In Memoriam: Helen Thomas

Posted by AzBlueMeanie:

A legendary giant of the Beltway political media for decades has passed away. The Washington Post eulogizes Journalist Helen Thomas dies at 92:

Helen_thomasHelen Thomas, a wire service correspondent and columnist whose sharp
questions from the front row of the White House press room annoyed nine
presidents but pried loose information about the workings of the federal
government, died July 20 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 Ms. Thomas had
been on dialysis with a kidney ailment.

Unintimidated by presidents or press secretaries, Ms. 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. In 2000, she quit UPI and became a columnist for Hearst
News Service.

* * *

She was among the most-recognized reporters in America as the short,
dark-eyed woman with the 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,” a tradition that ended with the
George W. Bush administration.

Her pointed queries often agitated
the powerful, but she was also lauded for asking questions “almost like
a housewife in Des Moines would ask,” a colleague once said.

* * *

“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.”

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 until
the 2010 gaffe. She was clear about her antipathy to secretive
government and her belief that the 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
press conferences for the next three years.

When he 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?”

Ms. Thomas publicly criticized her colleagues in the press and broadcast
media for failing to ask the hard questions as the Bush administration
prepared to go to war in Iraq. 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.”

She had spent much of her life fighting against unearned privilege,
leading a decades-long battle to gain female reporters equal access to
jobs, news and newsmakers.

* * *

Ms. Thomas became its first female president as well as the first
woman to be named White House bureau chief of a major wire service, the
first woman to be admitted to the Gridiron Club, the first woman to
serve as president of the White House Correspondents' Association, the
first female officer of the National Press Club and the recipient of
multiple lifetime achievement awards.

Helen Amelia Thomas was born Aug. 4, 1920, in Winchester, Ky.,
one of nine children of immigrants from Lebanon. A few years after her
birth, the family moved to Detroit, where her father ran a grocery store
in a neighborhood that was home to people of Italian, African, German,
and Arab ancestry.

he found her career while working on her high school newspaper, then
studied journalism at what is now Wayne State University. She paid for
her education by working in the college library and helping out at her
brother's gas station.

After graduating in 1942, she moved to
Washington, where she was briefly a copygirl, the newsroom equivalent of
a go-fer, at the old Washington Daily News. After being laid off, she
knocked on doors at the National Press Building until the United Press
wire service hired her in 1943 to write radio scripts, starting at 5:30
a.m., for a salary of $24 a week.

* * *

[B]y 1956 she had joined the wire's national staff to cover federal
agencies. In 1960, she was assigned to cover the presidential campaign
of John F. Kennedy. When Kennedy won the election, there was suddenly a
huge demand for stories about his glamorous wife, Jacqueline.

The
assignment turned out to be a gold mine. Ms. Thomas interviewed
hairdressers, clerks at clothing stores, caterers, pianists who played
at the family's parties and even the owner of the diaper service. She
and Lewine staked out the hospital when John Kennedy Jr. was born and
were such a frequent presence in Jacqueline Kennedy's life that the
first lady began calling them “the harpies” and complained to the Secret
Service that “two strange Spanish-looking women” were stalking her.

The
Kennedy administration was her favorite, she said in one of her four
books, “Front Row at the White House: My Life and Times” (1999), because
of the “vibrancy and vigah” that the family exuded. She was on hand,
and was captured in a photo, when Kennedy shook hands with a teenaged
Bill Clinton.

* * *

In 1970, her longtime mentor, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Merriman
Smith, committed suicide. Ms. Thomas was named UPI's senior White House
correspondent, the first woman to hold that post.

Few knew at the time that she was dating journalist Douglas B.
Cornell, who also covered the White House for the rival Associated Press
newswire. Cornell, 17 years her senior, was retiring in 1971, and Nixon
gave him a going-away party. In the midst of the ceremony, Pat Nixon
grabbed the microphone and announced the Thomas-Cornell engagement. “At
last,” Pat Nixon said, “I’ve scooped Helen Thomas.”

A few years later, Cornell learned that he had Alzheimer's
disease. He died in 1982. Ms. Thomas had no children; a complete list of
survivors could not be confirmed.

* * *

Known for her quick wit, Ms. Thomas didn’t hesitate to exercise it on
presidents. When a set of fortune-telling scales once spewed out a card
for Gerald Ford saying, “You are a brilliant leader,” Thomas glanced at
the card and cracked, “It got your weight wrong, too.” In China, she
accompanied Pat Nixon to a farm, where the first lady wondered about the
breed of some pigs in a pen. “Male chauvinist, of course,” Ms. Thomas
piped up. And when a man told her that ladies were not allowed in a
Bible study class taught by Jimmy Carter, she retorted, “I’m no lady,
I’m a reporter.”

Her performances at the annual Gridiron Club
song-and-dance show often brought down the house. She appeared in
comedian Stephen Colbert’s mock audition tape in 2006 for the job of
presidential spokesman, playing herself in relentless pursuit of him.
She turned up in President Bill Clinton’s 2000 spoof tape as well and
had a brief appearance in the 1993 movie “Dave,” rolling her eyes at the
fake president’s grand pronouncement.

In the 1980s, after the official planting of a Lebanon cedar tree on
the South Lawn of the White House, fellow reporters urged Ms. Thomas, a
Lebanese American, to pick up the ceremonial shovel and toss some dirt
into the hole to cover the roots.

“And as she shoveled,” ABC
News broadcaster Sam Donaldson later said, “I heard the ghosts of
presidents past and present say, ‘Shove her in.’ ”

She was
president of the Women’s National Press Club in 1959, named one of the
“25 Most Influential Women in America” by the World Almanac in 1976 and.
In 1998, was the first recipient of a prize established in her name by
the White House Correspondents' Association — the Helen Thomas Lifetime
Achievement Award.

In 1984, when Ms. Thomas received the National
Press Club’s Fourth Estate Award, Reagan told her: “You are not only a
fine and respected professional, you have also become an important part
of the American Presidency.”

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 Inc., 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.

“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.

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