Rory Kennedy has a great subject for her most recent documentary, Thank You, Mr. President, which premiers Aug. 18 on HBO.
Helen Thomas is a journalism legend. Born in Winchester, Ky., to immigrant parents, she went from very humble roots to be one of the first female members of the White House Press Corps. And she's been a member of that elite group since John F. Kennedy's administration, covering nine presidents first as a reporter for United Press International and now as a columnist for Hearst Newspapers. In the course of that career, she has held the distinction of asking the first question at presidential press conferences and closing them by saying, "Thank you, Mr. President." She is the dean of the White House Press Corps.
Unfortunately for Kennedy, she and Thomas have a mutual object of derision: President George W. Bush. And with Thomas providing Kennedy, niece of President Kennedy and daughter of slain presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, with a lot of verbal and archival clubs with which to beat W., the film often gets distracted.
We do get the story. Thomas talks about her youth as an inquisitive little girl who fell in love with newspaper journalism the first time she saw her byline in her high school paper. There are great stories, such as President Lyndon B. Johnson taking the press on torturous walks with his dogs and the crazy scene when First Lady Pat Nixon announced Thomas' engagement to retiring Associated Press correspondent Douglas Cornell. There's also insight into the strange relationship White House reporters develop with the presidents, getting to know them rather well, but still having to ask excruciatingly tough questions.
A particularly profound moment is when President Richard M. Nixon publicly congratulates Thomas for a career achievement, and she has to turn around and ask him about Watergate. To all the Presidents' credit, including Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, they field the questions with poise, until Bush.
There is a laughable moment when press secretary Dana Perino attempts to lecture Thomas about the privilege of being in the press corps when she has the temerity to ask a question about civilian deaths in the Iraq War. Thomas clearly knows it's a privilege, and admits she is still a little jazzed being around presidents. But she also has seen the danger of a press corps cowed into submission. She expresses regret that the machinations of the Watergate scandal took place under the Press Corps' noses, but it took a pair of Washington Post metro reporters to sniff it out.
"This happened under my watch, and I should have done a better job," Thomas says.
This informs the tougher, and frequently lone stand she's taken in pressing the current administration about Iraq, and once again, she says a compliant press has let a travesty happen. That parallel makes a strong point that reaffirms the importance of journalism in democracy and illustrates the lonely places journalists can find themselves standing in when they confront the powerful. Kennedy has an important subject with a personal and universal story. Seeing as she had more than half a century to work with, it's too bad the focus on Thomas' relationship with the current president will make Thank You, Mr. President quickly seem dated, and keeps the film from being as great as its subject.