A Doubting Thomas
Sunday, August 17, 2008
Helen Thomas has covered nine presidents, becoming such a fixture at the White House she's been dubbed "first lady of the press." Now Thomas, 88, reminisces about her career in a new HBO documentary that traces her journey, from a Detroit childhood as the daughter of immigrants to her work as White House correspondent.
"Asking questions of presidents has always been a huge responsibility" for Thomas, said filmmaker Rory Kennedy, whose uncle was the first president Thomas interviewed at the White House. "She feels that if she doesn't ask the question, it won't get asked."
In the program, Thomas recalls her career as a White House correspondent for United Press International and, later, Hearst newspapers. The special includes vintage video and photos of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and the current President Bush, along with Thomas's verbal sparring in presidential press conferences.
Thomas's personal story is similarly compelling, Kennedy said.
"Her parents couldn't read or write, and here is this woman who moved to Washington, where she didn't know anybody, and made a life for herself," Kennedy said.
Kennedy talks with Thomas in the documentary but does not appear on camera.
"She has incredible recall," Kennedy said. "She tells very specific stories and has great insight about life and presidents."
Kennedy spent five days interviewing Thomas.
"When I walked the streets of Washington with her, there were always people following us, wanting to say something to her," Kennedy said. "Helen represents something beyond who she is, and people are aware of that."
The documentary includes 1971 film of first lady Pat Nixon "scooping" Thomas in announcing the correspondent's engagement to Associated Press reporter Douglas Cornell.
"Helen had confided her engagement to Pat," Kennedy said. "That's a great moment, showing the kind of relationship journalists then had with presidents, the access."
MR. PRESIDENT: HELEN THOMAS AT THE WHITE HOUSE
Monday, 9 p.m., HBO