Helen Thomas, longtime member of the White House press corps, certainly qualifies for national icon status. For many Americans, she has been a permanent fixture of presidential press conferences, the lady in the front row who not only opened and closed the event but who also often asked the pushiest questions. Not surprisingly, where some see a grand dame, others see a crank -- but no one can deny her significance.
“Sixty Years. Nine Presidents. One Fearless Reporter” runs the advance for “Thank You, Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House,” which premieres on HBO tonight. Impressive credentials and precisely the sort that calls out for a nice meaty documentary. So it comes as a shock that the film runs less than 40 minutes and is bafflingly slight.
This doesn’t mean, however, it isn’t worth watching. The piece is built around a single interview filmed by documentarian Rory Kennedy at her mother Ethel Kennedy’s home and it is, by turns, funny and occasionally enlightening.
Thomas has spent time with every president from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush and so, of course, she has her stories, her opinions of each of them. Jimmy Carter “missed his calling” as a minister, Lyndon Johnson simply did not have the courage to pull out of Vietnam, Bill Clinton was hounded like no president has ever been, and Kennedy was the first leader to “manage” the news, she explains.
The photos are great, with Thomas almost Forrest Gump-like in her political ubiquity. More interesting are the scattered but still illuminating glimpses into the rarefied world of the White House press corps. Ever since Watergate, the White House press corps has been accused of being too close to its subject, too much a part of the inner-Beltway social circle to be objective.
Thomas certainly personifies the difficulties of remaining hard-nosed with people you have to deal with every day, people you might actually like or even pity. She describes the day President Nixon opened a press conference by congratulating her on becoming the first woman to be named head of UPI’s Washington bureau. She wondered how seemly it would be to follow this gracious moment with a tough question about Nixon’s alleged perjury. She solved the dilemma, she says, by asking the question but feeling bad about it.
Thomas is undoubtedly one of the last of a breed, the Tough Broad. When Rory Kennedy asks her if she ever used her sexuality to get a story, Thomas dissolves into laughter. She’s also a bastion of Old Journalism -- “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out,” she quips -- a reporter who believes that the main job of the press corps is cutting the president down to size.
Clip after clip shows her asking the hard questions of each president, no matter what their politics or personality. Though she decries the attacks Clinton suffered from the right wing, she is sanguine about her own coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. “You couldn’t not cover it,” she says with a shrug. Unfortunately, these moments fly by, often with little or no organizational arc, and of Helen Thomas the person we learn almost nothing.
You come away from “Thank You, Mr. President” with a few good lines, a new image or two of various presidents and the desire to know much more about a clearly fascinating woman. It’s as if you had the good fortune to sit next to Helen Thomas for a few minutes at a cocktail party.