As the youngest daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, Rory Kennedy could have chartered any number of career courses. The call of providing a voice to those with none was too much to ignore. Kennedy has emerged as one of this generation’s leading documentary filmmakers.
The Emmy award-winner’s latest film profiles a woman whose voice is, ironically, one of presidential journalism’s most vocal.
Thank You Mr. President chronicles former United Press International Washington Bureau Chief Helen Thomas’ breaking into The Gridiron Club. The organization was founded in 1865 and is the oldest and most exclusive group of inner-circle journalists covering American politics.
Until Thomas, women were forbidden from joining. President Kennedy saw to end that for Thomas and now the president’s niece is documenting the famed journalist’s 60-year career with her August 18 film on HBO.
Kennedy is the creative force behind the award-winning Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. Now, Kennedy has turned her lens on the woman known for asking the toughest questions at the White House for nine presidents. It’s hard not to notice her absence from the Bush White House press room. After asking the current president about his actions leading to the Iraq war, the 60-year veteran was slowly pushed out the door.
Kennedy’s film airs Monday at 10 p.m. and delves into American history chronicled through the pen of one of America’s great reporters, Helen Thomas.
Witness to history
Kennedy sat down with SheKnows to discuss Thank You Mr. President and how Thomas’ story in the hands of this gifted filmmaker with a family tree rooted in American political history, is a match made in heaven.
SheKnows: Personally, I have been an appreciator of Helen’s work forever. As a documentary filmmaker, you could tackle any number of subjects or issues, why Helen?
Rory Kennedy: She has a life worth documenting. She has a compelling personal story coming from immigrants who were illiterate who had a strong commitment to telling the truth. She moved to Washington not knowing anyone, rising to the top of her profession as a woman during a time when very few women were in a position to have such success. She was a trailblazer on so many fronts. She was the first woman who was a member of the Gridiron Club, the famous Washington press club. Helen broke through that so now you see a lot of women in the press in very prominent roles. That’s in part because of Helen Thomas.
SheKnows: Rory, you illustrate her ability to ask the tough questions probably no more effectively so then when she confronts President George W. Bush about his actions leading to the Iraq War. She was essentially banned from the White House press corps afterwards.
Rory Kennedy: Well, it was in the material. I will say that (laughs). It wasn’t hard to find. There was a great moment when we had a premiere screening in Washington a few weeks ago. Marlin Fitzwater (press secretary to President Bush, Sr.) and Joe Lockhart (press secretary for President Clinton) were on stage. They all said the same thing. Each would always go into these presidential press conferences and ask the president beforehand, ‘What is Helen Thomas going to ask?’ The idea that this woman that has been doing this for so many years is terrorizing these presidents and their press secretaries is a wonderful story in and of itself. Bush got her pushed out. It’s in the material.
The voice of reason
SheKnows: Thank You Mr. President is such a wonderful story told through her words, with so many means of telling a documentary’s story, why use Helen as her own narrator?
Rory Kennedy: One of the things we decided early on is we wanted it to be Helen on Helen. We didn’t do interviews with other people. I felt that what we know of Helen is her asking the questions. We haven’t had the opportunity to really ask Helen the questions. Why not make a film that turns the table on her a little bit and allows viewers to get to know her personally? The best way to do that is to speak with her directly and hear from her in the footage.
SheKnows: She has led such a distinguished career and left such a rich legacy that you were able to pull from, how were you able to keep the film under an hour?
Rory Kennedy: Well, it was hard. I like to make films where people want more, as opposed to feeling they’ve had too much and want to turn it off.
SheKnows: The world recently lost Tim Russert, another journalist known for asking tough questions, what is your favorite question that Helen ever asked of a president? Is it her scathing inquisition of President Bush?
Rory Kennedy: There’s that great moment with Nixon during Watergate in the film where he compliments her for being the first female head of UPI. She just stands up and goes right into him about the tapes and Watergate (laughs). That’s a great moment, but there are so many others just like it through her life. The film is driven by what she says and what has happened over the last 50 years. I think that’s the story that really needed to be told here is this quality that she has of asking those hard questions.
SheKnows: The candor from Helen, there seems to be a real ease you had with her. Is that something that you found in person, because it sure comes across on screen?
Rory Kennedy: I did. She was remarkably easy and accessible. I did this interview for five days. It was over 20 hours of interviews with her. That’s exhausting for anybody. I kept asking her if she wanted to keep going. She’d say, ‘Sure, of course, I’m happy to talk.’ (laughs). She never grew tired or complained and always seemed to be excited about what she was saying. I think she enjoyed looking back at the memories. She was sharp as totally entertaining, such a great storyteller with so many wonderful insights. It was a pleasure to hear her and to be able to sit down with her and go on this memory lane. It was an incredible experience for me.
SheKnows: She’s such a phenomenal question asker, were you at all apprehensive about interviewing Helen?
Rory Kennedy: I’d ask Helen ‘what questions would you ask?’ (laughs). I asked her that a couple of times. I think she makes everyone feels at ease around her, except for presidents of course (laughs).
SheKnows: Covering the president was the ultimate boys’ club. It was such a joy to see her pierce through that in your film. With the era of President Kennedy and the dawn of television coverage of the White House, she really served as a role model. Was that a goal or did the story make that happen?
Rory Kennedy: It wasn’t as far as I can tell. I asked her about that. She wanted to do her job the best she could. Often, being a woman stood in the way of her getting access to the president. Whenever there was an obstacle like that, she wanted to figure a way around it. I don’t think she felt some obligation to help women, although she is proud of that accomplishment. It was really because she wanted to get her job done. Women couldn’t get into the Gridiron Club and the president came to the Gridiron Club. She wanted to be near the president. She said to President Kennedy, ‘they’re not letting women in here.’ So President Kennedy said, ‘if you can’t go, I’m not going to go.’ Then the Gridiron Club felt that if the president’s not here, they don’t have a purpose. We have to let the president in so we have to let women in too. It was a very tactical issue for her.
SheKnows: For you as a Kennedy, given the fact it took a president with conviction to get women into the press club, what does it mean to you personally that the president we’re speaking of is your uncle?
Rory Kennedy: It was fun to talk to her because she had so many stories. There are so many stories I’ve heard, books I’ve read and insights from various people, but it was wonderful to get another perspective from somebody who had interacted with him from a very particular point of view. She had her own insights. She had stories I hadn’t heard before, for one, it turns out he’s her favorite president. Which I can understand why! She had very fond memories and I can understand why she felt that he was one of the greatest presidents and certainly her favorite of any she’s covered.
SheKnows: There are any number of avenues you could have perused professionally, what was it about filmmaking, but particularly documentary filmmaking, that so appealed to you that you made a life out of it?
Rory Kennedy: I started making documentaries after I graduated from college. I had never made documentaries before or taken any classes. I was interested in social activism and I felt like people were increasingly getting their information from mainstream media, but that the mainstream media wasn’t covering the stories fully. At that time, there were a number of stories on women who were having crack babies. I was writing a paper on it and found out that many had tried to get treatment, but they couldn’t get into these programs because they discriminated against women. I saw the mainstream media’s coverage and their lives were so totally different than what we were hearing. If you could allow them to get out and have a forum to actually tell their stories, you could hopefully expand the dialogue, deepen the understanding and maybe even, change policy. I decided to make a documentary about them and I just loved the experience. I learned so much about myself and their world. I love creating a film and a story. I have felt very lucky to pursue this career for the last 20 years.
Thank You Mr. President broadcast schedule
Monday Aug. 18: 9 p.m.
Thursday. Aug. 21: 9 p.m.
Thursday. Aug. 21: 12:35 a.m.
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