Helen Thomas was born the year women got the vote and entered the workforce writing radio copy during World War II, when the men were away fighting and there were jobs for women. When the men returned home, the women were expected to do the same, but Thomas held her ground, displaying the determination and the grit that would mark a career that spanned 10 presidents, from Kennedy to Obama.
When Thomas died at her home in Washington on Saturday at age 92, she took with her the title dean of the White House press corps, bestowed by her colleagues. No other media figure regularly covering the White House today comes even close to Thomas’s longevity and devotion to a briefing room that must compete with and is often overshadowed by a whole new media universe in the digital age.
Woody Allen said 90 percent of life is showing up, and Thomas showed up earlier and stayed later than any other reporter. She never lost her sense of awe at being able to walk up the long, winding driveway and enter the White House. President Clinton came to the briefing room with a birthday cake when she turned 77; President Obama appeared with cupcakes for her 89th birthday, sitting next to her in the front row with his arm around her to pose for pictures.
She never let the awe she felt temper her tough questions. She regarded presidents as flawed human beings just passing through, and she had a contentious relationship at times with every president. After she left United Press International for Hearst Newspapers, President George W. Bush took the opportunity to move her out of the front-row seat reserved for wire-service reporters in presidential press conferences to a back row where he could better ignore her sharp questions about the Iraq War.
Thomas had her share of scoops, and they included being the first to report on the death of Caroline Kennedy’s hamster. Laugh if you will, but this was big news in the age of Camelot, when the public was eager for every scrap of information about the first family and their young children. Thomas called White House press secretary Pierre Salinger at 3 a.m. to get confirmation.
In her book, Front Row at the White House, Thomas describes the phone calls she received from Martha Mitchell, wife of Attorney General John Mitchell, after the break-in at the Democratic headquarters. The Nixon administration portrayed Martha Mitchell as a bit daft, perhaps drunk, and not to be taken seriously. Thomas filed stories that sometimes made it onto the wires, and at other times got spiked by disbelieving editors. As the Watergate scandal unfolded, Martha Mitchell’s ramblings looked prescient. She told an interviewer, “Helen Thomas, I knew, would print the truth no matter what it cost her personally, and I wanted the truth to be known.”
After Watergate, as journalism became a more glamorous and desirable profession, Thomas would often get the question “When are you going to retire?” In her 60s, she had no intention of walking away from a career she loved. “They never asked Pablo Casals when he was going to retire,” she would say. The famed cellist played into his 90s, just as Thomas came close to doing.
She was three months short of her 90th birthday when she left the White House beat and her cherished front-row seat in the briefing room. An offhand comment about how Israeli settlers “should get the hell out of Palestine” and go back to where they came from set off a firestorm from which Thomas couldn’t recover. The daughter of Lebanese immigrants, she felt a strong emotional connection to the Arab side of the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and at age 89, she perhaps had stopped caring what others thought. In any event, her efforts to apologize and/or clarify were dismissed as not enough, and she resigned from Hearst.
Thomas had a string of firsts in her trailblazing career, the first woman to become president of the White House Correspondents’ Association and the Gridiron Club, where for years she was a featured performer, singing political ditties at the Gridiron’s annual dinner.
Her perseverance and her performance over these many decades blazed a trail for those who followed, and she never tired of reminding young women how anything worth having is worth fighting for. She will be remembered as tough and relentless, qualities that define her success, but there was a softer side to Thomas. In 1971, at age 50, she married her competitor, Doug Thornell, AP’s White House correspondent, who had announced his retirement. Four years later, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Thomas with the help of one of her sisters, cared for him until he died in 1982. Decades later, the mere mention of his name would bring tears to her eyes.