Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Front Row at the White House

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, January 18, 2014

“Reporters don’t like this kind of manipulation [playing favorites], but they managed to overlook it because [President Teddy] Roosevelt gave them a permanent workplace inside the White House. As the story goes, on a cold, rainy day in 1902, he saw the drenched reporters huddled beneath the trees on the North Lawn and invited them in. They never left.”

Helen Thomas’s autobiography is a testament to a life unexamined and a world of inconsequence. Nothing is connected; there is only news.

RecommendationSpecial Interests Only
AuthorHelen Thomas
Year1999
Length415 pages
Book Rating4

Helen Thomas worked at United Press International for most of this book, contrary to Walter Cronkite’s early advice in A Reporter’s Life that UPI expected its reporters to move on once they became successful.

She left her job with UPI on May 17 2000 when it was purchased by News World Communications, then also the owner of the Washington Times. That was about a year after finishing this book. She then denounced the last fifty years of her life, presumably including this book, as having been self-censored. In 2002, she said in a speech at MIT, that “I censored myself for 50 years when I was a reporter. Now I wake up and ask myself, ‘Who do I hate today?’”

Hate was her final undoing. Her solution to war in the Middle East was the destruction of Israel and sending Israelis back to whence they came—Poland and Germany were her examples.

The only clue to that worldview in evidence here, in her self-censored 1999, is her inability to draw conclusions from multiple events in sequence. What really stands out to me in this autobiography is that she doesn’t seem to make any big connections; things happen because they are events worth reporting on, not because actions lead to consequences, nor because principle leads to action.

After reading Front Row At The White House, I can believe that she really didn’t make any connection between the concentration camps in Poland and the Jewish exodus to Israel. To her, they could have been simply isolated events. This was how she was able to maintain her leftist worldview over decades covering the White House—by never connecting events, such as LBJ’s Great Society, with results—the vast expansion in poverty among blacks in inner cities.

Her racism extends beyond antisemitism; for example, it escapes her how, even though some of his best friends are black, Ford could oppose welfare expansion. In her pre-hate era she is more coy about it than that. She just references that Ford opposed “civil rights legislation”, leaving it to the reader to fill in the blanks as to what that meant in 1974-76.1 And then provides, as an example, a successful black man whose success was based pretty much completely on his own skill—a football player—and who Ford had supported when playing against racist schools. The football field where Ford and Ward became friends was a place where skill and determination are the keys to success. Preferential treatment doesn‘t work on the gridiron—as the teams that, in Ford’s day, refused to play against black footballers learned the hard way, even in Thomas’s anecdote.

It says a lot about Thomas that when she saw Ford’s friend, all she saw was the color of his skin making him a prop to be used for welfare expansion.

She was, however, more lenient when the offender was a Democrat. Carter didn’t have to explain why he went to an all-white Baptist Church; she doesn’t even remember when he stopped going:

Another stakeout site where a good story was usually to be found was the all-white Plains Baptist Church. One Sunday, I asked Carter why there were no blacks in the church, and he replied, “I don’t know.” At some point in his presidency, he began attending a different church, one where blacks and whites worshiped together.

That’s it. That’s the entirety of that anecdote. She didn’t even include an “I don’t understand how…” preamble as she would have with Ford, Nixon, or Reagan.

Thomas was the recipient of bigotry herself, both as an American of Lebanese/Syrian ancestry2 and as a woman. One of the amazing things about this book is how unenlightened DC journalists are. Thomas began her career in 1942 during the war, so it isn’t surprising that she ran into male-only journalist organizations. But the National Press Club and the Gridiron Club didn’t open to women until the seventies!

Each chapter is a somewhat meandering look at a topic, with anecdotes from presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and often Ford. There are usually more substantive examples of the chapter’s topic from the Nixon, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton presidencies.

For example, chapter seven, titled “…And I’d Like a Follow-up” ends up being about scandals. So there are examples from Nixon’s Watergate, Carter’s Billygate, Reagan’s Iran-Contra, and Clinton’s Monica-gate.

Chapter eight is about the various press secretaries she’s worked with. It’s always interesting to get two participants’ takes on the same event! Her account of George Stephanopoulos’s time conflicts with what Stephanopoulos wrote in his own autobiography, mainly in the focus—George, of course, focuses on himself, whereas she barely mentions him.

There’s also a chapter on First Ladies, and it (like the next chapter that summarizes each president) is further organized within the chapter by name.

As perhaps the most seminal event in modern journalism, one thing that’s interesting to see through many eyes is the Nixon administration and Watergate. Reading these books by members the press, who almost all hated Nixon and comment disparagingly on his paranoia that the press hated him, is like seeing the man through a rusted mirror:

I have received very few personal phone calls from presidents, but Richard Nixon did take the time to contact me and express his sympathy at Smitty’s death. In an almost unheard-of move, given his attitude toward the press, Nixon also ordered the White House flag to be flown at half-mast.

Smitty was Merriman Smith, one of her mentors at UPI. Smith was famous for keeping the AP from getting the Kennedy assassination story out via the mobile radio telephone in the press limousine.

When he had finished dictating, Smith told [UPI Dallas bureau’s Jack] Fallon, “Read that back, will you, Jack?”

Even in the confusion, Fallon sensed Smith was stalling to keep the phone line open. Slowly, very slowly, Fallon began reading back Smith’s words. [AP’s] Jack Bell had been angry enough that Smith had beaten him to the phone, but he was furious at this stunt. His frustration boiling over, he aimed a wild, roundhouse right at his competitor. Smith ducked, and the punch grazed the driver. Still grasping the phone in a death grip as Bell tried to wrestle it away, Smith kept talking slowly, evenly, to Fallon.

Smith and UPI won a Pulitzer in 1964 for that trick, in Journalism/National Reporting.

Nixon was also nice to her husband, Doug Cornell, an AP newsman. Cornell was a legend for his expense reports.

Once he submitted a report that listed “Ruler to aid in tearing copy off Teletype, 7 cents. (10-cent ruler on sale.)” Another time, he was called away from a backyard chore to cover a president at Camp David. His expense report included the cost of the wasted concrete that had hardened and the price of renting a jackhammer to remove it.

When Doug announced his retirement, Nixon “decided to give him a surprise retirement party.”

Cornell and Thomas kept their pending nuptials a secret3 but the Nixons scooped her on it during Cornell’s retirement party.

Despite all this niceness on the part of the Nixons, she is still surprised that Nixon’s turn as president hasn’t been excised from the White House. Among the paintings of Presidents, his is still there!

I sometimes wonder and marvel at the depth of compassion this nation bestows on its shamed officials. In April 1995, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp of Nixon and his portrait has hung in the White House like all the others.

Some things we complain about today, it turns out, are as old as the profession. For example, another of her mentors, Al Spivak, went from being a journalist to working for a Presidential campaign—Hubert Humphrey’s—and then, later, became “chief public relations officer at General Dynamics”.

He was a great reporter in the best wire service tradition: fair, objective and in all respects a pro.

Fair, objective, and easily switches from journalist to flack to lobbyist.

Throughout the book, she magnifies the sins of conservatives and absolves the sins of Democrats.

Reagan, who was both—a Democrat early in his career and a conservative later, was corrupted, she suspects, by General Electric, who turned this pro-union, pro-government Democrat into a conservative. Ever since Reagan left office, a conservative movement has, she writes, “pervaded American politics”.

Unlike Ford and Nixon, Reagan was not in her estimation a nice guy. Reagan was inflexible dealing with the Soviets, asking for things that the Soviets would not agree to—until they did. Again not making a connection between sequential events, she doesn’t seem to realize that the inflexibility she’d written about a few paragraphs earlier was the negotiating strategy to get the nuclear concessions that the Soviets otherwise would not have agreed to.

Gerald Ford and Helen Thomas

Helen Thomas and other reporters with President Ford in 1976.

There were problematic Republicans before Reagan, however. She considered Ford a small government type, and had a hard time reconciling that with the notion that he was also a nice person.

In terms of Ford’s presidency, I found it hard to reconcile some paradoxes. Here was a nice guy who could oppose federal aid to education and school lunch programs in the name of fiscal responsibility. Once, Ford traveled to Detroit to make a speech, when the city had been tagged the “murder capital” of the United States due to the extremely high rate of homicides. After the speech, I asked Ford if he might be a little more amenable to gun control after visiting the city and was sorely disappointed when he said no.

I grew up in Michigan. Detroit has been a murder zone for as long as I can remember, and it’s also been a high gun control zone for as long as I can remember. For that matter, it’s been a Democrat-controlled zone for as long as I can remember. It’s not surprising that Ford, also a Michigander, would not support exporting Detroit’s problems to the federal level.

When John Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Reagan, her first thoughts were partisan as well, asking him if maybe now he’d support gun control—as if she were a mobster in the liberal mafia. “Nice life you got there, Mr. President. Shame if anything happened to it.”

At the beginning of her chapter summarizing each President, she writes:

Some presidents have tried to pass the buck and some have tried to spread the blame around.

A few pages later, she absolves JFK of blame for the “Bay of Pigs fiasco” when Kennedy green-lighted the operation. She’s careful to preface the story as having been started by Eisenhower, even though a major part of the controversy was that Kennedy canceled it while the Cuban exiles were en route to the Bay of Pigs.4

What would have been corruption in other presidents was an “interesting sideshow” because it came from JFK.

The situation with Cuba had another interesting sideshow, according to Pierre Salinger. One night Kennedy called him into the Oval Office and said, “I need your help.” Salinger’s mission was to purchase as many Petit Upmanns, Cuba’s finest cigar, as he could; Kennedy needed them by the next day. Salinger and a team of aides visited every tobacco shop in the greater Washington area, laboring far into the night.

The next morning Salinger was called into the Oval Office.

“How did you do?” said JFK.

“I got about twelve hundred,” said Salinger.

A delighted Kennedy reached into his desk drawer, pulled out a piece of paper and signed it. It was the Cuba trade embargo.

In her summary of Bill Clinton’s presidency, I can’t figure out what she meant by this:

The videotape of his grand jury testimony was later aired on television and contrary to reports that he was a poor witness, defiant and angry, he held his ground and said firmly, “I’m trying to be truthful but not helpful.”

Barack Obama and Helen Thomas

Helen Thomas and President Barack Obama share cupcakes on their shared birthday on August 4, 2009.

In print it’s hard to tell anger, but that definitely sounds defiant. It certainly does not sound contrary to defiant nor contrary to angry.

Funnily, at the end of the Clinton summary, she asks “And how could he think he could get away with it?”

He got away with it because you let him get away with it, and he knew that you would. From Merriman Smith to JFK to Carter to Clinton himself, you chose to minimize what would have been big scandals if they weren’t from your side. Throughout your entire career, you chose to disconnect consequences from their causes, whether it was the successes of conservative ideas, or the failures of leftist ones.

He knew he could get away with it because he knew that you would cover up for him by writing about him “plunged back into statesmanship” and how,

As he put it, he kept busy doing the work “the American people elected me to do.”

He knew that you would report on the process and partisanship of the charges against him, and not on the substance of his actions and lies.

The lame-duck Republican House voted strictly on party lines, thus making Clinton the second chief executive in American history to be impeached.

Clinton spent some time in the Oval Office with Tony Campolo, one of his spiritual mentors, before the vote. Afterward, the Democratic leaders and other party members rushed to the White House in a show of support.

Three weeks later, the Senate trial ensued with 100 senators sitting silent as “impartial jurors.” Although they were mute while in session, as soon as it broke up, there was a mad rush to the cameras and microphones.

Try as they did for vindication of their impeachment vote, the House so-called managers or prosecutors failed to muster the necessary sixty-seven Senate votes to remove Clinton from office.

Except for rumors and the president’s puffy eyes, it was difficult to envision his human side in the crisis of his life…

The only personal touch during the trial was supplied by fellow Arkansan and former senator Dale Bumpers, who delivered a boffo oration in Clinton’s defense that was marked by humor and southern grace.

That’s how he knew he could get away with it.

“What the hell do they think we are, puppets?”

  1. It was Republicans who supported the various civil rights bills of the fifties, and Ford supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. What he opposed was Lyndon Johnson’s vast expansion of the welfare state. He also supported withholding federal funds from states that ignored Brown v. Board of Education, but opposed forced busing.

  2. Her family came from a town which was then in Syria—Tripoli—but which later became part of Lebanon.

  3. How smart can the White House press possibly be that two members were about to get married and it was a secret?

  4. There were a lot of issues, apparently. After canceling the April 16/17 support, “President Kennedy authorized an ‘air-umbrella’ at dawn on April 19—six unmarked American fighter planes took off to help defend the brigade’s B-26 aircraft flying. But the B-26s arrived an hour late, most likely confused by the change in time zones between Nicaragua and Cuba.”

Front Row at the White House

Helen Thomas

Recommendation: Special Interests Only