by Joshua H. Liberatore
About a week before she abruptly resigned amidst a nasty eruption following her unfortunately phrased – however strong the convictions behind it – comment that “[Israel] should get the hell out of Palestine,” 89-year-old Hearst columnist Helen Thomas shot POTUS this sharp question during a news conference.
Q. Mr. President, when are you going to get out of Afghanistan? Why are we continuing to kill and die there? What is the real excuse? And don’t give us this Bushism, “If we don’t go there, they’ll all come here.”
The President. Well, Helen, the reason we originally went to Afghanistan was because that was the base from which attacks were launched that killed 3,000 people.
What followed was the usual history lesson.
The President. And I’m going to get to your question, I promise. But I just want to remind people, we went there because the Taliban was harboring Al Qaida, which had launched an attack that killed 3,000 Americans. Al Qaida escaped capture, and they set up in the border regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Al Qaida has affiliates that not only provide them safe harbor but increasingly are willing to conduct their own terrorist operations, initially in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, but increasingly directed against Western targets and targets of our allies as well. So it is absolutely critical that we dismantle that network of extremists that are willing to attack us. (May 27, 2010)
On a day when everyone else at the party was picking at the margins of the Gulf of Mexico debacle – could POTUS “trust” BP, had a high-level Department of Interior official resigned or been fired, is the Federal government pushing BP hard enough, etc. – Thomas wanted POTUS to talk about whether Al Qaida still posed a direct threat to the United States. POTUS went on to summarize the Petraeus Doctrine of patient and expensive counterinsurgency, the importance of building “Afghan capacity,” the need to work with Pakistan “in dealing with the extremists that are within their borders,” the enormous sacrifices of U.S. and coalition troops. In short, he offered, “It is a difficult process.” And though her original question never really got answered, it was still worth posing.
The cantankerous Thomas was used to this treatment, of course. She’s known the feeling of Presidents talking around her questions going back to the Kennedy administration. POTUS had gotten his own start with Thomas – he called it his “inaugural moment” – when she asked him during his first news conference of February 9, 2009, if he knew of any country in the Middle East that possessed nuclear weapons. POTUS talked about Iran’s uranium enrichment ambitions, articulated his desire to avoid an arms race in the region, touted his progress with the Russians in reducing Cold War stockpiles; not surprisingly, he did not mention Israel’s sizeable but never-discussed secret arsenal.
Why ask a question that has no bloody chance of being answered? Because no one else in the room has the guts to do it? How did POTUS’s predecessor approach this bizarre journalistic tactic?
Q. Mr. President, you started this war, a war of your choosing, and you can end it alone, today, at this point—bring in peacekeepers, U.N. peacekeepers. Two million Iraqis have fled their country as refugees. Two million more are displaced. Thousands and thousands are dead. Don’t you understand, you brought the Al Qaida into Iraq.
The President. Actually, I was hoping to solve the Iraqi issue diplomatically. That’s why I went to the United Nations and worked with the United Nations Security Council, which unanimously passed a resolution that said disclose, disarm, or face serious consequences. That was the message, the clear message to Saddam Hussein. He chose the course. (July 12, 2007)
From her first-row seat in press briefings and news conferences, Thomas positioned herself as the White House’s primary gadfly concerning what Eugene Jarecki called “the American way of war,” a subject she never tired of confronting with acerbic terseness. A Detroit native raised by Lebanese immigrants, Thomas never concealed her disapproval of the U.S. government’s reflexive support for Israel in its Middle East foreign policy. On this topic and others, she spoke with a candor that her peers in the major media often marveled at but could never muster in their own reporting.
Q. Israel broke its word twice on a truce. And you mentioned Hizballah rockets, but it’s—Israeli bombs have destroyed Lebanon. Why do you always give them a pass? And what’s your view on breaking of your oath for a truce?
The President. Yes, thank you. I like to remind people about how this started, how this whole—how the damage to innocent life, which bothers me—but again, what caused this?
Q. Why drop bombs on——
The President. Let me finish—let—ma’am, let me—ma’am, please let me finish the question. It’s a great question, to begin with. The followup was a little difficult, but anyway. (August 21, 2006)
But what was typical of Thomas’s most colorful exchanges was the unprecedented comfort she showed in interrupting a sitting POTUS and driving him back to the topic at hand. Historical narrative and rehearsed rhetoric never satisfied her. What she wanted were direct answers to immediate concerns, often prefaced with downright accusation. Her most aggressive queries are worth quoting at length:
Q. I’d like to ask you, Mr. President, your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is, why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, from your Cabinet officers, intelligence people, and so forth—what was your real reason? You have said it wasn’t oil, quest for oil—it hasn’t been Israel, or anything else. What was it?
The President. I think your premise—in all due respect to your question and to you as a lifelong journalist—is that—I didn’t want war. To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect——
The President. Hold on for a second, please.
Q. ——everything I’ve heard——
The President. Excuse me, excuse me. No President wants war. Everything you may have heard is that, but it’s just simply not true. My attitude about the defense of this country changed on September the 11th. We—when we got attacked, I vowed then and there to use every asset at my disposal to protect the American people. Our foreign policy changed on that day, Helen. You know, we used to think we were secure because of oceans and previous diplomacy. But we realized on September the 11th, 2001, that killers could destroy innocent life. And I’m never going to forget it.
And I’m never going to forget the vow I made to the American people that we will do everything in our power to protect our people. Part of that meant to make sure that we didn’t allow people to provide safe haven to an enemy. And that’s why I went into Iraq—hold on for a second——
Q. They didn’t do anything to you or to our country.
The President. Look—excuse me for a second, please. Excuse me for a second. They did. The Taliban provided safe haven for Al Qaida. That’s where Al Qaida trained——
Q. I’m talking about Iraq——
The President. Helen, excuse me. That’s where—Afghanistan provided safe haven for Al Qaida. That’s where they trained. That’s where they plotted. That’s where they planned the attacks that killed thousands of innocent Americans. I also saw a threat in Iraq. I was hoping to solve this problem diplomatically. That’s why I went to the Security Council; that’s why it was important to pass 1441, which was unanimously passed. And the world said, “Disarm, disclose, or face serious consequences”——
Q. ——go to war——
The President. ——and therefore, we worked with the world, we worked to make sure that Saddam Hussein heard the message of the world. And when he chose to deny inspectors, when he chose not to disclose, then I had the difficult decision to make to remove him. And we did, and the world is safer for it. (March 21, 2006)
In fact, before POTUS 43 learned how to handle Thomas’s style with his characteristic swagger, she even managed to get the last word on her chosen theme, something any other White House correspondent would never dare to attempt. His own “inaugural moment” left Thomas with the opportunity to offer a summative reminder of the constitutional limits of POTUS’s job.
Q. Mr. President, why do you refuse to respect the wall between the church and state? And you know that the mixing of religion and government for centuries has led to slaughter. I mean, the very fact that our country has stood in good stead by having the separation—why do you break it down?
The President. Helen, I strongly respect the separation of church and state——
Q. Well, you wouldn’t have a religious office in the White House if you did.
The President. I didn’t get to finish my answer, in all due respect. I believe that so long as there’s a secular alternative available, we ought to allow individuals who are helping to be able to choose a program that may be run by a faith-based program, or will be run by a faith-based program. I understand full well that some of the most compassionate missions of help and aid come out of faith-based programs. And I strongly support the faith-based initiative that we’re proposing, because I don’t believe it violates the line between the separation of church and state, and I believe it’s going to make America a better place.
Q. Well, you are a secular official.
The President. I agree. I am a secular official.
Q. And not a missionary. (February 22, 2001)
Perhaps our current POTUS’s main vulnerability with regard to Thomas’s intellectual belligerence is his unflagging decency, his unabashed earnestness, his professorial yen to take every question at face value and do his level best to reach consensus. It’s an old classroom habit. On this, he could stand to learn from that old slick-tongued Rhodes Scholar from Arkansas, who, after eight years of facing down Thomas in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, developed a most impressive knack for evasion. Who else could turn such a thoroughly barbed hook into an invitation for late-term self-congratulation?
Q. Mr. President, you don’t seem to have any good news on the Northern Ireland and Middle Eastern front, so I thought I’d ask you a homefront question. How do you like being targeted in the Republican Presidential campaign? Texas Governor—I have to quote this: Texas Governor Bush told Senator McCain, quote, “Whatever you do, don’t equate my integrity and trustworthiness with Bill Clinton. That’s about as low as you can get in the Republican primary.” And McCain said that he resented being called “Clinton” or “Clinton-like,” and a few other things. What do you say?
The President. Well—[laughter]—I have a couple of observations. One is, you know, they’re playing to an electorate, most of whom did not vote for me. And secondly, I have a lot of sympathy with Governor Bush and Senator McCain. I mean, it’s hard for them to figure out what to run on. They can’t run against the longest economic expansion in history or the lowest crime rate in 30 years or the lowest welfare rolls in 30 years or the progress America has made in promoting peace around the world or the fact that our party overrode theirs and passed the family leave, and it’s benefited 20 million people, and it hasn’t hurt the economy. (February 16, 2000)
Of course, POTUS has now been spared the opportunity to refine his own skills with regard to Thomas’s shock-and-awe approach. The journalistic bluntness she deployed without compunction never disqualified her to confront the most powerful men of her time, but a small yet formidable PR scandal that mushroomed in YouTube circulation has now forced her into early retirement. Who will ask the tough questions in her stead?