Helen Thomas, Off the Record
[Editor's note: Although this interview was slated to appear in our as-yet unreleased Gray issue (Fall, no. 60), we decided to share it early given Helen Thomas's recent passing. We feel lucky to publish one of the last interviews with this iconic figure.]
Helen Thomas knew she had hit the third rail the second the words left her mouth. When asked to comment on Israel while out on the White House lawn during Jewish Heritage Celebration Day in May 2010, she candidly replied: "Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine." When prodded for further clarification on where she believed the Israeli populace in occupied Palestinian territories should relocate to, she said that they should "go home," and cited Poland and Germany as her first examples.
A week later, the video was posted online. Thomas, after 50 years inside the White House, announced her retirement within a matter of days.
In the battle between what some perceived as anti-Semitic remarks and the First Amendment rights guaranteed to every U.S. citizen, the immediate fallout left little room for dialogue. President Obama declared her comments to be "out of line" and called her decision to retire "the right one," while the board of the White House Correspondents' Association issued a statement calling her words "indefensible" and wondered whether it would be appropriate for opinion columnists to occupy a front-row seat in the White House briefing room ever again. Speaking events were canceled, awards previously given in her honor retracted.
The daughter of Lebanese immigrants, Thomas had come of age at a time when the thought of a little girl growing up to be a newspaperwoman was unimaginable. All the same, she graduated from college in 1942, leaving her hometown of Detroit, Michigan, for Washington, D.C., immediately thereafter. Her life's work began when she covered the Kennedy presidency as a full-time White House UPI correspondent. While given appropriately "female" assignments like covering the birth of John F. Kennedy, Jr. and detailing where the First Lady bought her dresses, it was still a sea-change moment, granting unprecedented White House access to newswomen of that generation.
It was during the Kennedy administration that Thomas became the first woman to ever close a press conference with her memorable "Thank you, Mr. President," a phrase originally coined by her friend and colleague, UPI's Merriman Smith. It was a privilege that would continue up until the presidency of George Bush, Sr. (who preferred longer, afternoon press conferences free from prime-time network regulations). In 1975, she became the first female president of the White House Correspondents' Association, as well as the first woman member (and later president) of the Gridiron Club, breaking a 90-year, men-only tradition.
The 2010 Palestine incident capped off what had turned out to be a turbulent decade for Thomas. In 2000 she departed from UPI's wire service to join Hearst Newspapers as an opinion columnist, allowing her to gain a much wider berth of expression. Two years into George W. Bush's first term in office, Thomas informally declared him "the worst president in American history" and was promptly banished to the back row of the press room. Three years would pass before Bush ever called on her again, although she was more than ready when he finally did, delivering her now-infamous "Why did you really want to go to war?" line of questioning.
During my first visit with Thomas inside her modest Washington apartment in the summer of 2011, little more than a year removed from her abrupt and unceremonious retirement, she still seemed shell-shocked. She had turned 91 the previous week. Although I had never met her before, Thomas was first cousins with my grandmother. They grew up together in Detroit, separated in age by only a few months and were close like sisters. Despite the recent unpleasantness, I was happy to finally have the opportunity to meet her.
As our conversation continued the following summer, I began to understand the complexity of Helen Thomas, an enduring figure who is at times as polarizing as she is revered. While presidents came and went within the White House walls, Thomas remained the one constant, and the men who had to answer to her—10 total throughout her career—always knew exactly what they were in store for as soon as they called on her: gritty, hard-hitting questions from one of the most indomitable spirits in the history of American journalism. As Nixon once told her: "You always ask tough questions—tough questions not in the sense of being unfair, but hard to generalize the answers."
Our conversations, collected over the course of two years and meandering between decades and diatribes along the way, are both familial and freewheeling by nature, as well as unremittingly honest (as most would suspect). Though she'd preferably be the one asking the questions, her answers are the next best thing.
I wanted to ask you about your parents and how they fit in during the first Arab immigration wave from 1880 to 1920. Did they have noticeable problems assimilating?
When my father came in the 1890s, he went directly to Kentucky where two of his brothers were. They had a pushcart, he had a pushcart, and then he had a little grocery store. Then he went back to Lebanon, married my mother, came here. And our whole goal was to be a part of America. My parents were very proud. They wanted all of us to be educated. We didn't live in an Arabic or Syrian or Lebanese community—although there were lots—but we were in a little town called Winchester, 20 miles from Lexington, which was the hub. And Uncle John, your great-grandfather, was in Kentucky as well, and then he moved to Detroit because of the auto boom and his brother did, too, and then they told my dad to come and bring the family.
What was it like to be a woman coming up in your profession? What were the challenges?
Well, I think that women have had a very tough time. It took 70 years of marching and protesting and chaining ourselves to the White House gate for women to get the vote. They protested for 70 years, went to jail, starved themselves. But not only to get the vote, for women to get into real professional jobs. World War I was a breakthrough—they were the secretaries. World War II was a real breakthrough for the women as well. They could work anywhere, in the factories and in the offices getting top jobs.
And that was directly connected with men fighting overseas?
All the men were being drafted—if they could breathe, if they had a pulse, they were going to war. There were women in war, too, but not doing the same thing and not drafted, really, in that sense. They flew planes—in not necessarily safe places, either—and they did many of the jobs that they had to do. And they certainly kept the factories going, building bombs, building tanks, building planes. So there was a real discrimination. Women still don't have equality. They make about 77 cents on the dollar compared to men. Although many women have risen to the top of companies and so forth, it's still not the same.
After the war ended, did the men get their jobs back?
[Companies] thought they would. Eight women were fired at our company on the assumption that the men would come back and want their jobs back. Well, [these men] started out as G.I. Joes and they wound up as captains, colonels, majors, and everything and they certainly did not want a $20-a-week job. So they weren't coming back. A few came back, but not to the old jobs.
How did you fit in with all of that?
Well I never knew it was a man's world! I never accepted that. I thought I had an education just as good as a man's. I deserve to have the same opportunities and advantages. So I antagonized a lot of people, but I fought for women's rights and blacks' rights and civil rights. Discrimination against women was very bad. There was no reason to accept discrimination. No reason.
How did that carry over once you started covering the Kennedy presidency?
That's when I kept fighting! We could belong to the White House Correspondents' Association, but we couldn't go to the dinner, which was one event every year in honor of the president of the United States. We went to President Kennedy and said, "If we can't go and we're members, you shouldn't go!" And he agreed; he knew damn well that it was wrong. So he did go on the premise that women could go and after that we've always been able to go. But imagine belonging to an organization where they said, "No, you can't." Why? "Because you're a woman. We never had women before." Well, so what?
Were you always allowed to be members of the White House Correspondents' Association?
When I started covering the White House, we could join—same with the National Press Club. [In 1959] I was president of the Women's Press Club and Khrushchev was coming to town. It was the biggest story and a breakthrough in foreign relations and so forth. And the press conference was going to be had at the Press Club, which we resented because we couldn't go to the Press Club. So we started really putting our foot down, picketing, doing everything, and we forced the Press Club to have 30 women reporters attend the Khrushchev luncheon. I was president of the Women's Press Club, so I was at the head table as one of the hosts. We got 30 women to sit on the floor with their male colleagues with whom they had been competing for big stories and so forth. For the first time in history women were at the luncheon, the one luncheon where Khrushchev was going to be speaking. And when that was done, I got up. I didn't sit right next to Khrushchev, but I talked to him. He said I looked like one of the Russian women from Georgia with the darker faces. And that was it. We didn't get to go back to the Press Club—we were not accepted—until 1971. That was a one-shot deal.
What happened after 1971?
Well, then we became members. They've had many women presidents of the Press Club since then. Everything was fine. The scales fell from their eyes. The men in the Press Club said, "What were we thinking?"
What role did Eleanor Roosevelt play for women?
She had a big role in helping newswomen. She had special news conferences for them. She helped women in every way; she helped minorities; she was great. I didn't attend her news conferences. I came to Washington the summer of '42, but I was in the office mostly. I wasn't covering the White House then.
When it came to Jackie Kennedy's elevated profile as First Lady, you were very conscious of the fact that it meant you and other female reporters were covering front-page news every day. Did she recognize that at the time?
At the time? Not really. [But] we knew what was going on. But I knew what was important.
She was protecting her children in a way, too. She was a little reclusive, and very young to be a First Lady.
She was great in that respect, trying to hold on to her reputation.
But she was rough with the press.
She hated us.
Did your Arab background ever come up in those early days?
I don't think that had anything to do with it, really. Everybody came from their own different ethnic background—at that time, anyway. Just being a woman was bad enough.
Did it come up later in your career?
Well, since I was fired, yes.
Even during the post-9/11 Bush years?
Well, Ari Fleischer was the press secretary, and he's a rotten, rotten Zionist. He never should have been a press secretary at the White House. He was so biased, so unfair. Rotten.
And then there was Dana Perino, who followed Fleischer. How was she?
She was ambivalent towards me. She hated me and then she accepted me. [Her successor Tony Snow] called me "Hezbollah" and this and that. I don't care. I wouldn't mind being Hezbollah.
No. Why? People fighting for their own land? What are American tactics but to kill everybody? What are the Israeli tactics? Kill everybody. And with impunity. Nobody goes after them. Everybody's afraid to criticize them. They won't have a job tomorrow.
What was it like for you covering the White House in 1982 when Israel went into Lebanon?
I was dying. I was crying. I was very, very upset and everybody in the White House and on Air Force One knew it. They knew that they were hypocrites and that they had betrayed the Palestinians because of the Jewish vote. They have so much control over us.
Reagan went weeks without making a comment on any of it, right?
He was very pro-Israel. Every American president is.
It seemed like Clinton tried.
They all know the truth. They know. They know it's very unfair to take people's land. I don't give a goddamn if they give every Jew in this country his own home and land, but don't give what doesn't belong to you.
With Arab Spring, all these old dictators seem like they're on their way out. Does Israel want to see all these dictators go?
Of course not. They want to call themselves the only democracy, which is the biggest lie. They're scared. They don't know how to handle this.
When is the next...
Invasion? Iran. They'll bomb Iran as soon as it gets the bomb.
This Iran talk seems never ending.
Yeah, and Iran hasn't done a damn thing! They might be trying to get the bomb. I can't blame them. They're threatened every day! What do they think—when the United States backs up Israel—what do they think, that they should be threatened every day? Well, the Israelis keep this stuff up. They want war. They want us to conduct it. Terrible. I think they're wrong. I think they're terribly wrong.
Would we have to follow them into Iran if they strike?
That's right. They're gonna get the United States into it. They're trying as hard as they can.
How can Obama combat their push toward war?
He doesn't know anything. He never took a brave step on anything. He should have pulled out of all these places where we're in war. Not necessary! No courage. No guts.
His foreign policy is largely concerned with killing: killing Osama bin Laden, killing different members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban...
I think he's getting tiresome. I don't think he's done a good job at all. Terrible. I think there will be more and more war. These problems can't be solved.
We'll be back. We've gotten out of Iraq and in 2014 maybe we'll leave Afghanistan—
Yeah. 2014! Why then? Why not tomorrow? Why not yesterday?
In the 2012 election, there definitely seemed to be a lot of disillusioned voters who previously supported Obama in 2008.
He's very green, very young. He doesn't know how to handle it. I think he grew a little bit, but not enough. Well, he's had bad luck. Too many wars.
He came into office at a tough time.
I still don't forgive him. He can't make a decision to do the right thing, which is get the hell out, out, out [of Afghanistan]. He had no reason to stay, except he was so afraid.
President Obama stated that "the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines," in his speech on U.S. policy in the Middle East and North Africa in May 2011. His words didn't seem to carry that much weight after the fact, though, did they?
No, no, he's been very pro-Israel. Netanyahu spit in his face! He took so much crap before Congress when there was one standing ovation after another. There's always another election coming up, which really puts the Palestinians behind the eight ball. Paul Findley, a former Illinois congressman, was wiped out because he made the mistake of shaking hands with Arafat. And that was a deathblow.
Everyone still points at Obama's broken promise to close Guantanamo Bay.
Let 'em go free! What did they do except try to defend their own country? I mean, what's so bad about that? Ignorant Americans.... They have no right to imprison people for fighting for their own country. We come in and take a country? Rotten. They're rotten. Ten years in Afghanistan, eight years in Iraq. Killing, killing, killing. Dying, dying, dying. Jackasses! They have no right to be there. No right. Everyone died on 9/11, so what more do they want? Kill more innocent people? We invaded Iraq for no reason that's been explained. People are supposed to die for that? Die for lies? No weapons of mass destruction, no ties to Al-Qaeda. They died in vain. And are still dying.
Does Obama perhaps just not understand the military enough?
He doesn't have the courage to say we're getting out. He would've been called a coward and so forth, but not if he had gotten out the day after he took the oath of office and said, "We're not staying here." Just get out! No president has the guts to do that. We can't win it.
Can you make any comparison between the rise in troop levels that Lyndon B. Johnson enacted in Vietnam in 1965 with the way that Obama has approached the war in Afghanistan?
When the general said, "Send us 250,000 or 240,000 more troops," [Johnson] knew the jig was up. He couldn't. Everybody was in the streets. He knew he couldn't win the war. He knew he couldn't win. They were at the gates in Saigon when we left by our fingertips.
And Nixon supposedly came into office with a plan to end the war, didn't he? And on the campaign trail he wouldn't even say what the plan was.
Nobody asked him, either. I have contempt for a lot of reporters. They don't ask the question. They go with the flow. They go with the story of whatever is going on instead of asking why. [Nixon said] he had a plan to end the war, and four and a half years later we were still bombing the hell out of Vietnam.
During a special press conference in 2009, shortly after the Christmas Day bombing attempt aboard a passenger aircraft headed to Detroit, you asked John Brennan, who was the chief counterterrorism advisor at the time, something that I thought was quite unique with regard to the terrorist mindset. You said: "What is really lacking always for us is you don't give the motivation of why they want to do us harm. What is the motivation? We never hear what you find out or why."
That's right. And he never did. What is their reason for doing it? There's always a reason for something, unless you're totally irrational. And they're not irrational. They have a reason to want to blow themselves up.
I just looked at a transcript of George W. Bush's address to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001, and his answer was that it was because they "hate our freedoms."
[Laughs] And people bought that. I mean, that was the biggest lie that has ever been told. They needed a reason. Everybody died on 9/11. Still they wanted to go to war.
What should they have done after 9/11?
They could have cracked down, cut off relations with all these countries. You don't have to go kill thousands and thousands of innocent people! You're only stabbing yourself and trying to build yourself up and you don't give a damn! Find out why. Find out what it's all about.
It's always the simplest questions that are the most important ones.
That's right. Straight lines. Shortest distance between two points. How can you ever learn unless you ask why?
How do you think of your career?
It's very hard to make a living as a writer unless you really hit it big. I don't think that I'm a good writer; I just know that journalism was a good profession for me. You're never a success—I mean, you don't ever feel that you are. And I was kicked out [laughing] for my views. But I was very lucky to cover history at a time of great presidents, and some horrible ones.
What advice would you give to prospective writers regarding the future?
I think you can never learn too much. Making a living as a writer is tough unless you have a job in journalism, a regular job, or in broadcast. They'll still be broadcasting, no doubt about it. It's tough. Tough, tough, tough now. But take the setbacks and go on.
That's how I've always looked at your story. You didn't just shoot straight to the White House once you came to Washington.
No, I didn't. It took years. It was worth it.
Mark Mondalek is a Detroit-area writer and editor.
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