Journalist Helen Thomas, Feisty Scourge of Presidents, Dies at 92
Bill Clinton congratulates pioneering journalist Helen Thomas at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner in 1998 after she received a lifetime achievement award, which was named for her. Thomas died July 20 in Washington at age 92. Illustrates THOMAS-OBIT (category a), by Patricia Sullivan (c) The Washington Post. Moved Saturday July 20, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: The Washington Post photo by Frank Johnston)
In 2000, journalist Helen Thomas arrives at the 200th anniversary of the White House, exclaiming as she walked in, "Take my picture!" She is accompanied by Charles J. Lewis, the Washington bureau chief for Hearst Newspapers. Thomas died July 20 in Washington at age 92. Illustrates THOMAS-OBIT (category a), by Patricia Sullivan (c) The Washington Post. Moved Saturday July 20, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: The Washington Post photo by James A. Parcell)
Washington — Helen Thomas, a wire service correspondent and columnist whose sharp questions from the front row of the White House press room challenged and annoyed nine presidents and who was effective in divulging information that federal officials tried to keep secret, died Saturday at her home in Washington. She was 92.
A friend, retired journalist Muriel Dobbin, confirmed her death. No immediate cause of death was disclosed, but Thomas had been on dialysis for a kidney ailment.
Unintimidated by presidents or press secretaries, Thomas was known as the dean of the White House press corps for her longevity in the beat. She reported for the United Press International wire service for almost 60 years.
Among the most-recognized reporters in America, 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.”
“Helen was a true pioneer, opening doors and breaking down barriers for generations of women in journalism,” President Obama said in a statement. “She covered every White House since President Kennedy’s, and during that time she never failed to keep presidents — myself included — on their toes.”
Thomas’ pointed queries often agitated the powerful, but she was also lauded for posing questions “almost like a housewife in Des Moines would ask,” a colleague once said. She asked President Richard Nixon point-blank what his secret plan to end the Vietnam War was, and she asked President Ronald Reagan what right the United States had to invade Grenada in 1983.
When President George H.W. Bush announced that the defense budget would remain the same after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of communism in Europe, she succinctly asked, “Who’s the enemy?”
“I respect the office of the presidency,” she told Ann McFeatters for a 2006 profile in Ms. magazine, “but I never worship at the shrines of our public servants. They owe us the truth.”
Thomas had a number of scoops, including her exclusive interviews with Martha Mitchell, which helped expose some aspects of the Watergate scandal. Mitchell, the wife of Attorney General John Mitchell, told Thomas in late-night phone calls that she had seen a Nixon campaign strategy book that included plans for Watergate-style operations. Thomas also broke the story that Nixon’s speechwriters were working on a resignation address that he would give the next day.
Her strength was her indefatigable pursuit of hard news, the bread-and-butter staple of the wire services. She arrived at work every morning before dawn and accompanied nine presidents on overseas trips. She was the only female print reporter to accompany Nixon on his historic visit to China, and later, in her 70s and 80s, she often outdistanced younger reporters on arduous around-the-world travels.
Her unparalleled experience covering the presidency earned her the respect and affection of both colleagues and public officials for decades.
In 2000, she quit UPI and became a columnist for the Hearst News Service, a job she retired from in 2010 after she told a rabbi that Jewish settlers should “get the hell out of Palestine” and go back to “Poland, Germany, America and everywhere else.”
She apologized, but White House spokesman Robert Gibbs denounced her comments as “offensive and reprehensible.” The White House Correspondents’ Association issued a rare admonishment, calling her statements “indefensible.”
The remarks ignited a controversy that had been simmering for years. The daughter of Lebanese immigrants, Thomas routinely questioned White House officials over U.S. policies toward Israel and the Middle East, which led some to complain she was too sympathetic to Palestinian and Arab viewpoints. Bush spokesman Tony Snow once famously answered one of her questions with, “Thank you for the Hezbollah view.”
Thomas was clear about her antipathy to secretive government and her belief that the George W. Bush administration disregarded well-established law. In 2003, she told another reporter that she was covering “the worst president in American history.” The remark was quoted, and Bush, who was not amused, froze her out. She apologized in writing, and he accepted her regrets but did not call on her at his news conferences for the next three years.
When he finally did, she immediately fired off a classic Thomas question:
“I’d like to ask you, Mr. President. Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is: Why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, from your Cabinet — your Cabinet officers, intelligence people and so forth — what was your real reason? You have said it wasn’t oil — quest for oil — it hasn’t been Israel or anything else. What was it?”
She and Bush went toe to toe, interrupting each other as the president attempted to respond.
“I’m never going to forget the vow I made to the American people,” Bush said, “that we will do everything in our power to protect our people.”
Thomas publicly criticized her colleagues in the press and broadcast media for failing to ask the hard questions of the Bush administration, but she saved her toughest criticisms for elected officials.
“We are the only institution in our society that can question a president on a regular basis and make him accountable,” she told author Kay Mills for a 1996 Modern Maturity magazine article. “Otherwise, he could be king.”
Thomas was president of the Women’s National Press Club in 1959 and was named one of the “25 Most Influential Women in America” by the World Almanac in 1976. In 1998, she was the first recipient of a prize established in her name by the White House Correspondents’ Association — the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award.
After spending most of her working life at UPI, Thomas quit the wire service in 2000, the day after the announcement of its acquisition by News World Communications, a company founded and controlled by Unification Church leader, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Within two months, she became a columnist for Hearst Newspapers and resumed her seat in the White House briefing room, but in the back row rather than the front row.
At the time, colleagues and sources lined up to praise her.
“It’s not too strong to say that Helen’s a hero of journalism — to work that long, that well, under that much pressure at that high an altitude,” said former CBS News anchorman Dan Rather.
She returned to her seat in the front row in 2007, courtesy of the White House Correspondents’ Association.