By: Joe Strupp
A new documentary about White House reporting legend Helen Thomas premiered this week at the National Press Club, with plans for its television debut on HBO in mid-August.
But Thomas, 87, missed the showing on Wednesday night because she is still recovering from an illness that has sidelined her since May and is likely to keep her off the job until at least Labor Day.
“The movie is a fantastic narrative of Helen’s fantastic career,” said Charles Lewis, Washington bureau chief for Hearst Newspapers, where Thomas has written a column since 2000. “It is rich in history, rich in humor and the press’s relationship with the White House.”
Lewis declined to comment on Thomas’ health, other than to say she is recuperating. Lewis told E&P last month that Thomas was hit with the illness on May 18 and had not written a column since May 14.
Her weekly columns are distributed each Wednesday to all 500 clients of Hearst News Service. “She is being treated for an infection and is on leave,” Lewis told E&P in June. “She became ill and has been recovering ever since. We expect her back, but I am not sure when.”
Thomas garnered fame as the former UPI White House correspondent who first began covering presidents during the Kennedy Administration. She left UPI in 2000 for Hearst and has been writing a weekly column ever since.
That fame led to the recent documentary about her, titled: “Thank You, Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House.” It is directed by Rory Kennedy, daughter of Robert and Ethel Kennedy. The documentary debuts on HBO Aug. 18, according to a press release.
?I think that Presidents deserve to be questioned. Maybe irreverently, most of the time. Bring ?em down a size,? she says in the film, according to HBO. “You see a president, ask a question. You have one chance in the barrel. Don?t blow it.?
?Access to a President doesn?t mean you?re gonna get the truth,? Thomas adds. ?We had tremendous access when I started covering the White House. We realize now that we could walk right down the street, Main Street, with Jimmy Carter, we could walk with LBJ, side by side, even though there would be the usual secret service agents.
“We didn?t have the same code that you wouldn?t be able to get near a President, or they would feel threatened because of all of the security provisions, and so forth, that really have kept the press in their place,” she adds in the film. “So, it was very different. You really felt that you got to know the person. And, I think that?s gone.?
Other Thomas’ thoughts in the documentary:
On Lyndon B. Johnson: ?Johnson was a man who certainly had to talk. He was very garrulous, in a sense, and he also very self-protective. He always would say, ?Now, you know that?s off the record.? At the same time, you also knew what he wanted you to write what you were seeing and hearing, but not attribute it to him. So we played the game.?
On Richard Nixon: ?Once you lie, your credibility is shot. And, I really think if you lie too many times, then it?s all over. I believe the people have a right to know almost everything.?
On Gerald Ford: ?Gerald Ford was gentle, very kind. His great aspiration was to be Speaker of the House. He never really aspired to be President, but lightening struck. He turned out to be a good president because he really restored confidence in the Oval Office and a sense of security in the country after the Watergate scandal.?
On Jimmy Carter: ?Jimmy Carter is a very spiritual man. I think he almost missed his calling. He would have been a great minister. I think his greatest contribution to the country is that he made human rights a centerpiece of his foreign policy.?
On Ronald Reagan: ?[His advisors] taught him to say, ?This is not a press conference.? And, they had him quite trained on that. And, one day, we asked him about what was happening, and he said to us, ?I can?t answer that.? We said, ?Why?? He said, ?Because they won?t let me.? And, he pointed to Baker, Meese, and Deaver, standing behind, very grim. ?They won?t let me.? And I said, ?But, you?re the president!?”
On George H.W. Bush: ?I think at the tale end, both he and Mrs. Bush began to really think that we were the cause of all their troubles. So the press was not liked at all.?
On Bill Clinton: ?President Clinton didn?t understand that he was being denied his legitimacy as President by the ultra-right in this country, who never gave him one second, one moment where he could prevail. They were after him constantly, investigating him constantly .. I don?t understand how he possibly could?ve taken what he took. He was asked so many personal questions that I?ve never ? no president has ever been subjected to that kind of tyranny.?
On George W. Bush: ?When George Bush first became president, I think I attended two or three news conferences with him, and then I did get another question in, and there?s a blackout now, I believe, until the end of his term.?