In a rare deviation from my usual true crime book reviews, I want to talk about another favorite genre. I’m obsessed with White House reporters, particularly the original gangsta Helen Thomas.
The legendary movie “All the President’s Men” starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, made me want to become a journalist. I knew before I learned how to tie my shoelaces that I would become a writer, but I originally envisioned myself as a novelist. Once I realized that might be a bit of a pie-in-the-sky dream, I turned to telling stories. When I was a kid I wrote fictional short stories where I got to name my own characters and make up crazy things like the “fact” that the grass in Hawaii is pink, so yeah, very fictional stories. One assignment around Halloween required us second-graders to use the word “bloodcurdling” in a sentence as in “a bloodcurdling scream.” I didn’t know what that meant, so I wrote that a girl fell down and there was blood curdling down her leg.
In high school and college I got to interview real people and tell their stories.
I’ve interviewed Jesse Ventura, Kinky Freedman and Robert Gates (while he was president of Texas A&M University, before his stint as U.S. Secretary of Defense) and probably hundreds of athletes and musicians. I’ve covered Death Row executions, a Billy Graham speech and plenty of state reps and senators. But I’ve never even been in the same room as a U.S. president. I once saw George W. Bush at the Texas capitol when he was governor, but I didn’t meet him and I never wrote about it, so I don’t think that counts.
Helen Thomas, who passed away in 2013 at age 92, covered 10 White House administrations, starting with Kennedy and ending with Obama.
This woman epitomizes feminism – not in a scary Rose McGowan way where she needs to feel important by talking into a microphone about rising up and taking down evil men, but in the way where she just straight-up lived her life and did what she was good at. No one questioned her. She had a sharp wit and was so, so smart. I can’t find confirmation of this but I believe during her time as a member of the White House press corps, she was always granted the first question. And she was known for adding, “I have a follow-up, Mr. President” that could go on for quite some time.
I love that when she was assigned to the White House press corps in 1961, she did what was considered a “man’s job,” and she was so, so good at it.
I also love that she owned her mistakes. She made some controversial mistakes. We all do and say things we’re not too proud of, but it gets a little tricky when you’re a public figure and your mistakes are published on the front page of a major newspaper. Helen Thomas had a sharp tongue and occasionally said things that were inappropriate, biased or unfair, and she later apologized for them. Not everyone liked her, but I think most of her peers respected her.
“Front Row at the White House” delves into some personal stories about her decades of following U.S. presidents but also shares the story of a young woman who did what she believed in and pursued a difficult profession in a time when reporters didn’t get the luxury of being lazy and telling a story in a 30-character tweet. They typed on a typewriter or phoned in their story to an editor. They traveled on the plane with the Commander in Chief and studied his administration so closely that they didn’t have to spend hours coming up with the perfect question; it was just on the tip of their tongue because they were genuinely interested in how he would answer.
This is the story of someone who pursued a dream. It’s inspiring and encouraging. It made me want to work hard and it made me believe in myself and my abilities. I’d recommend this one for history buffs, particularly fans of presidential history, but also for young people daring to dream big.