After dubbing him in an interview as "the worst president in all of American history," it was the first time she'd been called upon in three years. The ninety-year-old grand dame of Washington journalism had already been ostracized and marginalized, no longer representing a major news bureau and relegated to the back row of the cramped press room. Nodding in her direction, George W. Bush timidly waved his meaty hand, allowing Helen Thomas her first query of the Rhinestone Cowboy since 2003.
Had she learned her lesson? Had she finally been knocked to the canvas enough to understand who she was dealing with? The president had confiscated her voice, and by God she wouldn't be getting it back for long unless this question had something to do with his dog or Laura's newest passion of starting a First Lady Petticoat and Corset Museum next to the Lincoln Bedroom.
She needed to throw him a softball...or else.
"I'd like to ask you, Mr. President, [about] your decision to invade Iraq ... It has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis and every justification for the attack proved false. Why did you really want to go to war?"
Oh, man. Ouch. So much for heeding the old Bush family meat sword of intimidation.
Beginning in 1961, Helen Thomas sat front row center, staring down the slickest, most powerful men on the planet. From JFK to GWB and all nine in between, her five-decade career blazed a path for any female reporter whose boat isn't floated on a sea of sassy first lady hairdos or where LBJ and Ladybird plan on summering this June. Nope, in a world measured by gonad mass, Ms. Thomas cultivated herself one substantial pair.
"I don't believe there are any rude questions," she once said. "If you want to be loved, go into something else."
Let's step back for a second and take a gander at the concrete interstate this woman paved. A pioneer in gaining equal footing with men in covering hard news, Ms. Thomas became the first female officer at the National Press Club and the first woman to serve as White House Bureau Chief for a major wire service in 1974. In 1972, at the President's request, she accompanied Richard Nixon as the sole female reporter on his historic trip to the People's Republic of China.
Credentials aside, the woman was a pistol. And yeah, while among his peers, Bush was the mental equivalent of that really small, brownish grape that falls to the bottom of the plastic bag, the dude was still the president. And heavens to Betsy Ross, the guy usually stood about four feet away from her behind that podium with that eagle and all the arrows and shit.
I used to fantasize about what I'd say to Bush if given the opportunity, but I'm sure I would have just stammered, drooled and drizzled a fine rivulet of urine down the leg of my new Costco gaberdine slacks.
She was a staunch foe of executive secrecy and intrigue. It's easy for me to pop off here while stretched out on my cyber foam mattress, but if I had to gaze into Bill Clinton's puffy red eyeballs and point out that he could have avoided a lot of embarrassment and handled things internally with a little invention called Spray-n-Wash, I may have balked.
If I had to stare down a young and foxy Jack Kennedy and ask him why he so easily grounded Cuba's missiles, yet couldn't keep his own minute man in its silo, I quite possibly would have dry-heaved and fainted.
And while I may have been highly tempted, I don't think I could have managed to advise Ronald Reagan what a complete wanker he looks like in this get-up.
It's like he'd just discovered his uncle's old merchant marine foot locker up in the attic.
Okay, maybe I'm making a few of these up, but I have no doubt Helen Thomas could have executed each and every one of them with a smile on her face. To her colleagues, she was the unofficial but undisputed head of the press corps, her status legitimized by her signature line at the end of every White House news conference: “Thank you, Mr. President.”