The George Interview
By Nancy Collins
For four decades, she was the tiny woman who asked the
toughest questions at presidential press conferences. As a UPI
reporter, Helen Thomas, 80, put the wire service and herself
on the political map, chasing down presidents from Kennedy to
Clinton. Though she left UPI and the White House beat to
write a column for the Hearst Syndicate, she still has plenty to
say about 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, especially its newest
occupant, George W. Bush. Thomas came to Washington
during World War II, determined to be a reporter. Her fierce
tenacity opened doors not only for her but for all female reporters.
Along the way, she even found time to get married—at age 51,
to AP reporter Doug Cornell. “He was sensitive, handsome,
and made a good martini,” says Thomas.
Looking back, she admires JFK the most. Looking forward,
she calls President W. lucky: “Yes, George W., there is a Santa Claus.”
YOU HAVE COVERED SEVEN PRESIDENTS. HOW
DID ELECTION 2000 MATCH UP WITH OTHERS YOU HAVE SEEN?
Shocking. We have a president who was appointed by the
Supreme Court, not chosen by the will of the American people.
The stopping of counting the people’s votes was the bottom
line…for the Supreme Court to uphold it, make it a
DID YOU EVER EXPECT TO SEE SOMETHING LIKE THIS?
Of course not. Who could have? I want to say that “Yes,
George W., there is a Santa Claus.”
HOW WILL THE MESSY OUTCOME AFFECT BUSH?
The crown is not going to rest easily on George W. Bush’s
head until he can prove that he is truly accepted by the
American people, which will take some doing. Even though he
considers himself a schmoozer, a high-fiver, a “Hail, fellow,
well met,” the presidency requires a little bit more than that. If
the impression is that “I’ll rely on my advisers” for everything…
people will really wonder who is out front. I’ll rely on my
advisers is code for: “They will do my thinking for me.”
IS IT SURPRISING TO YOU THAT GEORGE W. HAS
ONLY BEEN OUT OF THE U.S. THREE OR FOUR TIMES?
Nothing shocks me about him. He is apparently happier in
Midland, Texas, than he has ever been in Washington. His
father was interested in foreign affairs; you’d think he would
have worshiped at his shrine, that sitting at the dinner table he
would have picked up an interest in foreign affairs. But forget
the travel. What is he curious about in this life? What is he
trying to learn while he is here? How could he have a
teacher-librarian wife and not be curious?
HOW DO YOU THINK GORE WAS TREATED?
Badly. The media was very tough on him and not so on Bush.
They should have pressed George W. a lot more. On personal
subjects, he cut off the questions and the press didn’t pursue it:
“Now that you have finally admitted to one arrest, how many
did you actually have?” I don’t know if he was even asked.
We want to know who our new president is.
WHY WAS THE MEDIA SO LENIENT ON HIM?
A lot of them liked him, and there were too many rookies on
that campaign. The old-timers didn’t want to go through the
ordeal; there were no pros, so Bush, his whole media
operation, got away with a lot. He makes a statement, walks
out, no follow-up allowed. Bush got a free ride; they were
much harder on Gore. The two did prove that the presidency is
worth fighting for. You can’t fault them for going to the mat
when election results are that razor-thin. However, when Gore
gets 400,000-plus more votes, that is the will of the people.
IT LOOKS LIKE BUSH MAY CONTINUE KEEPING THE PRESS AT BAY.
He is controlled, and will be much more circumspect.
WHAT PART DOES LUCK PLAY IN SOMEONE WINNING THE PRESIDENCY?
Everything. How did Bush get there? If that isn’t luck, what is?
The Senate Republicans were determined to get Clinton out of
office until they read the polls. Luck is everything. It’s the
Bridge of San Luis Rey.
COMPARED WITH OTHER PRESIDENTS, HOW DOES CLINTON RANK?
A very good president. His heart was in the right place; he was
a man of peace. Look at the Balkans, Northern Ireland, the
Middle East. Of course, his transgressions certainly hurt his
legacy, but frankly this man has not known one second in the
White House when he was not being investigated. His enemies
are relentless, their reaction visceral.
WAS HE TREATED WORSE OR BETTER THAN
THE OTHER PRESIDENTS YOU COVERED?
Oh, this was human tyranny. Even Nixon got a clean shave
when he came in.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT CLINTON THAT TRIGGERS SUCH IRE?
You tell me. I asked his opponents, and they went apoplectic.
They can’t explain it; it’s not rational. It comes from the gut.
WHAT ABOUT HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH THE PRESS?
When he and Mrs. Clinton came into the White House, they
had big chips on their shoulders against the press corps—they
were going to make end runs around us, have town meetings,
go on Larry King Live, but not talk to us. I thought, What
fools. How could they not know that at two o’clock in the
morning, when something is breaking, we are the ones who are
going to be there? You don’t go out and hold a town meeting.
It took two years of total chaos, until Leon Panetta and David
Gergen set things straight. Until then, the Clinton administration
was amateur hour.
DID YOU POINT OUT THEIR INEXPERIENCE?
I screamed at everybody all the time. Like George
Stephanopoulos. He would close the press secretary’s office
door, wouldn’t let us come in, then made the mistake of putting
the briefings on television. I said, “Close the press secretary’s
door? If we can’t ask a question, we don’t need a press
secretary!” I screamed from coast to coast, and
Stephanopoulos had to change it.
WHAT DID STEPHANOPOULOS WANT?
He wanted control.
WHEN YOU FOUND OUT CLINTON HAD LIED DURING THE
MONICA LEWINKSY SCANDAL, HOW DID YOU FEEL?
All presidents lie.
IT COMES WITH THE JOB?
Can I retract that? [Laughs]
IT’S TOO GOOD, HELEN, I’M NOT GOING TO LET YOU.
They don’t all lie, but they don’t all tell the truth. No president
tells the truth all the time.
YOU’VE NEVER KNOWN A PRESIDENT WHO TOLD ONLY THE TRUTH?
WERE YOU THERE THE DAY CLINTON SAID,
“I DIDN’T HAVE SEXUAL RELATIONS WITH THAT WOMAN”?
WHAT DID YOU THINK?
I almost believed him because he said it so strongly. I don’t
know how he could have said it like that if it wasn’t true.
PERHAPS HE HAD CONVINCED HIMSELF THAT IT WASN’T.
You hit it on the head. He convinced himself—that’s exactly
how he has rationalized his whole life.
WHAT’S IN CLINTON’S MAKEUP THAT ALLOWED
HIM TO GET THROUGH ALL THE CRITICISM?
He believed in himself, had confidence that he was worth it.
During the impeachment, the one thing he had going for him
was that the American people did not want him removed from
office. Otherwise, Congress would have sent him packing.
WHY DID THE PUBLIC STAND BY HIM?
Because they like him, know he means well. And look what he
did for the economy—the unprecedented prosperity. Bill
Clinton never gets credit for anything.
A LOT OF PEOPLE HAVE BEEN TARGETED, PERHAPS UNFAIRLY,
IN THE WHITE HOUSE, LIKE NANCY REAGAN.
Yes. I take my hat off to Nancy. The year Reagan had to go
underground because of Iran-Contra, she took over, stood
there, the front person for the whole White House, answering
our questions. Nancy Reagan saved her husband from
impeachment in my opinion.
SO WHY DID SHE AROUSE SUCH RESENTMENT?
She came in as Rodeo Drive, interested only in high fashion,
expensive china, and .taking care of Ronnie. It took a year for
her and her coterie to realize that this was hurting her,. and his
possibility of re-election. When she started a crusade against
drug abuse, her popularity shot up.
HOW DID YOU FEEL ABOUT BARBARA BUSH?
She was great copy—a hip shooter, said what came to her
mind, didn’t suffer fools gladly. I saw more zeal in her trying to
get her son elected than during the tail end of the Bush
administration, when she seemed ambivalent about wanting
another four years in the White House
PAT NIXON REMAINS, PERHAPS, THE MOST
MYSTERIOUS FIRST LADY.
I loved her. She was not Plastic Pat. She was human, warm; in
fact, the warmest of all the first ladies I covered. She made a
great contribution, opened the doors of the White House wider
than any other first lady, which she always thought she didn’t
get credit for.
WHAT ABOUT HER RELATIONSHIP WITH NIXON?
He should have been nicer to her. I know that she loved him
and he, her. I never heard a man sob as painfully as he did at
her funeral. It was as though the whole heavens had broken,
opened up. It was almost as though . . . I mean, the retribution.
HOW COULD NIXON HAVE BEEN BETTER TO HER?
Her instincts for doing the right thing were much better than his.
If she had been listened to, like Nancy Reagan, she could have
saved him. But he stayed isolated, didn’t open the doors for
her. His palace guard kept her away from him.
DID YOU LIKE RICHARD NIXON?
Nixon always had two roads to go, and always took the wrong
one. In choices between right and wrong, he did the wrong
thing. During Watergate, I gave a speech and a man asked,
“When did you first know that Nixon was lying?” I said, “In
1946,” shocking myself, because it was an automatic reflex.
But that was my impression of Nixon from the moment he went
LYNDON JOHNSON WAS DECISIVE, WASN’T HE?
Very. Johnson monogrammed our society with “LBJ.” He was
brilliant, but absolutely insecure. Johnson had a stable of
speech writers. One day, he asked for a speech and when the
man delivered the first draft, Johnson said, “Aristotle?
Aristotle! People I’m talking to don’t know who Aristotle is!”
And he grabbed a pen, scratched out Aristotle, and wrote in:
“As my dear old Daddy used to say . . . ”
HOW DID HE FEEL ABOUT THE PRESS?
Love/hate. Johnson had to have people around him, and
sometimes we became “people.” He’d call, “Want to take a
walk around the South Lawn?” and we’d follow, falling all over
each other—those were the days when you wore high heels
with pointy toes. Johnson spoke a mile a minute in a very
sadistic whisper, invariably. announcing at the end, “By the
way, this is all off the record.”
DID YOU EVER STOP YOURSELF AND WONDER,
HOW DID I GET HERE? AFTER ALL, YOUR
PARENTS WERE LEBANESE IMMIGRANTS, WHO
COULD NEITHER READ, WRITE, NOR SPEAK
I’m still in awe that my parents were able to make that break.
My father, trying to escape the oppression of the Turks, came
over at 17 with a few cents in his pocket. He returned later for
my mother—it was an arranged marriage—and my parents
moved to Winchester, Kentucky, where I was born.
HOW DID YOUR DAD EARN A LIVING?
He started with a pushcart, ending up with a grocery store on
Main Street. In 1924, when the auto boom started in Detroit,
we moved there, though my father never went on the assembly
line; instead, he opened another grocery store. He bought a
few pieces of property, saved money—and us—during the
Depression. We never were on relief; in fact, he didn’t just
feed us, he fed our whole neighborhood. Because I remember
the Depression—I was 10—I don’t want to privatize any part
of the Social Security surplus.
WHAT WAS YOUR MOTHER LIKE?
A total mother, always there, always cooking, washing,
cleaning . . . a tremendous sense of justice, which my brothers
and sisters and I. inherited. It’s part of my adrenaline. They
say, “What keeps you going?” I say, “Outrage.”
DID YOU TALK ABOUT POLITICS AT HOME?
All the time. We were so proud when my father first voted, put
an “X” for FDR in 1932.
WAS IT A GIVEN THAT YOU WOULD GO TO
Yes, come hell or high water. And we all did. My parents
thought education was everything.
WERE YOU A GOOD STUDENT?
Not really, because my studies were always extracurricular to
my work on the school paper. When I was a sophomore, I
saw my byline in the high school paper and I said, “This is it,
man.” I loved the newsroom collegiality, you could be nosy
forever. From then on, I had a one-track mind, and my parents
never said, “Reporting is a man’s field.” But then, I was always
a liberated woman.
YOU CAME TO WASHINGTON AT THE HEIGHT OF
WORLD WAR II, AFTER GRADUATING FROM
DETROIT’S WAYNE STATE UNIVERSITY.
I thought, Washington is where the big story is, so I arrived,
started knocking on doors, finally landed a job as a copy girl at
the Washington Daily News in 1942. Within eight months, I
became a cub reporter, working around great editors, war
correspondents coming and going, bells always ringing on the
TeleType machine. I felt I was in the epicenter, even though I
was low man on the totem pole. Because the be-all and
end-all. for me was being a reporter—I had no further
NEVERTHELESS, BY 1955 YOU WERE WORKING
FOR UPI, COVERING THE JUSTICE
I was thrilled. I wanted to get on a big story, and everything
came to Justice. But what really opened the doors for me was
becoming president of the Women’s National Press Club in
1959, which led me to the White House. With the Kennedy
years, UPI wanted more reporters at the White House, and I
YOU ALSO HELPED INTEGRATE THE NATIONAL
PRESS CLUB, WHICH AT THE TIME WAS ALL
Yes. When Eisenhower invited Khrushchev to come to
Washington, every press club in town fired off a cable to
Moscow saying, “We would love to have Nikita Khrushchev
address our group.” Traditionally, all heads of state spoke to
the National Press Club. Knowing this, the women’s press club
invited Krushchev, saying: “It’s totally unfair to put the leader
of the Soviet Union where women reporters cannot go.” So we
fought and the NPC conceded, letting 30 women for the first
time in history sit and eat lunch with the men.
HOW DID YOU FEEL THAT DAY?
Great. I dressed to the nines, and Khrushchev paid special
attention to me. He said that I looked like a woman from
Georgia, in the Soviet Union, and he got my picture taken. That
day he gave his famous speech, saying, “We will bury you,” so
it was especially thrilling to be there.
SO WERE WOMEN ALLOWED MEMBERSHIP
INTO THE NATIONAL PRESS CLUB AFTER THAT?
No, the doors didn’t truly open until 1971. Even at the Justice
Department, when I’d cover, say, the attorney general making
a speech, I couldn’t go unless I sat in the balcony—while the
AP man was sitting right in front of him.
THAT MUST HAVE BEEN GALLING.
I’ve been galled all my life! So unjust! Unfair! A young woman
once asked me: “Were you ever discriminated against?” I said,
“Where did you drop .in from, Mars?”
BUT IT DIDN’T STOP YOU.
Why should it stop me?
DID YOU HAVE TO BE STRIDENT?
I certainly wasn’t coy. I was probably pretty pushy because it’
s important to be up front, even if you have to elbow your way.
The men thought I was very aggressive. They might have
thought, Who is she? But otherwise you miss the story.
HAVE YOU ALWAYS HAD THE COURAGE TO ASK
POINTED, GUTSY QUESTIONS?
I didn’t know it was courage. I thought it was what you were
supposed to do. The question is important—whether or not
they answer it, spit on you, try to give you a karate chop, the
question itself is important.
YOU HAVE SAID THAT YOUR FAVORITE
PRESIDENT WAS JOHN F. KENNEDY. WHY?
He was the most inspiring—anyone who would say, “We are
going to land men on the moon in a decade” truly has vision.
He understood that the American people could never stand
still, that we always have to move forward, keep learning.
YOU STAKED OUT THE HOSPITAL WHEN JOHN
JR. WAS BORN, DIDN’T YOU?
Yes. Kennedy came twice a day to see Jackie and the baby. I
always thought of a question and buttonholed him. I asked if he
wanted his son to grow up to be president.
WHAT DID HE SAY?
He said, “I just want him to be healthy.” I’ll never forget that. It
is very poignant.
DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME YOU MET HIM?
Yes, at a party at the Pakistani Embassy in the early 1950s.
Kennedy was there with Washington Senator Henry “Scoop”
Jackson—they used to run around together when Kennedy.
was single. I was with my pal, Elenie Epstein, fashion editor at
the Washington Star. Anyway, I danced with Kennedy, and
later, he took me home in a little flibber.—all very on the
up-and-up. The next day, Elenie. called and asked, “How was
it?” I said, “I thought he was rather dull.” [Laughs] Boy, did I
ever have to live those words down.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE COVERING THE ASSASSINATION?
For four days, nobody slept. I was standing on the steps of St.
Matthew’s. Cathedral when Jackie walked out of the church
with the kids, leaned down, whispered something to her son,
and I saw John John salute. I screamed to our photographer,
who got the best picture of all. I thought, This is truly the
moment of truth.
HOW DID YOU FIND OUT KENNEDY WAS DEAD?
I was in a restaurant with two friends—one of whom was Fran
Lewine of the AP—about to go off on vacation. Somebody at
the next table had a portable radio that was making a lot of
noise. I thought it was a football game until someone said
Kennedy had been shot. Fran and I ran out, leaving our friend
with the bill. At the office they said, “You’re on vacation.” I
said, “No, I’m not.”
YOU WITNESSED THAT FAMOUS SCENE OF BOBBY MEETING THE PLANE,
TAKING JACKIE’S HAND, THE CASKET BEING TAKEN FROM AIR FORCE ONE . . .
Exactly. Jackie getting off the plane with the spot of blood on
her pink Chanel. We could see everything. Merriam Smith, the
great UPI reporter, came off the plane with a fistful of copy. I
yelled to him that I had an open telephone line, so he handed
me the copy and I started reading it, dictating for one hour
everything that Smitty witnessed on the plane, the swearing in of LBJ.
HOW DID YOU FEEL AT THAT MOMENT?
Like everybody felt, totally devastated. But at the same time,
you had to work. It was, “I’ll think about it tomorrow, I can
stand it then.” I was crying and dictating, but we knew we had
to carry on.
WHAT WAS THE MOST DESPERATE EVENT. YOU
COVERED AT THE WHITE HOUSE?
Watergate. Everything was in limbo. It was darkness at noon in
the pressroom for six months. You knew Nixon was going to
fall, but you didn’t know when. He was no longer viable;
nothing he could do could put Humpty Dumpty back together
again. It was as inexorable as a Greek tragedy.
WHERE HAVE YOU SEEN WOMEN AND WOMEN’S
RIGHTS GO IN THE PAST 60 YEARS?
One of the first columns I wrote for Hearst was about the
deafening silence of women during the 2000 campaign. They
didn’t speak out at all—and not just in terms of Hillary.
Women did not get involved. They hit a plateau during the
Reagan era and began retreating, got scared off, and haven’t
come out of hiding since.
I don’t know. When the country went conservative during
Reagan, it affected all aspects of social life. I’ve been a
women’s libber since the day I was born and will be until the
end. In the Reagan/Bush era, to be a liberal was to be a leper.
They wouldn’t just say the word “liberal,” they would hiss it.
“Are you a liberal?” [Hisses]
HAVING ACHIEVED A LITTLE, WOMEN GOT COMPLACENT?
They forgot the legacy. Whenever I talk to young women, I
say, “Never stop fighting until we have equality in. the
workplace. And if you think that we already do, I suggest you
go out and try to find work.” We have achieved a lot in
journalism, the J schools and newsrooms are almost 50/50, but
on the managerial side it is still surprising to see a woman as the
WHAT IS THE TOUGHEST QUESTION YOU EVER ASKED?
It was the height of Watergate, and I had just been promoted
to the UPI bureau chief. I came to a press conference armed
with a question that indicated the cover-up on the March 23
tape. Nixon started the news conference and suddenly began
praising me on my promotion, saying, “Congratulations.” I’m
standing there, thinking, “He’s being so nice, and I am going to
sock it to him.” I was torn, but I asked the question.
WAS THERE ANY CHANCE YOU WOULDN’T HAVE?
No. But you have moments when you think, Is it really fair?
Everybody wants to be liked, but that is not the criteria in
reporting. If you want to be liked, don’t go into this business.