A Story With a Few Holes
Portrait of Helen Thomas Obscures Flaws

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 18, 2008

"Thank You, Mr. President," an engaging HBO documentary about the career of journalist Helen Thomas, is a fine little film as far as it goes. It goes only as far as 38 minutes, actually -- quite short for a biographical project. HBO calls it a "documentary short," but did it start out that way? One can't help wondering if the film was shortened in the final edit to obscure a blemish or two on Thomas's celebrated career -- the documentary equivalent of cosmetic surgery.

In the film (premiering at 9 tonight), Thomas is profiled as the strong-willed, proudly opinionated and pioneering Washington institution that she is. No word mincer by a long shot, Thomas refers to George W. Bush bluntly as "the worst president in American history" in a clip from a CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer. But she can't be accused of party partisanship, expressing fondness for Ronald Reagan, albeit mitigated ("very affable -- but very, very distant"), and disappointment in Jimmy Carter ("missed his calling . . . would have been a great minister").

The first woman to open and close presidential news conferences (hence the title), the first woman member and president of the White House Correspondents' Association, even the first woman to sexually integrate the Gridiron Club (President John F. Kennedy refused to attend the annual dinner if the group continued to exclude women), Thomas has certainly had the proverbial front-row seat to history, which is just where she wanted to be.

"There's nothing that can replace 'being there' for a reporter," she tells the film's director, Rory Kennedy (JFK's niece, as it happens). "It was my determination and desire to watch history in the making." A montage near the film's beginning shows how many administrations Thomas has covered, as we see the oath of office taken by Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Bush 43, all edited together into one continuous sequence.

Lyndon B. Johnson isn't there because he first took the oath on an airplane, and Gerald R. Ford -- well, you know. But Thomas covered them, too, doggedly and undaunted even when, in more recent times, access to presidents has been sharply curtailed.

She is, however, no longer a reporter. She quit United Press International, her longtime employer, when it was purchased by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon -- finding him a politically inappropriate boss -- and now works as a columnist for the Hearst papers. The column is not widely carried or frequently quoted, but it keeps her in the fray, where she wants to be. She's a remarkable example of persistence, tenacity and guts; having been cited as a "pinhead" by Fox pit bull Bill O'Reilly puts her in very good company.

What's disappointing about Thomas, and troubling about the film, is her stridency in criticizing Israel and defending its enemies. Other than a passing reference to Thomas's parents as having been Syrian immigrants, the film never hints at Thomas's anti-Israeli rhetoric. In her writings, she's already dismissed both John McCain and Barack Obama as being friendly to Israel and hostile to the Palestinians, "so the Israelis have no worries about the November election."

Especially during the current administration, her "questions" at press briefings have been more like tirades, on one occasion prompting Tony Snow, the late journalist who was then press secretary, to respond, "Well, thank you for the Hezbollah view." This would have been a pertinent and amusing clip to include in the film. Not for nothing was Thomas recently hailed as "the epitome of journalistic integrity for over 57 years" -- by the Arab American News.

When controversies are a large part of a person's career, it's reasonable to expect even an adulatory documentary at least to mention them. "Thank You, Mr. President" could easily have included both sides -- Thomas attacked and Thomas defended. Even attacking the attackers would have been more honest than ignoring the matter altogether.

None of this means the documentary isn't worth watching. It's well made, buzzes along without a lull, and replays some golden moments of modern political history, like Nixon saying, "Well, I'm not a crook" or, for that matter, Thomas herself at the Gridiron Club dinner singing "Gerri From Queens" (to the tune of "La donna รจ mobile") in honor of guest Geraldine Ferraro.

Her accomplishments are formidable, and that she remains active in her 80s is impressive. She's also brave enough to chastise fellow journalists -- for supporting the Iraq war in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and abetting what she considers the right-wing persecution of Bill Clinton. Thomas is an individual with strong opinions; it's too bad that Kennedy chose to tippy-toe around some of them.

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