Interview Edited By Jesse Pearson
This interview with Helen Thomas was conducted in March. We were holding it for an upcoming issue of Vice magazine, but in light of what’s going on with her now, we’ve decided to run it online today.
”Uh, wait, what’s going on with her now,?” you say. Oh, you live in a cave. OK then. Helen Thomas just made some comments about Israel that Israelis, President Obama, and a lot of other people vehemently didn’t like. Not to put too fine a point on it, she pretty much said that Jews need to “get the hell out of Palestine” and go home to “Poland, Germany and America.” A tad indelicate, yes. But not surprising given her reputation for being headstrong and outspoken. And has Helen Thomas ever made her position on Israel and its actions a secret? Nope. Besides, if we were 89 years old and had spent the last five decades watching a steady flow of spin and doubletalk issuing forth from the mouths of countless men (and a select few women) standing behind a podium with the White House seal on it, we might be getting a little grumpy by now too.
“ But hold on a minute,” you say. “Who’s Helen Thomas again?” Really, kid? Lebanese-American member of the White House Press Corps since 1960. Pioneering female journalist. The little old lady who sits in the front row at Presidential press conferences and asks the questions that the other reporters are too scared to ask. A journalist who truly challenges politicians, who wants them to be able to explain and justify their decisions and positions, whose most valued question is “why.” Now she has been hounded into quitting the job that was her life. Her agent for speaking engagements has summarily dropped her. She is being vilified by many and lauded by others but no matter what, we believe that she is owed a huge debt of respect and gratitude for the work she’s done in the name of true democracy. We fear that the White House Press Corps has lost its conscience in losing Helen Thomas. Whether anyone has the balls to carry on what she has started remains to be seen.
PS: Yes, she does discuss Israel in this interview, if you’re curious about whether there’s a timely money shot to sink your teeth into. But there’s a lot more going on here. Don’t let Helen Thomas’s views on Israel alone define her for you.
Vice: When I watched you at press conferences during the George W. Bush years, you seemed pretty disgusted with your fellow journalists.
Helen Thomas: In the run-up to the Iraq War, no one asked for proof of weapons of mass destruction. It was very, very clear that President Bush wanted to go to war at any cost. And he would not go back to the UN and allow them three more months to look and see if it was really true. We went to war on lies. I think 9-11 was definitely used to terrorize the people away from taking any stand against the government, because they felt it was a real crisis and I guess they—halfway at least—believed the government. Using terrorists is a very effective propaganda weapon.
Is it just me or did the mainstream press seem particularly flabby after 9-11?
They were afraid of not being considered real patriots, and I’m sure the big communications corporations got orders from on high. So they played ball.
In your decades at the White House have you witnessed this kind of complacency before?
Well, the Watergate scandal was the turning point in the White House in modern times. We took all the [Nixon administration’s] denials, and when they turned out to be absolutely wrong, when it turned out to be disinformation, it made reporters much more wary in that brief interval that followed. But of course 9-11 made everyone into a prime citizen again, and afraid to ask. The Pentagon was also very effective in propagandizing, as was the State Department, as was the White House. So, again, I think that journalists became afraid to be called unpatriotic if they didn’t support a war, even one that was obviously not true.
You were surprised by this?
I certainly thought, after the Watergate scandal and all the lies, that reporters had awakened. And they did for awhile, a very short time. But the government always prevails, because there’s always the feeling that we should believe what the government says. Even though I thought they didn’t have any credibility, people did go along. The reporters were very gung-ho about going to war. It was going to be two weeks. Everybody was going to be there a short time, come home, and live happily ever after. It’s been seven years now.
I notice that you’re the only White House reporter that questions why an event has occurred. You did it several times regarding 9-11.
That’s the reason we’re so easily led down the garden path—nobody’s asking “why?” The question “why?” should always be there. What is the reason this other government or these people would do this to us? But I had the impression that throughout the whole country, truth took a holiday. There’s been very little search for truth, except for a few people who have spoken out.
When you were sitting just a few feet in front of him at news conferences, could you tell that Bush was lying?
Not really. But you could tell by the answers there was no real answer that he wanted to tell you. Why did we go to war? “9-11.” Well, there were no Iraqis involved, and so forth. To this moment we have not heard why we went in. There’s been all of the speculation—daddy, oil, Israel, whatever—but still nobody has spoken the truth from the government’s side.
Would you go so far as to say that your colleagues are in some ways responsible for the Iraq War?
I think that’s very true. Everyone rolled over and played dead at a time when they should have been really penetrating. They were there for Watergate. But in this case they bought all the propaganda. Or, whether they bought it or not, they took it and spouted it.
Why do you think this is happening now more than ever before?
I think it’s the whole business of communications, the stranglehold of the ultra-right on propaganda. It’s scaring people. Three or four hours every afternoon they have these very ultra-right people on the air, who I think are using the government and using the American people, betraying them and destroying our whole sense of honesty.
The usual argument here is that the FCC, under Bush, allowed the consolidation of media into megacorps which are generally owned by conservatives, nay, right wingers.
There’s no doubt they’ve broken down all the curbs. I don’t believe in any censorship, frankly. But I do think it is getting so far out now. It’s a dangerous time.
What’ s the remedy?
I think that the president has to get out there and denounce the racism and the epithets. We have a big vocabulary. People can use it to talk to everyone. He has to restore some faith in true democracy, and the search for truth.
It should come from on high?
Yes. He can use wit, humor, or anything. But a good weapon is to put these people to shame.
People are wandering around wondering what is really happening. And the atmosphere goes back to the 1930s. I cannot believe the violence that is being incited. The economic depression is in large part the cause of it. Everyone is unhappy and looking for a scapegoat. All of this contributes to bigotry, racism, and a sense of violence.
Are you talking about the Tea Partiers?
Not only them, but the whole atmosphere in the country that is aided and abetted by the ultra-right.
I guess that what I want to know is whether you’ve seen this before.
In the 1930s we had the same kind of repression, and riots, too. There were a lot of terrible times before World War II. We had Father Coughlin. We had Gerald L.K. Smith. So, yes, we had a certain amount of this back then. The country was very, very divided at that time. Should we go to war or not go to war? But in our current atmosphere—and of course I can’t compare it all the way back to George Washington—it’s inconceivable to have so much hatred and anger.
I can’t tell if the blogosphere is provoking or placating all of this.
Everyone with a cell phone thinks they’re a photographer. Everyone with a laptop thinks they’re a journalist. But they have no training and they have no idea of what we keep to in terms of standards, as in what’s far out and what’s reality. And they have no dedication to truth.
As a professional muckraker, do you ever feel unsafe yourself?
I can’t say I’m a model of courage. But I do think you have to go on living. If you’re afraid to speak up, you’ve let democracy down.
But as a ranking member of the liberal press?
Where is the liberal press? It doesn’t exist. Read the Washington Post, read the New York Times. I mean, sure, a couple of columnists. But the weight of the editorials is toward the conservative side. For one thing, does anybody ever denounce aggression? No.
Yes, I’ve noticed that Obama and the Democrats don’t even bring up the wars anymore.
Well, I’d like to see more courage in all aspects. Speaking out. What have [the Democrats] got to lose? They’re at the top of the mark. Just do the right thing by the American people and by the world, even if you lose the next election. So what?
During the campaign, Obama talked about issues from what seemed like an authentically progressive viewpoint. Whatever happened to that guy?
In the beginning, he was very political. He had his advisors saying, “you can’t do this, you can’t do that.” For one, he gave no place at the table for those who believed in a government health care plan with Medicare for everyone or single payer, which is the only way to have universal coverage. He treaded so lightly. But I think more and more he began to see that his search for bi-partisanship was baloney. It doesn’t exist. All you’ve got to do is take a stand yourself. Great presidents take stands, and they fight off these people who really are so far to the right. I don’t want to call them names, even though they would call me names.
Did bi-partisanship ever exist?
Of course it did. If it didn’t, we would not have any of the legislation we’ve had. But in this case, when every Republican votes against the health care plan? Surely there was something in the plan that they liked. But they brought the whole house down, like Samson.
Have you seen this kind of unanimity in the Republicans before?
Not in such a solid plank. It’s totalitarian, all of them following orders. Lockstep. And when McCain said he was going to oppose everything that Obama proposed? How can you even say that? “ I’m going to be against everything.” If they started the Third World War, is he going to be against it? The Republicans enjoyed the power that they had, having the White House. They could do anything. Now they can’t suppress their anger and they want to destroy anything Obama represents. They’re trying to deny him a second term.
Is there somewhat more honesty with the Obama White House than there was with Bush?
You’re getting the same amount of dissembling from Robert Gibbs that you got from Tony Snow?
[laughs] It isn’t Gibbs’ fault. He’s getting orders. I asked the president last year, “Do you know any country in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons?” He said, “I don’t want to speculate.” And I asked Hillary Clinton very recently, “In view of the pressure on Iran concerning nuclear weapons, do you know any country in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons?” She said, “We’re for non-proliferation.” She kept talking, but of course she wouldn’t answer the question. So I don’t see much difference in terms of credibility or reversing the decision to ignore certain truths.
I’m wondering if you’re ever accused of being pro-Arab because you’re Lebanese-American?
A man asked me yesterday, “Do you think your background has anything to do with your views?” I said, “Absolutely. Of course.” I think I know more about it in terms of human society. But how about the Zionists? Do they have a background that would influence their opinion?
Well, do you think there’s been any real change with the Obama administration regarding American policy toward Israel?
No, I really don’t. It’s a facade. The administration wanted to take it as a personal insult when Biden was in the Middle East and Israel announced all this new housing in occupied territory, which is absolutely against international law. You cannot annex occupied land, at least under the rules of Geneva. Haaretz said it was 50,000 housing units. Well, certainly Washington had to react in some way. But I don’t think it’s lasting.
You don’t think Obama’s going to keep any pressure on Netanyahu?
I don’t think he can. I’ve seen moments like this before, when there was a real rift with Israel. Like when, under Bush 41, James Baker said, “They have my number, they can call me.” They say that, but then the State Department and American officials always go back. I mean, they have a guy like Dennis Ross at the White House now, who’s always been a part of the Israel lobby. They put him in charge of the whole Muslim world.
Is there a chance that the wishy-washiness of Obama and the Democrats might change?
Actually, I think they’re finally getting some guts. I really do. I think there’s some courage now being shown. They’re finding you can enjoy doing the right thing once in a while.
Was the health care bill the right thing?
I think anything is the right thing when you help people. I didn’t like this particular legislation, but I wanted him to get something. I wanted a government plan, Medicare for everyone, availability, and single payer. I’m on Medicare and I’m on Social Security. They work.
You were around to see those enacted.
Yes. 1935 for Social Security. 1965 for Medicare. I was in Independence, Missouri when Johnson signed the Medicare bill, with Truman standing there. Truman had first proposed Medicare, but couldn’t get it through.
But Obama’s bill doesn’t contain the things you just listed. The political wisdom is that it’s not going to be easy to add them in later.
That’s baloney. As long as we have to accept what they’ve passed, it’s a framework. There’ll be new things added on out of sheer need. Social Security is a good example. In the first place, it was for the elderly who had no place to go during the Depression. Then they added on orphan kids, who had to have some support. Then they added on the people who were handicapped and couldn’t work. Everything was added on later. And that’s the way this health care bill will go, I think.
When you came to Washington from Detroit in the 1930s, Roosevelt was president. Even as progressive as he was, Washington was still segregated.
Real segregation. Of course there had been discrimination in Detroit too, but not to this extent. It was in schools and restaurants and movie theaters and hotels. Blacks couldn’t even go into a snack bar and sit down. They could get a cup of coffee, but they had to leave. Snack bars!
There was discrimination against female news reporters as well. Couldn’t Roosevelt do anything about it?
I didn’t go to her. I was a low person on the totem pole. But Eleanor Roosevelt responded by having news conferences with only women reporters in attendance.
Wow. The White House press room is considerably more even now. Is it, what, maybe 40 percent female?
That’s true. Certainly we have grown in numbers and power. World War II was a turning point, when they were drafting any young man that had a pulse. If he was breathing, he was going to war. And so women got big breaks in professions where they had been very few and far between before. Medicine, law, journalism and so forth. After the war the publishers of newspapers had no concept, no understanding of the growing pains of our country. I worked for UPI, and eight women reporters in our office who had been covering the State Department, the Pentagon and so forth, were fired on the basis that these young men that had gone off to war, and usually had a college education, now wanted to come back to their $24 a week job. Well, this turned out not to be true. They had come out of the war as captains, majors, colonels. They were not about to go back for so little a week. So they went into the Rand Corporation, and so on. Because of all the high-tech innovations of the war, they knew the US was going to come out on top and prosper.
So were these women hired back?
Yes. Not the same ones, but some of them. I was writing radio news at that time. I had to get up at 5:30 in the morning, so nobody wanted my job.
You joined the White House press pool when Kennedy got there in 1960. What had you been covering in the intervening years?
Sometimes the Justice Department. Sometimes Treasury. Health, Education, and Welfare. Basically the Cabinet. I got into the Kennedy White House because at the time I was president of the Women’s National Press Club, and they assigned me to cover the early days of the Kennedy campaign. Jackie especially. Everyone was interested in the family. You see, once you’re assigned to the White House you cover men, women, children, and animals. If they’re breathing, you cover them. Especially if you’re working for a wire service.
That’s all you do.
Yeah. It’s called the Body Watch. Once I started there, I could then belong to the White House Correspondents’ Association, whose dues were a munificent two dollars a year. But as a woman I couldn’t go to the one annual function of the Correspondents’ Association, which was a dinner in honor of the President of the United States. We few women covering the White House couldn’t go, so we protested. We went to Kennedy himself via Pierre Salinger, his press secretary. We said, “We don’t think the president should go to this dinner if we can’t go.” He agreed, and for the first time we were allowed to cover the dinner.
We had already tried this once before during the Eisenhower administration, when Khrushchev was coming to town and there was a luncheon planned. We said, “We should be allowed to go there. We are covering history. We don’t think you should have it at the National Press Club.” That was where Khrushchev was going to make his one speech to the press. They finally agreed to allow thirty women for the first time in history to cover a major figure at the National Press Club, and eat lunch with them. I sat at the head table, because I was head of the Women’s Press Club. That was 1959. We were still not allowed to be full members until 1971.
1959, is that when Khrushchev made his speech about...
“We will bury you.” In his speech he was framing all the great things about communism, and he said ‘we’re going to bury you.’ But we buried them.
Kennedy was early to use television to his advantage.
He held the first live news conference on TV.
Were you there?
Yes. You know, it’s funny. You can write for a newspaper for fifty years and nobody knows who you are except for your friends and your family. But one shot on television and you become well known. Walk down the street and everyone recognizes you.
I hope that’s been okay by you. (laughs)
Yeah, I love it.
Kennedy’s administration is also credited as being the first to practice news management.
Oh, no. I mean, that goes back to George Washington. Every administration has tried to mold the news. Kennedy was the first to give it a name, but it became state of the art with Reagan. It became spin.
Lyndon B. Johnson is starting to come into focus, with several biographies in the last decade. You’ve written about his obsession with knowing every detail about everyone in Washington. Didn’t he run a background check on you once?
He had a love/hate relationship with the press. He knew me for a long time—from when he was a congressman, although I didn’t cover him regularly then. He may have run a background on me, I don’t know. All I know is that he had a very good grasp of everyone and he wanted to know everything. He worked 14 hours a day with a siesta in between. All of his staffers were completely burned out.
You traveled with Nixon to China. They say it changed him.
I think he knew he was making history, taking a giant step. But he had been traveling all during the hiatus from when he held public office in 1960 until ‘68, when he ran for president. In that time he learned that communism was not monolithic. He went from country to country, enjoying these grand welcomes, but his philosophy was divide and conquer. That never changed. The Chinese and the Soviets had thousands of troops on the border, and they hated each other at the time. So, he played them against each other.
Is there a universal truth about all the presidents that you’ve watched up close?
There’s no such thing as an instant president. The best ones learn on the job, very quickly. Kennedy did, from the Bay of Pigs to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Both he and Khrushchev had nuclear arsenals large enough to blow up the world. But they had been in war, and they understood humanity. They were men of peace, basically, and each stepped back from the brink. Khrushchev lost his job very quickly after that. But they were both courageous enough to be cowards.
Which presidents best integrated their beliefs and their actions?
Kennedy and Johnson. And I think Carter, too. Johnson watched Roosevelt. He had great ideals. The Great Society was great, in terms of learning from the Depression and feeling people’s suffering. Kennedy learned from war and was someone who knew Europe. I think they were both great in their way. Johnson made a terrible mistake with Vietnam, and it cost him his job. But at the same time on the domestic side he was wonderful. I know he lost a lot of his credibility, but still he came across as sincere. He would walk us around and around the South Lawn of the White House—we called them the Bataan Death Marches—and he would really let his hair down and tell us how he felt about Vietnam. He felt trapped. I think we learned so much from him. We learned the agony of the presidency.
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