When Veteran White House Correspondent Helen Thomas was visited by President Barack Obama in the White House’s press briefing room on Tuesday, as the two celebrated their birthdays on the same day, Thomas was not bashful telling the president that her birthday wish was for “world peace, no prejudice and a real health care reform bill.”
It turns out the occasion was only the second time President Obama has invited Thomas to speak to him since being sworn in sixth months ago, and Thomas is definitely not happy about that.
Speaking to an audience of 60 gathered at the office of the Falls Church News-Press for its annual summer social mixer last Thursday, Thomas said Obama’s election has had an enormous significance for African-Americans and for the world as a whole, but she’s not been happy that Obama has kept the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is equally upset by Obama’s control of the press corps.
She assailed the president’s practice of deciding ahead of time who we will call on at presidential press conferences, even being so blatant as to hold up a seating chart to help him identify who he intends to call on next.
She did not suggest that the president had cleared in advance questions that might be put to him, but the choreographing of his Q and A process has her, as a veteran journalist, very concerned.
It’s not just that the president has called on her only once, she said. The one time he did, she asked him which countries in the Middle East have nuclear weapons. She said his answer was evasive, stating only that his response would be “speculative.”
Thomas is of Lebanese descent, and in addition to her long and passionately-held liberal views, prides herself on her long Washington career breaking down the professional barriers to full female representation in the press corps. She was shown a photograph last Thursday, a gift to the News-Press, of a National Press Club banquet with the then-President Harry Truman in November 1945, where everyone in the room was a white male.
She said it was not until 1959, when Soviet President Khrushchev was visiting Washington, D.C., that the efforts of her and others prevailed to allow a small group of women into a press conference. It was not until 1972 that women were allowed to be members of the National Press Club.
She’s been covering presidents in the White House since the days of JFK. For years as the dean of the White House press corps when with United Press International, Thomas would sit front-and-center at presidential press conferences when the tradition was to invite the first two questions from her and the chief White House correspondent from the Associated Press.
But when the Unification Church (the Moonies) bought United Press International in 2000, Thomas quit and signed on with the Hearst Newspapers. She’s continued her steadfast role in the White House press briefing room, although under George W. Bush she was relegated to a back row seat.
The Falls Church News-Press began carrying her weekly column in January 2004, and is the only newspaper in the D.C. area to have carried it weekly both in print and on line since that time. Thomas first appeared at a News-Press sponsored event in July 2004.
Last Thursday, despite almost turning 89, she was sharp as a tack and very pointed in her views, taking questions from the audience standing and sitting around her in the News-Press office’s main room for over an hour. Speaking into a small, hand-held microphone, she recalled dates, names and places dating back to the end of World War II.
She said her main criticism of Obama is allowing the wars to go on in Iraq and Afghanistan, basically suggesting he was caving to the pressures of the military. She also expressed concern for how Obama’s universal health care initiative might be watered down too much.
But she said that “every African-American citizen is standing taller and more self-assured” because of Obama’s victory. She praised the president for his vision, saying that in her opinion, he needs more resolve to carry it out.
Thomas said the Bush administration invaded Iraq for “oil and Israel,” but that in her view, there is simply no reason to be there.
Asked how she thinks universal health care would be paid for, she quipped, “You pay for it the same way you pay for Social Security and Medicare. You pay from the moment you are born. It’s the same idea.”
She said that many among the White House press corps feel manipulated by the White House, but are too willing to “play ball” and to “go along to get along.”