Excerpt of Democracy Now Amy Goodman’s interview with veteran White House Correspondent Helen Thomas
Source of transcript: www.democracynow.org Read full interview here
Helen Thomas, served as White House correspondent for United Press International for almost sixty years and has covered every president since Kennedy. She is the most senior member of the White House press corps and is commonly referred to as “The First Lady of the Press.” Helen is currently a syndicated columnist for Hearst Newspapers. Her latest column is called “History Cannot Save Him.”
AMY GOODMAN: Helen Thomas, what would you have asked President Bush if you got a chance yesterday? Did you expect that he would call on you?
HELEN THOMAS: No, but I wish that he had, because I would have—I mean, I would have asked a news question. I would not have gone into the nostalgia, though I’m not criticizing it, because I do think the reporters had to wrap up to find out what he really thought about himself and his legacy. But I would have asked why—why do you continue to support the killing in Gaza? And that’s what we’re doing.
I mean, you can’t remain neutral. I remember the rabbi who spoke at the Martin Luther King march on Washington. Heschel had a cameo appearance, and he said, “The greatest sin of all in the Nazi era was silence.” When you remain silent to the suffering and the incredible aggression against a people, then you are culpable.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you cover the march on Washington in 1963, when Martin Luther King spoke?
HELEN THOMAS: I did, I did. Not on spot, but I was there, certainly. And I was, of course, entranced with this “I Have a Dream.” And it’s amazing that I think maybe this dream is actually coming true, although I do think that President Obama, to be, needs a lot more courage.
AMY GOODMAN: Helen Thomas, we’re going to break. Then we’re going to come back to this conversation. Known as the First Lady of the Press Corps, she has covered nine presidents. As of next Tuesday, it will be ten. We’ll be back with Helen Thomas in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Helen Thomas, UPI correspondent for almost sixty years now, writes a column for King Features.
When I said “First Lady of the Press Corps,” you shook your head, Helen Thomas. Why?
HELEN THOMAS: There’s no such thing. It’s nice to have a title like that, but it’s not real.
AMY GOODMAN: For many years, you threw out the first question at the news conferences. I wanted to go back to the issue of Gaza. You asked White House Press Secretary Dana Perino last week about Gaza. This is an excerpt of your exchange.
HELEN THOMAS: Why is the President letting more people be killed in this situation, instead of going for a ceasefire and calling for restraint, as they have in the past, on both sides?
DANA PERINO: We are calling for a durable ceasefire. That’s what we were trying to establish.
HELEN THOMAS: But why don’t you call it today and stop people from being killed?
DANA PERINO: Well, I think, Helen, strong views are held on this by all sides. We believe that Israel has a right to defend itself, and—
HELEN THOMAS: Do the Gazans have a right to defend themselves?
DANA PERINO: I think that what the Gazans deserve is a chance to live in peace and security. What President Bush has worked for is a chance to establish a two-state solution, so that the Palestinians could have their own state, so that they could live in their own democracy. And that’s what President Abbas, who is the president of all Palestinians, has been working towards.
HELEN THOMAS: The President did not recognize their election, which was fair and square under international law, as observers—
DANA PERINO: Look, when—the President did call for the—did support the elections. And when the elections were held, I don’t think that Hamas was elected because they said, “Vote for us, we’ll take you to war” or “We’ll hold you hostage” or “We’ll send rockets into Israel every day.” But they won because they were tired—the people of—the Palestinians, people of Gaza, were frustrated with the services that they were getting from the Fatah party, which was a wake-up call for the Fatah party as well. And they have worked to try to improve what they could provide governance-wise for all of the Palestinians.
HELEN THOMAS: So knowing that, why did the US cut off all relation—all aid to the people?
DANA PERINO: We certainly have not done that to the people of Gaza. We do not deal with the terrorist organizations, of which Hamas is designated as one.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Dana Perino answering Helen Thomas’s question last week.
I wanted to ask you, Helen Thomas, about Scott McClellan, the former White House press secretary who became a vocal critic after stepping down, a critic of the Bush administration. I interviewed him last June. He spoke about your role in the White House press corps.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, I think we need more Helen Thomases in the press corps, both the national press corps, even in the White House press corps, as well. She is someone who is not afraid to ask the tough questions and hold people accountable for the decisions that are made. So I think that’s important to state right up front.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Scott McClellan after he stepped down as press secretary. Helen Thomas, are you surprised by his praise?
HELEN THOMAS: Somewhat, having been called Hezbollah and everything else probably. Well, I mean, I suppose it’s the position that you’re trying—if you—how can you speak for the President of the United States? I mean, you cannot go off the curve. And so, everything is forgivable. And you always have to understand what position a spokesperson is in. I think it’s the toughest job in the White House being a spokesperson for the President and for American policy, which is sometimes very unacceptable.
AMY GOODMAN: What is your assessment of the White House press corps? Has it changed over the decades? And what did you think of the White House press corps that covered—all of the press covering President Bush?
HELEN THOMAS: I think they lost their guts after 9/11. No one wanted to ask penetrating questions for fear of being called un-American, unpatriotic. And I think their publishers, wherever they are, maybe Wall Street and so forth, were saying, “Lay off. You know, we’re all Americans, and we have to stick together no matter what.” So I don’t think reporters should—I mean, obviously, the ideal is to seek the truth, no matter where the chips fall.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to a late White House press secretary. That was Tony Snow. In 2006, you questioned him about the US response to the Israeli attack on Lebanon. This is the exchange.
HELEN THOMAS: The United States is not that helpless. It could have stopped the bombardment of Lebanon. We have that much control with the Israelis.
TONY SNOW: I don’t think so, Helen.
HELEN THOMAS: We have gone for collective punishment against all of Lebanon and Palestine.
TONY SNOW: No, what’s interesting, Helen—
HELEN THOMAS: And this is what’s happening, and that’s the perception of the United States.
TONY SNOW: Well, thank you for the Hezbollah view, but I would encourage you—
HELEN THOMAS: Nobody is accepting your explanation. What is restraint? You call for restraint.
TONY SNOW: Well, I’ll tell you, what’s interesting, Helen, is people have. The G8 was completely united on this. And as you know, when it comes to issues of—
HELEN THOMAS: And we stopped a ceasefire. Why?
TONY SNOW: We didn’t stop a ceasefire. Let me just tell you—I’ll tell you what.
HELEN THOMAS: We vetoed—
TONY SNOW: We didn’t even veto. Please get your facts right.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Tony Snow. Your response, Helen Thomas?
HELEN THOMAS: My response is I was right to press him. I think that, you know, any world leader, no matter who’s right and who’s wrong, you stop the killing of innocent people. And all the people really are basically innocent, on all sides.
AMY GOODMAN: Helen Thomas, you were born in Kentucky, your parents, Lebanese Christians. Your Arab American background, do you think that informs—or how does it inform your reporting?
HELEN THOMAS: Of course. I have a background and an understanding of what’s happened in the Middle East that a lot of people don’t have, because there’s been no interest. But why shouldn’t I project some of my feelings and so forth? I mean, I have that right, as an opinion column. But also, I hope I seek justice. And I don’t think that I go off the highway.
AMY GOODMAN: You have covered, well, starting Tuesday, ten presidents. You were the only woman on Nixon’s flight to China. What was it like to cover Richard Nixon?
HELEN THOMAS: I wasn’t the only woman. I was the only woman—
AMY GOODMAN: Only woman reporter.
HELEN THOMAS: Yes, in the print department. There was one woman in radio and Barbara Walters for TV. So, there were other women in that respect. What was—pardon me, I—what was your question?
AMY GOODMAN: What was it like to cover Richard Nixon going to China and also his demise?
HELEN THOMAS: Well, it was thrilling, because every reporter in Washington wanted to be on that trip, maybe in the whole country, because we knew it was a tremendous historical event, that it was a breakthrough, twenty-year hiatus in relations with China. Everything—nobody knew anything about what was happening, except CIA and India, and so forth, surrounding countries. So we knew that we would be really writing history. And it was really like landing on the moon. Everything was a story—what the people ate, what they looked like, what they wore, and so forth. Well, I can assure you, we had a field day for eight days.
AMY GOODMAN: And now, will you be covering the inauguration of the forty-forth president, of Barack Obama?
HELEN THOMAS: I’ll be writing a column about it and his speech and so forth, but I won’t be doing the minute-to-minute. I will be seeing what everybody else is seeing, I hope, mostly on TV.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what advice do you have for young journalists?
HELEN THOMAS: Go for it. It’s the greatest profession in the world. You’re making a real contribution to democracy by keeping people informed. And have some courage to tell the truth. I think it’s difficult at times. There are many barriers, but go for it. It’s a great, great profession.