Thank You, Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House

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Airdate: 9-9:45 p.m. Monday, Aug. 18 (HBO).

What a terrific little film this is, not to mention a fitting, eloquent tribute to one of the true (only?) journalistic pioneers of our time. Helen Thomas has covered nine Presidents during a 60-year career as a reporter and later bureau chief for United Press International and, over the past few years, the Associated Press. Along the way, she blasted open padlocked doors as not only the first woman to reach her position in her male bastion of a profession but, indeed, one of the first in the White House press corps to ask real questions and hold chief executives accountable. "Thank You, Mr. President" shows Thomas to have been fearless but not cantankerous, respectful but tough, smart but sensitive. In short, the 38-minute film produced and directed by filmmaker Rory Kennedy (the youngest of Robert F. Kennedy's 11 children and JFK's niece) rightly shows the woman to be a hero (and an appropriately modest one at that).

As much as anything, the doc is a beguiling and rare journey through the past nearly 50 years of Presidential administrations dating back to JFK. Beginning with black-and-white images and a press corps dressed in seemingly identical bland suits -- aside from Thomas, of course -- it illustrates the media style, and in some cases the substance, of every President since 1960. There's the legendary Thomas at every turn asking the tough questions that her intimidated male colleagues were too cowed to utter. One of the most dramatic moments occurs when Richard Nixon gives her a compliment at being promoted prior to a news conference at the height of Watergate, and Thomas agonizing before asking a hard question about one of the President's indicted men.

"I think that Presidents deserve to be questioned, maybe irreverently most of the time. Bring 'em down to size," the now eightysomething Thomas tells Kennedy.

Fascinating tidbits surface here during practically every minute, in particular Ronald Reagan's ability to be both charming and distant (not to mention fully controlled by his aides) and Lyndon Johnson's habit of holding press briefings on the move walking around the White House lawn while Thomas' feet throbbed in pain from having to wear high heels. The opinions tumble out of the still sharp-as-a-tack Thomas effortlessly, her recollection vivid, her style remarkably unassuming.

The picture that ultimately emerges by the end of a Valentine bolstered by scads of vintage clips is that not only is Thomas perhaps the most respected journalist in the annals of Washington politics; she's also the most beloved. The Presidents are seen going out of their way to have a personal connection to Thomas in a way that's rare, and we guess that it extends beyond the mere fact it was in their best interests to be nice to her. Kennedy brings out her subject, and presents the evidence of her greatness, flawlessly in a film that you don't have to be a liberal like Thomas to enjoy. (But it probably helps.)

Production: Moxie Firecracker and HBO Documentary Films. Executive producer: Sheila Nevins. Senior producer: Jacqueline Glover. Producers: Rory Kennedy, Liz Garbus, Jack Youngelson. Director: Rory Kennedy. Associate producer: Matthew Justus. Line producer: Amy Shatsky. Story Editor: Mark Bailey. Director of photography: Tom Hurwitz. Editor: Sari Gilman. Music: Miriam Cutler.

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