AUDIE CORNISH, host:
At a swanky Beltway cocktail party last week, journalists, politicians and Washington insiders gathered to mark a milestone for 89-year-old journalist Helen Thomas - her fiftieth year covering the White House. On this night, Thomas held court from a plush sofa where she scribbled her autograph on copies of her most recent book, Listen Up, Mr. President.
Ms. HELEN THOMAS (Journalist): I should sign it (unintelligible). You know Im the mad, mad woman.
CORNISH: Mad in the proper sense.
Its smiles all around now, but over the years, Thomas has inspired equal parts respect, fear and loathing from the other side of the lectern in the White House briefing room. Just ask B. Jay Cooper. He worked for President Reagan and the first President Bush.
Mr. B. JAY COOPER (Former Press Secretary): I used to be deputy press secretary at the White House. And when I started in 1989, Marlin Fitzwater who was the press secretary at the time said to me, now B. Jay when you come in, Helens going to be sitting on the bureau outside my office. I said yes, sir. He said shes going to ask you questions. So I said yeah. He says dont answer them. Dont say anything because anything you say will be the top of her story.
CORNISH: Thomas has tangled with dozens of press secretaries since the 1960s when she first started out. And her reputation for relentless questioning didnt change when she stepped down from her post at the Newswire United Press International in 2000 and became a columnist for the Hearst News Service.
In her 50 years in the White House Press Corps, shes covered 10 presidents and countless crises and scandals. The faces of those presidents actually greet Thomas in a giant mural painted on the side of her favorite Washington dinner haunt. Its a Middle Eastern restaurant called Mama Ayeshas where theres a salad on the menu that bears her name. Thomas told me about her special connection to the spot when we settled down at a table there to talk.
Ms. THOMAS: I put the key in the door with Mama Ayesha. That was 1960. We came in together when she was buying the place and taking over. Its kind of a one man operation at the time - one woman.
CORNISH: That was also back when Thomas was first reporting on presidential politics for UPI. President Eisenhower was still in office. John F. Kennedy was on the campaign trail, and Thomas was reporting features on the future first family.
Ms. THOMAS: But as soon as the president Kennedy was inaugurated, I was covering men, women, children, animals, everything at the White House.
CORNISH: Was it difficult to convince your editors to move you on to a campaign or to do more policy focus things at the time?
Ms. THOMAS: No, I was - sort of assigned myself. I was the man who came to dinner.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. THOMAS: I went a couple of times and they said, you know, I just indicated this is my beat and they took it.
CORNISH: Which presidents did you have the most difficulty covering?
Ms. THOMAS: All of them.
Ms. THOMAS: They hate the press really. They need the press during a campaign and they really work to get their attention. But after, once theyre in the White House the iron curtain comes down.
CORNISH: And what does that mean for your coverage? How do you shift gears, especially since theres instances in the past where youve been iced out by certain administrations?
Ms. THOMAS: Means that you have to struggle harder to convince them that this is the country with freedom of the press and every public official is very accountable. Everything they do is accountable to the American people and thats why were there. Were the watchdogs. And I think everything belongs to the public domain practically, except for where the atomic arsenal is.
CORNISH: Now, I also want to ask you about your 2006 book Watchdogs of Democracy, because in that book you do talk about the White House Press Corps failures. And for a group that youd run with and been the Dean of for so long, what were the things that were disappointing you at that time and how do you feel today?
Ms. THOMAS: A lack of guts when President Bush knew and announced that he was going to war. Nobody asked him why. I thought that was a great failing and we let the country down.
CORNISH: So what lessons do you think the reporters have learned from that period? Do you see a difference today?
Ms. THOMAS: Theyre getting tougher, a lot tougher. The questioning is much more penetrating. Theyre putting press secretaries on the spot. I think theyre tougher on the president, but he hasnt had many news conferences. Presidents dont like to have news conferences. Theyre president. How dare you question them or their motives?
CORNISH: Her questioning also draws fire from media critics and sometimes even fellow journalists who have complained of long and often combative questions. But reporters like Chip Reid with CBS say they appreciate her style.
Mr. CHIP REID (CBS News): I know that if its a day when we really need to be asking tough questions, she is going to have my back. That if Im asking a tough question and Gibbs is being evasive or smug, shes going to jump in, and shes going to help me. Because she is great with the one, two punch and she doesnt leave us out there hanging.
CORNISH: And some of her biggest admirers in the Press Corps are women, because when Helen Thomas began covering the White House, women journalists were nowhere near the front row. Thomas became the first woman to head a White House Bureau for a wire service, and she helped break down other barriers, including memberships and leadership positions in everything from the exclusive Gridiron Club and White House Corps Correspondents Association to the National Press Club.
At the party celebrating Thomass 50th year covering the White House, NPRs Cokie Roberts said access to those clubs is something women today take for granted.
COKIE ROBERTS: And, you know, sometimes you can laugh at those organizations, because they dont mean much today to people trying to get ahead in the business, but in that era, if you werent in that room, you couldnt get a story, you couldnt get ahead. And so for the women who fought to do that, it was a very, very important thing for them, and for all the women who came after them.
CORNISH: Thomas wouldnt be kept out of those rooms or any other, but she says women like the late Frances Lewine, her good friend and an AP wire reporter helped beat those doors down.
Ms. THOMAS: I didnt feel like I was, you know, Mother Teresa in any way, but I did resent the discrimination against women. And I fought against that, but we were, you know, it wasnt a one-person operation. I was very lucky to be with a lot of women who felt the same way.
CORNISH: Well, Helen Thomas, thank you so much for your patience. It was an honor to talk to you.
Ms. THOMAS: Thank you. Now well have drinks.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CORNISH: Well, depends whats your favorite drink?
Ms. THOMAS: Whatever you like.
CORNISH: Okay, gin and tonics all around.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. THOMAS: Good girl.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. THOMAS: Thats a great idea.
CORNISH: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Audie Cornish.
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