President Barack Obama can be thankful that Helen Thomas was well past her prime and spunkiness by the time he took up residence in the White House and fielded questions from the press.
Thomas was a reporter who was often a thorn in the side of presidents, beginning with JFK. Often called the “Dean of the White Press Corps,” Thomas, 92, died Saturday in Washington, D.C. Never one to bite her tongue or to be afraid to speak truth to power, Thomas was the first female reporter to cover the president. She was also the first woman to head the White House Correspondents Association, and among the first women admitted to the National Press Club.
“At her urging in 1962,” a statement from the Correspondents Association declared, “Kennedy said he would not attend the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents Association unless it was opened to women for the first time. It was.”
And this was just the beginning for the feisty Thomas, a United Press International reporter for more than 60 years, who needed to pose the first—and often the hardest—question to the commander in chief. President George W. Bush felt her sting in 2005, when she assailed him for conducting a war in Iraq.
“Why did you really want to go to war?” Thomas asked. “They didn’t do anything to you or to our country.”
“Excuse me for a second,” Bush stammered. “They did. The Taliban provided safe haven for al-Qaeda. That’s where al-Qaeda trained.”
“I’m talking about Iraq,” she said.
This was Thomas at her nettlesome best, and her journalistic career is chock full of such tense and challenging moments for not only presidents but other political leaders.
“What made Helen the ‘Dean of the White House Press Corps,’” Obama said, “was not just the length of her tenure, but her fierce belief that our democracy works best when we ask tough questions and hold our leaders to account. Our thoughts are with Helen’s family, her friends and the colleagues who respected her so deeply.”
Thomas was born on Aug. 4, 1920, in Winchester, Ky. Her parents were from what is present day Lebanon and they settled in Detroit shortly after Thomas’ birth. At Wayne State University she majored in journalism. In 1942, with a degree in her hand, she headed for the nation’s capital and secured a job as a copy girl or “gofer” at the Washington Daily News.
Laid off from the Daily News, she was hired by United Press to write radio scripts. Three years later, in 1945, with the war over, Thomas was one of the few women to stay on at the press with the influx of men returning from service and pushing women back to the household. By 1956, she was a full-time staff reporter for UPI, which came into existence after UP was taken over by International News.
She obtained a plum assignment in 1960 covering the presidential campaign of JFK. Kennedy’s victory also brought Thomas additional cache, given her closeness to the president’s wife, Jacqueline. But her interest and ultimate target was the president, and she set about this mission with vigor and a take-no-prisoners attitude. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon seemed to arouse her ire more than any of the others.
Thomas’ anger finally got the best of her when she told a rabbi that Jewish settlers should “get the hell out of Palestine … and go back to Poland, Germany, America and everywhere else.” This ended her employment at UPI and she took a job as a columnist at Hearst News Service. She relinquished this post three years ago.
Though she apologized for her comments, the White House Correspondents Association took her to task, citing her statements as “indefensible.”
Right to the very end of her career, Thomas kept her integrity intact and refused to cower or to be intimidated by the powers that be or even an association she once led. In her book “Front Row at the White House: My Life and Times,” much of Thomas’ wit, insight and wisdom abound from page to page. The book is but an extended version of those news stories that typified her sass and pizzazz.