CBS Showcases Helen Thomas' Demand: “Why Did You Really Want to Go to War?”

Unlike ABC's George Stephanopoulos on World News Tonight and Kelly O'Donnell on the NBC Nightly News, on the CBS Evening News, Jim Axelrod featured the far-left question from Hearst Newspapers columnist Helen Thomas at Tuesday morning's presidential press conference. Thomas blamed Bush for deaths and charged that he employed subterfuge to launch a war: "Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is: Why did you really want to go to war?" Axelrod set up Thomas by pointing out how Bush “did something he hadn't done in three years: Call on the often combative dean of the White House press corps, Helen Thomas." While O'Donnell and Stephanopoulos didn't air the question from Thomas, they did run a soundbite of part of Bush's answer to her. Axelrod also showcased his question to Bush, one based on the questionable premise that someone who shows up outside a hotel where the President is to speak is anything but a motivated antagonist: "I spent a fair amount of time in front of that hotel in Cleveland yesterday talking to people about the war, and one woman who said she voted for you said, 'You know what? He's losing me, he's been there too long, he's losing me.' What do you say to her?" (Transcript follows.)

NBC Nightly News viewers heard this response from Bush to Thomas, though reporter Kelly O'Donnell made no reference to Thomas and didn't show her: “I didn't want war. To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong.”

Viewers of ABC's World News Tonight saw a shot of Thomas as George Stephanopoulos played a clip of Bush as she repeatedly tried to cut him off: “To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect. Hold on for a second, please. Excuse me, excuse me. No President wants war.”

CBS and Axelrod aired only part of Thomas' “question.” Her rant in full at the 10am EST press conference:
“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, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is, why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, from your Cabinet -- your Cabinet officers, intelligence people, and so forth -- what's your real reason? You have said it wasn't oil -- quest for oil, it hasn't been Israel, or anything else. What was it?”

The MRC's Brad Wilmouth corrected the closed-captioning against the video for the March 21 CBS Evening News story:
Anchor Bob Schieffer: "President Bush laid out the most impassioned defense yet of his war policy during a White House news conference today. He said he still believes victory in Iraq is possible, and he said if he didn't believe that, he would have pulled the troops out already. Even so, he again urged patience, and today he gave us the reason why. Here's White House correspondent Jim Axelrod."

Jim Axelrod: "President Bush made it clear today there will be American troops in Iraq when he leaves office. It will be his successor's job to bring them home."

Bob Dean of Cox, to Bush: "Will there come a day when there will be no more American forces in Iraq?"

George W. Bush: "That, of course, is an objective, and that will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq."

Axelrod: "It was a passionate and feisty George Bush. Today he did something he hadn't done in three years: Call on the often combative dean of the White House press corps, Helen Thomas."

Helen Thomas, at press conference: "Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is: Why did you really want to go to war?"

Bush: "I think your premise, in all due respect to your question and to you as a lifelong journalist that, you know, I didn't want war. To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect. Hold on for a second, please. Excuse me, excuse me. No President wants war. Everything you may have heard is that, but it's just simply not true."

Axelrod: "The President's appearance today is part of a concerted effort to rally support for the war, the reason for a speech just yesterday in Cleveland.”

Axelrod to Bush at press conference: “I spent a fair amount of time in front of that hotel in Cleveland yesterday talking to people about the war, and one woman who said she voted for you said, 'You know what? He's losing me, he's been there too long, he's losing me.' What do you say to her?"

Bush: "I am confident, I believe, I am optimistic we'll succeed. If not, I'd pull our troops out. If I didn't believe we had a plan for victory, I wouldn't leave our people in harm's way. And that's important for the woman to understand."

Axelrod: "Even while acknowledging growing public concern, this was clearly a President projecting no doubts of his own. He gave Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a strong vote of confidence and said U.S. commanders grow more effective by the day."

Bush: "So this is a war in which we change tactics. It's a war in which we've adjusted and learned lessons in the process of the war."

Axelrod: "Rumsfeld wasn't the only member of his team to get a vote of support. Mr. Bush flatly rejected recent suggestions that some of his staffers need replacing."

Bush: "I've got a staff of people that have, first of all, placed their country above their self-interests. And we've dealt with a lot. We've dealt with a lot. We've dealt with war, we've dealt with recession, we've dealt with scandal, we've dealt with Katrina. I mean, they've had a lot on their plate, and I appreciate their performance and their hard work, and they've got my confidence."

Axelrod concluded: "No replacements, but when pressed if perhaps the President was going to add someone new to his staff, perhaps to smooth over relations with Congress, he said, 'I'm not going to announce it right now.' So stay tuned, Bob."
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center