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Published: Friday, 5/7/2004

White House legend is still at it

TROY, Mich. - Helen Thomas, the most famous newswoman in America, won't be happy with something Planned Parenthood of Michigan says about her in the press release promoting a fund-raising speech she's giving next Wednesday.

They call her a "former Detroit resident." That's not what she calls herself. "Whenever I run into someone who asks 'where's your home?' I say Detroit," she said over lunch in Washington last fall. "Even though I came to Washington on what I said was a trip in 1943 and still haven't got around to coming home."

For most of the nation, her home is the White House, where she has been covering presidents and presidential press conferences since John F. Kennedy. For most of that time, she worked for the once-great wire service UPI. In the early years, she always wore red, thinking that would make her stand out, and catch the president's eye. Later, when she became the senior wire service reporter, she was always given the right to ask the first question.

That changed with George W. Bush, after she asked him a couple questions he had difficulty answering early in his term.

"They no longer call on me any more, but that's all right," she chuckled. "There are lots of good journalists who can ask the right questions. What's important is that they get the chance to ask them. No president has had fewer press conferences than this one, and that's a shame."

But she still shows up. Four years ago, when UPI was sold to the News World Communications, a company founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, she decided she could no longer work for UPI. She thought her career was over, but to her surprise and delight, Hearst News Service offered her the chance to write a twice-weekly column. She's still at it, but why not? She won't be 84 until August.

"Writing a column has taken some getting used to," she confided. For decades, her job was "just the facts, ma'am" - quizzing the presidents without fear or favor, and reporting via the wires what they had to say.

Her skill at getting right down to the question they wanted to evade was legendary. She wasn't supposed to give her opinion, and that was fine with her.

"I still really believe that when people are given the basic facts they don't need my opinion, really. I still think that journalism is best when it's giving the straight story. People will never know how difficult it is to get the straight story, to get the facts. There's so much secrecy endemic in government, in business, in everything."

She should know. She was there for Watergate, Iran-contra, Whitewater, and a million lesser scandals. Martha Mitchell, the ditzy wife of Richard Nixon's attorney general, would confide in her in the dead of night.

Now, however, she is supposed to give her opinion - and she has become more controversial than ever. She has been highly critical of the war, of President Bush, of this entire administration. Her disdain is shared. When all the living ex-presidents were asked to be honorary co-chairs of an annual Helen scholarship event, they (and Nancy Reagan) eagerly agreed. President Bush declined.

But she shrugs and grins. "We aren't here to be loved, you know."

Once, Fidel Castro told USA Today founder Al Neuharth that the difference between his government and ours was "that I don't have to be questioned by Helen Thomas." That made her very proud.

"All leaders should be questioned by everybody," she says stoutly. She doesn't feel the U.S. press has been adequately critical of the government since Sept. 11. "We've just rolled over and played dead," she said. "Who will ask the questions if we don't?"

These days, she is happy to say that yes, she is a liberal.

"Absolutely! In spades! Am I supposed to be ashamed for caring about people? For caring what happens to our country? For caring whether the sick and maimed are taken care of?"

But she says that she has always pressed every president, regardless of party, to be more open with the American people. "There is too much secrecy; always has been, though now it is worse than ever."

Whatever you think of her, nobody has seen as much of the American presidency. She'll share some of her best stories and a few of her opinions over lunch at Troy's Northfield Hilton at noon, for those able to donate $75 to Planned Parenthood. She'll also take questions, and answer all of them except the big one.

"Retire? Me? I hope not! I want to die with my boots on!" she says.

What keeps her going? "I'm self-propelled. I care about the news." Bioethics aside, I can't help think that it would be darned good for journalism if, somehow, Helen could be cloned.



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