A legend in political reporting, Helen Thomas has covered every president since John F. Kennedy, earning the nickname "First Lady of the Press." Now in her 80s, the venerable journalist sits down to review her life and career in depth for the first time, engaging in a one-on-one interview with award-winning director Rory Kennedy, when Thank You, Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House
Presented during an election season that finds the press playing a critical role in the future of the nation, Thank You, Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House traces the reporter's journey from her modest beginnings as the daughter of illiterate immigrants to her status as fearless journalist who stands up to the most powerful men in the world. Reflecting on her storied career, Thomas offers illuminating insights into the distinct personalities and foibles of the presidents she has covered, and remembers some of the scandals that have rocked the White House over the years.
The fact that Rory Kennedy, niece of John F. Kennedy, directed the film and interviewed Thomas seems particularly appropriate, given the fact that JFK was the first president Thomas covered (and was one she greatly revered). Their conversation is supplemented by archival clips of Thomas in action, as well as photos.
For more than six decades, Thomas has held a front row seat at White House press conferences, covering nine presidents. "I think that presidents deserve to be questioned, perhaps irreverently, to bring them down a size," Thomas says of her own role in the White House Press Corps, believing strongly that the White House press conference is the only forum where a president can be questioned on a regular basis and held accountable for his actions.
When she started working in Washington, Helen Thomas was one of a handful of women in the White House Press Corps. She joined United Press International (UPI) in 1943, and began covering presidents in 1960. While the tradition of opening and closing a news conference had been around since the Roosevelt era, Thomas became the first woman to both open a news conference with the first question and conclude the session with "Thank you, Mr. President," making the practice her signature. She recalls the first press conference where she used the closing, saying, "I could see President Kennedy was struggling. So, finally, I got up, and I said, 'Thank you, Mr. President.'...I got him off the hook."
Although Thomas admits she is sometimes star-struck, she adds, "I know I'm not a friend to these people." When Richard Nixon publicly congratulated her for being appointed the first female chief of UPI, instead of asking something uncontroversial, Thomas posed a hard-hitting question, "even after the President was so nice to me."
While Thank You, Mr. President focuses primarily on Thomas's illustrious career as a journalist, it also offers glimpses of her life outside work. Born in 1920 to Syrian émigrés who could not read or write, Thomas says her mother and father instilled a strong sense of justice in her. When she saw her first byline in her high school paper, she knew she was hooked for life, and thought, "This is it." At the time, Thomas never imagined she would cover the White House, but she says she always wanted "to cover history and not fires in Detroit."
Idolized by many and despised by some, Thomas is a determined, steadfast journalist who maintains the utmost respect for the office of the presidency, even while knowing it is her job to ask the tough questions. After more than six decades of presiding over the White House Press Corps, she remains true to her journalistic ideals, noting, "If we don't ask the questions, then they won't get asked."
Thank You, Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House is produced by Rory Kennedy, Liz Garbus and Jack Youngelson; directed by Rory Kennedy; line produced by Amy Shatsky; story editor, Mark Bailey; director of photography, Tom Hurwitz; editor, Sari Gilman. For HBO: supervising producer, Jacqueline Glover; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.
2008 Documentary Films Series