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Rory Kennedy Discusses Helen Thomas Film -- Coming to HBO Tonight

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Rory Kennedy Discusses Helen Thomas Film -- Coming to HBO Tonight

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When Rory Kennedy told her mother, Ethel Kennedy, that she was going to make a documentary about Helen Thomas, the former Mrs. Robert Kennedy responded, "Do you really want to do that? She was awfully hard on Jack."

Eventually, though, her mother understood what the veteran documentary maker with the famous name wanted to do, even allowing her to interview Thomas at her famed Hickory Hill home in McLean, Va., over five days in the spring of 2007. "The three of us had lunch together every day," she adds.

"Helen didn't want to do it in her home and we were looking for a different house and HBO liked the idea," Rory Kennedy said. "We decided to just have it be Helen on Helen and it was a real opportunity to speak with her."

The result is "Thank you, Mr. President: Helen Thomas at The White House," a 40-minute documentary set to debut on HBO on Monday. Kennedy, the youngest of Robert and Ethel Kennedy's 11 children, and a veteran documentary maker, said HBO sought her out to make the film, which includes pieces of some 20 hours of interviews with Thomas. "She has a compelling personal story, she was very determined to be a journalist at a young age," Kennedy says. "I think it is also the story of the role of journalism in America and the role of journalism in a democracy."

As a subject of news stories about herself or her famous family, Kennedy is better equipped than many to judge the role of the press. She says, for the most part, she still welcomes a fair and active journalist.

"I personally have great admiration for journalism and journalists. There have been times in my life when it would have been nice to have more privacy," she says during a phone interview Thursday. "But it goes with the territory. I think we all feel very lucky to have access to have people hear what we have to say."

The film takes square aim at Helen Thomas' latest battles with President George W. Bush, opening with a press conference in which Thomas asked Bush why he wanted to go to war.

"Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis," Thomas says in the clip. "Every reason given has turned out not to be true. My question is, why did you really want to go to war?"

A question Bush deflected, claiming he did not want to got to war. "After that, I became persona non grata," she says in the opening piece of the interview with Kennedy. "There is a blackout now, I believe, until the end of his term."

Kennedy admits part of the film's effort is to show how Thomas's direct questioning and tireless investigation is being lost in today's White House press, particularly in the run up to the Iraq War.

"Has the media been asking the hard questions?" Kennedy says. "I do share her analysis of what happened in the lead-up to the war, the press did not do their job adequately. The press has changed over the past 30 years. Helen has remained true to her craft, despite the shift."

The film then offers a montage of presidents taking the oath of office, from the first covered by Thomas, John Kennedy, to Bush, 43. "I think presidents deserve to be questioned," Thomas then tells Kennedy. "Maybe irreverently most of the time, bring them down to size."

That appears to be the basis of Kennedy's film, to show more how Thomas has earned the title of Dean of the White House Press Corps, and even at 88 is still poised to continue her column for Hearst.

Despite a recent illness that has sidelined her since May, Thomas is seeking to return to her weekly column, a job she took in 2000 after nearly six decades with UPI. …

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