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From AJR,   July/August 1999  issue

An Enjoyable Memoir--And an Inspiration   

Front Row at the White House: My Life and Times

By Helen Thomas Scribner
415 pages; $26


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

Helen Thomas spins tale after tale in this fast-paced memoir, and one of the most illustrative is a story she tells on herself.

It was fall 1974. Thomas was vacationing in Guatemala on a post-Watergate break when a young woman approached her at a restaurant. "Aren't you Helen Thomas?" the woman asked. Yes, Thomas replied. Immediately the woman "launched into a diatribe" about press treatment of Richard Nixon. "You've destroyed the greatest president who ever lived," she yelled.

"Madam," Thomas replied evenly, "have you heard the tapes?"

It's a story that represents many sides of Thomas--her fame, her life of adventure and, most of all, her no-nonsense authenticity. Thomas is a careful, just-the-facts reporter, but she is and always has been outspoken and uncompromising, especially when she nabs someone violating the public trust.

"Institution" and "icon" are words applied too casually these days, but there is little doubt they fit Thomas. Young Helen declared her news ambitions at age 12, joined the Washington Daily News as a $17.50-a-week copy girl at 22, and moved to United Press International after a year. Fifty-six years later, she remains at work, now in her 38th year of covering the White House.

"I have covered the White House on a day-to-day basis longer than any other reporter," she writes, "and I've been there considerably longer than any president."

From that rich experience, Thomas has assembled a memoir full of impressions and adventures. She offers insight into the innumerable stories she has covered, from Khrushchev's "we will bury you" speech to the premature delivery of John F. Kennedy Jr. to Nixon's historic 1972 trip to China to world travels with Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton. She shares her views (almost always generous and thoughtful) on the press secretaries, first ladies and presidents she has seen in four decades at the White House.

And she relates a wealth of inside stories about her own experiences, including the time Nancy Reagan rescued her from the Soviet KGB; the day Pat Nixon scooped her with Thomas' own engagement announcement; and the agonizing death of her husband, reporter Douglas Cornell, less than 11 years after their wedding.

She has a well-tuned ear for the great quote (Jimmy Carter's mother, Lillian, once told her, "Sometimes when I look at my children, I wish I'd remained a virgin") and can deliver one-liners with the best of them. "If he wants his privacy," she once snapped at a Clinton aide, "then he shouldn't be president."

As good a read as Thomas provides, however, I most appreciate her book for something else. It is a dedicated reporter's impassioned manifesto for fair and aggressive coverage of public issues.

Thomas, it appears, has managed over all these years to balance two vital but opposing tendencies--a healthy skepticism of everything and an idealistic belief in the democratic system.

"Reporters have an unending mission," she declares, "to seek the truth and find it and report it." She sees her role as keeping "faith with the people's right to know" and representing the "housewife from Des Moines [who] personifies what the nation wants to know."

Thomas is unyielding about the need for access to politicians, and she criticizes the trend toward sealing off the president from press and public. "It's become the incredible shrinking presidency in terms of access, and in my opinion, we are all being shortchanged."

That's why she happily yells questions at presidents, shouts follow-ups at press conferences and interrupts photo opportunities with unwelcome inquiries. "When a reporter has a chance to ask a question, I think he or she should ask it, no matter where, no matter when." She once asked President Carter's 3-year-old grandson (teasingly, she claims), "So tell me, what did your granddad have to say about Senator Kennedy?"

Through all the years she has maintained an optimistic, sometimes even romanticized attitude. "I have always considered myself privileged to be a witness to instant history," she writes. After devoting a chapter to her travels aboard Air Force One, Thomas concludes, "For all the history I've witnessed...I still don't take it for granted.... It has always been a thrill to be welcomed aboard."

And regretting the dwindling opportunities for informal contact with presidents, she recalls visits to the LBJ ranch: "I'll still say there is something to be said for walking the acreage on a Texas ranch at twilight, standing with a president and watching for the deer to come out, and listening to him talk about his hopes and dreams for the country."

Almost 60 years into her career, Thomas comes across as the quin-tessential tough but caring reporter, still independent from and un-seduced by the celebrity world she inhabits. Her book is not only enjoyable reading. It is an inspiration.