Remembering Helen Thomas, pioneer
She spent nearly 50 years covering 10 presidents
July 22, 2013
Say this for Helen Thomas: You never wondered where she stood on anything.
From her tough badgering of 10 presidents over half a decade to her six books, most of them about life inside the Beltway, to the controversy that forced her into retirement 25 years after most people stop working, Thomas was forthright and to the point.
The 92-year-old died Saturday following an extended illness.
Thomas was a pioneer in the White House press corps.
She started her career just out of college as a waitress in Washington, D.C., but she quickly found the work didn’t suit her. So she took a clerical job with the Washington Daily News.
Later she moved to United Press International, and she took over the White House beat for the wire service when John F. Kennedy took office in 1961.
She remained with UPI until 2000, when it was purchased by News World Communications, which was founded by the leader of the Unification Church, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
Thomas was hired as a columnist by Hearst Newspapers soon after, and she seemed to relish the freedom of finally being able to share her own opinions after years of objective reporting.
In 2010 she was embroiled in controversy over those opinions. She was caught on a video posted to YouTube saying that the Jewish people should “get the hell out of Palestine” and go back to Europe or America.
Thomas, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, later apologized but she retired amidst the furor.
Still, she was a pioneering figure in Washington, where she became the first female president of the White House Correspondents’ Association and Washington’s Gridiron Club.
She ended every press conference in later years with the signature line, “Thank you, Mr. President.”
Here’s what people are saying about Thomas following her death:
David Stout, New York Times
“Presidents grew to respect, even to like, Ms. Thomas for her forthrightness and stamina, which sustained her well after the age at which most people had settled into retirement. President Bill Clinton gave her a cake on Aug. 4, 1997, her 77th birthday. Twelve years later, President Obama gave her cupcakes for her 89th. At his first news conference in February 2009, Mr. Obama called on her, saying: ‘Helen, I’m excited. This is my inaugural moment.’”
Patrick Gavin, Politico
“The bulk of Thomas’ career was marked by both her trailblazing role as a female White House reporter and her aggressive and argumentative questioning style. From her perch in the front row of the White House briefing room, Thomas prodded each president with pointed questions and a low tolerance for talking points.”
Patricia Sullivan, Washington Post
“Among the most-recognized reporters in America, Ms. Thomas was a short, dark-eyed woman with a gravelly voice who, for many years, rose from her front-row seat at presidential news conferences to ask the first or second question. For nearly 30 years, she closed the sessions with a no-nonsense ‘Thank you, Mr. President.’”
Detroit Free Press
“Starting as a copy girl in 1943, when women were considered unfit for serious reporting, Thomas rose to bureau chief for UPI.
“Working at a news service, where writers expect obscurity, she became one of journalism’s most recognized faces. Thomas embraced her role as a Washington institution, doing cameos in movies, giving lectures, writing books about her life until the spotlight landed on inflammatory remarks she made about Israel.”
Jack Mirkinson, Huffington Post
“Thomas became known for her tough, relentless questioning of presidents and press secretaries. It was not an uncommon sight to see a president repeatedly saying, “Helen—Helen—Helen,” as he tried to get a word in edgewise. She became a special foe of the Bush administration, whose policies she openly loathed. President Bush famously refused to call on her at press conferences for years at a time.”
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