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Thomas: Most press rolled over and played dead during Bush years, press was gung-ho to go to war

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. Helen Thomas has been covering the White House for more than 58 years. She’s also the author of a book with Craig Crawford called Listen Up, Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do. And she joins us now in Washington in our studio. Thanks for joining us again. So over the course of these interviews, we’re going to talk about different parts of your life at the White House.


JAY: But let’s today talk a little bit about the White House press corps itself. Talk a bit about their performance during the Bush years. And then, have things changed?

THOMAS: The press rolled over and played dead during the Bush years. In the run-up to war, which—President Bush made very clear he was going to war—nobody asked why. It was incredible to me. In a news conference he held just about two weeks before we invaded Iraq, reporters would say, “Do you pray?” and they stayed clear of why we’re going to go to war.

JAY: Okay. Why? What was this sense of—I mean, it’s essentially intimidation. What was that about?

THOMAS: Well, the administration was lying about weapons of mass destruction, ties between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, a threat from a Third World country against the world’s military superpower—all of these things after 9/11 became idées fixe. So he had a clear field. And he didn’t call on me, because I was going to say, “Why?”

JAY: Now, you know a lot of the people in the press corps—for decades, some of them.

THOMAS: They are getting tougher now.

JAY: What was holding them back there? What were they afraid of?

THOMAS: I think—.

JAY: Or was it that they bought into it? Or were they afraid?

THOMAS: They were afraid of their own bosses and, you know, get off the reservation. You don’t do that. You play along with whatever the White House is selling at the moment. And I think they were afraid to challenge, because they might’ve looked like they didn’t believe the administration or anything else. So it was safe just to go along. They didn’t understand the cost of war. It was supposed to last two weeks, and we were supposed to get candy and bouquets and so forth.

JAY: When you say “they,” you mean the press?

THOMAS: Yes, the press.

JAY: But they should have—.

THOMAS: And they were gung ho to go to war. They were going to put on their trench coats, cover a war for two to three days, come home as big foreign correspondents.

JAY: Have you ever confronted any of the sort of leading members of the press corps there and asked them?

THOMAS: No, because I don’t think I have the right to. You don’t challenge anyone’s integrity in terms of the questions they ask. But they know what I ask. So I don’t—you know.

JAY: How often did Bush call on you over the eight years?

THOMAS: Well, there was a real hiatus, a gap, after I kept asking why, and then he called on me again. I think he thought that I had softened, and I [inaudible] and why did you go to war? And after that it was shut down. I don’t blame him. I mean, he has the right to call on anyone he wants to, and I was pretty predictable.

JAY: But, you know, given your seniority there, you work for a big news organization, the fact that he kind of boycotted you for so long, do you feel a bit critical of your colleagues there that they didn’t stand up and fight for you?

THOMAS: No. That isn’t their role. I mean, you’re on your own, and I didn’t expect—it’s nice if they back you up, but if they don’t, so what?

JAY: So what’s happened since? There was a bit of a beginning of their critique of Bush at Katrina, and then, once there was some blood there, people felt a little emboldened.

THOMAS: Yes, the press corps has gotten a lot tougher on the president, just as the people have. And sometimes I think that the press secretary’s hectored so much, you know, [inaudible] and—.

JAY: You’re talking now.

THOMAS: Yeah [inaudible]

JAY: So they’ve been emboldened with Obama. But they never got very emboldened with Bush—maybe a little bit at the end, but not at the same level.

THOMAS: That’s right, they are very emboldened now. I think he doesn’t hold many news conferences.

JAY: Yeah, it’s interesting how few news conferences Obama holds. But what do you make of the press corps being so willing to go after Obama and so unwilling to go after Bush?

THOMAS: They’re going with the flow. I think they think they’re reacting to people’s reactions and so forth. Gives them red meat.

JAY: So let’s talk about the situation now. You didn’t get much of an answer to your question about who has nuclear weapons when you asked Obama, “Are there nuclear weapons in the Middle East?” What are some of the questions that you think are going unanswered now or unasked?

THOMAS: Where is his courage? Why doesn’t he fight for the things? What is his convictions? What does he believe in? Why does he keep making concessions to the other side when it’s so clear they’re going to try to break down his administration?

JAY: What’s the answer to that?

THOMAS: The answer is he ought to give up his search for bipartisanship and just fight for what he believes in, if he believes.

JAY: That’s becoming a real question for people.

THOMAS: I think he has great integrity and convictions, but I think he wants to be liked.

JAY: Do you think the press corps now—not so much the White House press corps, but more broadly—are they questioning the Republicans in the same way? Are there questions being asked that should be asked?

THOMAS: I think that they aren’t enough. But they are mainly on the Hill, you know, so I’m not able to observe as much. I think they ought to go after the Republicans and say: are you against people having jobs? You deny them unemployment compensation. You deny children health. Who are you? What are you really worried about? Why are you letting this country go down the drain? It just seems so unfair.

JAY: The staff around Obama now are getting a lot of flak for his lack of success with the health-care bill and some other issues. What do you make of the politics going on inside the White House now?

THOMAS: I think they’re toughening up. They’ve gone after the insurance companies now, who have raised their premiums almost 40 percent. And I think it’s about time.

JAY: The question of his advisers—you know, he chose his finance team, you know, Larry Summers and [Thimothy] Geithner. He decides to get a Wall Street gang in to supervise Wall Street. A lot of people have critiqued that, as well as his history of being very close to Wall Street. What do you make of that?

THOMAS: I think it was a big mistake on his part. I think he doesn’t understand. How can people be sold on a bailout for Wall Street, with their incredible bonuses—humongous—and leave people in this country losing their home, losing their shelter, food, everything? I mean, it’s unbelievable. We’re in a depression, not a recession.

JAY: So when you look back over many different presidents that you’ve seen, what do you make of this first year, comparatively?

THOMAS: I think he blew it big time. I think he had a golden opportunity to move in on his popularity. I mean, it’s nice to Monday-morning quarterback everything, but that’s the way I see it.

JAY: Thanks for joining us. And thank you for joining us. And as I said, there’ll be more of Helen Thomas coming in the future.

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Helen Thomas (August 4, 1920 – July 20, 2013) was an American news reporter, member of the White House Press Corps and author. She was the first female officer of the National Press Club and the first female member and president of the White House Correspondents Association. Her most recent book, co-authored with Craig Crawford is Listen Up, Mr President: Everything you Always Wanted Your President To Know and Do.