A Giant of Journalism Comes Up Short

By Dana Milbank
Monday, July 17, 2006; A13

WATCHDOGS OF DEMOCRACY?

The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Failed the Public

By Helen Thomas

Simon & Schuster, 215 pp., $25

Helen Thomas's new treatise, "Watchdogs of Democracy?," is really two books in one.

The first is a pleasant memoir about the Greatest Generation of journalists (her own), who covered the Second World War through the Kennedy and Johnson years: Ernie Pyle, Merriman Smith, Edward R. Murrow, James Reston and "Douglas Cornell of the Associated Press, my husband and an icon in wire-service wrap-up story writing."

The second is a rather unpleasant rehashing of the liberal criticism of the press's performance before the Iraq war. Here, Thomas departs from personal anecdote and merely recites some of the millions of words that have been devoted to the cause in previous books, articles and blogs. It is an effort unworthy of a woman who, whatever her late husband was, truly is a journalistic icon.

"Nothing is more troubling to me than the obsequious press during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq," she tells us, citing pulled punches at news conferences. "Critics are still wondering why White House reporters were so quiescent at President Bush's March 6, 2003, news conference, which was scripted and in which he made it eminently clear that the United States was going to war. . . . White House reporters became a laughingstock before the viewing public, who wondered about all the 'softballs' being pitched to the president at such a momentous time."

Really? Let's review some of the "softballs" that were tossed that night:

"If all these nations . . . have access to the same intelligence information, why is it that they are reluctant to think that the threat is so real, so imminent that we need to move to the brink of war now?"

"I wonder why you think so many people around the world take a different view of the threat that Saddam Hussein poses than you and your allies?"

"How would you answer your critics who say that they think this is somehow personal? As Senator Kennedy put it . . . your fixation with Saddam Hussein is making the world a more dangerous place."

"What went wrong that so many governments and people around the world now not only disagree with you very strongly, but see the U.S. under your leadership as an arrogant power?"

"There are a lot of people in this country . . . who still wonder why blood has to be shed if he hasn't attacked us."

"Do you ever worry . . . that this could lead to more terrorism, more anti-American sentiment, more instability in the Middle East?"

"What can you say tonight, sir, to the sons and the daughters of the Americans who served in Vietnam to assure them that you will not lead this country down a similar path in Iraq?"

This is quiescent and obsequious? Perhaps Thomas was hoping the White House press corps would be more like the one she describes covering John F. Kennedy:

"I began covering President Kennedy after the 1960 election. I never revised my opinion that he was the most inspired leader of the last half of the twentieth century. Although he had only a thousand days in office before he was assassinated on November 22, 1963, I felt that he had more than made his mark in history, if only through his eloquent speeches. But there was more: the creation of the Peace Corps; the signing of the first nuclear test ban treaty; and his goal to land men on the moon in a decade, a dream fulfilled after he died."

In the press room, she continues, "The atmosphere was chummy. Kennedy would walk through a large reception room where reporters and photographers lounged about and he would banter with us. His wit was ever ready, and he seemed to relish the give-and-take."

She goes on to mention that "I was invited to a state dinner as a guest by nearly every president I covered."

This is not to take anything away from Thomas's long and impressive career in the White House press corps. Neither should it be said that the press did a wonderful job in the run-up to war in Iraq; the self-critiques are voluminous.

But the press was hardly the only institution caught napping on the story of weapons of mass destruction (congressional oversight committees, Democratic leaders and a lethargic public come to mind). And the sort of questioning Thomas currently practices, amounting to argument more than query, is not the sort of questioning any generation of journalists practiced -- not even in the salad days of United Press International, before it collapsed and Thomas became a Hearst columnist.

Here's a sampling of Thomas's questions from White House briefings.

On Saddam Hussein and Iraq: "For 11 years he's been contained, and everybody knows that. . . . I don't think you should keep threatening war every day. . . . 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."

On Israel: "The road map has nothing to do with this fence being built on Palestinian land, 400 miles."

On Bush and former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: "Obviously he has no power with the man."

On Iran: "This is an opportunity to talk directly to Iran. . . . I'm sure the three other allies and so forth would be very happy if we talked directly to Iran."

Presidential press secretaries patronize her by repeatedly addressing her as "Helen" so her identity is clear in the transcript. "We will temporarily suspend the Q&A portion of today's briefing to bring you this advocacy minute," former press secretary Ari Fleischer said during a tussle with Thomas. Tony Snow dubbed her "Secretary of State Helen Thomas."

Still, her colleagues in the White House press corps admire her tenacity. They concluded that she was an institution and should keep her front-row seat even though she no longer worked for a wire service. They offered to defend her to the White House when Bush refused to call on her at news conferences.

Come to think of it, that's starting to sound like the "chummy" press corps in the day of that "most inspired leader," JFK.

Milbank covered the White House for The Washington Post during President Bush's first term and now writes Washington Sketch.

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