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An Unconscionable Legacy”–Veteran White House Correspondent Helen Thomas on the Bush Presidency

An Unconscionable Legacy”–Veteran White House Correspondent Helen Thomas on the Bush Presidency

President Bush held his final news conference Monday. Bush fervently defended his record, saying he made the nation safer following the 9/11 attacks, rejected the idea that the nation’s moral standing has been damaged over the past eight years and defended the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. We speak with veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas. She’s the most senior member of the White House press corps and has covered every president since Kennedy. [includes rush transcript–partial]


Helen Thomas, served as White House correspondent for United Press International for almost sixty years and has covered every president since Kennedy. She is the most senior member of the White House press corps and is commonly referred to as “The First Lady of the Press.” Helen is currently a syndicated columnist for Hearst Newspapers. Her latest column is called “History Cannot Save Him.”

AMY GOODMAN: With a week to go in his two-term presidency, President Bush gave his final White House news conference Monday. Bush fervently defended his record, saying he made the nation safer following the 9/11 attacks. Asked whether he could now admit to making any mistakes, Bush cited the “Mission Accomplished” banner soon after the invasion of Iraq. He also listed what he called his “disappointments.”


    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: There have been disappointments. Abu Ghraib obviously was a huge disappointment during the presidency. You know, not having weapons of mass destruction was a significant disappointment. I don’t know if you want to call those mistakes or not, but they were—things didn’t go according to plan. Let’s put it that way. And anyway, I think historians will look back, and they’ll be able to have a better look at mistakes after some time has passed. I—along Jake’s question, there is no such thing as short-term history. I don’t think you can possibly get the full breadth of an administration ’til time has passed.

AMY GOODMAN: The President also responded to a question about the responsibility of the office of the President of the United States and how he thought President-elect Barack Obama would handle it.

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I believe this—the phrase “burdens of the office” is overstated. You know, it’s kind of like, “Why me? Oh, the burdens,” you know. “Why did the financial collapse have to happen on my watch?” It’s just—it’s pathetic, isn’t it? Self-pity. And I don’t believe that President-elect Obama will be full of self-pity. He will find—you know, your—the people that don’t like you, the critics, they’re pretty predictable. Sometimes the biggest disappointments will come from your so-called friends. And there will be disappointments, I promise you. He’ll be disappointed. On the other hand, the job is so exciting and so profound that the disappointments will be clearly, you know, a minor irritant compared to the—


    REPORTER: So it was never the “loneliest office in the world” for you?


    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: No, not for me, uh-uh. We had a—you know, people—we—I had a fabulous team around me of highly dedicated, smart, capable people, and we had fun. I tell people that, you know, some days happy, some days not so happy, every day has been joyous. And people, you know, they say, I just don’t believe it to be the case. Well, it is the case. Even in the darkest moments of Iraq, you know, there was—and, you know, every day when I was reading the reports about soldiers losing their lives, no question there was a lot of emotion, but also there was times where we could be light-hearted and support each other.

AMY GOODMAN: Bush was also asked about the federal government response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Systems are in place to continue the reconstruction of New Orleans. You know, people said, “Well, the federal response was slow.” Don’t tell me the federal response was slow when there was 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed. You know, I remember going to see those helicopter drivers, Coast Guard drivers, to thank them for their courageous efforts to rescue people off roofs. 30,000 people were pulled off roofs right after the storm moved through. It’s a pretty quick response. Could things have been done better? Absolutely. Absolutely. But when I hear people say the federal response was slow, then what are they going to say to those chopper drivers or the 30,000 that got pulled off the roofs?

AMY GOODMAN: Bush also talked about his relationship with the media, professing what he called his “respect” for journalists.

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Through it all, it’s been—I have respected you. Sometimes didn’t like the stories that you wrote or reported on. Sometimes you misunderestimated me. But always the relationship I have felt has been professional. And I appreciate it.

AMY GOODMAN: Despite his avowed respect for the media, Bush refused to call on the journalist Helen Thomas, widely known as “the dean of the White House press corps.” Thomas is the most senior White House correspondent, covering every president since John F. Kennedy. Throughout the two-term Bush White House, she has asked some of the most critical questions in the White House press newsroom. She has challenged the Bush administration on issues including the Iraq war and its massive civilian toll, the threat of an attack on Iran, the refusal to sign a cluster bomb treaty, the ongoing killings of Afghanistan civilians, and its critical support for Israel’s attacks on Gaza and Lebanon.

One of the last times President Bush answered Thomas came in July of 2007. Bush reverted to a presidential press conference tradition he had long ignored: giving Thomas the first question. She asked him about his decision to go to war.

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Now, I will be glad to answer a few questions, starting with Ms. Thomas.

    HELEN THOMAS: Mr. President, you started this war, a war of your choosing, and you can end it alone, today, at this point, bring in peacekeepers, UN 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 have brought the al-Qaeda into Iraq.


    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: 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, a clear message to Saddam Hussein. He chose the course.


    HELEN THOMAS: Didn’t we go into Iraq—


    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: It was his decision.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush answering Helen Thomas in July of 2007.

Well, although the President did not call on her for his last news conference yesterday, we did call Helen Thomas, and she joins us today from Washington, D.C. Helen Thomas served as White House correspondent for United Press International for almost sixty years. She was the first female officer of the National Press Club, first female member and president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, first female member of the Gridiron Club. She has written a number of books. She is currently a syndicated columnist for Hearst Newspapers, King Features. Her latest column is called “History Cannot Save Him.”

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Helen Thomas.

HELEN THOMAS: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: ”History Cannot Save Him.” Tell us what you wrote.


AMY GOODMAN: Tell us what you wrote in this last column, which is called “History Cannot Save Him.”

HELEN THOMAS: Well, I wrote that President Bush is passing on to President-elect Obama two wars and an economic debacle. I call it a depression. And he is arming Israel against the Palestinians in every way in Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you expect to see a change of policy, Helen Thomas?

HELEN THOMAS: I think it’s an unconscionable legacy.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you expect to see a change of policy, for example, on Israel and the Occupied Territories?

HELEN THOMAS: No, I don’t.


HELEN THOMAS: Because I think that Obama, during the campaign, made many promises, as every president, potential president does to Israel, that they seem somehow bounded by their promises, promises to uphold all Israeli goals.

I don’t see how the US can provide F-16s, gunships, Apache gunships, phosphorus, possibly phosphorus, and cluster bombs and so forth to kill helpless people, children who are starving to death. They control the checkpoints. They control the arrivals and departures, supplies and people. And the Americans—President Bush has remained silent to that suffering. He has blocked by a veto at the UN any stoppage of the warfare, and he continues to supply Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: Helen Thomas, what did you think of President Bush’s last news conference?

HELEN THOMAS: I thought it was nostalgic. I understood the reporters’ soft questions. Obviously, they’re all writing about his legacy, wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt as to what his position was. And I think they gave him a platform of self-defense and self-delusion. The whole idea that it was a disappointment not to have weapons of mass destruction? A disappointment? “Significant disappointment,” he said.

AMY GOODMAN: Helen Thomas, what would you have asked President Bush if you got a chance yesterday? Did you expect that he would call on you?

HELEN THOMAS: No, but I wish that he had, because I would have—I mean, I would have asked a news question. I would not have gone into the nostalgia, though I’m not criticizing it, because I do think the reporters had to wrap up to find out what he really thought about himself and his legacy. But I would have asked why—why do you continue to support the killing in Gaza? And that’s what we’re doing.

I mean, you can’t remain neutral. I remember the rabbi who spoke at the Martin Luther King march on Washington. Heschel had a cameo appearance, and he said, “The greatest sin of all in the Nazi era was silence.” When you remain silent to the suffering and the incredible aggression against a people, then you are culpable.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you cover the march on Washington in 1963, when Martin Luther King spoke?

HELEN THOMAS: I did, I did. Not on spot, but I was there, certainly. And I was, of course, entranced with this “I Have a Dream.” And it’s amazing that I think maybe this dream is actually coming true, although I do think that President Obama, to be, needs a lot more courage.

AMY GOODMAN: Helen Thomas, we’re going to break. Then we’re going to come back to this conversation. Known as the First Lady of the Press Corps, she has covered nine presidents. As of next Tuesday, it will be ten. We’ll be back with Helen Thomas in a minute.

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