Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Helen Thomas: White House Watchdog Tells All

"If elected [U.S. President in 2012], I will serve.” Giggle.

So said legendary White House reporter Helen Thomas to a sold-out crowd yesterday afternoon at The Commonwealth Club. In conversation with San Francisco Chronicle Vice President Phil Bronstein, Thomas regaled the audience with stories of her interactions with past presidents, who, in her opinion, have been everything from fascinating to woefully fallible. In her 60-year career, Thomas – an ardent JFK fan – has covered 10 presidents and spared none.

"I don't waste my sympathy on them," she explained. "[But] They ask for it."

The White House Press Corps veteran made the switch from straight news to opinion in 2000, and has embraced her new assignment with the same journalistic zeal. "Now I wake up every morning and ask, 'Who do I hate today?'" Thomas shared. "That's how you write a column!"

Still, as a reporter, Thomas acknowledged that her words hold a considerable degree of power. “My biggest fear? Making a big mistake. Hurting a lot of people. You have a big weapon in your hand when you're a reporter.”

Despite that fear and despite the potential consequences of giving tough questions to presidents, Thomas maintains that reporters have a duty to hold presidents accountable for their actions. “We were afraid of being called unpatriotic, un-American for asking the tough questions,” Thomas recalled, referring to earlier in this decade. “I don’t think any of us ever entered journalism expecting to be loved…[And] I don’t think we’re superior – I think we’re dedicated to truth.”

Thomas charged that truth was conspicuously absent from the information put forth by the former Bush administration. Bush "hung the albatross of torture around our necks,” she lamented. “I felt deception was a terrible thing. The American people can take the truth, but they can't take lies."

But Thomas also had some tough words for the new Obama administration, including the accusation that Obama “lacks courage … to do the right thing,” a charge that drew a gasp from some members of the audience. Thomas, author of the just-released Listen Up, Mr. President, had a few partisan words of advice: “There is no such thing as bipartisanship.... Stop catering to the Republicans, because they're not going to help you!” she insisted.

To Helen Thomas, the goal of journalism has always been clear. “Seek the truth, and let the chips fall where they may.”

--By Commonwealth Club Media & Public Relations Department


Anonymous said...

what preceeded and followed her Obama courage quote. Youre a journalist you say? Shame on you for quoting without context. Your abbreviated copy doesnt even come close to the heart Thomas's talk.

Commonwealth said...

No, we didn't say we were a journalist. However, if you want a report from one of the Bay Area's leading journalists -- and the man whose question elicited Ms. Thomas's comment -- see Phil Bronstein's blog on the matter here.

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