Thomas' 'Memories': White House junkie food

May 05, 2002|By Steve Weinberg | Steve Weinberg,Special to the Sun

Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President: Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House, by Helen Thomas. Scribner. 239 pages. $24.

Helen Thomas, a White House corespondent for United Press International dating back to John F. Kennedy's administration, is using her seniority to educate and entertain between book covers. The subtitle of this new volume plays off the main title of her best-selling memoir Front Row at the White House.

The memoir, like almost all memoirs of Washington correspondents, mixed insight into politics and journalism with insignificant details that only a presidential / White House junkie would enjoy reading. Journalists are, after all, outsiders. That is perhaps especially true of White House correspondents, who are usually kept far away from the president and his most significant staff members, who almost never attend the meetings that count most, who are leaked to or otherwise communicated with in ways that serve the administration rather than the general citizenry.

The current volume does not even rise to the genre of memoir. It is a largely disconnected assemblage of brief anecdotes from the administrations of Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Some of the anecdotes involve Thomas herself, either because she was mentioned or because she was a witness. Other came to Thomas from other journalists or political sources.

Occasionally, Thomas puts aside the humor theme to address the presidential personalities. She says Johnson was her favorite president to write about because of his newsmaking ways and his outsized personality. Kennedy was her "liked best" president, in part because of his chumminess with journalists, in part because of his policy visions that led to the Peace Corps and moon shots.

On the humor scale, Thomas has something pleasant to say about each president except Nixon, whom she says "displayed downright hostility to the press" most of the time. Almost every anecdote in the Nixon chapter conveys inadvertent humor. An example: "At a weekend at Camp David, Nixon came in one afternoon and announced to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, 'I scored 121.' 'Your golf is improving, Mr. President,' said Kissinger.

"'I was bowling!' Nixon snapped."

How Thomas learned of that conversation, or many of the others she shares is uncertain. There is no sourcing within the text or in endnotes.

Ford ranks as the best laugher, His laugh, Thomas reports, "came from deep down ... he would throw his head back in genuine appreciation of a funny moment." Carter "did have a witty side to him, but kept it out of the way for the most part, and at times a bitterness overcame him, not unlike Richard Nixon's views -- a feeling he was not accepted on his own terms."

Reagan excelled at self-deprecatory humor and impeccable delivery. Bush the elder had trouble following Reagan's act, so largely did not try. Clinton was cerebral, but had to learn to sound funny; Thomas gives him credit for learning well. George W. so far has provided humor through malapropism rather than by design, Thomas says.

This is a slight, formless non-book book. But for readers who care enough about this particular facet of the presidency, it is worth browsing.

Steve Weinberg covered the White House occasionally for Midwestern newspapers during 1974-75 and occasionally for magazines during 1978-83. He never saw presidential humor from the front row. He now writes books, reviews and magazine features from Columbia, Mo.

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