Helen Thomas Praises the Clintons, Smears Reagan and Dubya
Tim Russert invited on longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas on his CNBC show over the weekend to promote her new book but Thomas used the hour to praise the Clintons and smear Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The former UPI correspondent slammed Reagan declaring, "I think that the poor did not prosper under him at all," and charged the press was too soft on George W. Bush demanding that they should've asked the hard question: "How can you justify killing thousands of people to get one man? Who are we to depose anyone?'" But when it came to the Clinton administration, Thomas thought the press was too hard on the Clintons saying Whitewater amounted to "nothing," and pouted: "the Clintons suffered a lot."
The interview was wide-ranging as Russert asked Thomas to comment on all the presidents she's covered dating back to John F. Kennedy. Below are just some of the low-lights as they occurred on the June 9th edition of the CNBC Tim Russert show:
On whether her personal biases affected her reporting:
Tim Russert: "You started with a, as, as a reporter with United Press International, UPI, a wire service reporter."
Helen Thomas: "Right."
Russert: "Is it really who, what, when, where, why?"
Thomas: "Always. And we really wrote straight news. Nobody believes I could, but I did. And later, I became a columnist for Hearst newspapers, and where I could slant the story, bias, express myself and so forth. And it was a tough transition, even though I, I you know, everybody said I had an opinion on everything that's ever, ever moved. I still found it difficult after disciplining myself to really write straight fact news, factual news, and but I did it."
Russert: "In fact, those who know you say, quote, 'I was born with an opinion,' says Helen Thomas."
Thomas: "Something like that. I think so. Mostly, mostly opinion against injustice and discrimination against gender, color and so forth."
Russert: "How were you able to keep the opinion that you held very deeply out of the copy that you wrote for UPI?"
Thomas: "Well, when my boss first, when I, oh, for UPI, it was easy because I knew what the ground rules were and I knew that my opinion didn't matter, that what mattered was for people to get a straight story. And I still think that's the best way they get it. Even though I write an opinion column, I believe that it's better if they get the factual news on the front page."
Russert: "And then, in your opinion column now, you let it rip."
Russert: "Well, let's go back to your-"
Thomas: "And it's meaningless."
On Ronald Reagan:
Russert: "Tell me, tell me about Ronald Reagan. What was it like to cover Ronald Reagan?"
Thomas: "Well, it was interesting. I mean, he was very, very likable and yet it was very impersonal. He definitely had an agenda, and was a social Darwinist. 'If you can't make it, tough.' Was, you know, survival of the fittest, this is the whole approach. He appointed people at the head of his, of departments and agencies who were against the premise of the agency. With Gorsuch of the APA, Watts of, to Interior, who wanted to sell all of the Western lands to privatize and so forth. So the whole thing is that he really did think that government was the problem and not the solution, which he said to the very end. At the same time, he, I think, he obviously was well liked, and I think that the poor did not prosper under him at all. And I remember, I think Nancy Reagan had a lot to do with turning him around in terms of going to Moscow, meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, going to the summits. She urged him to go after Maggie Thatcher said you can do business with Gorbachev. And when we got there, President Reagan noticed that the Russians laughed and they cried and they were human, they were not bears who walked like men, I mean the whole idea, had never been to Russia before and so forth. There, so I said to him when we came back, I said, 'Mr. President, do you think maybe if you had gone to Moscow 10 years ago, 20 years ago, you might have found out the Russians are very human, they laugh, they cry, they,' he said, 'Nope, they've changed.' So see."
On the Clintons:
Russert: "And we're back. A walk through history with Helen Thomas, the dean of White House reporters. Her book is now in paperback, Watchdogs of Democracy? Bill Clinton came into town, 1992, with Hillary Clinton, the First Lady, Al Gore the Vice President. What was the demeanor, the, the time, the feel of the White House press corps in January of '93?"
Thomas: "Well, I think there was a lot of excitement. But I think the Clintons had suffered a lot on the campaign trail and they had a lot of chips on their shoulders about the press. So I think there was a lot of excitement, but I think that the President and Mrs. Clinton didn't feel that the press was exactly with them."
Russert: "Hillary Clinton was the First Lady of the United States for eight years. Now she's a presidential candidate. What was she like as First Lady?"
Thomas: "Well, I think that she was, thought, I don't think she really got a total handle on the job of the power that she could have as First Lady. I think she had higher ambitions. I think she makes a much better senator, she's a terrific senator, and, and a candidate for, for the presidency."
Russert: "You are not surprised that she's running for President?"
Thomas: "No. I think that's been her ambition for a long time. And I think [the] time is right for a woman."
Russert: "Tell me about the press coverage of the Clinton administration, of Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky. Looking back now, what's your, what are your reflections?"
Thomas: "My impression is this man, President Clinton, did know, did not know one second and I didn't say a minute in the White House when he was not being investigated by the right wing. And he should have had street smarts to know that he was on target. And that was so incredible that he didn't realize, you know, you don't play into their hands. So everything was under investigation constantly. They never, I don't know how they stood it. The resilience of that family."
Russert: "Do you think the press corps did a good job in, in as part of those investigations in covering that story?"
Thomas: "No, I think we should have been much more intuitive of what was behind and so forth. Whitewater turned out to be really nothing in terms of a special, according to special prosecutor and so forth. No, I think, well, you never do a good job, really, because you're not a prosecutor, you can't get all the facts. There's so much secrecy and so forth. But I think that the Clintons suffered a lot."
On George W. Bush:
Russert: "And we're back talking to Helen Thomas. Why did you say that President Bush is the worst president in history?"
Thomas: "Well, at that time, I could see that we were going into a war, an unprovoked war, a pre-emptive war with Iraq, and I was very upset with that because I thought it was the wrong move. And just all of, you know, the lack of understanding about what was really going on in the Middle East and everywhere else. I just, I probably should have said there's still room for improvement and so forth, and I, and I didn't realize I was being reported. But I know it's tough to be President. It's the worst, probably toughest job in the world. But at the same time, it's the top of the mark. And when you get there, you should only do the right thing."
Russert: "How about when you said that you would kill yourself if Cheney ever became president?"
Thomas: "Again, that was an off-the, a remark in the, in the, in the press room, you never expect your colleagues to report it. I mean, you, there are certain understandings, you thought. Well, I think that he's not been a good influence on our country."
Russert: "You wrote the president a letter of apology."
Thomas: "Yes. I really do feel that I should have, I was off limits [on] a lot of things. I should be careful."
Russert: "In your book, in the hardcover, you were critical of the press in terms of the lead up to the war. But in the paperback edition you have a new afterward where you say that you think the press, the White House press corps has found, has regained its footing and its aggressiveness."
Thomas: "Yeah, I think they've come out of their coma. I think they were asleep at the wheel. The run-up to the war, it was so clear that the President was going to war and no one was asking him why. They accepted it. They wanted to be, you know, gung ho and be great foreign correspondents. It was supposed to be a cake walk, four days. They didn't, and they didn't have the Vietnam experience or whatever. History could tell you that this is, is still wrong."
Russert: "Dana Milbank, who was a White House correspondent for the Post, wrote a review of your book and he said, 'Helen, we asked the tough questions leading up to the war.'"
Thomas: "No, they didn't. You look at the transcripts, they were not tough. You should, the big question was, 'Why? How can you justify killing thousands of people to get one man?' Who are we to depose anyone? Really. I mean, we ought to take care of our own country. I mean, we do have a United Nations. I do believe in collective security. I do think the UN has a role in Darfur, and all the areas that are erupting. But it should be through collective security."
Russert: "What about the notion of pre-emptive war?"
Thomas: "That's wrong."
Russert: "You've also challenged the president on his policy in the Middle East. Do you believe that your background as Lebanese, or your parents from the Middle East, has influenced your thinking?"
Thomas: "Of course. I mean, how would I now know as much as I do know about the Middle East, and how would by that interested? But that doesn't mean I'm unfair. I do think it's wrong to take somebody else's land and displace them."
Russert: "What happens when you ask these kinds of questions? Do you, do you feel any kind of pressure from your colleagues, or do they encourage you?"
Thomas: "Oh, they don't encourage me. Far from it. They, I, according to some of my detractors, my e-mail, they raise their eyebrows or shake their heads or whatever. I don't know. It doesn't matter. As long as I have the privilege to ask the question, I try to do it as, you know, two, straight line between two points and let the chips fall."
Russert: "But as a columnist, you feel that you can, in fact, include opinion in your question?"
Thomas: "No. It isn't the course, I don't think, I don't ask questions any differently now than I asked before. I really have always tried to put a tough question to a president. You have one chance in the barrel and you should try to make it good. And I think that though, that the American people depend on us. We're the only institution in our society that can ask the president a question on a regular basis, and hold him accountable."