Screw you, Mr. President.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
June 7 2010 1:43 PM

Screw You, Mr. President

Helen Thomas used to ask questions in press briefings. Now she makes speeches.

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Thomas: Why is it that any move formove for peace is considered an end run at the White House these days?
Bush I: Well, youyou obviouslywhat was the question? End run?
Thomas: Yes, that is considered an end run, that people who still want to find a peaceful solution seem to be running into a brick wall.

As someone practiced in the art of vitriol, I'd be the last to deny Thomas her right to extend a middle finger at the president. And as an 82-year-old, Thomas possesses more energy and exhibits a stronger work ethic than anybody on her beat. One reporter says she's the only person with any testosterone in the White House press room. She starts each day at 5:30 a.m., reading the newspapers at a coffee shop near the White House. She responds to e-mail and answers her own phone—although she's known to hang up quickly if she doesn't like the direction the conversation takes.

But she can't give Bush the what-for and expect the White House to treat her like the grande dame. And I don't think she does. For a crabby person with a big mouth, Thomas complains very rarely. When the Moon cult bought UPI, she left in protest but didn't trash the place on the way out. Nor has she griped about receiving Bush's cold shoulder. "That was his privilege, I guess," Thomas told the New York Observer. "I think he had a right to do that."

We could applaud her for stripping the varnish off standard-issue White House lies with her acerbic questions, but rarely are her questions tailored to produce an intelligent response from Fleischer. When you repeatedly ask the question, "Why does he want to drop bombs on innocent Iraqis?" you're mostly venting your spleen.

Not that Fleischer would give a useful answer to a direct question in any case. The same goes for his boss. White House briefings and presidential news conferences have become so ritualized and substanceless that many of the beat reporters have begun exhibiting all the classic symptoms of depression: guilt, worthlessness, pessimism, restlessness, and irritability.

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While Bush dislikes Thomas, he and his news managers are still savvy enough to recognize her usefulness to the administration. When Fleischer changed the seating chart in the briefing room last year, he could have exiled Thomas to the back row. Instead, he kept her down front, where he uses her as his foil, addressing her liberally by first name so other White House officials reading the transcript can chuckle to themselves—We're safe! It's another question from that wacky Helen Thomas. When Fleischer calls on her, he hopes she'll heckle him and savage Bush with her eccentric, combative, accusatory, and unreasonably phrased questions—because they're so easily evaded. "We will temporarily suspend the Q & A portion of today's briefing to bring you this advocacy minute," Fleischer responded to a line of Thomas questioning at the Feb. 26 press briefing. The moment of comic relief lifts Fleischer and soils Thomas.

Which brings us to the saddest part of Thomas' decline: She often raises serious questions that are on lots of people's minds—questions that other critical journalists in the press corps might want to pose. But when spoken by Thomas' lecturing lips first, the questions sound absurd. She ends up taking the air out of the room for intelligent criticism of the president and helps make the press corps look like a Saturday Night Live skit. You can almost hear Fleischer squealing behind closed doors after the briefings: Thank God for Helen Thomas!

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.