Helen Thomas on Grilling the Pinch Hitter

Helen Thomas, who has covered the White House since 1961 — first as a reporter for United Press International and, since 2000, as a columnist for Hearst News Service — discusses her interviewing style and how she handles the “pinch hitter” in “robotic mode,” as part of Campaign Desk’s ongoing series of interviews with reporters and commentators about how the press is covering the election.

Liz Cox Barrett: Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary, was quoted in a recent New Yorker piece by Ken Auletta saying that “the White House press corps sees its role as taking the opposite side of whomever they cover.” Is this how you view your role?

Helen Thomas: I view my role as seeking the truth, and on the rarest of occasions you might agree with what the White House is putting out. To question is our privilege and most people don’t understand that the presidential news conference is the only forum in our society where the president can be questioned and he should be questioned. If we only get the pinch hitter, the press secretary, we have to question him as best as possible. Certainly there should have been more questioning on going to war in Iraq.

LCB: In a recent American Prospect article, Eric Alterman and Michael Tomasky wrote — as others have — that during this Bush presidency the press has been “somnolent and sycophantic,” engaged in “journalism-related program activity.” Alterman and Tomasky cautiously suggest, however, that the first week in February was perhaps a “turning point” when the press began “to rouse themselves from their long torpor,” ask more questions about justifications for Iraq war, probe into Bush’s National Guard service. What’s your take?

HT: After 9/11, of course, it was a general pulling in the horns. If our briefings were on TV the viewers would say, why is she asking that question? By asking, are you jeopardizing our soldiers? Are you jeopardizing our security? It was un-American to question. That was the atmosphere. I don’t apply this to myself. I never let up on asking questions that I thought were very important. I think some reporters are coming out of their coma. Finally they’ve realized enough was enough. Real patriotism is asking the questions what’s going on and why?

LCB: In what ways have you changed your approach (or not) to White House press briefings and presidential press conferences since moving in 2000 from reporting for UPI to writing a column for Hearst?

HT: It’s a little different approach. I’ve always been hard-hitting. People always say, “You ask tough questions.” I haven’t deviated from that. I’ve been able to have a little more time as a columnist, I don’t have a deadline every minute as with a wire service. I have time to listen a little more as a columnist, dig a little deeper. Otherwise it’s still the same. The main question is why. And I ask very tough, short questions, the shortest distance between two points. I don’t try to hold the camera. I believe in very blunt questions. Not mean. Why, what do you mean, can you prove it?

LCB: Dan Froomkin wrote recently in the Washington Post that “when the president is in full campaign mode, it can be hard to distinguish between a ‘White House’ question and a ‘campaign’ question,” and that “an ongoing challenge in the White House press room involves trying to parse when [White House Press Secretary Scott] McClellan will answer a question versus when he will duck it by waving it off as a ‘campaign’ issue.” From where you sit, has this been an issue?

HT: Not for me. I don’t expect him to answer anything. He’s gotten into a robotic mode. We know he’s on one page, he gets his talking points and you cannot move him off of that. Everything is political in a sense. Very defensive.

LCB: NBC’s David Gregory is “Stretch,” Bill Sammon of the Washington Times is “Super Stretch.” Dana Milbank told Campaign Desk that his presidential nickname is unprintable. As far as you know, does the president have a pet name for you?

HT: I’m sure he does. But I don’t know what it is.

LCB: Would you want to know?

HT: Do you know it?

LCB: No. But would you want to know?

HT: I could care less. Just so long as he spells my name right.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.