Helen Thomas, the veteran White House reporter who had covered every president since John F. Kennedy, was such a familiar figure to reporters and anyone who ever watched a presidential press conference, that her passing on Saturday elicited a raft of obituaries filled with inevitable clichés about her tenacity, longevity, and irascible nature.
Meeting life’s final deadline at the age of 92, Thomas was described as “an institution” and a “pioneer.” That she was the unofficial “dean of the White House press corps” was duly noted, as was her ceremonial role of being the reporter who, for decades, closed each presidential press conference with the line, “Thank you, Mr. President.” And indeed, she was all those things.
The first woman assigned by a news service to cover the White House full-time, Thomas found herself on a landscape beset with obstacles, all of which she overcame during her 57 years at United Press International (UPI), which once was a worthy rival of the Associated Press. For the first 11 years that Thomas covered the White House, she wasn’t allowed to set foot in the ballroom of the National Press Club, a men-only preserve at that time, and a setting frequently used for big-deal press conferences. She went on to become the club’s first woman officer.
“I never aspired to be first; I only aspired to be there,” Thomas told an audience gathered in her honor in 2000, on the occasion of her retirement from UPI, which she left when the organization, a shell of its former self, was sold to a media company owned by the Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. The event took place in the very ballroom from which Thomas was once barred.
Thomas also served as the first woman president of the White House Press Correspondents Association and of the Gridiron Club, an exclusive organization of White House journalists.
Known for her pointed questions to presidents and their aides, Thomas was a bane to presidential press secretaries. The late President Gerald R. Ford once described her style as “a fine blend of journalism and acupuncture.” During the presidency of George W. Bush, Thomas’s questioning of the administration’s attempts to link Iraq to the 9/11 terrorist attacks helped lead to her demotion in the pecking order of the White House press room; she lost her ceremonial role in the closing of presidential press conferences.
I had the pleasure of being at that National Press Club gathering 13 years ago, after Thomas announced she’d be making the transition from UPI beat reporter to columnist for the Hearst newspaper chain. Then, she still retained her front-row seat in the White House press room, and hers was still the last voice heard at a presidential press conference.
It was a heady time for women; Hillary Clinton was running for the U.S. Senate, a move many saw as positioning for a presidential bid. Thomas, taking a question from the audience on the future of women in politics, all but licked her lips at the prospect of closing a press conference with the words, “Thank you, Madam President.”
“I certainly foresee a woman president early in this century,” Thomas said.
Thomas never lost sight of what she regarded as her improbable good fortune to have landed where she did, having been a child of immigrants from Lebanon, the daughter of a man she described as illiterate. She was proud of her Arab background, and was known to dine frequently at Mama Ayesha’s, a Middle Eastern restaurant on the edge of her neighborhood. And she cheered the progress of women in both journalism and politics, often spontaneously offering encouragement.
When, in 2006, I invited her to stop by a National Press Club gathering of women who aspired to get a foothold in opinion-based media, she did so despite the lack of an honorarium, basking in the attention, but also sitting for a long time at a table of young women, taking their questions.
“I’ve always said that I wanted to die with my boots on,” Thomas once said, and she likely would have, had it not been for some ill-considered comments she made during an impromptu interview outside the White House, conducted by a rabbi with a video camera.
Asked what she had to say about Israel, Thomas, then 89, replied that “the Jews should get the hell out of Palestine.” If she had stopped there, she might have been given something of a pass, due to her age and a perspective colored by the history of her own people. But when she went on to say that Israeli Jews should “go home” to Poland and Germany “and America and everywhere,” she demonstrated a callous disregard for the legacy of the Holocaust, naming the two countries where some 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis. Those comments spelled the end of Thomas’ journalism and speaking career.
Though she issued an apology on her website, Thomas contradicted its peacemaking tone in later interviews. While many have tried to attribute her comments to the infirmities of age, I have my doubts. People are complicated. They can do admirable things and still harbor bitterness and contempt.
The mind of Helen Thomas was never much of a mystery; the woman said what she thought. Even when you might wish she wouldn’t.