By Jon Ward
Sunday, June 13, 2010; B04
I ran into Helen Thomas a few minutes after she asked President Obama a question about Afghanistan during the last White House press conference she'd ever attend. She was clearly in distress. It was May 27 and oppressively hot, and Helen, 89 years old, was hanging onto the arm of another reporter for help as she walked in her slow shuffle along the White House's North Lawn driveway.
I fished an umbrella out of my backpack to help shade Helen from the brutal sun and handed it to the reporter with her. I then walked to 17th Street to hail a cab to take her home.
"You're an absolute angel," Helen said to me a few minutes later, as she sat down in the cab. I closed the door.
It wasn't until a few days ago, after the world learned of her comments that Israel should "get the hell out of Palestine" and that Jews should return to Poland and Germany, that it hit me. It was between the time that I saw her struggling in the sun and when she finally sat down in the cab -- precisely while I was hailing the taxi for her -- that she had run into Rabbi David Nesenoff, who asked her the question that doomed her career: "Any comments on Israel?"
The fact that Helen Thomas said what she did under pretty severe physical duress hardly excuses her offensive, anti-Semitic remarks, and the fact that she appeared to put her health in jeopardy simply by showing up for a press conference on a hot day was just one more sign that it was probably well past time for her to retire. In the aftermath of the outcry against her and her resignation, current and former White House reporters I spoke to agreed that Thomas no longer belonged in the modern White House press corps -- because of her age, in part, but also because of how she blurred the line between reporting and opinion.
"Helen had always been a tough, no-nonsense interrogator of presidents and press secretaries," said Ann Compton, who has reported on the past six presidents for ABC News. "About a decade ago, when she shed her role as reporter and began a career at Hearst as an opinion columnist, Helen's questions began to cross the line into advocacy."
I'd often had similar thoughts as I watched Thomas do her thing from the front row of the White House briefing room, but I never felt I had much of a right to say anything about a woman who, whatever her views, was a legend to journalists and feminists. But now, as her departure sparks a battle over which news organization will squat on that coveted real estate, I can't help but wonder: As zany and obvious as Thomas's journalism-turned-advocacy had become, is there something the White House press corps could learn from her attitude? In particular, are we too deferential to the Obama White House and press secretary Robert Gibbs?
A couple of incidents come to mind. At a briefing just one week after Obama's inauguration, for example, only two reporters pressed Gibbs for details about the president's knowledge of a drone strike in Pakistan -- the first military action of the new administration -- and they received no backing from colleagues in the room when he refused to discuss it. And more recently, in the June 3 briefing, Gibbs faced only a few scattered questions on the announcement by Colorado Senate candidate Andrew Romanoff that a top White House official had dangled three job possibilities in front of him should he drop his challenge to the incumbent Democrat, Michael Bennet.
I went to almost every briefing from the spring of 2007, when I started covering the Bush administration for the Washington Times, until last fall, when I took my current job. I now go only occasionally, finding the sessions largely futile. The benefit of not being there every day is that when I do show up, I care a lot less about asking an impertinent question that might irritate Gibbs. The downside is that Gibbs has not called on me since I moved to my new employer.
After Thomas's resignation, I asked a number of White House reporters whether they think the briefings are dynamic and tough enough on Gibbs. Fox News's Major Garrett, who along with ABC's Jake Tapper asks some of the best questions at the briefings, admitted that until the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico became a major story, the White House press corps (himself included) had often failed to adequately hold Gibbs's feet to the fire.
"There had long been an unnecessary deference and sort of delicacy and decorum about waiting to be called upon, and rigidly adhering to what is essentially a manufactured process that Robert sought to achieve at the very beginning," Garrett said. He added that the dynamic of the press room works best when reporters are free to follow up and really push the press secretary, but "that has been extremely rare, for whatever reason."
Garrett said things have improved in recent weeks, particularly with the press corps's willingness to challenge Gibbs's statements on the oil spill, and other White House correspondents I spoke to agreed.
Still, Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" -- America's most popular press critic -- used the occasion of Thomas's retirement last week to ridicule the softball questions that White House reporters ask press secretaries. "Are you journalists, or are you rushing a sorority?" Stewart asked.
Thomas shared this adversarial mentality, captured in her final question to Obama: "Mr. President, when are you going to get out of Afghanistan? Why are we continuing to kill and die there? What is the real excuse? And don't give us this Bushism, if we don't go there, they'll all come here."
It was a continuation of her persistent questions to President George W. Bush and his press secretaries on the Iraq war. "Two million Iraqis have fled their country as refugees. Two million more are displaced. Thousands and thousands are dead. Don't you understand, you brought the al-Qaeda into Iraq," she berated Bush at a press conference in July 2007.
Few reporters, if any, could get away with the kind of belligerence that Thomas displayed toward presidents and press secretaries on a regular basis. Even President John Kennedy once joked that "Helen would be a nice girl if she'd ever get rid of that pad and pencil."
As one White House reporter put it to me, there are some journalists who work on pick-ax crews, hammering away at the administration with tough articles that pull no punches and go after shortcomings and possible wrongdoing, and then there are the clean-up crews, who pick through the resulting rubble and explain and put into context the president's actions.
We need them both. Helen Thomas, no doubt, was a proud member of the pick-ax crew. "What the hell do they think we are, puppets?" she said of the White House a year ago. ". . . They are our public servants. We pay them."
Jon Ward is a senior reporter for the Daily Caller. He covered the George W. Bush and Obama White House for the Washington Times.