Journalist Helen Thomas has seen eight U.S. presidents come in go in her years in the White House press corps. In her new book, Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President, she looks at lighthearted presidential moments, and how laughs— often in the face of tough issues — can help shape a presidential legacy.
Excerpt from Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President : Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House by Helen Thomas Introduction:
The scene: the White House Correspondents Association annual dinner, April 2000. Cuing up is the now famous "The Final Days" video detailing how President Clinton is spending his time in the waning days of office.
Cut to press secretary Joe Lockhart, who says, "With the vice president and the first lady out on the campaign trail, things aren't as exciting as they used to be around here. In fact, it's really starting to wind down."
Cut to Clinton standing at the podium in the White House pressroom:
"There's bipartisan support for it in Congress … and at least the principles I set out in my State of the Union. If they send me the bill in its present form, I will sign it. Okay, any questions? Helen? [Then a little desperately] Helen?"
Camera pans over to me sitting in my chair, my head back. I wake up, lift my head, and see the president standing there: "Are you still here?"
A dejected Clinton leaves the podium and the camera follows him out — and in the background you hear Frank Sinatra crooning "One More for the Road."
Well, I'm still here. And, in a matter of speaking, so is Bill Clinton. But only one of us is still working at the White House.
And here it is 2001: I've covered eight chief executives so far, and now I'm breaking in a new one. For a while, Clinton was going to be the last, when I decided to hang up my daily news spurs with UPI in May 2000. But hey, someone has to show these people the ropes, and when Charles J. Lewis, Washington bureau chief for Hearst Newspapers, came calling with an offer to be a columnist, I gratefully said, Why not? After all those years of telling it like it is, now I can tell it how I want it to be. To put another point on it, I get to wake up every morning and say, "Who am I mad at today?"
I also got a call from Lisa Drew at Scribner, who made my book Front Row at the White House happen. She suggested I try another, this time a lighter look at all those presidents who have known me. When a friend of mine heard about the project, she said, "Gee, Helen, do you think these are very funny guys?"
"Well," I said, "I told Lisa it might be a pretty thin book."
Not only did I discover that on the whole, "these guys," their families, and their staffs are indeed a pretty funny lot, but given that they were funny while they were in office, I think it could be described as its own genus of humor: humorata presidentis — maybe that's what George W. Bush would call it. There also have been the poignant, the touching, and the sad moments in their lives, the kind that have given the public a human touchstone. Some things that have happened could just as well have happened to a member of your family, a neighbor, a coworker; we should remember that presidents are people, too. They just get to live rent-free for four or eight years, travel in their own aircraft, and have someone else pick up the dry cleaning.