At his televised news conference last week, President George W. Bush deliberately snubbed several reporters he ordinarily calls upon, including journos from the Washington Post, Newsweek, and USA Today. But the most conspicuous recipient of the 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. freeze-out was longtime UPI reporter Helen Thomas, who has barbed and grilled every president since John F. Kennedy and almost always gets to ask a question. Bush pointedly ignored her.
Bush then dealt Thomas a second slight. By custom, Thomas concludes White House press conferences at the president's signal by saying, "Thank you, Mr. President." Bush denied her that supporting role, ending the conference with his own sign off, "Thank you for your questions," and flushing a decades-old White House custom.
Bush's slaps at Thomas are consistent with the psy-ops his information wranglers conduct day-in and day-out on the White House press corps. Bush's news conferences have become increasingly scripted, with the president calling on reporters from a preset list and refusing the follow-up questions that might trick him into saying something substantive. Press Secretary Ari Fleischer has lobotomized the White House press corps in official briefings by jawing more and more and saying less and less. (The smarter reporters play hooky these days rather than endure Fleischer obfuscations.) Last October, Fleischer maliciously tampered with the corps' self-esteem by reassigning seats in the briefing room. The new chart demoted scribes from Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report from the Park Place of the second row to the Siberia of the sixth. (Pressies live for their little perks, and the White House reporters revealed their Ted Baxterian pettiness for all to see when they bellyached about the reshuffle.)
But the reason behind Bush's double dissing of Thomas isn't directly related to his basic contempt for White House beat reporters. Bush ignored Helen Thomas because she is no longer the Helen Thomas of yesteryear, a deadline artist writing news for tens of millions of UPI readers. She left the waning wire in silent protest, after convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon's News World Communications rescued it from collapse in 2000, and took a job at the Hearst News Service. There, Helen Thomas the Pundit writes a sharply partisan syndicated White House column about what she thinks—as opposed to Helen Thomas the Reporter, who wrote about what she'd learned. How bad is the column? Only a couple of Hearst papers, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Houston Chronicle, publish her pieces with any regularity.
I dare say that if you were Bush or his handlers, you'd pass her over at a press conference, too. Her loathing for Bush is palpable. "This is the worst president ever," she told the Torrance, Calif., Daily Breeze in January. "He is the worst president in all of American history." Though Thomas never masked her crush on Democrats when she worked as a news writer, she comes completely out of the closet in her columns, ripping "Bush's headlong drive into war, his favor-the-rich economic policy and his campaign to put right-wing ideologues on the Supreme Court." As the child of Lebanese immigrants, Thomas knows exactly which religious button she's pushing when she repeatedly condemns Bush's plans for war on Iraq as a "crusade."
But Thomas' opinion columns are a model of restraint when compared with the snarky speeches she delivers in lieu of asking questions at White House briefings. In the past, Ari Fleischer usually gave Thomas first shot, and in recent weeks she rode a constant theme:
Thomas to Fleischer: Will you state for the record, for the historical record, why [Bush] wants to bomb Iraqi people?
—March 5, 2003
Thomas to Fleischer: [W]hy is [Bush] going to bomb them? I mean, how do you bomb people back to democracy? This is a question of conquest. They didn't ask to be "liberated" by the United States. This is our self-imposed political solution for them.
—Feb. 26, 2003
Thomas: At an earlier briefing, Ari, you said that the president deplored the taking of innocent lives. Does that apply to all innocent lives in the world?
Fleischer: Well, Helen—
Thomas: And I have a follow-up.
Fleischer:—I refer specifically to a horrible terrorist attack in Tel Aviv that killed scores and wounded hundreds. And the president, as he said in a statement yesterday, deplores in the strongest terms the taking of those lives and the wounding of those people, innocents in Israel.
Thomas: My follow-up is, why does he want to drop bombs on innocent Iraqis?
—Jan. 6, 2003
Thomas' talent for speechifying at news conferences dates to her career as a reporter. The day after the allies started bombing Iraq in 1991, President George H.W. Bush denounced Hussein's Scud attack against Israel in a news conference. Back then, Thomas had a very different idea of who qualified as an "innocent civilian."
Thomas: Mr. President, two days ago you launched a war, and war is inherently a two-way street. Why should you be surprised or outraged when there is an act of retaliation?
Bush I: Against a country that's innocent and is not involved in it? That's what I'm saying.
Thomas: Well ...
Bush I: Israel is not a participant. Israel is not a combatant, and this man has elected to a—to launch a terrorist attack against the population centers in Israel with no military—no military design whatsoever. And that's why. And it is an outrage and the whole world knows it and the whole world is—most of the countries of the world are speaking out against it. There can be no—no consideration of this in anything other than condemnation.
Bested by Bush, who was never particularly quick on his feet, Thomas changes the subject with a new speech.