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Interview with Rory Kennedy

HBO

Thank You, Mr. President is a real departure from your earlier, tougher films like Ghosts of Abu Ghraib.

Rory Kennedy

Yes, and a welcome one, I have to say. After 'Abu Ghraib,' I was happy to take on a subject as uplifting as Helen Thomas. It was a really fun project to make. And one of the things that's so striking is that despite the fact that she's been covering Presidents - nine administrations altogether - with all that she's witnessed, there's not an iota of cynicism in her. She's just so upbeat and has such a positive outlook on everything. It's very affirming.

There's no sense when you speak to her that she was a victim, or that she was treated unfairly as a woman. It was just one of many obstacles she faced in her career that she maneuvered around in order to get the story.

HBO

She was also the first woman to be a member of the National Press Club.

Rory Kennedy

And the first female member and president of the White House Correspondents Association, and the first female member of the Gridiron Club; she broke through on many fronts. I spoke to her about what it meant to be a woman at a time where there weren't many opportunities available to women, particularly in her field. I think her experience with that is much more about obstacles that got in the way of her getting her job done, often because she was a woman, and how she was invested in getting around them because she wanted to do the best job she could. And so she wanted to get into the National Press Club because that was a way to have more access to the President.

The Gridiron Club was another way to have access to the President because the President would go to the Gridiron Club and at the time they weren't allowing women. She, along with other reporters, pressured President Kennedy, who then said, "I'm not going unless you accept women." Without the President there wasn't much point. And so they said alright we'll accept women. And Helen Thomas was the first.

But there's no sense when you speak to her that she was a victim, or that she was treated unfairly as a woman. It was just one of many obstacles she faced in her career that she maneuvered around in order to get the story.

Until recently the White House Press Corp had much more access to the President. Helen shared stories with me about running into President Kennedy on the street. She talked about seeing President Nixon right before he gave his resignation speech when he said, "Pray for me, Helen." Those are interactions that very few journalists have had. Helen's reporting provides a perspective that's personal, unique and insightful.

HBO

And often she was out front with being very critical and asking tough questions.

Rory Kennedy

Well that's another remarkable thing about Helen Thomas is that she relentlessly, and often singularly, asked the difficult questions. And the movie addresses this issue of the White House Press Corp and their relationship to the President, because often members of the Press Corp have personal relationships with the President and the people surrounding the President. And sometimes that becomes a bit more blurry when you're covering these people: who's a friend and what your job is, and what's the most important of those two.

Helen Thomas has an extraordinary level of integrity because she's always maintained that position of being a member of the press. She always carries her badge. Even when she's asked to go to the White House on a social event, she is there as a reporter first and foremost. And she feels a real sense of obligation to get all the information that she can from the President, and any opportunity that she has to speak to the President, she wants to ask questions, wants to get the information out to the American people so they can be informed. She sees that as a critically important job, that democracy doesn't work effectively if you don't have an informed people, and the people who inform the public are the reporters covering the White House. And so she has a keen obligation to that end, over the last fifty years.

She feels a real sense of obligation to get all the information that she can from the President, and any opportunity that she has to speak to the President, she wants to ask questions, wants to get the information out to the American people so they can be informed.

HBO

What sense do you get from her regarding the state of news coverage today?

Rory Kennedy

I think she's disappointed, particularly in the lead up to the Iraq war. I think she feels the press weren't asking tough questions, and disappointment in the White House in their lack of response to the questions that were asked. And their lack of honesty, I think, is deeply, deeply concerning for her.

A big issue in the film is how important the Press Corp is in asking questions. And with the war we have a pretty acute example of the press not asking hard questions. Arguably, we might have not have ended up in this war in Iraq had the press pushed the President more and really looked at the facts the White House was presenting, and question those facts, question the sources, and gotten some real answers.

HBO

In that regard she's more like the Edward R. Murrow's and Walter Cronkite's of the world.

Rory Kennedy

Absolutely. And at the same time, hers is an incredible personal story. She's a child of immigrants who were illiterate. As a young girl coming from Detroit, and having very few resources, moving to Washington, not knowing anybody in D.C. It's a great story of speaking truth to power. What an extraordinary person to speak up to Presidents over and over and over again, continuously, relentlessly.

But most importantly the film raises questions about the role of the press in a democracy, and just how absolutely crucial it is to have institutions that support journalists like Helen Thomas. There are very few people who are looking out for us, who are willing to ask the tough questions. And unfortunately, with the current administration, you don't really feel like they're looking out for the American people, and that their interests are in line with our interests. And having reporters who ask those questions and intervene on our behalf is crucial. And that is Helen Thomas. That is how she has spent her life and what she represents. And that's why I think she's deserving of a documentary, because she is so unique.

Thank You, Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House

2008 Documentary Films Series