On her 89th birthday, Hearst Newspapers columnist and veteran reporter Helen Thomas received a tray of cupcakes and personal congratulations from U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House briefing room. The two were born on the same day, albeit four decades apart.
But it seems that the veteran reporter, who covered every U.S. president since John F. Kennedy, requires from the Obama administration more than personal attention and cupcakes. Under Obama, Thomas says, the U.S. has not done enough to advance Middle East peace.
"I don't think they are working very hard for peace," she told Haaretz in an interview. "It's quite neglected because of Afghanistan and Iraq and the healthcare. It was right to push for a total settlements freeze, and it's wrong for President Obama to say there is no longer ban on settlements until they start negotiations - then what you get is [a] fait accompli. I don't think Obama should have caved on that."
She also criticizes the previous Administration's refusal to recognize the results of elections in Gaza in which Hamas had the upper hand."They've spread the word how they wanted democracy in the Middle East - but the moment Hamas won fairly, which every international observer said, including [former U.S. President Jimmy] Carter (I know he's not very popular in Israel, but he is an honest man) - they cut aid. How hypocritical can you get?"
And the fact that the United States considers Hamas a terrorist organization does not bother her.
"I think you can call anybody terrorist organization when they are in opposition - it's a very loosely held word," she says. "I think people in Palestine are fighting for their land. Little by little, incursions and kicking people from their homes - who on earth would ever accept that without a fight? No American would and probably no Israeli would either. But I wouldn't give up on peace: I thought it was impossible with Begin, but something happened. Nothing is impossible. People want peace, and we should never stop trying."
The veteran White House Press Corps member has criticized Israel's policies towards the Palestinians for years.
"I've been to Israel several times with Carter and other presidents," she says. "I think the average Israeli is very fine, very fair and straightforward. But I think their treatment of the Palestinians in Jerusalem, where they continue to take their land, is wrong. It would be wrong in France, it would be wrong anywhere in the world. No one would accept that; I wouldn't. We've been always involved, and American Zionists certainly expect us to back up anything Israel does. I don't know if it is where the average American really wants us to be, but we have been there from the beginning, and I think both sides do want our intervention."
Obama, she says, has yet to earn his Nobel Prize.
"I didn't think he deserved it yet. I think it's something he has to work for. He has to live up to it now for sure. I think it was a message - work for peace."
Thomas also believes that the Obama administration still has much to learn about the importance of its choices, but she denies being out to get its officials.
"My mission in life is to make them miserable? No," she laughs. "Actually, I think they are trying hard, and I think their hearts are in the right place. But there is no such thing as an instant president, they all have to learn. And we have to learn too, over and over again.
"I think Obama's people still don't fully understand how important every decision is. They think they have time, but they don't have that much time. I was in that press room all through the Vietnam War, and everything seems like déjà-vu all over again. I thought we'd learned that lesson of interventionism in places where people were determined to fight for their own country."
Obama has been reconsidering the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan for more than nine months; Thomas, however, thinks there is not much about which to ponder.
"He should get out. We should get out of there. You can have blue helmets to try to stabilize the situation - and get out. It became pointless, with no purpose, no mission, it's just to be there and be killed and killed. I do believe that Taliban are terrible, but I don't believe that if we don't go there, they'll all come here. I think that people need to overthrow their own tyrants."
Recently, Thomas co-authored with Craig Crawford her fifth book, "Listen Up, Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do." Along with plenty of historical anecdotes and personal observations, Thomas offers some advice to future presidents. She also mentions that decades at the briefing room did not help her make friends there.
"They all hate me, but no one went to this business to be liked," she says. "If you're their friend, you can't ask them [the] questions that we are asking. Besides, these are all new administrations, they start fresh every time. I think what's really wrong - the moment the president and his people step into the White House they become very secretive.
"Information that in my opinion belongs in the public domain suddenly becomes their private preserved information. They cover in walls everything. In the age of the Internet, we are certainly getting more information, no question about it - but what kind of information? That's the problem."
No one is flawless for Thomas, not even her colleagues at the White House.
"Press corps members are asking tougher questions now, but they didn't ask any tough questions ahead of the Iraqi war," she says.
"No one asked: 'Why?' And the very fact that everything was based on false facts, and nobody called their head, was shocking. People should always ask their governments 'Why?' and see if it's acceptable, why they are asking you to give your life and your family and destroy the country. People should get involved and should care."
The White House press corps grew over the years, but she also witnessed the decline of many newspapers, many of which recently closed their Washington bureaus.
"I love newspapers, and I don't want them to go out of existence. Today everybody with a laptop thinks he is a journalist and everybody with a cell phone thinks he is a photographer. It is not edited, they can say anything, they can ruin lives and reputations just by throwing it to the wind. It's a democracy, but it's important to have editors to say: 'Look, you are not a prosecutor.' I think there are big changes, and you cry when a newspaper goes down and so many have.
"But I think we'll always have an informed people and information that is fair; people deserve to read news. There is, of course, a lot of interpretation, a lot of opinion. I myself now write an opinion column - but for 57 years I wrote for UPI, where if a mother said she loves you, you had to check it out. It was about facts, and even if you cared for the human race you couldn't put it in your copy."
Now Thomas can admit that over the years, she had her own sympathies.
"I thought Kennedy was the best, he is my favorite," she says. "He was very inspiring. He created the peace corps, signed the first nuclear test ban treaty and he said we are going to land man on the moon. He had great goals, told young people to go into public service. I though Johnson was great on domestic side. In the first two years in office he went through Medicare, civil rights act, public aid to education, environmental laws; he was sensational. But Vietnam brought him down."
Thomas, who was one of 9 siblings born to a family of illiterate Christian immigrants from Syria, thinks of herself as an American woman. "I was born here," she says.
And with regard to her fight to get to the top of the profession, she willingly shares credit.
"There were many, many women trying to find an equality in a journalism when the whole market for journalists was men's world. National Press Club - which was for the men alone. Each time we had to break down barriers, but I certainly didn't do it alone. It was determination; I don't like inequality and injustice. Outrage, that's what keeps me moving; anger at injustice. Actually a lot changed - it is very slow, but I think mankind does move to have a better world. I truly believe that.
"But sometimes progress is slow, and you have great setbacks. But we are our brother's keeper, we should be helping one another. We shouldn't have 47 million people in the U.S. who are uninsured because they have no jobs or are not eligible for it. Medicare for everyone, that's what we should have. I think Obama's legislation is a step in the right direction. But he could be more tough on it."
Sometimes her long exchanges with the White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, exhaust other reporters.
"Well, you always wonder if you should have rephrased the question or asked it differently or asked a much more important question," she admits. "Always Monday morning you think: 'Why did I ask it that way?' But I love the fact that we can question the president and put him on a spot, we should do it more often, it's very important to ask: 'Why.'
"I feel very privileged to hold this job for so long, because everything comes to the White House. Trivial things, and war and peace issues. Everything that [the] White House has done affects everyone in America and maybe in the world. So I feel very privileged to cover history every day. I love my work and I'd like to do it as long as I can. It keeps me involved, and I've been lucky so far."
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