LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As a tireless questioner of authority and a consummate Washington insider, pioneering White House correspondent Helen Thomas has covered nine U.S. presidents over a span of nearly a half century.
Next week on cable network HBO, Thomas, 88, makes a rare appearance as an interview subject in a documentary produced and directed by filmmaker Rory Kennedy, whose uncle “Jack” was the first Oval Office occupant Thomas followed as a reporter.
The 38-minute profile, “Thank You, Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House,” features the journalist reflecting on her life, career, and devotion to the ideal that democracy thrives best when a vigilant press holds leaders accountable.
“I think that presidents deserve to be questioned, maybe irreverently, most of the time, (to) bring ‘em down a size,” the plain-spoken Thomas says of the particular role of the White House press corps.
On the other hand, she adds, “Access to a president doesn’t mean you’re gonna get the truth.”
It’s a simple but astute observation from a reporter who walked the line between West Wing insider — hobnobbing with presidents, their families and aides — and watchdog.
In one of her more colorful anecdotes, Thomas recounted how she forged ahead in posing a tough question to President Richard Nixon about the Watergate scandal moments after he had publicly congratulated her on being named the first female head of the White House bureau for United Press International.
But Thomas is quick to say that she and her colleagues were not always as alert as they should have been.
She recalls that it was not White House press corps that unearthed the Watergate burglary and cover-up hatched under their noses, but a pair of Washington Post city reporters.
“I think that’s one of her great regrets,” Rory Kennedy said of Thomas and the scandal that led Nixon to resign.
The 39-year-old filmmaker and daughter of the late U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy, won an Emmy Award last year for her documentary of Iraqi prisoner abuse, “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib.”
Kennedy said one surprise from working with Thomas was her conclusion that a president’s character is more important than policy stances or experience, especially in times of crisis.
The title of the Thomas documentary, which debuts on HBO on August 18, comes from Thomas’ longtime role as dean of the White House press corps in concluding presidential news conferences with the familiar phrase, “Thank you, Mr. President.”
She became both the first woman ever to open a presidential press conference and the first to close one, a privilege she first exercised when John Kennedy was in office.
“I could see President Kennedy was struggling. So, finally, I got up, and said, ‘Thank you, Mr. President.’ ... I got him off the hook,” she says in the film.
In another revealing vignette from a president remembered as “the great communicator,” Thomas recounted how Ronald Reagan once claimed he was unable to answer a question by pointing to his grim-faced aides and saying, “They won’t let me,” to which Thomas said she replied, “But you’re the president.”
Born to Syrian immigrants who could neither read nor write, Thomas recalled becoming hooked on journalism upon seeing her first byline in her high school newspaper.
She joined UPI, then United Press, in 1943 at a time when female journalists were treated as second-rate reporters, but by 1960 was covering President-elect Kennedy. Thomas remained at the White House until May 2000 and later became a columnist for Hearst News Service, for whom she covered George W. Bush.
In recent months, Thomas battled a colon infection and was released from a hospital on Wednesday. She expects to continue working from home, according to a statement from Hearst.