Helen Thomas, legendary White House reporter, died today.
Helen Thomas, whose keen curiosity, unquenchable drive and celebrated constancy made her a trailblazing White House correspondent in a press corps dominated by men and later the dean of the White House briefing room, died Saturday at home in Washington. She was 92.
Ms. Thomas covered every president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama for United Press International and, later, Hearst Newspapers. To her colleagues, she was the unofficial but undisputed head of the press corps — her status ratified by her signature line at the end of every White House news conference, “Thank you, Mr. President.”
I loved Helen Thomas. She was a reporter who wasn’t afraid to ask the tough questions – and to keep on asking them if she didn’t get a straight answer.
Back in 2004 I blogged about Helen’s unrelenting pursuit of White House spokesman Scott McClellan on Bush’s National Guard service. The Talking Points Memo report and video of the exchange is long gone, but thanks to the Internet Archive’s Wayback machine I resurrected a copy of the TPM account. She was relentless!
Scott McClellan seems intent on saying that a dental exam the president had at Dannelly Alabama Air National Guard base in January 1973 proves he fulfilled his Guard duty that year in Alabama.
That, of course, and the ambiguous pay stubs — a number of which seem to show he was in Texas.
This is, of course, all in addition to the fact that the president has gone back on his promise to just make this whole thing easy and release all his military service records — something he, through his aides, now refuses to do.
But look at this testy exchange this morning about whether the president was required to perform community service during the time he was in the Guard …
Q: Did the President ever have to take time off from Guard duty to do community service?
Scott McClellan: To do community service? I haven’t looked into everything he did 30 years ago, Helen. Obviously, there is different community service he has performed in the past, including going back to that time period —
Q: Can you find out if he actually had —
Scott McClellan: Helen, I don’t think we remember every single activity he was involved in 30 years ago.
Q: No, this isn’t an activity. Was he forced to do community service at any time while he was on —
Scott McClellan: What’s your interest in that question? I’m sorry, I just —
Q: Lots of rumors. I’m just trying to clear up something.
Scott McClellan: Rumors about what?
Scott McClellan: Rumors about what?
Q: About the President having to do community service while he was in the National Guard, take time out for that.
Scott McClellan: I’m not aware of those rumors. But if you want to —
Q: Could you look it up? Would you mind asking him?
Scott McClellan: That’s why I’m asking what’s your interest in that? I just don’t understand your interest in that.
Q: It’s what everybody is interested in, whether we’re getting the true story on his Guard duty.
Scott McClellan: Well, you have the documents that show the facts.
Q: I’m asking you to try to find out from the President of the United States.
Scott McClellan: Like I said, it’s well known the different jobs he had and what he was doing previously, that we know. That goes back to —
Q: I didn’t say “previously.” I said, while he was on Guard duty.
Scott McClellan: But you’re asking me about 30 years ago. I don’t think there’s a recollection of everything he was doing 30 years ago.
Q: Well, he would know if he had to take time out.
Scott McClellan: Again, I mean, the issue that was raised was whether or not the President was serving while he was in Alabama. Documents reflect that he
Q: Well, this is another issue.
Scott McClellan: — hold on — that he was serving in Alabama. That was the issue that was raised. We went through, four years ago, other issues related to this.
Q: So you won’t answer the question or you won’t try to find out?
Scott McClellan: Well, I’m asking you, what’s your interest in that question? I’m just curious, because rumors —
Q: Did he have to do any community service while he was in the National Guard?
Scott McClellan: Look, Helen, I think the issue here was whether or not the President served in Alabama. Records have documented —
Q: I’m asking you a different question. That’s permissible.
Scott McClellan: Can I answer your question? Sure it is. Can I ask you why you’re asking it? I’m just — out of curiosity myself, is that permissible?
Q: Well, I’m interested, of course, in what everybody is interested in. And we have a very —
Scott McClellan: Let me just point out that we’ve released all the information we have related to this issue, the issue of whether or not he served while in Alabama. Records have documented as false the outrageous —
Q: I asked you whether he had to do any community service while he was in the National Guard.
Scott McClellan: Can I walk through this?
Q: It’s a very legitimate question.
Scott McClellan: And I want to back up and walk through this a little bit. Let’s talk about the issue that came up, because this issue came up four years ago, it came up four years before that — or two years before that, it came up four years before that —
Q: Did my question come up four years ago, and was it handled?
Scott McClellan: Helen, if you’ll let me finish, I want to back up and talk about this —
Q: Don’t dance around, just give us —
Q: It’s a straightforward question.
Q: Let’s not put too fine a point on it. If I’m not mistaken, you’re implying that he had to do community service for criminal action, as a punishment for some crime?
Q: There are rumors around, and I didn’t put it in that way. I just —
Q: Could you take that question? I guess apparently that’s the question, that he had to take time out to perform community service —
Scott McClellan: That’s why I wanted to get to this because —
Q: — as a sentence for a crime.
Scott McClellan: No, that’s why I wanted to get to this because I want to step back for a second. I want to go back through a few things. Look, the — I think we’ve really exhausted the issue that came up. The issue that came up was related to whether or not he had served while he was in Alabama. Records have documented as false the outrageous, baseless accusation that he did not serve while in Alabama. The conspiracy theory of one individual, that the National Guard cleansed documents, has been discredited.
Q: How so?
Scott McClellan: Read The Boston Globe today.
Q: Well, we want answers from you, not —
Scott McClellan: Read the Boston Globe. No, the answers are from the people that would have knowledge of that. But read —
Q: Why do you think this person made those allegations?
Scott McClellan: Hang on, hang on.
Q: What? Just read The Boston Globe —
Scott McClellan: Just read The Boston Globe. Read The Boston Globe. I would draw your attention to that. What I think we’re seeing now is just politics. And we’re not going to engage in it, because there are great challenges facing our nation, and there should be an honest discussion of the actions the President is taking to make our world safer and better and make America more prosperous and secure.
You want me to go —
Q: — the personal record of a President is —
Scott McClellan: No, hang on, Helen, hang on. I’ve said from this podium, if we have new information that comes to our attention that relates to this issue, we have made it clear we will share that information. You’re asking me to go and chase rumors. There was a conspiracy theory —
Q: I think —
Scott McClellan: Hold on, hold on, Helen. There was a conspiracy theory made by one individual, when everybody he accused of being involved in that said, it’s ridiculous, didn’t happen.
Q: This is not based on a conspiracy theory.
Scott McClellan: And there was a lot of attention given to this individual, and he’s been discredited. There’s a Boston Globe article on it this morning. And there are some —
Q: That says what? Your point —
Scott McClellan: You can go read it. I mean, we’ve got other things to move on to. I mean, you can go read it. But there are some, unfortunately, who simply are not interested in the facts. Again, the documents — the records document that he did serve while in Alabama. And now there are people that are bringing up issues that were addressed four years ago.
Q: But you still haven’t answered Helen’s question. She asked you a simple question.
Scott McClellan: There are people that want to replay the 2000 campaign all over again, Bill, and —
Q: You still haven’t answered her question about community service.
Scott McClellan: — there are too many important — there are too many important policies and decisions that are being made that we need to discuss.
Q: Why does a “yes” or “no” elude you on this?
Scott McClellan: I didn’t say that. I said that these were all issues addressed four years ago. If there’s additional information —
Q: This issue quite obviously wasn’t addressed four years ago.
Scott McClellan: Oh, issues — these issues were addressed four years ago.
Q: This issue was? The community service issue was addressed four years ago?
Scott McClellan: The issues — the issues that we’re going to here —
Q: I don’t recall —
Scott McClellan: This is called chasing a rumor. And I’m not going to engage in this kind of politics, Bill.
Q: — finding out whether a rumor is true or false.
Scott McClellan: No, this issue, absolutely —
Q: Why can’t you say whether or not he performed community service?
Scott McClellan: Absolutely, this issue came up four years ago. And if you all want to play politics, then go call the RNC, call the campaign.
Q: The best defense is offense. We know that. Just, all you’ve got to say is you don’t know.
Scott McClellan: Helen, it was — this issue was addressed four years ago. I think people that were involved in the campaign will know —
Q: — if they know —
Scott McClellan: — that the issue that you’re trying to bring up was addressed four years ago. It’s about chasing rumors.
Q: It isn’t a question of four years ago. The issue has come up now, very large.
Scott McClellan: I’m not going to get into chasing rumors.
Scott McClellan: I’m not going to get into chasing rumors.
Q: So you refuse to answer the question?
Scott McClellan: You’re saying that people said he was forced to do something, and you’re asking me to chase a rumor.
Q: Everything is politics today, of course.
Q: She asked you a “yes” or “no” question.
Scott McClellan: Look, if you all want to — this is just politics. That’s what this is. And if there’s any more information I have to share with you all, I will always — I will do that.
Q: Scott, I have a question of this individual, and I confess, I haven’t read the Boston article. But who — what do you believe was this person’s motivation, that if they have been discredited, for making these allegations?
Scott McClellan: Just — I would read The Boston Globe. Everybody that he accused of being involved in this has said it was totally ridiculous. And there are others that —
Q: So are you saying — was it politically motivated?
Scott McClellan: There are others that are quoted in The Boston Globe today, that you might want to see what they said.
Q: Speaking of politics, has the President authorized his campaign —
Scott McClellan: And we’ve got to —
Q: — to release a video attacking Senator Kerry?
Scott McClellan: You need to talk — you need to talk to the campaign. But let me go to the week ahead because we’ve used up more than 15 minutes.
Q: So the President did authorize —
Q: Scott, I’ve got —
Scott McClellan: I’m going to go to the week ahead.
Houston, do we have a problem?
— Josh Marshall
Astonished to see a White House reporter who wasn’t a sycophant (see: David Gregory), I emailed her a short message expressing my thanks for actually performing something that resembled journalism, as opposed to the lapdog press people who surrounded her:
Date: Fri, 13 Feb 2004 16:19:31 -0500
From: Mark Turner
To: Helen Thomas
Thanks for all you do towards furthering journalism. I am pleased that there are still reporters out there who ask the tough questions.
Please keep it up!
To my amazement, she took a moment to write me back:
From: Helen Thomas
To: Mark Turner
Subject: Re: Thanks!
Date: Sun, 15 Feb 2004 15:30:04 -0500
thanks to you, helent
I will again say thanks, Helen, for all that you’ve done in holding our government accountable. You will be missed.