We in the press have a special role since there is no other institution in our society that can hold the President accountable. I do believe that our democracy can endure and prevail only if the American people are informed. - Helen Thomas
I'm a day late with this, I know, but the well-wishing is just as genuine as it would have been yesterday. I caught the clip of President Obama presenting Helen Thomas with a plate full of cupcakes on their mutual birthday. Helen was 89 years old yesterday; Barack Obama turned 48. I thought it was a lovely gesture--so completely unlike anything the previous president would have done, but true to what every president before the last might have done if he had thought of it.
Except for a dry spell during the Bush years, when she was unceremoniously expelled from the front row of the White House press room in a not-so-subtle attempt to shut up the pushy broad when GWB was in the room, Helen has had the ear of every president since John F. Kennedy in 1961. (She claims that she was forced to give up the front row because she no longer worked for the wire services, but what law says the President or his press secretary couldn't have asked her to stay right there, where she had been for over four decades?)
During Kennedy's presidency she had the honor of starting each press conference with the first question and then ending the questioning with, "Thank you, Mr. President". I've watched a lot of press conferences since JFK was president and Helen, except for those three years, presided over every one. She became a fixture in that room, and while I don't doubt for a minute that she also seemed the interminable crotchety old woman to many of the young, wet-behind-the-ears reporters there, we, the public, were comforted by that continuity. (Or at least I, the public.) Her bulldog tenacity, her refusal to stop asking tough follow-up questions, were exactly what was needed during the Bush years.
Helen grew up in Detroit and attended Wayne State University, so, even though I grew up in and around Detroit but didn't attend WSU and didn't become a journalist and didn't quite grow up in her generation, I've always felt a kinship with her.
There's something about her that says "Tough REAL reporter who just happens to be a woman". I loved watching her rise up from her signature slouch, take a deep breath, and hammer away with a question that absolutely required an answer.
I loved watching, one by one, all of those powerful Leaders of the Western World trying to suppress a sigh, wishing they could make light of this little woman's questions, but having the decency to honor the long-held Helen Thomas protocol by answering thoughtfully-- like grown-ups.
Then George W. Bush took over the White House. Helen was moved to the rear of the bus, and my heart sank. To humiliate a venerable old reporter known for decades for her ethics and her integrity was bad enough, but after it happened, the entire White House Press Corps pretended it was business as usual. Not a single voice was raised in protest. No stampedes out the doors until Helen was plopped back into her proper place. Not a peep from the mainstream media about the indignity of it all.
The first sign of trouble in a democratic land--the press becomes willing sheep. The White House had the power and the audacity to silence Helen Thomas, and the press, her colleagues, not willing to give up the best seats in the house, went along. I've never trusted any of them since.
In March of 2006, after a long three-year silence, Helen finally got to ask George W. Bush a question.
This is a portion of the White House transcript as provided by Media Matters, along with a video of Bill O'Reilly, Tucker Carlson and assorted Right Wingers commenting back then on yesterday's lovable Birthday Gal.
O'Reilly: "I would have laid into that woman, and I don't care how old she is. I would have laid her out, saying, 'How dare you?'"
Tucker Carlson called her the "reporter turned propagandist Helen Thomas", saying "Whatever you think of her questionable skills as a journalist, she isn't shy."
On that same program, Carlson introduced the "Five Best Helen Thomas Bloviating in the Briefing Room moments",
Imus's take: "The old bag should shut up and get out. I'm sick of her."
This is Helen Thomas in 2006 grilling Scott McClellan on illegal wiretapping.
This is Helen being mean to Dana Perino over citizen casualties in Iraq
This is Helen being Helen on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" in 2006, before she was banished.
And this is Christiane Amanpour, the journalist's journalist, explaining to the veteran news reader why there's no need to worry about Helen going all goofy over Obama bringing her cupcakes. (Listen carefully to the way each of these women reacts to this story. Which of them do you trust to get the news right? If you answered "Christiane", I don't need to go on telling you why the Helen Thomases of the world are so vital and so cherished. If you didn't--well, okay. Goodbye.)
Happy Birthday, Helen.
Happy Birthday, President Obama.
May your lights always shine upon us.
(Cross-posted at Talking Points Memo here)