Few people know 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as well as Helen Thomas. As dean of the White House press corps, the 89-year-old reporter has witnessed the triumphs and tribulations of America's Commanders in Chief since her first assignment covering JFK's Administration. In her latest book, Listen Up, Mr. President, Thomas offers a how-to guide for future occupants of the Oval Office using a combination of firsthand accounts and historical anecdotes. TIME spoke with Thomas about the dos and don'ts of the American presidency, why sassiness pays off and what she keeps in her prayers (hint: it's black and white and in the red).
How did the idea for the book come about?
There's no such thing as an instant President. And there are some things they should know that their predecessors don't tell them. I think we were very audacious, but on the other hand, this President understands audacity. So we thought we'd tell him. Or her, someday.
What did you think about the transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama?
They're totally different people, with different attitudes toward the press. Well, not totally different. No President likes the press. They all hate us.
What do you think of the Obama Administration's approach to the media?
Everybody in the White House tries to manage us. There's always the spin. When Kennedy came in, which was the first year I started covering the White House, there was something called "managed news." And through the years it has been perfected to an art.
How has the White House press corps managed to keep up?
It's very hard. There's very little you can do when they control the information. But I think every once in a while the press knows enough to protest. It's not their information; it's ours. It belongs to the American people.
What did you think about the White House press secretary's announcement that the Obama Administration was going to adopt a sort of "take no prisoners" approach to pundits and media critics that they plan on singling them out specifically?
Not more than any other President. Nobody likes criticism, and nobody likes to feel attacked, of course. But I think it behooves all Administrations to tell the truth as much as they can, to bring the people with them. You cannot have a democracy without informed people. It shouldn't be a shock when the public finally learns things.
You wrote in the book that the press corps routinely gossiped about JFK's "extracurricular activities," as you worded it, but you never wrote about it. Nowadays, though, that rulebook has been thrown out.
Now, if the tabloids get a story, the mainstream has to hop on or they'll be accused of a cover-up. It shouldn't be a surprise for any President that he's being watched, that he lives in a goldfish bowl. There's no place to hide anymore.
You've experienced this too, right? During George W. Bush's Administration, you were caught off-record calling him the worst President in the nation's history.
After that comment was published, it went around the world about 50 times. The White House press secretary called me wanting to know if I really had said that. And I had to admit that I had, to a reporter while I was signing my book, though I didn't know it was a reporter. But I didn't apologize because it's what I felt at the time. Anyway, it's a free press.
Is there one Administration that sticks out as being more secretive than any other?
All of them are secretive. All of them. But I think we got a lot more out of President Kennedy and especially President [Lyndon] Johnson. He would summon us the entire press corps to the South Lawn and we'd stroll around the grounds with him. We'd call them the Bataan Death Marches because the women wore really high heels with pointed toes, and we would be falling all over each other. But we'd take these walks, and he would really let his hair down. We'd get real insight into how much he was suffering with Vietnam. He'd tell us a lot of things, then he would say it was all off the record. But we knew that he wanted us to write it without attribution.
So much has changed since you first started out as a reporter in the 1940s. What do you miss most?
We were much closer to the President back then. We could walk down the street without 10 circles of security around. Now it's more difficult.
Is there any way to get around that?
Sure, if you can make a good friend of the President, so you can call him up and say, "What's going on?" But that's nirvana.
What do you think of bloggers?
Everyone with a laptop thinks they're a journalist. Everyone with a cell phone thinks they're a photographer. So our profession is sidelined in a way. There's no turning back. It's frightening because you can ruin lives and reputations willy-nilly without realizing it. No editors. No standards. No ethics. We're at the crossroads. So many newspapers that are so valuable are going down the drain. It's a crisis.
Do you see a way out of this crisis?
I'm praying. I'm praying that we'll still have newspapers. That's where you get in-depth information. You can't get it from headline news or these very brief things on TV or on blogs. They don't explain anything.
What would you say to a recent journalism graduate who's watching newspapers and magazines fold left and right?
I'd say go for it. Keep your standards high. Understand that your role is to seek the truth, wherever it leads you.
You're known for saying "Thank you, Mr. President" at the end of each White House press conference. How did that tradition begin?
The tradition had been built up from Franklin D. Roosevelt, who always let the senior wire-service reporter in the room conclude each news conference. At one time, my boss at UPI had that honor, and he always said "Thank you." Then that privilege went to an AP reporter, who always said "Thank you." Then suddenly it was me.
Why do you think you're best remembered for it?
Because I'm so sassy. Most people worship at their shrine. They bow and scrape, and I say, "Who's this?" I sound very sophisticated, but I'm not. I've seen photographs of myself with my mouth open and wide-eyed when I see the President, and I say to myself, I'm not that jaded. I can tell I'm a fraud.
If you had to sum up your advice for a future President in one sentence, what would it be?
It would be, Do the right thing. There's no other place to go.