Helen Thomas is considered the Grand Dame of the White House Press Corps, a distinction she earned by covering every President since JFK. Thomas worked for the UPI wire service at the White House from 1961 (when Kennedy took office) until 2000, when she resigned after the Moonies bought it out (she went to work as a columnist for Hearst). Traditionally, she was allotted the first question at every press conference and ended them by thanking the President — shortly after Bush took office, she was moved to the back of the room for most press events and rarely called. They said it was because she went to work as a columnist; she says it's because of her outspoken criticism of Iraq. Either way, Thomas has been sidelined by illness much of the year, but an HBO documentary on her life and career premieres tonight.The documentary was made by Rory Kennedy, one of Robert Kennedy's daughters, and filmed over a weekend at her mother's estate. It intercuts footage and photographs of Thomas's most famous moments — from the start of her catchphrase "Thank you, Mr. President" in the Kennedy Administration to her grilling Bush about his motivations for getting into Iraq — with footage of Thomas speaking about her work. However, most of the reviews agree that Rory Kennedy doesn't subject Thomas to the same kind of grilling for which Thomas is famous, seemingly content to be as much a fan as a rigorous documentary filmmaker. The biggest flaw, by many reviewers' standards, is how little Kennedy touches on the difficulties of being too friendly with the people you cover. Thomas says it was difficult to ask Nixon a tough question about lying moments after he congratulated her for being the first woman to head UPI's Washington bureau but that she did it anyway. When looking at footage of herself palling around with the people she covered, she worries aloud, "Obviously I'm a fraud." Thomas is far from it, but as anyone in D.C. will tell you, everyone here is a "friend," even if you've only met twice and hate each other's guts. That D.C. subculture where everyone argues at work and goes and drinks afterwards would have been worth a more thorough exploration with someone who took advantage of it but tried hard never to get caught up in it. In a more light-hearted moment, Kennedy asks her subject if she ever played up her sexuality to get more access, a thought at which Thomas laughs uproariously and says "I never had the potential … nobody made a pass at me, darn it!" I don't know how that's possible in a male-dominated environment, but it's not an unwelcome revelation, either, for someone trying to make a go of a quasi-journalistic career in Washington herself. That said, I think an overly laudatory documentary about Helen Thomas doesn't do Thomas or Kennedy a great service. Helen Thomas was a great, dogged reporter whose more recent forays into opinion journalism have brought her no small measure of opprobrium from many Washington insiders who have called her earlier work into question. Seeing her come out forcefully in defense of her journalistic objectivity and to defend her opinions against the kind of stern questioning that she brought to the White House would've been more interesting to watch than a film that might appropriately air at a future memorial service. I don't need my heroes on pedestals, especially when they've spent their laudatory careers doing a much-needed raking of the mud. Review: 'Thank You, Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House' on HBO [LA Times] 'Thank You, Mr. President' [Newsweek] Rory Kennedy Discusses Helen Thomas Film — Coming to HBO Tonight [Editor & Publisher] Just a Few More Questions, Ms. Thomas [NY Times]
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