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Kennedy’s ‘White House’ salutes first lady of the press

Helen Thomas and Rory Kennedy interrupt their interview for a photo-op.
Will Hart/HBO
Helen Thomas and Rory Kennedy interrupt their interview for a photo-op.

Freedom of the press in America almost always exists in theory, less often in practice, and practically never under circumstances that seem to prevail in the era of celebrity journalism. How free is the journalist who depends on continued access to VIPs — including U.S. presidents — within a controlled situation like a White House press conference?

Actually, it depends on the journalist — or at least it did when Helen Thomas, a.k.a. the “First Lady of the Press,” was regularly covering commanders in chief with an indifference to etiquette that was rare even by the standards of 1961, when she was reporting on John F. Kennedy for United Press International.

As recently as 2004 — Thomas, now in her 80s and, alas, on medical leave from her post at Hearst Newspapers — was distinguishing herself from the pack by asking the tough questions on camera.

When George W. Bush was busy concealing the weapons of mass destruction issue that he had strained to raise before the invasion of Iraq, she dared to inquire: “Why did you really want to go to war?”

Asking the tough questions
On the phone with Rory Kennedy, documentary filmmaker and niece of JFK, I lead with a tough question of my own: Does Kennedy’s half-hour portrait of Thomas — “Thank You, Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House,” premiering Monday night on HBO — double as a lament for the passing of old journalistic traditions? Like the tradition of asking tough questions, for example?

“It wasn’t hard to extract that theme out of [the story of] Helen Thomas,” Kennedy says, suggesting that my question maybe wasn’t so tough after all. “And the changing of the guard was an important topic to address in the film. Though [Thomas] is an extraordinary journalist who has been on the front lines, watching these presidents over the last nine administrations, I hope the film culminates with something even more important than her personal story — with the question of the role of journalism today. It’s not clear that there will be a successor to Thomas, who has asked the difficult questions over the years.”

Fascinating as a measure of how White House press coverage has changed over the decades, and also fabulously entertaining, the film’s archival scenes of the journalist in action play like old sports highlights, at times even making us want to get up and cheer. We see Richard M. Nixon, reeling from scandal, trying in vain to disarm Thomas with flattery, only to get both barrels from the journalist as regards whether Nixon said it would be wrong to pay “hush money” to Watergate defendants. Thomas to Nixon: “Can you and will you provide proof that you did indeed say it would be wrong?”

Elsewhere in the film is Thomas to LBJ: “Would we consider dealing directly with the Viet Cong in negotiating an end to the war [in Vietnam]?”

And Thomas to Reagan: “There have been reports that you were told — directly or indirectly, at least twice — that the Contras were benefitting from the Iran arms sales. Is that true?”

And Thomas once again to Dubya: “Why do you refuse to respect the wall between church and state?”

A willingness to take risks

Now a question for Kennedy, the filmmaker: What does it take in this election year for White House correspondents to be half as daring as Thomas has been?

“It requires individual journalists who are willing to take the risks required,” says Kennedy, “and also the institutions to support that kind of journalism. Unfortunately, I think we’re lacking on both fronts.”

Indeed, the institutions that Bush established upon taking office — no follow-up questions allowed, thank you very much — did little or nothing to encourage freedom of the press. Whether the next president will depart from that tradition remains to be seen.

“One of the things Thomas talks about is how hard it is for a president after he has lost the trust of the press and the public,” Kennedy says. “It’s like a relationship — like any we’d have with another person. If they lie to you, if they’re not accessible, if they’re not answering your questions directly, then you don’t trust them. So if it’s a president, you don’t vote for them and you don’t support them, and they can’t put their policies in place.

“You can’t get away with not answering questions as a president without damaging your relationship to the public. That’s one of many ways to explain why Bush’s approval ratings have plummeted. It’s obviously because of the war and his disconnection to the pain of people and so on — a whole range of issues. But I also think it relates to his unwillingness to answer the questions of people and the press. We need accessibility as a country right now.”

Kennedy’s previous documentary, “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib,” also deals with the role of journalism in bringing — or not bringing — stories to light. Thus “Mr. President” allows the filmmaker to continue her inquiry into the limits of reportage in this political climate.

“Helen would argue that we could have avoided this war [in Iraq] if the press had really held the administration to account more than they did,” says Kennedy. “As a democracy, we rely on the press to ask the questions and get the answers for us. Otherwise we’re not informed and it’s a problem.”

Are there young journalists ready to follow in Thomas’s footsteps?

“When we were working on the film and I was walking around Washington with Helen, she was like a rock star,” says Kennedy. “And there aren’t that many rock stars in D.C., as you can imagine. At restaurants or on the street, people would come up to her and say, ‘You’re my hero, Helen’ — even a guy who said he was a Republican and worked for Homeland Security said she was his hero. The reason is her relentless willingness to ask questions — and unfortunately even the journalists who count her as a hero don’t have that same quality.”

Thomas may be nearing the end of her career, but, in the contemporary scenes of “Mr. President,” she shows that she hasn’t lost her ability to talk honestly. As I mention to Kennedy, the scenes where Thomas is talking to the filmmaker about JFK and his “escapades,” along with his pioneering preference for “managed news,” show not the slightest awkwardness despite the familial relation involved.

“The thing about Helen is that she’s the same with everyone,” says Kennedy. “She expects people to operate on a certain level of honesty and integrity, and doesn’t waver herself. It’s a rare and wonderful quality.”

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