed, at least by his partisans, as a man of particular intellectual distinction?
Thomas: Absolutely. That's why so many people loved him.
Q: And maybe why some voted against him.
Thomas: But then the "Great White Father," you know. There was Eisenhower, who was the war hero, etc. The country had become more conservative.
Q: But Kennedy, when he came in, gave off an aura that neither Stevenson nor Eisenhower had.
Q: Was it clear to you, then --
Thomas: He was young. It was youth. He had been in the war. He had his eyes on the stars. I mean, he had vision. He was handsome. He had wit, he had warmth. He was us. He related to us.
Q: Tell me about your actual coverage. When you're assigned to the White House beat, what actually -- just tell me what you actually would do.
Thomas: Everything. Every bit of tricky-track, every piece of paper they put out, you would call it in or -- call it in, mainly. You never know what a president is going to do, so you're on the body watch. If the president goes out, you go out. Anything they're doing and so forth. So you don't have much depth perception, but you're there, you see things, you watch them in action. Kennedy had a lot of things going. He would be addressing young people in the Rose Garden, telling them to go into public service. There was a lot of excitement.
Q: How many people were in the UPI bureau, at the White House, at that time?
Thomas: There were only three of us.
Q: Who were the other two?
Thomas: One was Merriman Smith, and the other one was Al Spivak, who was a great reporter. He's retired now. He left, then went to General Dynamics.
Q: Was he kin to Lawrence Spivak? Was he related to Lawrence Spivak?
Thomas: No. I'm sure he's asked that fifty million times by now.
Q: Right. So there were three of you there. There were Kennedy press conferences. You were there. Correct?
Q: You were not the senior UPI person, but you were there. There were also Kennedy press spokesman briefings?
Thomas: Oh, yes. Every day.
Q: Every day?
Thomas: Yes. Well, that was true, too, of Eisenhower and the others. They had press briefings every day.
Q: Well, that wasn't true -- I mean, Roosevelt didn't have -- did [Harry S.] Truman have press briefings every day, do you know?
Thomas: The press officers, yes. One dropped dead--had a heart attack and so forth. These are real pressure jobs.
Q: So the daily press briefings by a press spokesman, unlike the presidential press conferences --
Thomas: They said a lot.
Q: Tell me who -- it was Lucky Pierre, wasn't it?
Thomas: Lucky Pierre [Pierre E.G. Salinger], and he really reflected the newness, and the New Frontier, and the whole -- he had a lot of wit, and he had entrée to the Oval Office. He was part of the team. You definitely had the sense of what was going on. He would also give you the lift of an eyebrow or whatever, a little tip-off of what was going to happen.
Q: Now your job -- He would have a daily press briefing. But that's only part of your job, right?
Thomas: Unless he's going out or something. You call in all the stories that happen; also, you think up new things, and call people in the White House and try to -- Oh, you're busy. Believe me. Wire services never rest.
Q: Right. You also traveled outside the White House?
Thomas: Always go in the pool.
Q: With the --
Thomas: -- president, and the presidential motorcade.
Q: Never the vice-president?
Q: That's a different crop of people, covering --
Thomas: No. You would do it with the back of their hand, before. He doesn't get that kind of coverage -- unless he's doing something special.
Q: Well, he could be shooting somebody in Texas.
Thomas: Yes. But when he comes to work, this one, this one comes like an emperor -- ten outriders; all sirens blazing. You'd think he was an emperor.
[END TAPE 2; BEGIN TAPE 3]
Q: The Kennedy years -- the years between 1960-'61 and '63 -- mean a great deal. You were saying earlier that when Kennedy was making announcement of his cabinet members, I guess, he would come outside the house, on N Street, where they were living -- this is before he went to the White House --
Q: -- and you were already over there, the press crowd, there.
Thomas: Yes. And we had a telephone right across the street, planted in a neighbors' backyard.
Thomas: Oh, yes.
Q: The neighbor knew.
Thomas: They all cooperated. They were all happy to be part of the scene.
Q: So Kennedy would come out and make a statement, and you would high-tail it to the neighbor's yard?
Thomas: That's right.
Q: Did you ever have occasion to high-tail it so fast, in those days or any other time, that you made a serious mistake?
Thomas: I made a lot of mistakes, but I don't think--not in the dictating, because you had backup editors, who could say, "What do you mean? Where are you?" Anything you'd leave out.
Q: Right. But when Kennedy moved into the White House, generally you operated from the White House press room there.
Q: You've done it for so long -- can you say that the milieu of the press room, circa Kennedy, has changed significantly over the years? If you were at the press room today, it would be a different animal from what it was.
Thomas: Oh, yes. It was so much more intimate. It was a smaller island, a smaller group of people. Now you have television, you have twenty-four hour cable. It's blanket coverage in many ways, and you fall all over each other, with equipment and so forth. But it was a much tighter island before, and you could walk down the street with Kennedy, in those days. There wasn't the security. You could throw a question at him, and so forth. Now the president has a whole cordon of a dozen Secret Service agents surrounding him and so forth. You don't get that close. But that's been happening, in recent years. But you had an intimacy.
Q: Well, but wasn't there a great -- Among the people who had gotten to the White House, to cover the White House -- that's a pretty high-ranking place to be for a newspaper person. Wouldn't the competition stifle any sense of intimacy?
Thomas: No. You were all in it together, in many ways. If you had a real exclusive, you had an exclusive, and hats-off. But most of the time you're covering with other people, and you're sharing.
Q: Really. Even the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune?
Thomas: No, they would be separate. I'm talking about AP and UPI. They went there all the time. They would come for the briefings and the press conferences. No, if you were with the New York Times, you'd get the story, for sure.
Q: You were doing a lot more meat-and-potatoes, would you say?
Q: Now there came a time when you became the chief UPI correspondent to the White House. Is that right?
Q: Was that after Kennedy?
Thomas: Oh, yes. It was during the Nixon era. ‘74.
Q: Was Merriman Smith chief from Kennedy until that time?
Thomas: From Roosevelt to '71 -- Nixon.
Q: He was in charge.
Q: And did you succeed him directly?
Q: As chief?
Thomas: Yes. No. Well, I'm trying to think. Yes, I did. I moved into the -- yes.
Q: And did you have occasion, when Kennedy was present, to travel with him? Go on trips?
Thomas: Yes. I didn't go on the foreign trips, but I went to Hyannis Port, to Palm Beach, all over the country.
Q: Give the future viewer an idea of what these trips to Hyannis Port or Palm Beach would be like. It wasn't just you and the president.
Thomas: A whole entourage of reporters, the family, and so forth. Usually, these were vacation trips, to Hyannis and Palm Beach; so, if anything, they want to get rid of you as soon we landed, wherever we were going. But Kennedy -- he had a good feeling, sometimes, about reporters, and he'd come back and chat. We were in the back of the plane, in the galley, and I just think being on a presidential trip, being on the president's plane -- you don't knock it. You can get a lot of insight -- especially if they want to talk, or they wander back. A lot of times they don't, but when they do --
Q: You're speaking of Air Force One.
Q: Didn't there come a time when there was also a separate press plane?
Thomas: Yes. The whole press corps has a plane.
Q: Even then?
Thomas: Oh, yes.
Q: But you're speaking of being on Air Force One.
Thomas: Yes. When you're wire service, you ride Air Force One, most of the time.
Q: And sometimes Kennedy would come back and chat you up.
Thomas: Kennedy, Johnson, everybody.
Q: What do you think, in those two or three years that he was president, Kennedy got done?
Thomas: He gave us hope. He knew the difference between war and peace. He had vision. He set goals -- things that people thought were fantastic, science fiction, that could never be achieved. He said, "We're going to land men on the moon in a decade." He didn't live to see it, but we did it. He told young people to go into public service. He said it could be the crown of their career. He created the Peace Corps. He went for the first nuclear test-ban treaty. He stepped back from the brink, as did Khrushchev -- two statesmen who understood they could blow up the world. Each had nuclear arsenals; they could have done exactly that. Both of them knew what war was all about. They had a sense of humanity. We were very lucky at that time. Both were being urged by their military people to go for it. So I think his accomplishments have ever been replaced, because no successor has ever given us a sense of great hope, since then.
Q: Well, here was a man who had serious physical ailment, but who exuded, for public consumption, a vigor. But there are some who would say, would they not, that, on the domestic front, he can't hold a candle to Lyndon Johnson.
Thomas: Oh, that's true. Johnson knew where all the bodies were buried. He knew every man's price on Capitol Hill. He had been Senate majority leader. He had been on the Hill for years as a Congressman from Texas. He had been a student of FDR's style -- "Always go for the brass ring." He understood where you play the cards. But I think that, equally important, is the spiritual sense of vision that Kennedy had, that nobody else I've covered has it. Johnson accomplished a great deal -- the most in the last half of the twentieth century; the most on the domestic side, as FDR, really. Those were the only two who really contributed majorly in that sense. But Kennedy gave us something else -- a sense of inspiration, excitement about life.
Q: To go back for a moment to the mechanics of your life. Here you are, covering the White House. So I assume you got up at 10:00, 11:00 in the morning, had a nice cup of coffee, your breakfast. Is that the way it went?
Thomas: No. Not when you work for a wire service.
Q: Exactly what was it? Give me an idea.
Thomas: 5:30 in the morning.
Thomas: Look. Half the world is turned around -- the clock is. [David] Dean Rusk said, "Half the world is making trouble when we're sleeping." That's true. No, you go in very early, because you never know what's going to happen. I would always get there, for Kennedy, by 7:00, at least.
Q: Where were you living at that time?
Thomas: Right in town. Later on, I started going in around 5:30, because I realized it was very important. You don't cover the White House for a wire service, and walk in at 9:00 in the morning.
Q: Could you walk to work from where you were?
Thomas: From where I was living, yes, I could.
Q: Can you get cabs at that hour? Is that how you would -- ?
Thomas: Yes. Cabs.
Q: You would get up at 5:30 in the morning, sometimes, or often, to cover the White House?
Q: When would you go to sleep?
Thomas: Rarely! Midnight.
Q: Let's see. When Kennedy became president, you were forty. You always felt you had the necessary stamina for that?
Thomas: I did. It wasn't “necessary.” I did it. And happily did it.
Q: And on a given day -- just to give me an idea -- first of all, did you feel you had to read the newspapers?
Thomas: Are you kidding? Of course. That's your homework. You wouldn't dare start a day without knowing what was in the papers, and have them with you, to refer to.
Q: So when would you get that done?
Thomas: Well, you get that done on the sly. You go to the White House, you grab a cup of coffee if you can, you get the newspapers until something starts happening.
Q: Right. And you just wrote with what's happening.
Q: And if you're with UPI, and you're informed that the president is going to go over to the Russian embassy --
Thomas: You call your office, first thing off, when you get there, and you say, "What's going on?" and they'll usually fill you in, on something big -- coups d'état and so forth. Then you tell them what the president's day is going to be like.
Q: Did you ever find yourself, for some peculiar reason, alone, covering the president? Somehow or other the others had not shown up yet, or something?
Thomas: That has happened on occasion, but not often. Kennedy once looked at me in the Oval Office, with a bunch of photographers, and he said, "Miss So-and-So, of the Universal Press." He saw that the others hadn't shown up yet. He had a very quick wit --
Q: Yes, he did.
Thomas: -- and a great sense of observation. He was with-it.
Q: Right. He enjoyed his own wit, I think. But when you would go on these trips -- If he was taking a vacation to Hyannis Port and you went up there, would you stay, as long as he --
Thomas: Oh, sure. We're staying at a motel, right on the ocean, etc. If he's going somewhere, if he was going boating, we'd get a boat and follow him.
Q: And would you always know what he was going to be doing?
Thomas: Sometimes they'd tell you, sometimes they wouldn't.
Q: Did you ever find yourself seriously flatfooted; that something had happened, and you didn't know?
Thomas: Well, a lot of times that could happen, and did happen. But we'd catch up.
Q: There were times, even during the Kennedy administration, when you were the only UPI person?
Thomas: No, that was very rare. But it has happened.
Q: Was Johnson's press operation noticeably different than Kennedy's?
Thomas: He was much more frenetic, and bouncing around. His active day was about fourteen or fifteen hours. He might take a nap in between, but start a whole new day. He was a can-do man; he was a man in a hurry and wanted to prove himself. He carried a lot of weight, because of having succeeded a very popular president, so I think he had a lot of trauma about that. But he was tremendous on the domestic side, and terrible on the Vietnam War -- which was his denouement.
Q: Well, he, himself, wanted to be president in '60, did he not?
Thomas: Oh, yes.
Q: Do you think he was carrying around this -- Clearly, he and Bobby [Robert F.] Kennedy weren't getting along, after John Kennedy's assassination.
Thomas: No, they were rivals.
Q: But were you aware of that at the time? Did it have any impact on your ability to cover the president?
Thomas: No! No! We all covered the '60 convention, in L.A. There were about eight people running for the Democratic nomination, presidential nomination, but it was very clear that Kennedy was going to get it. Johnson came with his entourage, of Sam [Samuel T.] Rayburn and so forth, and he was basically told -- he told his delegates and they told him, "If Kennedy offers you the number-two spot, don't take it." Then, indeed, Kennedy was going to get it, so Rayburn went to see Kennedy, and he said -- Kennedy told Rayburn he was going to offer the vice-presidential slot on the ticket to Johnson. Rayburn said, "Well, he doesn't want it. He wants to remain the Senate majority-leader." And Kennedy said, "What makes you think he's going to be that?" So it was kind of a veiled threat. He wanted the South, and so forth.
Thomas: So Rayburn went back to see Johnson, and urged him to take it -- it was going to be offered to him. "But yesterday you told me not to take it," and he said, "I'm a much wiser man today."
Q: But in terms of your life, how it affected you -- When Johnson came in, who was press secretary at first? Do you remember? Liz Carpenter and George Reedy? Were things different in the press room then, than they had been under Kennedy?
Thomas: Well, you knew you had a president who was in a hurry to try to make his mark; that he realized he had a lot to overcome, and so forth. Johnson had a touch of paranoia, to put it mildly-- a very secretive man; yet he wanted to be loved, and wanted to be as active as he could. So it was a three-ring circus.
Q: So, in some certain sense, you had to be even more on your toes.
Thomas: Oh, yes. Definitely. He never wanted to tell you where he was going, and so forth, so we always had to keep a bag packed. I went to Texas a couple of times without any bags or anything else -- no toothbrush -- because he liked to be impromptu, and he didn't want anyone to know his secrets, or where he was coming and going.
Q: Do you remember something about Johnson and a cousin of his in Texas named Oriole [Bailey]?
Q: Did you ever meet Cousin Oriole?
Thomas: Yes, I did.
Q: Something happened there. There was some incident there. Do you recall anything?
Thomas: He used to go and visit her. She was on the same grounds, on the ranch. She had a little cottage. Johnson loved her, and used to love to go see her. So he'd take a whole entourage of reporters and cameramen with him, sometimes, because he was moving around. One night we knocked on her door, she padded to the door, barefoot, we went in, and he were chatting with her. So I wrote this story about Cousin Oriole being in a ramshackle house, and coming to the door barefoot. And she said, "Does Helen Thomas sleep with her shoes on?" [Laughs] She was very upset by the story I wrote. But I got a paint job for her house, because Johnson was upset that I said the house was "ramshackle," and needed a paint job. She was a very perceptive woman, and he loved her.
Q: Bush's ranch is down in Crawford -- Where was Johnson's ranch? Do you remember?
Thomas: LBJ -- Johnson City, and Stonewall.
Q: Is that in the hill country?
Q: Is that west of Austin?
Thomas: About seventy, eighty miles.
Q: Have you ever been there in the spring time? I think there are lovely spring flowers out there.
Thomas: Bluebonnets. Yes.
Q: During the Kennedy or the Johnson administrations, were you ever alone with a president?
Thomas: [Pause] Not really. He brought me home once from an embassy party, when he was a senator, but I don't think I was ever alone with him, as president.
Q: "Him," being -- which him? Do you mean Johnson or Kennedy?
Thomas: Johnson. I'm sorry. Kennedy. No, we were always following him everywhere.
Q: But as a group. You were never in the Oval Office, for example, alone with Kennedy or Johnson.
Thomas: No. Oh, with Johnson -- I don't know. Why? Why do you ask?
Q: I just wondered if there was ever any tête-à-tête that never went recorded in history, with just the two of you.
Thomas: Not really.
Q: Jackie Kennedy and Lady Bird -- studies in contrast?
Thomas: Well, both great women, I think, really -- in different ways. I think they each made a tremendous contribution. They were different, of course. Jackie was noblesse oblige, very aristocratic; great taste; transformed the White House to its colonial era of elegance. She raised the whole cultural level of the White House. She didn't like reporters at all. She loved children, and she loved high fashion. Lady Bird [Claudia T.] Johnson was much more of a people-person. She was much more down-to-earth, and her national beautification program lives on. She really transformed the country -- took down the big billboards and the auto graveyards. She really made a project out of it, and it stuck. She was much closer to her husband, in the sense of what was going on.
Q: Would you say that Jackie Kennedy was stand-offish, as far as the press goes?
Thomas: Jackie? Stand-offish! I'm still getting the spit out of my eye!
Q: Oh, really. You don't mean --
Thomas: No. She didn't like us. We were prying. She felt we were writing too much focus on her children.
Q: Were you?
Thomas: Sure. Children in the White House! The contrast! The fun of it all! All the little things that --
Q: You don't have any regrets about having done that?
Thomas: Hell, no. They brought this--
Q: You can see her side, and say, "Well, okay, maybe she had a point."
Thomas: Of course, she had a point. But they were great copy, and she always wanted ten copies of the photographs that were taken, surreptitiously. So it worked out. The country was able to vicariously enjoy this family in the White House. The kids were unaware. They weren’t affected by it.
Q: May I ask you if you or your colleagues were aware of Kennedy's involvement at the time it was happening, in the '60s, when he was president.
Thomas: I wasn't. I knew there were lots of rumors. The male reporters would have known, yes. They had very intimate conversations with Secret Service then, agents, pre-assassination, where there was a closeness. I think men talk to men. But I didn't know.
Q: When you were covering Kennedy and Johnson, were there other senior women reporters, covering significant beats, be it the White House, or -- ?
Thomas: They would come for the press conferences and the briefings, but they were not on the body watch.
Q: Do you remember any name of them at that time?
Thomas: Sarah [N.] McClendon, Doris Fleeson, Ruth Montgomery -- I'm trying to think of the name of the wonderful New York Times woman. There were many, many women. There was a Martha Strayer, who was great, from the Washington Daily News. Many of them had attended Mrs. Roosevelt's press conferences, which were for women only; newswomen only.
Q: As late as --
Thomas: For as long as she was in the White House.
Q: You never, of course --
Thomas: No, I wasn't. No.
Q: Were there women reporters who, when the men started coming back from the war, dropped by the wayside; or dropped out of the profession; or were pushed out of the profession, or --
Thomas: No, no. They came back as -- They had gone as Buck Privates. They had been making $21.00 a week on a newspaper. They came back as colonels, majors, captains. They learned about the "chip." They learned about all the new technology, and they weren't about to come back to UPI -- United Press -- then, for $24.00 a week. But publishers didn't know that. They didn't understand what would happen to this country -- the growing pains; the explosion; the technology; the advancement. We had suddenly become the number-one super-power.
Q: But, you say, many of these men simply did not come back to newspapering?
Thomas: One or two came back, but the rest went on to greater glory.
Q: And women -- when the war was over, as far as you could observe -- did some of them --
Thomas: United Press fired eight women right after the war, on the assumption that the men would be coming back to their old jobs. They no more wanted those old jobs, most of them -- a couple came back, I think, for a while --
Q: What about the women? What happened to them? The women who were fired?
Thomas: They went off, and some of them never came back into the newspaper business. They were great reporters, and some got other jobs.
Q: You mentioned before, May Craig, whom I used to love to watch. May Craig -- I think she was with a Maine newspaper -- the Portland newspaper, in Maine, I believe. May Craig mentioned Dorothy Thompson, who, I believe, was married to [Harry] Sinclair Lewis at one time. Martha -- I don't know if you mentioned Martha Gellhorn.
Q: You've given credit to her elsewhere.
Thomas: I never knew her, but --
Q: Did you ever meet Dorothy Thompson, by the way?
Thomas: No, I never met her. But I read a lot about her. I felt like I knew her.
Q: Right. But the question I really want to ask is this. Here you are, from the time you were a reporter on the high-school newspaper, you wanted to be a newspaper person, and you became one. In fact, you became the dean, so to speak, of the White House press corps. But, maybe you didn't need a model, a woman model, in the newspapering business, to progress the way you did.
Thomas: No, I didn't.
Q: That's the truth of it. You did not.
Thomas: I didn't know them. I admired them, and I certainly had heard of them, but I didn't emulate them, in any sense. I just knew it was a profession I would love to go into. So I had no role model, per se.
Q: And during this time, when you were in your thirties -- twenties, thirties -- now you were forty when President Kennedy came into office -- Back there in Michigan they weren't saying, "Helen, for heaven's sake. Find a man. Marry."
Thomas: My parents were magnificent. They never told me that. My mother would say, "Come home," in a gentle, nice way. But no. No. This was a whole sense that you had to be an achiever. There was no push or pressure on that, but we all knew our parents wanted us to be educated, and that that was the password.
Q: Were your parents alive when Kennedy came into office?
Thomas: No. My mother died in '54, and my dad died in '40.
Q: Oh, in '40.
Thomas: Forty-one, I think it was.
Q: How old a man was he, at that time? Do you remember?
Thomas: I don't know. In his sixties.
Q: He was already in his sixties? Right. Okay. [Interruption]
Thomas: -- technicians, reporters, photographers. We had three from UPI, reporters, and I don't know how many photographers.
Q: Did you go only to Beijing?
Thomas: No. Then we went to -- where else? Shanghai, certainly, and then another place -- Han Shun. But it was mainly Beijing, and the last day was Shanghai, which produced the Shanghai Communiqué, which said, "There is but one China, and Taiwan is a part of it." That set the policy. They set the policy that Taiwan's trying to break down now.
Q: That was a joint communiqué? I've forgotten. Was that a joint communiqué?
Thomas: Oh, it was certainly a joint communiqué. Since then, the conservatives have tried to break that down, and are very tied to Taipei, where we're supposed to go to the aid of Taipei, and all these new prime ministers of Taiwan keep pulling the chain, wanting us to get into a war with China.
[END OF SESSION]
Interviewee: Helen Thomas
Interviewer: Myron Farber
Women in Journalism
Date: April 7, 2006
Q: It's interesting, as you said. But was Carter a man of good intentions? Although he lusted after something or other. I've forgotten what that was that got him trouble.
Thomas: He was honest.
Q: But the Carter administration -- did it create an impression in your mind about what was getting done there and what wasn't getting done?
Thomas: I think what got done was a tremendous feeling that human rights were the most important thing, and he made it the centerpiece of his foreign policy. I think that was all to the good. It made us better people.
Q: Do you think that's how he got elected?
Thomas: No, I think it was time for a change after Watergate.
Q: That's right. Right.
Thomas: Of course, there was Ford in between, but he was just keeping the seat warm -- although he did a good job in the time he was there, just holding the fort.
Q: Were you surprised when he pardoned Nixon?
Thomas: I was surprised at the speed and the look of it. It was too fast. I guess I was so surprised, but it was the timing that was off.
Q: Do you think it was pre-arranged?
Thomas: I don't know. All I know is that it certainly set up certain suspicions here. They denied it all the way and so forth, but I just wonder if -- I know that Nixon was horrified at the whole idea of going to jail -- as anyone would be -- but, I mean, his whole idea was that D.C. jail would be hell on earth. He wouldn't have gone to D.C. jail anyway, but -- No, I think the family called. I don't know that, but I know there was a lot of pressure on Ford, and I know that Mrs. [Elizabeth B.] Ford felt very sympathetic and so forth. I think it didn't look quite good for Ford, at that time. They did it one month later, to the day.
Q: You mentioned Mrs. Ford. Was it your impression at the White House that the First Lady -- or various first ladies (we spoke yesterday about Jackie Kennedy and Mrs. Johnson) --
Thomas: I think they're all very influential.
Q: Are they?
Thomas: Absolutely. Going to the White House, you're on a tight little island, or that's how you conceive yourself. I think the Johnson girls [Lynda Bird Johnson Robb and Luci Baines Johnson] put it best, which was, "They're out there and we're in here." It was almost "them against us." They had a sense of being beleaguered rather than privileged, a lot of them. It isn't that the people are an enemy, but every day they pick up the newspaper and they read certain things that certainly are very disturbing. I think they get a circle-the-wagons feeling; they're under siege.
Q: And Rosalyn [S.] Carter. Did she strike you at the time as a particularly strong woman?
Thomas: Mrs. Carter. Very strong. Very strong, and she certainly knew politics. She could handle anything. She handled press conferences without a note and so forth. She was so close to her husband in terms of his thinking, she could always relay it publicly. She never deviated, really. She was a wonderful woman, and she made a great contribution to better treatment for the mentally afflicted.
Q: And has she been active with Jimmy Carter in all his humanitarian work, after leaving office?
Thomas: Absolutely. Side by side. She went to North Korea with him. She's been everywhere, very, very involved.
Q: Right. Right. Skipping over the Reagan administration for a moment, to the Clintons. Should one look at the Clinton administration -- time in office, administration -- as pre-Whitewater or pre-Monica Lewinsky and post-? Is that a sensible way to look at it?
Thomas: I think you have to look at it as though the man had not one second in the White House when he was not being investigated. The ultra-right wing in this country denied him total legitimacy as president, and they went after him, day and night, day and night. He never knew a moment when he was free of being investigated. They were ruthless. I think it was [Jesse A.] Helms [Jr.], from South Carolina, who said, "The president had better not come here without a body guard." Or the army, or whatever they said. "He's not our president." I have never heard anything more --
Q: Did Clinton contribute to making himself a target?
Thomas: He left himself open to being a target, but he didn't create the thing. They used things against him that they haven't used against other presidents. There have been rumors about other presidents, but he got it both-barrels, because the Republicans had had the White House for twelve years and it killed them to give it up.
Q: Still, would you say that Clinton made achievements that can't be denied? Political achievements, substantive achievements in office that you have to credit him for?
Thomas: I think they did a lot of good, but I think President Clinton missed his chance for greatness. He really blew it. At the same time, I think he tried very hard in foreign policy -- the Balkans, the Middle East, Ireland, Northern Ireland, etc. They could have gone for universal healthcare. There was no reason. It was political. They would have been stopped in their tracks, but they would have laid down the start, started something that could not have been denied. What I liked was his reticence to go to war. He did go to Kosovo, when it was so clear that genocide was ongoing. He had to do something.
Q: He did it rather belatedly though, didn't he?
Thomas: That's what I mean. I think he was a man of peace, really, and thought you could work things out. But eventually he did go, that's true.
Q: Do you think he was a man who thought he could convince somebody of anything?
Thomas: He was very popular, and he retained his popularity, even though the demonization was systematic. I don't know how he took it. I don't know how he stood up to that.
Q: Do you remember when the health plan that Hillary Clinton was in charge of was released?
Thomas: It was a catastrophe. It was a Rube Goldberg monstrosity. It was ridiculous. It was created by candlelight, without any public exposure. The White House just doesn't run the world. There was no touching base with members of Congress or anyone else; not letting reporters in on the take-offs as well as the landings. He made a total mistake. The secrecy was unbelievable.
Q: Did you feel that from the start? When it came out, did you even know -- People who were close in, like yourself, to the White House -- Did you know, even as it was being developed --
Thomas: No. That's the problem. They wouldn't really allow any coverage -- she wouldn't. Once there was an event at the White House for healthcare, Hispanic healthcare workers, whom she was going to meet with, as part of developing this health plan, and I asked to cover it. And they said, "Oh, no, you can't." I said, "Why not? She's going to meet with you; I'd like to hear what she has to say." Finally, they said, "Well, it's a small room." I said, "I don't mind. I'll stand. I can squeeze in." No, I couldn't cover it. It turned out there were twenty healthcare workers -- in the State dining room, where the State dinners hold 200 people--sit down dinner. Candlelight.
Q: Why do you think that was the situation?
Thomas: I don't know. I think she really thought they could put in a thumb and pull out a plum, and present it to the people. Anybody who understands this democracy understands that you have to touch all bases, if you're going to sell something as big as that. And I thought it was a lousy plan. I was glad it went down. Universal healthcare -- pay as you go -- and pick up for anyone else who can't afford it.
Q: Massachusetts is moving in that direction, is it not? No?
Thomas: I don't know if it's really in that direction. It sounds like they're being forced.
Q: Well, since we're talking about Hillary Clinton -- of course, she's much in the news these days, as the potential Democratic --
Thomas: She's running, and I think she'd be a good president.
Q: You do think so?
Thomas: Compared to what we've got?!
Q: Well, how about compared to her smarts back when she did up this healthcare plan?
Thomas: I think she's learned a lot. She learned to smile. How do you get upstate-New York conservatives? Well, finally, you know the dairy prices, and you know how to win people over. She's a good politician, and I don't think a sincere one, now. She understands the game.
Q: A better politician, certainly, than she was when she put that healthcare plan --
Thomas: Oh, god! It's unbelievable the kind of arrogance people come into the White House with. "We won the election. This is our White House." I'm sorry. It belongs to the American people, and you're a public servant.
Q: No question that she's astute enough to be president?
Thomas: I think so.
Q: And would you say the same --
Thomas: I didn't like the fact that she voted for this Iraqi war. She voted for the invasion. She went there a few months ago and she said, just like Senator [Joseph R.] Biden did, that there had to be 80,000 more troops. I mean, come on, sister! Are you reading the papers? Do you know what's going on?
She's a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which, obviously, she thinks you have to have the macho-- or they’re going to think, “She can't push the button.”
Q: Well, it's a larger question of her trying to appeal to a middle-right constituency.
Thomas: I think she's moving in that direction. But then [John S.] McCain [III] -- who will be her opposition -- is on the farthest right.
Q: That's not his image in certain quarters, is it? Aren't there a lot of people who think of him as a moderate?
Thomas: They do, but that's a façade. If they get down to his voting record, it's appalling and his views are appalling -- in my book. He's ultra-conservative.
Q: But if you looked at the election in 2000 and 2004 --
Thomas: He schmoozes with reporters, and they get the idea that he's a hail-fellow-well-met and you're just having laughs. No, no. I'm sorry. He's pro-war. The only thing he's against is torture, because of his horrible experience -- five and a half years in the Hanoi Hilton -- but he's certainly against abortion rights; he's against gun control; he's for intelligent design being taught, vs. evolution.
Q: The new immigration bill that's working its way through Congress now -- isn't he a major figure in -- ?
Thomas: I think he's part of the compromise, which is good. But he's got to. He's Arizona. What the hell is he going to do? He's not going to be a vigilante on the border, I'm sure, when he needs those Hispanic votes.
Q: Any question in your mind as to whether the country would elect a woman president?
Thomas: No. No question anymore. They would.
Q: Actually, are most of the voters women, today?
Thomas: Yes, they are, and they've never asserted that right as much as they should.
Q: Then, you mean, Condi [Condoleezza] Rice would be a shoe-in.
Thomas: Not in my book. I think she's a detriment to American society --
Q: Oh, really?
Thomas: -- in the run-up to the war; mushroom clouds; smoking guns. She peddled all this false information, never realizing what war was. We've killed thousands of people, Americans and Iraqis, and wounded thousands, for life, on both sides. For what? Creating a democracy? The grateful dead.
Q: You mentioned before, with regard to Hillary Clinton's health plan, that she didn't touch the necessary bases in Washington. Let me ask you whether, in your time as a wire service reporter, you saw the relationship between the presidency and Capitol Hill change at all. There was a time when, instinctively, the president would go to Capitol Hill. Now that's --
Thomas: Yes. Definitely. I think Johnson understood that he had to touch all bases. He knew every man's price. He constantly was back and forth -- with [Everett .M] Dirksen, and with Republican leaders and so forth. He understood. You had to get the votes, you had to ram anything through, even if you got one vote. So it was a different time. I think that Kennedy understood it, too. I think that Carter, the same. Even though he had a Democratic Congress, the people came in the same door and left by the same door -- meaning, nothing had touched them. Speaker [Thomas P.] O'Neill [Jr.] could never relate to Carter. They were not on the same wave length. He was on a better wave length with President Reagan. They were two Irishmen, getting together, and that sort of thing.
Well, Carter was not that kind. He missed the boat on that score. He should have learned to socialize and be a part of the thing -- use his sense of humor, which is quite hidden.
Q: But he hadn't been in Washington, had he?
Thomas: No, he hadn't. That's true, but that doesn't mean anything. It was a question of personality. He was a much more inverted man. He knows the importance of relating and communicating, but not on this everyday nonsense.
Q: Right. You notice how, from time to time, you've got this kind who say, "I'm running against Washington."
Thomas: In the campaign?
Q: Yes. In the campaign they say, "I'm running against Washington."
Thomas: That's right. Well, every president has said that. They talk about "Potomac fever." Reagan did the same thing -- all of them. Then pretty soon they find out that they have to --
Q: But why do they think it makes sense to say, "I'm running against -- "
Thomas: Because they think it's very appealing to the people around the country. "They're making decisions for us, those people in Washington, and they don't know what the hell is going on." The heartland, the hinterland --
Q: But do you think that's reflective of what the heartland, or the rest of the country, thinks?
Thomas: Not today. Because I think everybody's tuned in. Everybody's wired. The whole question of cable and all the communications -- No.
Q: Let me turn back, if I can, to the Nixon administration, and then move forward somewhat with the Republicans. You seem, for a dyed-in-the-wool, bona fide, credentialed liberal --
Thomas: You bet! I wouldn't be anything else but.
Q: Right. But you seem --
Thomas: If he's going to advertise it, I'm going to -- [laughs]
Q: But you seem to give a little more credit to Nixon, at least pre-Watergate --
Thomas: Well, no. On domestic affairs, he was not that -- He had come from a very poor family. I think at least one, maybe two brothers, died of TB [Tuberculosis]. The mother went to Arizona with them. He saw poverty. He knew what poverty was. He had a father who failed in so many of his business enterprises. So I think he understood -- I think he had a little more sympathy for the poor. Reagan never turned his back. When he left Dixon, Illinois, he never looked back, even though his father had handed out WPA [Works Progress Adminsitration] checks, and even though he was six times president of the Screen Actors Guild. When he turned, it was 180 degrees.
Q: Stay with Nixon for a moment. By 1972, and that "third-rate burglary" -- refresh my recollection. Where was it? At the --
Thomas: In Florida, he said that.
Q: -- at the Watergate! The Watergate! Third-rate burglary. He didn't say that. I think the press secretary said that, wasn't it?
Thomas: Yes. But we were in Florida, when Ron [Ronald] L. Zeigler said it.
Q: Okay. By that time, were you the bureau chief of UPI in the White House?
Thomas: No, this was '72. I became it in '74.
Q: I heard what you said before -- speaking about personal matters -- but I just wonder if I can't -- In '71 you went to China with Nixon.
Thomas: In '72. [Henry A.] Kissinger snuck in, in '71, through Pakistan.
Q: Okay. Were you married in 1971?
Q: The point I'm trying to get at -- You were married to --
Thomas: -- an AP man, who had just retired.
Q: That's what I'm getting at. Oh, he had retired.
Q: So there wasn't a question of competition.
Q: Had he covered the White House?
Thomas: Since FDR, to Nixon.
Q: Oh, heavens. Right. Give you some helpful tips?
Thomas: No. You always talk shop. But no.
Q: It's the reporter's disease. But, in any case, may I ask you about China, though? I've not been to China. China was just opening. Literally, it was still closed, was it not, when you went there with Nixon?
Thomas: Nixon opened it, really. But he did it because -- in a devious sense -- divide and conquer, so the Soviet Union -- He knew about the break. From the time he was defeated for president -- from '60 to '68, he traveled in Europe, and he stayed at embassies. By that time, everybody knew of the real schism between the Soviet Union and China. The Chinese had a million people on the border --
Q: -- and he meant to capitalize on this.
Thomas: Oh, absolutely. He never intended to give up his ambition to be president.
Q: But when you went in '72, can you relate that experience to me? Were you confined, as a reporter, with other reporters, into a small area? Were you allowed to move around? Was it Beijing that he went to?
Thomas: Every reporter in Washington wanted to be on that trip. They knew it was historic. It had a twenty-year hiatus, with no relations with China. We knew everything would be fantastic, in terms of seeing the transformation of a whole country into a communist society. But it was very limited. The Chinese could only handle -- they took eighty-seven Americans, and I guess there were some foreigners on that trip, in the group. It was a question of hotel rooms. Also, the Chinese wanted an interpreter-spy on every two reporters, from their foreign office. So they only had a limited -- All I can say is it was exciting from the moment we left Washington until the time we returned -- eight days where everything was a story. The idea is that no reporter wanted to sleep. I'd never been asked what I'm having for breakfast. "What do the people look like?" Everything was a story -- what the hotel room looked like. By the time you get to the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and so forth, of course all those things --
Q: You mean the editors were asking --
Thomas: It seemed that the editors, and, we felt, the American people, wanted everything. They were so hungry for any insight. The CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] knew for years what was going on -- the transformation. India knew, Hong Kong knew, etc. -- but the average American did not know. So I think our stories were -- Everything we ate. One man wrote, on the duck, "We ate everything but the quack." [Laughter] There were a million funny stories. Also, the Vietnam War was still going on, and, of course, China was on the opposite side. But they brought in the best chefs.
Q: Where were you housed?
Thomas: There was a hotel, which was very similar to a YWCA [Young Women’s Christian Association] or YMCA [Young Men’s Christian Association] -- very Spartan, but they had lots of fruit and candies in these rooms --
[END TAPE 1; BEGIN TAPE 2]
Q: Just as we changed the tape -- to finish off on China -- you moved from Beijing to Shanghai, certainly, and I was asking whether you were followed around, basically, by the Chinese.
Thomas: Well, it was very, very subtle. You had this feeling. You just knew. They were foreign office and so forth -- all very nice and very gentle. We were treated very well. It was a very, very exciting time. The whole world was excited, that this breakthrough had happened. Our country was, and certainly Nixon was ten-feet-tall. He was very, very happy that all this had happened, and reporters were excited.
Q: But what you saw with your own eyes -- Was it consistent with what you would have imagined you were going to see, before you left?
Thomas: In China? We were reading books by [Edgar] Snow and so forth -- Red Star Over China -- Everything was out of date and archaic. There had been nothing, really, that we had our hands on. But our press plane was a flying library. Everybody dug in. Usually, you would be very convivial. People did their homework, or tried to, but didn't know enough.
Q: Did you have to file around the clock?
Thomas: Well, you couldn't, while you were on a thirteen-hour trip, unless it was an emergency --
Q: No, but once you landed --
Thomas: Once we landed we wanted to file, always, because we thought everything was important, and there was a thirteen-hour difference with China. So you knew that hitting certain deadlines was important.
Q: Who was the press spokesman for Nixon on that trip? Do you remember?
Thomas: Well, certainly, Kissinger. I'm so mad. I was held up -- I got my stamped passport, and it was in my purse that was stolen, but --
Q: Where? In China?
Thomas: No, after I came back. Kissinger was on that trip, certainly, and they had a lot of the NSC [National Security Council] people. Richard [H.] Solomon, who is now head of the Peace Institute here. They had real experts.
Q: You felt, in this exotic country, clued in, though -- what Nixon was up to and what was going on while you were there?
Thomas: We thought it was a good, good thing, and I think everybody was pulling for it, for it to happen. We were told when Nixon was going to meet with Chou En-lai, the foreign minister; we weren't told when he was going to secretly meet with Mao Tse-tung. But everybody knew. The word got around in Beijing, because all the lights at the compound were on one night. So the word passed, with the grapevine, that Nixon had gone to see Mao Tse-tung. They announced it the next day.
Q: And the trip culminated with the Shanghai Communiqué, in which it was said that "there was only one China, and Taiwan was a part of it." Was that a surprise to the reporters?
Thomas: It wasn't a surprise to our State Department reporters. Stewart Hensley was a brilliant man, and he had picked out of a speech that Nixon made, maybe in 1971, in Kansas (of all places, I don't know the exact place), where Nixon had referred to China by the name it had designated -- the Republic of China or whatever -- vs. the nationalist government, and he spotted that. Because his family had been part of an English-language newspaper in China, so he knew all the nuances. So he was brilliant on the subject.
In Shanghai, we were waiting for the Communiqué, and we kept a line, UPI (and AP did, too), kept our telephone line open for hours, practically. I was (again, in the Goldberg sense) holding open the phone when Stewart Hensley got the Communiqué, ripped it open, and he dictated a "flash."
Q: You seem to always be there -- like when you were talking about the Brown vs. Board of Education at the Supreme Court.
Thomas: I know. But the point is, these are historic moments --
Q: You bet.
Thomas: -- and I certainly was not the number one. Even to be there was, to me, so exciting. But I've seen the deterioration of that, about China. Actually, I don't think our presidents -- the presidents I've covered so far -- want to tangle with China, but they're being egged on a lot, by Taiwan.
Q: I want to come back to that.
Thomas: And I think the conservatives ought to back off. They "know." They're ready to take on China? I'm sorry. [Douglas] MacArthur found that out.
Q: I meant to ask you yesterday -- Were you at the White House when John Kennedy was assassinated?
Thomas: I was at the White House, and I was in Washington, yes.
Q: Did you have responsibilities for coverage then?
Thomas: I was sent right to Andrews Air Force Base, allegedly to go to Dallas, but en route (I even had a bag), it came across the radio that it had been officially announced that he was dead. So my office said, "Stay at Andrews, and when the plane arrives with the body --" I was there, and got all the copy from Merriman Smith, who wrote not only about the assassination, but the inauguration of Johnson on the plane. So I dictated for an hour and a half, then I went to the White House. I got tipped off as to when they were going to bring the body back from Bethesda Naval Hospital, after the autopsy, so I was there, until 3:00-4:00 in the morning. They brought the body back, and put him in state -- lying in-state -- in the East Room.
Q: It's fair to say you were a fan of Kennedys?
Thomas: I didn't know what kind of a president he would be, but I certainly became a rooter -- and at the same time, a real reporter -- in the sense that he hated us. We were following the kids; we were writing about Jackie; we were writing about him; going off, sneaking off and this and that. So I don't think the relationship was that --
Q: What I meant to get at is, in that kind of circumstance --
Thomas: I was a fan in the sense that I knew he was a man of peace; that he went for the nuclear test-ban treaty; that he created the Peace Corps; that he said we were going to land a man on the moon; that he had vision. From that aspect, I thought he was the most inspired president I ever covered.
Q: And he was personally appealing, you said.
Thomas: He had a good sense of humor. But, also, he was not a great fan of the press.
Q: What I'm getting at is --
Thomas: What I'm saying is it's a split idea. You're not always crazy about a president who's trying to thwart you.
Q: I understand. But at the time of his assassination --
Thomas: Of course, I felt bad. The world felt bad.
Q: But was it harder --
Thomas: No, it was not. I dictated. I dictated the story -- everything -- and it came out. Of course, you feel -- you put your feelings in a blind trust. But I would have felt that bad about everyone. Not really. I didn't feel that bad about everyone, but I did feel bad about Kennedy, because I felt it was a great loss, and it was. This country lost its hope and its youth with his death. He represented the best, in that respect.
Q: But what I meant -- I wanted to ask whether you ever, in your career, have been -- overcome may be too strong a word -- so influenced by the emotion of the moment, that you have been less the reporter that you wanted to be.
Thomas: I don't think so. I think I was a reporter all the way. I don't think I should rule out my feelings, but I certainly did the job.
Q: And always have, you feel.
Thomas: Absolutely. I mean, when you're a wire-service reporter, you have to park your feelings. I think I was very lucky on that score. I think that's what the American people deserve -- a straight story -- if that's humanly possible. And that's true of all the reporters. They all did their jobs. You should read the copy of that era. These were great reporters. Of course, they had feelings. But they wrote the story. Get the Washington Post. Get the New York Times. See what happened.
Q: I have, to some degree.
Thomas: You were on the Times.
Q: Yes, but I was just starting out. I was a neophyte's neophyte, at that time.
When the Watergate episode started, in '72, what was the reaction in the White House? In the White House briefing room? Did it build over time? Were the people smart enough to realize that somebody was going to break this wide open? What was it like?
Thomas: It was darkness at noon, pretty soon, and we realized that something was terribly wrong. We also realized that he had the upper hand during the campaign of '72, and that he was going to win, over [George S.] McGovern, and that people were still with the president; that they had gotten by with this -- because they were able to really control the information. I think we really didn't wake up until the fall, and until the inauguration for his second term.
Q: Into '73, now, we're talking about. The burglary was, I think, in June or July of '72.
Thomas: That was all campaign, too.
Q: Right. Then you're speaking of '73, when you began to wake up. But by that time, weren't Woodward and Bernstein, and perhaps a few others, hot on the trail?
Thomas: They were hot on the trail, but not that hot. I mean, they were beginning to have stories, but it didn't gather the kind of momentum --
Q: But here you are, surrounded by senior reporters, in the White House briefing room, and they get the Washington Post. They may not be reading it at 5:30, like you, but they get it, and they're seeing some of these stories coming out. Was the conversation in the room, "Boy! What's going on here? We're sitting -- "
Thomas: No, it wasn't that way. Because everybody was involved in the campaign. We were being assigned McGovern and Nixon and so forth, and getting out. It was not that.
Q: Well, but, then, the campaign was over.
Thomas: I'm telling you -- At the inauguration. After the inauguration, things began to pick up.
Q: Is it your memory of things, then, that they seriously questioned the White House press spokesman about --
Thomas: I think the real hot-seat was in '73. It was all over by, certainly, the fall of '73. We knew the other shoe was going to fall. Nothing, nothing they could do could put Humpty Dumpty together again. It was impossible. Every excuse was falling by the wayside. You knew Nixon was trying everything. He would have groups of congressmen coming over, and nothing -- he couldn't sell it, really. It was all over. I think the emotional feeling in the White House -- it was darkness at noon.
Q: Darkness at noon, but a darkness that the people around Nixon were ready to concede at that time? When did he leave office?
Thomas: I don't think they were ready to concede, but I think -- no, they weren't. It wasn't until August of '74 that --
Q: Well, do you think if there hadn't been Sam [Samuel J.] Ervin [Jr.], say. Wasn't it Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina who ran the Watergate hearings, and the series --?
Thomas: Even then. When he was about to be impeached, yes. That's different. But that didn't happen until later on.
Q: And you don't recall any of your colleagues in the White House, your reporter colleagues, saying, "I've got to break out of this room and get on covering this some other way. We're not getting enough information here."
Thomas: No, we weren't getting enough information. Maybe some did. I think there were probably a lot of reporters digging around, etc., but we were on the body watch; we were not able, really, to get into it. I was getting phone calls from Martha [E.B.] Mitchell, so I knew something horrible was happening. She was the first to call for Nixon's resignation.
Q: Right. You kind of liked Martha Mitchell, didn't you?
Thomas: Very much. Yes. She was Blanche du Bois.
Q: She was Blanche du Bois. Could you rely on her to tell you something -- could you rely on her to get it right, if she told you something? If she wanted to tell you something, would she get it right?
Thomas: It was a mosaic. She couldn't put it piece by piece, but she was telling you the truth, and you knew it.
Q: At the time, for example, that she was calling you -- was it widely known that she was calling reporters?
Thomas: She was calling everybody.
Q: Did the White House know that?
Thomas: Oh! Yes, indeed!
Q: At the time, they knew that.
Thomas: Of course, they did. Her husband knew it, and he was trying to put an end to it. [Interruption]
Q: Just to finish off on that Watergate thing -- Woodward and Bernstein. Did you know who they were?
Thomas: We knew they were on the Post, and they certainly were getting a lot of stories -- none of them identifying their sources. They were important stories, it's true, but they didn't gather the momentum, I think, until after the election, where you really thought --
Q: Among the regulars at the White House, the reporters -- do you think they were willing to give them credit, at that time, for what they had --
Thomas: Oh, sure. Definitely. We knew that we had not done the job.
Q: And that they had.
But, you know, at the tail end of this story, the scandal -- the New York Times had eighteen reporters on that story and the Washington Post had eighteen reporters, and they were digging into every nook and cranny. It was a very competitive story.
Q: In those years, did you ever meet Woodward and Bernstein?
Thomas: I don't think I knew them at all, in that period.
Q: Do you remember anybody at the White House, among the reporters, saying, "Let's invite these guys over for a drink."
Q: "It's a hell of a job they've done."
Thomas: No. I was very happy at whatever they were getting. We could certainly feed on that.
Q: Were you there when Nixon flew off the White House lawn, by helicopter? When he resigned. Nixon? I think he took a helicopter off the South Lawn, Nixon, and he gave that V-sign.
Thomas: Oh. At the end. Yes.
Q: Were you there that day?
Q: Did you see that, yourself?
Thomas: I sure did. And I was in the East Room for his swan song. It was very painful.
Q: Swan song?
Thomas: His last speech, where they went in to say goodbye --
Q: It was a whole crowd, wasn't it?
Thomas: -- to his White House people. Mrs. [Patricia R.] Nixon was very upset, because she didn't know there was going to be TV. She thought it was just sort of a farewell. It was where Nixon gave a very, very emotional speech about his background and what had happened, his "sainted" mother, etc. It was painful.
Q: Painful even for --
Thomas: -- his people. His staffers were crying.
Q: Did you have a feeling about it?
Thomas: My feeling was that it was very painful. I couldn't help but have anything but sympathy. Here is a man, the first man in history, to give up the Presidency. I was there, shortly after, when Ford was sworn in as president. "Our long, national nightmare is over."
Q: Right. Right. You know, you had mentioned, before the break, that when you were in China, the monitoring of you, by the Chinese, was more subtle than, for example, when you were in Russia.
Thomas: Because their communism is a lot more subtle. The Russians are heavy-handed.
Q: Were you there in Russia, at one point?
Thomas: Two or three times. I went three to four times, with different presidents. I also went on my own, when I was president of the Women's Press Club. I was invited.
Q: Were you even monitored then?
Thomas: Probably. I didn't feel it.
Q: But when you were with the president --
Thomas: Well, the press. I was monitored in the sense that the press was certainly watched.
Q: More visibly, more --
Thomas: The KGB [State Security Committee] was everywhere, and so was the Secret Service.
Q: Right. Okay. You know, I can't help but ask -- regarding Woodward and Bernstein -- somewhere later on, twenty years later or so, you wrote, or you said, that, in your view, investigative reporting was sort of a "dying art," to quote you. That it is sort of a dying art now.
Thomas: Well, it isn't a dying art. It's a question of expenses; that the newspapers will not shell out the kind of money that it takes. And the wire services -- UPI is practically non-existent, although it does still exist. And I don't think the Associated Press and Reuters are doing big investigative jobs. It costs a lot of money.
Q: What about some of the magazines?
Thomas: They're not doing it either. I think everybody is belt-tightening.
Q: Well, you've gone out of your way to praise Sy Hirsch for his work in the New Yorker.
Thomas: Yes. Well, he's a loner. This isn't a massive effort on the part of a team -- which is what we had.
Q: Since you mentioned UPI -- UPI is going to be 100 years old next year, UPI in one form or another.
Thomas: It was a great organization, and it's sad to see it -- because I think it's really important to have competition among the wire services, instead of an AP monopoly. Reuters gives it some competition, but not much.
Q: Well, when you left in 2000, and became a columnist for Hearst News Syndicate -- am I saying that correctly? Hearst News Syndicate?
Thomas: Newspapers. Yes.
Q: It was purchased by Reverend Moon, isn't that correct?
Q: And you left.
Q: Up to that point, when it was purchased by Reverend Moon, was it going downhill and downhill?
Thomas: Oh, sure, because it was losing -- because the Scripps-Howard people -- you always have to take care of the grandchildren, the great-great-grandchildren, the great-great-great-great-grandchildren and their estates, and they forget why they're really there. So when everybody wants their cut, and they no longer care about the newspaper business -- E.W. Scripps said that the United Press was his greatest contribution to journalism. When the heritage -- when those who carry on don't understand what the role was and why it was so important, then everything falls apart. So UPI began -- they began selling it to different people who did not have that same dedication. It lost a lot of ground.
Q: So from your long experience, the handwriting was on the wall for a long period of time.
Thomas: Yes. That's right.
Q: Nothing surprised you toward the end.
Thomas: It didn't surprise me, but I feel bad about it.
Q: Well, let me turn, if I can -- We've talked about the Democratic administrations, and some of the early Republicans. Would you agree that, in the last couple of decades, there has been a phenomenal growth in the Republican conservative movement? And whether they were in the White House or not in the White House; whether they were controlling Congress or not controlling Congress -- Do you see that beginning with Reagan?
Thomas: Yes. I do.
Q: What were the ingredients? And what was Reagan's contribution to it?
Thomas: I think that the conservatives, who had been waiting in the wings for so long, began to -- people in this country began to get fed up, I suppose, with unions, social programs and so forth, especially those who became more and more affluent and influential. I think the American people lost their way, in so many ways, and these people became the ascendant types. I can't put my finger on why the change, but Reagan personified social Darwinism: "If you can't make it, tough."
Q: You mean, this nice guy?
Thomas: Yeah. Nice guy. He was very nice.
Q: Well, people thought he was nice.
Thomas: If you can't make it, you're on your own. He put someone in charge of every agency who was against the premise of the agency, which was really -- In terms of the Interior, he was all for selling the Western lands, federal lands, to private enterprise. Every agency. He put Howard Phillips in charge of Anti-Poverty, and he was absolutely against the program. So the whole idea was to destroy the power of the federal government. He was against the federal government: it was the problem, not the solution, and he sold that.
Q: Right. But from a reporter's point of view, covering the White House as senior person, then, for UPI, during the Reagan years -- was it an exciting time for a reporter?
Thomas: Of course. It's always exciting. It's exciting to cover history -- and that's what you do at the White House, no matter who's in charge and who's in power.
Q: But if you were looking to give Reagan credit, as you've been willing to give some of the other presidents, for a positive accomplishment, could you find something?
Thomas: [Long pause] I don't think he brought about the end of the Soviet Union, but I think he contributed to it with that arms race that was through the roof. He secretly approved the spending of one trillion plus dollars for new arms programs, which are probably still on the drawing board, to outspend the Soviets. Even the CIA didn't know that much about what was happening in terms of their economic collapse. So he was able to parlay that. But I really think so many other things entered into the fall of the Soviet Union. But, certainly, he'll get credit for that.
Q: Right. Right. Do you recall the "Tear down the wall -- " Did you travel with Reagan --
Q: -- when he said, "Mr. [Mikhail S.] Gorbachev, tear down this wall," was he in Berlin at the time, when he said that?
Q: Were you there, at that time?
Q: Did you report that story?
Thomas: Yes, I did.
Q: And do you recall any feelings of your own about whether that was going to happen?
Thomas: I didn't, no. I didn't think -- I thought it was rhetoric. But it's clear that Gorbachev, also, was raising the window to new ideas. And they knew they were on the ropes. We didn't know it, but they did.
Q: You know, it sounds, Helen, that, in your life, you barely had time to think; that you were constantly on the go.
Thomas: Well, that's true. That's why we didn't really probe as much as we should have.
Q: But that was the nature of your assignment.
Thomas: That's right, and I loved it.
Q: No regrets about not having changed to a particular beat, like, let's say, Justice, where you could delve into American justice and --
Thomas: That's not my style. I'm not a good investigative reporter. I'm not a lawyer, I'm not --
Q: Well, you sound like quite a historian, personally.
Thomas: Simply because these things are happening before my very eyes. How could I forget them? I think I was very lucky, from that aspect, but I certainly was not an investigative reporter.
Q: Have you read much history, though? In your reporting years, before you became a columnist, did you read? What did you read, when you had time?
Thomas: Mostly newspapers and magazines -- current periodicals.
[END TAPE 2; BEGIN TAPE 3]
Q: -- Allen [S.] Drury or --
Thomas: He was a good friend of mine.
Q: Was he really? And did you read Advise and Consent?
Q: Have you read any of the other fiction -- like [Eugene L.] Gore Vidal's Washington D.C.?
Thomas: I've read him in magazines and The Nation. I haven't read the whole book.
Q: Did you know Ward Just, at all?
Thomas: I read him every day, when he was writing for the Post. I didn't know him.
Q: He's written some very good novels, set in Washington.
Thomas: He was marvelous on Vietnam.
Q: Right. But Reagan leaves office. Clinton is there. Clinton leaves office. Then we have this Bush era. Is the Bush era a natural extension of the character of change you were describing happening -- what was happening with Reagan, with regard to the country, and the way Reagan himself was? Or were the Bushes a different lot?
Thomas: Well, they were different, but they were also extremely political and self-interested. I think there was a Reagan revolution, and they were able to ride on that. He did turn the country to the Right, so they certainly used that. I never would have thought that Bush 41 would be that conservative, but he played all the cards that he had to. In his heart, I'm sure he was not that conservative, having been at the U.N. for so long, and having been in jobs involving international diplomacy. He certainly knew more about the world.
Q: How did Bush 41 manage to lose to Clinton?
Thomas: Oh, the economy. "It's the economy, Stupid," and so forth. And, I think in his heart of hearts, Bush 41 didn't want to run again. He didn't want to win. I felt that, definitely.
Q: Are you saying he was a more sophisticated man than Reagan? Worldly? More internationally-oriented?
Thomas: Oh, yes. Much more. But Reagan was a politician. He had a lot of street smarts, and knew where he wanted to be. He stuck to his guns and he thought people liked that. They did. They thought he represented strength, even though he was pulling a lot of stuff.
Q: Wasn't there a time when Bush 41 had something like a ninety-percent favorable rating in the polls?
Thomas: Ninety-percent, yes, after the Gulf War.
Q: That's unparalleled, isn't it?
Thomas: It is, because it was a quick war. They kissed it off. He didn't go to war until he had twenty-eight nations with him on it. It was an outright invasion by Iraq into Kuwait, and he could justify it. He went in for oil.
Q: Bush 41. Bush 41.
Q: Do you remember anything in your reporting, under Bush 41, that is memorable, that gave you some sense of, "Well, he's no Reagan."
Thomas: He was cautious. He was very cautious. He didn't jump into this Gulf War until he knew he had twenty-eight nations with him.
Q: How about his relations, though, with the press?
Thomas: He liked the press, until the tail-end, when he began to feel that the press was against him. He loved the photographers, and he would drop into the press room. We had a good relationship, really.
Q: And Reagan?
Thomas: Reagan was very detached. He didn't know us from Adam. The press was something else, over here. He held primetime news conferences, which we were all very happy about, but in the end, no personal relationships with reporters. He knew Sam [Samuel A.] Donaldson, and teased around like that, but there wasn't any of that great rapport.
Q: But he sort of perfected, though, the persona of someone who is everybody's friend, no?
Thomas: But he wasn't.
Q: Barbara [P.] Bush. Was she outspoken, when he was president? Did she have contact with the press, do you know?
Thomas: She was very good about giving interviews when she was First Lady. And she was good copy, because you knew she said what she felt. She was not as acerbic as she was, in a way, in the campaign and since her White House years.
Q: And when Bush 43 -- is it 43? Bush II, I tend to think of, in my mind. When he was first talked about -- Do you remember him?
Thomas: No, I had no contact with him. A lot of other reporters did, but I had no contact with him. When his father was -- ? No. I had no contact with him at all. Other reporters did, and Texas reporters knew him as Governor. He used to come around the White House, but I didn't know him.
Q: And you never heard stories about whether he had served in the military?
Thomas: No. He was very irate about any treatment of his father -- He hated reporters who wrote anything bad about his father. He was very protective. But that's all I knew about him. I didn't even know him as a potential president.
Q: And when he started to campaign for president -- how did the people in the White House, among the reporters, feel about that?
Thomas: Well, we definitely felt that the big gas- and oil-men were behind him. He had a lot of money behind him, and he was portraying this pristine portrait of a politician who was so clean and so forth. But when we began to realize that he had dodged the draft, even more so than Clinton -- he used every pretext. He was jumped over 1,500 candidates for the Texas Air National Guard, when he finally got in, and he was protected all the way. The story is so blatant. I also knew that he was very conservative, but I didn't know much else about him. We also knew that he really didn't know much about world affairs, or even national affairs, except that he was against taxes. He was for tax cuts. That's about all I knew.
Q: He portrayed himself -- Correct me if I go wrong here. Did he not portray himself as a leader who "brings people together?"
Thomas: "A uniter, not a divider."
Q: I knew there was -- "A uniter, not a divider" -- and, as someone who was far more attuned to and interested in domestic affairs, than building democracies abroad, or anything like that.
Thomas: Oh, yes. He was going to be "not a nation builder."
Q: It's kind of ironic, when you look back on it, isn't it?
Thomas: I never believe any of these politicians. I know that going into the White House is on-the-job training. It's a whole different set of problems. They portray themselves as one thing, and when they get there, it's something else. Because they have to make decisions. They have to change.
Q: Were you involved at all in any coverage of the 2000 election results? The disputed --
Thomas: I thought the Supreme Court betrayed the country. They had no right to intervene. Not that the outcome would have been different, because the Florida legislature probably would have elected him. But I thought the whole election was a fiasco. Certainly, election day.
Q: And among your brethren --
Thomas: Stopping the counting?! And these goons, white-collar goons from Capitol Hill, going and stopping the Dade County -- and nobody called the police!
Q: How about the butterfly ballot? [Chuckling] And Jewish people were voting for Pat [Patrick J.] Buchanan! But, among your brethren in the White House --
Thomas: You know, you can't speak for other people. I think they realized something was wrong. It took how many days to get a verdict? I think they probably wanted [John F.] Kerry, but I'm not sure.
Q: But there he is. He's the president. Could you describe for me what relations you or others in the press had in the first couple of years of his presidency, with him or with his representatives?
Thomas: This president?
Q: Yes. Back in 2000, 2001.
Thomas: Well, I was against his policies right off the bat, because they were so conservative. A tax cut for the richest people, and not even going for raising the minimum wage -- $5.15?! While Congress was giving itself -- Everything. Nothing. This whole business of destroying Social Security; getting Wall Street's mitts on it! No, no, no. I thought everything he stood for was wrong. Also, I felt that from the day he entered the White House he wanted a war. I could not believe that anybody would want a war.
Q: Are you speaking of after September 11th?
Thomas: I'm speaking of before! From the moment he stepped into the White House, all of a sudden Saddam Hussein -- whom we hadn't even heard about in twelve years, since '91, that he was on the radar screen. He was on target. All of a sudden it was--Well, what did he do lately? We had a chokehold on him; the toughest sanctions; satellite surveillance; bombing him every other night, with nobody able to say whether it was truly a war -- the no-fly zone or anything else. They were bombing. So what was the big threat that was so clear?
Q: You just enumerated a number of things that Bush did, or attempted to do, that you disagree with. Could he have promoted the agenda he has promoted, domestically or in foreign affairs, had Reagan not been president; had there not been, as you enumerated the facts -- ?
Thomas: No, I don't think so. I think the country is definitely to the right, today. I think the country is very conservative. They demonized the word "liberal." Reagan hissed it; Bush I followed up on it; and liberal became a no-no. I stand up and say I'm a liberal, and it comes as some kind of a shock! That's what they've done to that word.
Q: September 11, 2001 -- where were you?
Thomas: I was in Washington, and a block away. I was not at the White House.
Q: A block away from where we are now, on K Street?
Thomas: Our office was in another place, on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Q: Right. Can you describe -- everyone was shocked. But what was your take on what was happening -- apart from, literally, the planes going into --?
Thomas: It's horrifying, that's all. I was on the phone with someone, and they said -- I had CNN [Cable News Network] on, and he said, "Look, what's happened!" and I turned to look at the TV, I had the phone right there, I dropped the phone and ran and told my boss that the World Trade Center had been attacked by planes. He said, "You're kidding." I said, "I wish." And then the day went on.
Q: And as the months wore on, and you're on the job -- At that time, you had already moved over to being a columnist, had you not?
Q: Right. So you didn't have any daily reporting responsibilities there.
Q: But did you continue to go to the White House briefings all the time?
Q: And you have continued to go. Up until now, even.
Thomas: I still go.
Q: What was the atmosphere over the succeeding months, in the press room.
Thomas: Tremendous dread and fear, I think insecurity. People obviously were willing to give this president all kinds of lee-way -- the Patriot Act and so forth. He had a war council, that's related in Woodward's book -- what is it? Plan of Attack, or something, his first book. It was on 9/12, and Rumsfeld said in the meeting, even though they had decided that bin Laden was the culprit, they knew about him, and they had dealt with him in Afghanistan -- he was on our side in fighting the Russians. They knew it was bin Laden, they knew it was Afghanistan, and Rumsfeld said, "Let's bomb Iraq."
Thomas: "Let's bomb Iraq," he said. It reminds me -- If Bush had been president at Pearl Harbor, we'd still be bombing Argentina. It was at the top of the agenda for the neo-cons: "Get Iraq," for whatever reason -- oil, geo-political, take the whole Middle East.
Q: In your forthcoming book, Watchdogs of Democracy, you say on page forty-one -- and then you go on, much later, to describe it in a full chapter -- a situation, let me just quote a sentence here: "I ask myself almost daily why the media in Washington has become so compliant, complicit, and gullible. It all comes down to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in Washington and in New York that led to fear among the reporters of being considered 'un-American,' or 'unpatriotic.'"
Q: Now you knew these people in the White House.
Thomas: Yes. A lot of them were new to me. They were younger, so they had covered Bush. Some of them were Texans, and they had been with Bush when he was Governor. I didn't know them very well. I didn't have the same -- Sam Donaldson was gone; a lot of my pals.
Q: And you go on, in a chapter called "Lapdogs of the Press," to say, “They lapped up everything the Pentagon and the White House could dish out, no questions asked, this obsequious press." Now why would that be? To be a White House correspondent, you're supposed to be pretty good, aren't you?
Thomas: They laid down their one weapon, which was skepticism. They bought everything.
Q: Why? You ask yourself every day -- I ask you even now -- have you any idea why that would have been the case?
Thomas: I think a lot of them were afraid of their corporate bosses. One corporate boss called and said, "We don't like the tone of your voice." I think the whole idea was, "You have to go along with the government now. We're at war." It segued into war, and they kept talking about the "war on terror."
The first time I heard that Iraq was the central front on terrorism -- the terrorists didn't declare that, we declared it, because he had run out of every excuse. Every excuse they offered turned out to be untrue. So they finally had to make some reason to be in Iraq, and sell it as the central front in the war on terrorism. What do you mean? There weren't even terrorists there. They brought them all there; it was a magnet. But those fighting us in Iraq are Iraqis, no matter what their religion is, or anything else. They are Iraqis, and nobody wants an occupation or an invasion of their country. "My country, may she always be right, but my country, right or wrong." They feel that way, too. Or, I should say, "Breathes there a man with soul so dead, who never to himself has said 'This is mine own, my native land.'" It isn't a question of the Mullahs or this or that. This is all they've got. Where are they going to go?
Q: Well, had you ever seen the press corps fold, as you would have it), as they did here?
Thomas: No. I've never seen that. Even in Vietnam. There was a certain complacence in the beginning, because we really didn't understand what was really going on. But once we learned, I think there was a lot of antipathy. And more and more, with the body bags and so forth, and the "Five-o'clock Follies," we began to get the picture much sooner. And they were much more mature reporters. These people have no institutional memory.
I was invited to a luncheon given for the diplomatic wives. Some of them are ambassadors' wives, some of them are ambassadors themselves. It was all female. There was a panel, of Elizabeth Bumiller of the New York Times; the head of the foreign desk, a woman who was at the Washington Post; Andrea Koppel of CNN; and one other. Judy Woodruff was supposed to be, but -- They all spoke. They all knew we were going to war with Iraq, and they spoke of it so glibly -- "embedding," and this and that, as though we were going to some Sunday picnic. I could not believe women discussing war so glibly, without any imagination of what it was and what it could be.
I was there as a guest. I was not there as a reporter, but people at my table egged me on. So I finally got up, as the last question, and I said, "Don't you realize what you're saying? This is going to be a war. War is killing and being killed." And they laughed, because I was so emotional and I shouldn't have been. I was not your true, prototype, detached reporter. But they laughed, and I realized that they really did not realize how they came across, as uncaring. "There's going to be a war, a lovely war." They were so gung-ho in the press room, and when it finally came, “Oh, good!” They were going to be 'embedded' in trench coats, and they were going to make a name for themselves.
Q: I don't know when that was, that you just mentioned -- what year it was -- but in September of 2003, about a half year after the invasion, you were given an award here in Washington, a WiLL/WAND [Women Legislators’ Lobby/Women’s Action for New Directions] Torchbearer Award, and in accepting that award -- let me read you a sentence from your speech. I don't know if this was a women's group or not, but you say, "It's time for women to make their voices heard. Their silence on the subject of war and peace is deafening."
Q: You were just referring to that kind of thing a moment ago. But why lay it more heavily on women?
Thomas: Because I felt they certainly should have more passion about war and peace than men. The onus is on men to go to war, be macho, and so forth. But these were women's groups, and that's why I emphasized the women. I thought the men were terrible, too, by just being so complacent, benign, spineless, really, in not checking. Now I'm talking about reporters, not those who signed up to go.
Q: When you left as a reporter, in 2000, and became a columnist, you were already something of an enfant terrible, as you put it, to the administration, were you not?
Thomas: Yes. I wasn’t to Clinton
Q: Yes, well, perhaps you weren't so much, to Clinton.
Thomas: No, I asked them the questions.
Q: But certainly by Christmas of 1992, you were at a Christmas party in Georgetown given by Sam Donaldson, I think, and Colin [L.] Powell showed up. There was a rumor around that Powell was going to be made Secretary of State by President-elect Clinton. You walked up to Powell, and do you recall what you said to him?
Thomas: Yes. “Are you going to be the next Secretary of State?”
Q: And what did he say?
Thomas: He turned to a friend and said, "Isn't there some war we could send her to?" It was all a joke.
Q: But, actually, that does reflect how the Bush administration feels about you, doesn't it?
Thomas: Probably. I'm sure.
Q: But let me turn to that. At a presidential press conference in 2003, if I've got this right, President Bush called on you. Do you remember what the exchange was, or what the question you had was, at that time? In 2003?
Thomas: No. I've forgotten.
Q: Could it have had something to do with --
Thomas: I know, I kept asking Ari Fleischer why we wanted to kill thousands of people to get one man.
Q: I think, somehow or other, it had to do with another issue.
Q: Or taxes? But, in any case, that was 2003. Then he didn't call upon you again --
Thomas: No. Well, I was harassing Ari Fleischer and everything. Bush was getting the message.
Q: You were harassing him at the briefings.
Q: Since you mentioned Ari Fleischer -- Before I forget, let me ask you -- Is there somebody who stands out, in your time covering the White House, as a really effective, useful press secretary, not just for his boss, but for the press and the public?
Thomas: I loved Pierre [Emil G.] Salinger. I thought he was very, very good. LBJ had five secretaries; he couldn't stand anyone speaking for him. But he thought George [E.] Christian, who was the last press secretary, did the best job for him. There was a press secretary in this town who was a deputy at the White House, and he was the voice of the Pentagon, at one point. It was Joe Leighton. He was my friend, and I thought he was magnificent. He had been a newspaperman; he understood the needs. At the same time, he was perfect as a spokesperson. I thought [Max] Marlin Fitzwater did a good job for Reagan and Bush I. He had the entrée, and you could count on his credibility although he didn't say much, and he wasn't really too involved in spin. It wasn't his style.
Q: Right. Do you remember Jerry [Jerald F.] terHorst?
Thomas: Yes, I do.
Q: He quit on the president, didn't he?
Q: What was that about? It was President Ford, wasn't it?
Thomas: Yes. He quit after being one month on the job, as press secretary to President Ford. He had covered President Ford. He had been with the Detroit News, he had been a newspaperman in Washington for twenty-nine years -- for Michigan papers, Grand Rapids. He was press secretary, and he told us right off the bat that Ford was going to run on his own. He was a very honest man. Anyway, a couple of reporters, one from the Miami News -- Dave [David] Kraslow, I think -- and one other, maybe from the New York Times, came to him about three or four days before -- in August of 1974 -- and they said that they were hearing rumors that --
Q: In '76, maybe. ‘76? ‘75, '76?
Thomas: No, no. This was '74. They said that they had heard rumors that President Ford was sending an emissary to San Clemente, to give a pardon to Richard Nixon. These were friends of Jerry's. He had covered Washington with them for years. He went to -- who was it? He was White House counsel. Jerry terHorst went to him and said, "This is what they're saying. What is it all about?" And the counsel told him, "It's not true. Just deny it. No, it's not so. We're not doing that." This was like on a Friday; then, on Sunday, President Ford announced the pardon of Richard Nixon. After we covered him at church, across the street from the White House, we ran back, and I said to President Ford, "What are you doing for the rest of the day?" and he said, "Well, we're about to have an announcement." So I ran across with the AP reporter. We were toe to toe. We got to the press room, we each picked up the phone, and told our offices that there was going to be an announcement. This was at like 8:30 in the morning, on Sunday morning--deliberately Sunday morning, when everybody would be sleeping. I'm told that I said, "Is it going to be a pardon for Richard Nixon?" I don't even remember saying that, so I can't take credit for something that I can't really remember. But, indeed, by 10:00 he announced that he had pardoned Nixon, for all crimes, for anything. After that, Jerry terHorst walked in and resigned. It was a profile in courage.
Q: I'm glad you mentioned --
Thomas: Because, he said, he'd been lied to, and he had lied to his former colleagues.
[END TAPE 3; BEGIN TAPE 4]
Q: I'd like to talk a little bit about what you could recommend for the press to do, to come out of this torpor, and what makes a good journalist. Should everybody be sent to journalism school? Is that where it is? You, yourself, probably never spent a day in journalism school. I'm sure you didn't, and neither did I.
Thomas: I think journalism school is good, but I think every day you learn something on the job -- maybe more so in our profession -- because news is constantly happening, and you're always learning.
Q: Right. Right. But I just want you to comment on that, for the record. And I'm going to ask you, after we finish the thing about the press conference here -- The phrase "managing the news." [Interruption]
Helen, with regard to that press conference on March 21st, just a couple of weeks ago, Bush called on you for the first time in three years.
Q: You used to sit, as the head UPI person, in the front. Now you're in the back, as a columnist.
Thomas: But, see, he came into the press room, where I still have a front-row seat.
Q: Oh, that's where it took place.
Thomas: I have a regular seat there.
Q: I see.
Thomas: Usually, press conferences are in the East Room, or somewhere else. I ceased going there, because I didn't want to be a prop, and I knew he wasn't going to call on me. It was more interesting to watch it on television. But when he comes into the press room, and there is my seat, I'm not going to -- and once before, I had my hand -- There's the podium, where you're sitting, and I'm here. This is where my seat is.
Thomas: I had my hand up for an hour, and he wouldn't call on me. So I got the message. But when he drops in the press room again, there I'm sitting, and I said, "I'm not going to leave."
Q: So how did you get his attention?
Thomas: Well, he had planned to call on me, I think. There was a softening. A peace pipe.
Q: Oh, you think so? He made some reference to your performance at the Gridiron Club.
Q: What was he talking about?
Thomas: Well, I was in the Gridiron. You know, we do a spoof on the politicians. I was Hillary Clinton as Scarlett O'Hara, then we had a professional singer as Rhett Butler, and -- I don't know if you ever saw it, I never had -- but it was Carol Burnett who, when burning down the mansion and the plantation and everything else -- she goes and gets the drapes, and makes herself a costume, and has a curtain-rod that comes out. It's a big spoof. So I was dressed that way.
Q: And he says that was a terrific performance, and he calls on you. And you say, "You're going to regret this, Mr. President."
Thomas: "You'll be sorry."
Q: "You'll be sorry." That's right. Then you asked him a question -- and for purposes, today, it's available, of course, in the formal record -- but let me just quote a sentence or two. You say, "I'd like to ask you, Mr. President. Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis -- wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, public at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is, why did you really want to go to war?" And then you went on from there.
Q: And then he stopped you, and he said, "Oh, I think your premise is wrong."
Thomas: He kept talking about the Taliban and Afghanistan, and I said, "I'm talking about Iraq," and he wouldn't let me pinpoint, because he couldn't. He had no answers that he could tell, that he could really say honestly -- and that's another story.
Q: Now he's going to be president until when? Until 2009, right? I suppose you're not anticipating being called again any time soon.
Thomas: No, but I'm glad I asked that question.
Q: You're glad you asked that question, but somebody who wasn't glad was Bill O'Reilly. Now that night on radio, O'Reilly said the following. He said that if he were Bush, he would have "laid her out," meaning you, for asking such questions of Bush. "I would have laid into that woman, and I don't care how old she is. I would have laid her out." Now are you worried?
Thomas: Hell, no. I think it's so pitiful. Fox and the Wall Street Journal called me "a crazy aunt in the attic," and all this. But who are these people? Answer the question. We have a dispute about a political issue or anything else, you have to attack them personally? They're so bereft.
Q: Well, couldn't the criticism be made that you, in your questions (you are a columnist now), you take a position?
Thomas: You're damn right I did, and I take a position against wanton killing of people. And I think everybody should take a position on that.
Q: Well, would you recommend that course, let's say, to the current UPI reporter?
Thomas: Sure. I might have phrased it a little differently. But, at the same time, you have to ask, "Why are you killing all these people? What is the reason?" Every reason that they gave --
Q: I understand, Helen, but --
Thomas: You don't understand.
Q: No, I do.
Thomas: Because he had not been asked for three years why are we in this war?
Q: I'm saying, is there a difference between a columnist posing a question --
Thomas: Not in my book. I pose them all the same way. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. I think I had the right to ask that.
Q: That's right. But you have also regarded yourself, for many years, as have many other people regarded yourself, as a straight-fact-shooter.
Thomas: Right. And now I'm an opinion reporter, and I have the right to ask the question. Nobody said columnists can't ask questions. I don't understand -- I had it factual. Every reason they gave is not so. Why? Why do they let him lie like that?
Q: Let me ask you about the state of journalism today, a little bit. We spoke before about how you feel the press has fallen down terribly, on this whole Iraq war thing. That probably extends to some other areas, such as the conservative right, and the theocracy -- the introduction of what Kevin Phillips has called an American theocracy into American politics.
Q: But if a young reporter walked into this room right now, a guy or a woman just starting out, and said, "What will make me adequate to the job? What will make me superior in the job?" What would you say? What does it take?
Thomas: I'd say, "Why do you want to be superior?" [Laughs]
Q: Let me rephrase the question. Inferior. [Laughter] Seriously. What does it take to be a good reporter?
Thomas: I think courage, curiosity -- mostly curiosity -- really wanting to be there, and to know, and knowing that there's nothing that can replace seeing with your own eyes and hearing with your own ears, being there. And, to be as honest as you can and as fair as you can, despite your prejudices -- or my prejudices.
Q: And does it take a special training, like journalism school?
Thomas: Sure. I think it always helps to go to journalism school, or anything else, as long as you get a very broad education in all things: English, history, civics. I'm appalled that young people don't get any history or civics anymore. Math and science. Math and science. Math and science. That's all they're pushing.
Q: In your book, you suggest that the person who doesn't read is equal to a person who can't read.
Thomas: I hope I didn't say that. I want everyone to read the Bill of Rights.
Q: You're saying that the failure of a person to read is the equivalent of not being able to read; that reading is a must.
Thomas: I think you misinterpreted it. If they can't read it's a very sad thing, but I think that certainly it's important to read, if you're a reporter especially.
Q: Okay. Okay. Let me ask you about something that I asked you at the very beginning.
Before I do so, I would be remiss if I didn't ask you if there's anything that sticks out as a particularly memorable moment, a time that you had as a reporter, whether it was the trauma of it; whether it was the poignancy of it; whether it was the exhilaration of it; whether it was the momentous nature of it; something that you say to yourself, "This was something I'll never ever forget."
Thomas: The things that are already cited in history, which stuck in my mind -- the assassination, Watergate, Johnson, the whole era, Iran-Contra -- all of these things. They showed me something about the presidency; that there's something very corrupting and sad at the same time. I think people who go into that job certainly don't know the dimensions of it, and don't understand the burden. They talk about it -- "the awesome burden" and so forth -- but they don't know the half of it, and they don't know the responsibility, and that's very sad to me. They should. They aspire to the presidency for an ego-trip.
Q: Much is made by others of the terrific partisanship that exists now, on the [Capitol] Hill for example. Is that true, or is that exaggerated, do you think?
Thomas: At the press, do you mean? I don't see it.
Q: I don't mean the press. I mean among the Democrats and the Republicans. That has changed. Thirty years ago senators got along with one another.
Thomas: I think it was started by the Republicans, who were very, very bitter, and once they got into power, after forty years in the wilderness -- forty-plus -- I think they wanted revenge. "Take no prisoners." It's a very different attitude. They came in. "We're the winners now. It's our White House. It's our country." They were not conciliatory at all.
Q: Do you think the Democrats can get back?
Thomas: Of course, I do. I think they definitely get back, because I think these people are reaching bottom. They don't care enough about people and the fate of the country.
Q: Ever thought about running for office yourself?
Thomas: [Laugh] Hell, no! [Laughs] I would never want to run for public office.
Q: Okay. Now one or two other things. When we began, I was asking you what Washington was like when you first came here from Michigan, and you described it as sort of a sleepy, Southern town. Is it both visibly and viscerally different today? A world apart from the Washington you first knew?
Thomas: It's much more sophisticated. They have the different circles, and hardly ever the twain shall meet. You have the Congress, you have the diplomatic and the government and so forth. There's not enough interchange, I think. I think people who work for the government are in a different aura. There's not enough -- It's not like being in Texas, as a friendly town, per se. You don't ask someone, "Who are you?" You say, "What do you do?" Everything is identified and personified by what you do. Your job. There's nothing as lonely as a Congressman who's just been defeated, walking up the steps of the Capitol.
Q: Well, you could stop somebody on the street that we're doing this interview on, K Street, and he could very well be a lobbyist, right? Isn't K Street the home of the lobbyists? In your time, has Washington become a magnet for --
Thomas: They've always had lobbyists, but not to this extent. Some of them are good lobbyists, for good causes. But most of them, I think, are in a different direction. They have a motive and they have an interest. It's the Congress that's at fault.
Q: But do you think lobbyists have grown significantly in power in Washington?
Thomas: Oh, yes. Of course.
Q: Okay. When your father came to the United States, he was an immigrant to the United States, who, as you put it someplace, knew what it took to become an American; to be an American.
Thomas: I thought it would take great courage. That goes for all immigrants. You change your whole world.
Q: But he came to a country that you've described as an optimistic country; a country that set the standard for moral behavior in the world. As you get near the end of this career, you seem to think this is not the same country at all.
Thomas: It's not. Anytime you invade a country, for no cause? Why would we admire that?
Q: But that, too, will pass, no?
Thomas: Yes, it will. And I'm sure we'll get back to what we were and are. And the sooner the better.
Q: Finally, H.L. [Henry Louis] Mencken, who had his own critics, and who criticized everything, from the time he had breakfast, said of his newspapering days, and you quote this in your book, "They were the maddest, gladdest, damnedest existence ever enjoyed by mortal youth." You could say the same thing, I gather?
Thomas: I think we were both in the same boat, of realizing that we were glad we were in journalism. What else could be more exciting, really, in terms of being a part of the world?
Q: You said of Martha Mitchell, whom you had that fondness for -- in fact, you wrote the story, when Martha Mitchell died, and your lead was, "When the parade passes by, we'll remember Martha."
Q: And I daresay, that while I go back and read what you said about reading, I can remark that when the parade passes by, for Helen Thomas, you'll also be remembered.
Thomas: And how about you?
Q: Well, forget me.
Thomas: I didn't go to jail for a cause. I talk big, but I don't stand for --
Q: I thank you very much --
Thomas: You're the one. You're the man of principle.
Q: Thank you for having done this interview.
Thomas: Is Judith Miller okay?
Q: I don't know. I haven't had any contact with her in recent time. It's a long story, that you touched on in the first interview, so I didn't bring it back.
Thomas: It's a tough business.
Q: It's a tough business. But, you know -- since you've dragged me into this -- I've never regretted my career --
Thomas: Oh, no.
Q: -- and I'm sure you haven't, either.
Thomas: No. My goodness. No. I think we're the luckiest people in the world.
Q: Among them, anyway. Right. Thank you very much. Helen Thomas.
Thomas: Thank you.
[END OF SESSION]