In part one of his interview with Helen Thomas, longest-serving member of the White House Press
Corps, Paul Jay asks her about her first question for President Obama. The question, asking President
Obama to name all the countries in the Middle-East that have nuclear weapons, was avoided by the
President, who claimed to not want to “speculate”. Thomas claims that knowledge of Israeli nukes is
very public in DC and Obama’s answer shows a lack of credibility. She explains the importance of this
question for U.S. policy in the region. Finally, she confides that she has not been called on by the
President since that day, but that if she does, she will ask him whether or not he has found any more
information about nukes in the Middle-East since their last encounter.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay at our studio in Washington, DC. Our special guest today is Helen Thomas. Helen Thomas has been a member of the White House press corps for over 58 years. She’s covered every president since John F. Kennedy. She was the first member of the—. […] She was the first female officer of the National Press Club, first female member and president of the White House Correspondents Association, and in 1975 she was the first female member and later became the president of the Gridiron Club. She’s written five books. Her latest, with co-author Craig Crawford, is Listen up, Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted to Know Your President to Know and Do. […] Listen up, Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do. So you’ve been telling presidents what to do for, like, a long time.
HELEN THOMAS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS CORPS, HEARST NEWSPAPERS: They don’t take my advice.
JAY: Well, here’s an example. President Obama—. First of all, welcome.
THOMAS: Thank you.
JAY: Thanks for joining us. So President Obama had his inaugural Helen Thomas question at his first press conference. And here’s a little clip we’re going to play from the press conference. […] You asked the question. He avoids it, ducks. And then the microphone’s there, and you’re about to say, yeah, but what about an answer, and they take the mic away.
THOMAS: That’s correct.
JAY: So President Obama really never answered your question about nuclear weapons in the Middle East, and obviously you were asking—.
THOMAS: It would be pitiful if we took his answer truthfully, because he said, “I didn’t want to speculate.” Well, the president is not supposed to speculate as to who has nuclear arms or not. He’s supposed to know.
JAY: Well, obviously, we know he knows, and it’s—this is this great “we know, and he knows we know we know.”
THOMAS: I was testing his credibility.
JAY: So that’s the—it’s actually quite a profound question, because it goes to the whole US policy in the Middle East. Not only does the US have a kind of a double standard on nuclear weapons when it comes to Iran and such, but what do you make of Obama’s whole Middle East policy? Is there a break with Bush here or not?
THOMAS: Too one-sided in favor of Israel. Ignores all the horrors that have happened to Palestinians—their country’s taken away, thousands imprisoned for many, many years. We give them arms, we give the aid to Israel, as it continues to occupy and just treat the Palestinians like they’re newcomers—and these are Europeans who come there who have no ties to Israel, to Palestine.
JAY: When President Obama was elected and was first discussing foreign policy, there was a suggestion from him there would be a new approach to the Middle East. He made his speech in Cairo. He suggested—not suggested. He said that Israel should stop any settlement expansion. What’s happened since all of that?
THOMAS: He took the easy way out, which is to go along with Israel, which most countries do. They have the power, propaganda, and everything else to sell their point of view. Palestinians have no voice.
JAY: So in terms of understanding—what President Obama’s done is nothing new. This has been the White House approach for a long time.
THOMAS: Well, he was accused of being a Muslim, which is, you know, the worst thing that can happen to you, apparently. And I think he was afraid of that kind of tie.
JAY: But you’ve been covering the White House, as we said, for, like, 58 years. Is there—talk about the whole history of the US approach to Israel and the Palestinian conflict.
THOMAS: I think that we had—when Israel was created and they declared themselves in 1948, I mean, Truman went along. They knocked on his door at three o’clock in the morning. He did the unheard-of thing to get out and recognize the state of Israel—and while we were still debating the whole situation at the UN. Left our own representatives high and dry. Well, every president has been confronted with that. Eisenhower tried to be a little bit more evenhanded. Nixon sent a man, an envoy, to the Middle East as soon as he took office. It was former governor Bill Scranton. And he came back after a fact-finding trip for about one month. He told President Nixon we should be evenhanded in the Middle East. Zionists went out of their mind, saying, what do you mean evenhanded? It’s like I’m telling you, why don’t you try to be fair? That report has gathered that much dust [inaudible] but it never saw the real light of day. And every president has been confronted with this issue. And it is an issue. People have the right to defend their own country. Two thousand years.
JAY: Now, Jimmy Carter, in the last few years, has actually—he was, I guess, the first person at that level to actually acknowledge Israel has nuclear weapons. He visited Gaza, he’s talked to Hamas, and he’s been saying there should be negotiation.
THOMAS: Hamas won the election. But if you read the news stories, they will say, oh, the Hamas took over Gaza, without ever saying it won an election. And former President Bush said that we would observe democratic elections. As soon as the Hamas won in Gaza, they shut down all aid, closed the doors, and so forth.
JAY: But did Carter—in terms of his policy towards Israel and Palestine, was he any different than all the other American presidents? When Carter was in power?
THOMAS: Yes. He got the first accord in the Camp David Accords, and Begin promised him a lot of things, a letter that will acquiesce to concessions. Never got the letter.
JAY: So President Obama comes to power with what seems like intent to do something different. What are the forces at play here? ‘Cause we’re winding up, as far as—I mean, you’ve said, and it seems rather obvious, that it’s the same policies we’ve always seen.
THOMAS: That’s right. I think American politics, pro-Israel. If you take a vote in Congress, maybe you might get five people vote against any further aid to Israel as it continues its occupation. That’s about it. They control—they have fast power.
JAY: Who’s “they”?
THOMAS: The Zionists.
JAY: And Obama went to AIPAC, the main lobby organization of the kind of right wing of the pro-Israel lobby, when he was running for president, and he said to AIPAC more or less what they wanted to hear, with the exception maybe of the no expansion of settlements. So he’s actually following through on what he campaigned on. He’s never really suggested a different policy, has he?
THOMAS: No, not really. He’s following through, that’s true. I don’t think he’s ever made any real commitments to the Palestinians.
JAY: In terms of what you understand about the inner workings of the White House and how decisions are made, are there any forces behind the scenes at play here to try to put pressure on Israel to have a different kind of policy? Or have they kind of given up on it?
THOMAS: I think President Obama gave up totally, early on. I don’t think even tried. He realized he’s going up against a stone wall. Why take that on when he has so many other problems?
JAY: So do you think that’s it for his administration in terms of the policy towards the Middle East?
THOMAS: I think he’d just as soon forget it if he could. But more and more I think you can never escape the Middle East problem, as no modern president has been able to. At some point it’ll come back to him.
JAY: At the next press conference with President Obama, assuming he calls on you—I don’t know if he liked your first question very much.
THOMAS: I’m sure he didn’t.
JAY: What do you want to ask him?
THOMAS: I want to ask him if he ever found out whether anyone in the Middle East has nuclear weapons.
JAY: Well, we’ll see if you ever get a chance to ask that again.
THOMAS: I doubt it.
JAY: Thanks for joining us. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. This is the beginning of a series of interviews with Helen Thomas, but they’ll be kind of interspersed, not one right after the other. We’ll let you know when the next one is.