BROOKE GLADSTONE: Helen Thomas recently became a columnist for Hearst Newspapers, but she still retains the coveted seat front and center in the briefing room she has held for four decades as White House reporter for UPI. In that time she's interrogated Presidents Kennedy through Clinton. Helen Thomas, President Clinton's former spokesman Mike McCurry apparently said it was torture being grilled by you.
HELEN THOMAS: [LAUGHS] I'm glad to hear it! [LAUGHS] I didn't realize he was so complimentary!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] What do think of Clinton's briefing style?
HELEN THOMAS: Well I think he's brilliant! He certainly has the facts at his fingertips, and I've never seen him really at a loss for words except for some of the Monica Lewinsky questions which -where he'd drew-- draw a deep breath and hesitate a moment, but he's so, he's so--learned and knowledgeable that he can field anything we can throw at him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think of the president-elect? How do you expect him to hold up in the briefing room?
HELEN THOMAS: I think that he ought to be able to answer all the tough questions that he hasn't gotten so far. I think that it's -- people have been pretty easy on him, but that's because he's not yet president.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Several commentators were startled by this "Helen Thomas moment" at a recent Bush press conference right after he emerged from the meeting with President Clinton about the transition. We have a, a little clip of that-- [PRESIDENT-ELECT BUSH/HELEN THOMAS CLIP PLAYS:] PRESIDENT-ELECT BUSH: I am humbled and honored, and I can't thank the President enough for his hospitality. He didn't need to do this. And-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
HELEN THOMAS: Yes, he did!
HELEN THOMAS: He was-- he was doing Uriah Heep too many times--: "You didn't have to invite me; you didn't have to invite me." He said it three times, and then I said "Yes, he did!"
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why did you say that?
HELEN THOMAS: Well, because it's true! I mean-- invite reporters in -- what, what are we supposed to be? Puppets? I think we should take any chance we can to question these people who run our lives and run the government.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think is your most memorable confrontation with a president -- the time when you felt the most frustrated.
HELEN THOMAS:I think that when, when a big, big budg--defense budget - military budget - was presented in the press room by President Bush after the Cold War was over, Berlin Wall had fallen--, peace was at hand, he presented a huge military budget and I said "Who's the enemy?" I don't bow and scrape to these people! I mean they're just like us! They're working for a living; they have an, a b-- a very vaunted position, that's true; but they're still our public servants. And we, too, are public servants in the sense that we are trying to find out what's going on. We're the only institution in our democracy where a person can be questioned on a regular basis! Nobody else gets that close to him or has that privilege. So he should be questioned, and it's always been a "him" so far.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Who was the easiest president to cover?
HELEN THOMAS: None.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Who--
HELEN THOMAS: They're not easy, because they think they're president! [LAUGHTER] Let's-- why don't we end this on a hopeful note: I would like to feel, and I hope, that the new administration will understand the role of the press - will not cut us off - that our questions are legitimate - and that they cannot operate in total secrecy which they seem to be wanting to do lately.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what about your colleagues in the press corps? Are there any things you want to say to them?
HELEN THOMAS: I respect my colleagues, and they certainly can think of very tough questions; even tougher than mine sometimes!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The torturous Helen Thomas?!
HELEN THOMAS: [LAUGHS]! I like that! [LAUGHS] Ah, me. What an image, huh?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Helen Thomas, thank you so much for speaking with us.