Yes, it’s President Obama’s 50th, but I’m more impressed with Helen Thomas, who came along some 41 years before Obama. To put the two in perspective, Helen has spent more years grilling presidents and their spokespeople than Obama has spent out of diapers.
One of my delights at FDL are the Book Salons, where authors famous and not-so-famous come to chat with whomever drops by. The subjects covered by the books are wide ranging, and the authors are generally really happy to chat about whatever questions the FDL commenters pose.
Somewhere on my “Top FDL Book Salons of All Time” list is Helen’s November 2009 chat about her book “Listen Up, Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President To Know and Do.” To give you a flavor of it — and the remarkable woman who celebrates her 91st birthday today — here are some of exchanges in the comments (with my own current observations in italics).
A word of warning: it’s amazing — and somewhat depressing — to see how on-target her comments in 2009 remain some 20 months later.
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Jeffrey Feldman (host of the chat): It’s clear from the book that Lyndon Johnson’s presidency made a strong impression on you both. If Johnson were around to give Obama advice on the top issues right now (health, Afghanistan, unemployment, carbon levels), today…what do you think he would say?
Helen: LBJ would say “Get the hell out of Afghanistan and don’t make the mistakes I did in Vietnam. Give your all-out support for public health insurance option, and forget about collecting Republican votes. I did that with Medicare, and it worked.”
(“. . . and forget about collecting Republican votes.”? Either LBJ hasn’t shown up, or Obama listens to him as much as he listens to Paul Krugman.)
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dakine01: . . . if you could corner President Obama and force him to make ONE policy change or political act, what would you tell/force him to do?
Helen: I’d tell him to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and pay more attention to people at home who are hungry and without jobs.
(The fact that we’re still in Iraq and Afghanistan, and still have enormous numbers of people at home who are hungry and without jobs is mindboggling.)
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Teddy Partridge: Did George W Bush give you a nickname, and did you ever get called it?
Helen: I’m sure he did, but I don’t want to hear it. Probably not for a familiy [sic] audience.
(I’m sure she could speculate on some of the possibilities, though — and she’s probably on target with regard to its suitability for publication.)
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Peterr: No disrespect intended toward the late Tim Russert, but his testimony at the Scooter Libby trial — where he stated under oath that his presumption was that every conversation he had with a person of prominence was considered off the record unless otherwise stated — was strong evidence to me that there is often far too cozy a relationship between the DC media and those they cover.
In your many years of covering the White House, what is the best way you’ve seen for ordinary folks to push the media to act in the interests of the general public when they seem to have cozied up a bit too much?
Helen: For starters, people should not get mad when reporters seem rude to politicians. Sometimes that’s the only way to get their attention, and get real answers. They have to be accountable, and they usually don’t to be. [sic -- perhaps should be "don't want to be."]
Peterr: My problem with the reporters isn’t that they are too rude, but they aren’t persistent ENOUGH when confronted with stonewalling, for example. When a press spokesperson — or the President — responds to a difficult question by tossing out lots of bright shiny objects to distract folks from the fact that they didn’t actually answer the question, how can we encourage the media to say “Excuse me, but that didn’t address what you were asked. Would you like to try again?”
Is there any chance at all that a reporter at a presidential press conference would ever give up their own personal question by saying “Mr. President, I don’t think you answered what my colleague asked you a moment ago. Could you please answer *that* question?”?
Helen: Excellent point. It should happen more often, especially when follow-ups are barred. We can always hope.
(Yes we can. We’re still hoping . . . but no luck so far. But I felt honored to not only have had Helen answer my question, but let me offer a followup. Sure beats the way in which some presidents have treated Helen.)
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demi: What are both* of your recommendations for us to get the biggest bang for our dollars in terms of affecting the changes we want from our government? [*Addressed to Helen and Craig Crawford, her co-author, who was doing the typing for both of them]
Helen: For starters, elect people who speak for the people and not the superich. And get Goldman Sachs out of the Treasury Dept!
Cynthia Kouril: [standing on chair cheering and clapping]
(I think lots of folks shared Cynthia’s reaction, and still do. Speaking of which . . . have you heard the rumors that Timothy Geithner may be on his way out at Treasury? What are the odds that a Goldman Sachs alum of some kind might take his place, should Geithner leave?)
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perris: Helen, what do you think of obama’s opinion that “we need to look forward not backward” addressing the abuses of the previous administration? . . .
Helen: It’s covering up the past. We must learn from our mistakes, no matter how painful.
(Sadly, Obama has continued to want to remain stubbornly ignorant of the past — or wants the rest of us to remain ignorant of it — and thus prolong the pain. See just about anything written by Jeff Kaye on torture, for example.)
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Dearie: Helen & Craig, you might notice that many of us on the left & central-left have kind of maxed out on Obama. Helen, you’ve seen presidents come and go; do you think Obama has a chance to clean up his image with us progressives?
Helen: Yes, if he displays more courage.
Craig: He’s nailed hope. It’s time for audacity.
(Helen, after watching the repeated caves to the GOP since this book salon, I’d say that’s a major hypothetical you put out there. Courage in defending Democratic principles (let alone progressive principles) has not been terribly much in evidence. Craig, we’re still waiting on that audacity. The longer he waits, the more audacious he’ll have to be.)
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Speaking of hope . . .
Every president hopes that God broke the mold when he made Helen Thomas. Everyone else better hope that those presidents are wrong. She is one of a kind, to be sure, but we sure could use more media people who follow in her footsteps.
Happy birthday, Helen!
(Oh, and you too, Mr. President. Kudos to you for recognizing that in the White House press room, her birthday was at least as significant as your own.)