Continuing my fascination with All Things Presidential, I am almost finished reading Front Row at the White House: My Life and Times by Helen Thomas, the dean of the White House press corps. The book is a fascinating look into the life of a White House reporter, a life which is a delicate balance of long hours, wearying travel, occasionally lousy food, coffee by the gallon, arrogant press secretaries, presidents suspicious of the press, and a front-row seat for historical events. Thomas tells her story engagingly, arranging the book around themes rather than simply delivering a sequential account of her life, which is a wise choice. It enables her to concentrate on her larger theme, the way the relationship between President and Press has changed since she arrived in the White House press corps in 1961, beginning a career which would include every administration since John F. Kennedy.
It is clear, pretty much from the outset, that she does not think that that relationship has changed for the better. She describes how she enjoyed personal, and fairly frequent, interviews with Lyndon Johnson; but as time has gone by the various press secretaries have become more involved in public relations than in the dissemination of information to the public. She relates one incident when she and Sam Donaldson attempted posing a question to President Reagan during a photo op, only to have the president glance at his top aides before replying, "I can't answer that. They won't let me." Thomas and Donaldson protested that Reagan was the president, to no avail. She also takes President Clinton to task for his own cynical use of the media.
It is always fascinating to read these first-hand accounts of events in our government, and Thomas's book is welcome in that regard.