Helen Thomas’s career was marked by dedication and courage to seek truth, as well as controversy
The “First Lady of the Press” is what Helen Thomas became known as, as she sat in the front row of presidential press conferences. She always asked the first question and followed it with her final closing, “Thank you, Mr. President”, establishing a tradition that continues to this date. She was the only reporter whose name was inscribed on a chair in the White House briefing room. Fearless, outspoken, opinionated and known to ask the hard-hitting questions, Thomas covered 10 presidents over five decades as the “sitting Buddha” urging political leaders to speak the truth.
Born to Lebanese immigrants in Winchester, KY, and raised in Detroit, MI, Thomas started working as a journalist in D.C. after graduating from Wayne State University with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1942. In 1943 she began working for United Press International, a news wire service providing articles to newspapers around the country. Thomas was hired to write stories of interest to women. Thomas rose to become bureau chief, rather than remain inconspicuous as writers tend to be. She became a front face for journalism.
In 1958, UP merged with International News Service and became UPI where she worked till 1974. During that period, Thomas was covering President John F. Kennedy while attending daily press briefings and press conferences. She was also sent to cover the vacation of the president elect and his family in Palm Beach, Florida.
In 1959, Nikita Khrushchev, the first soviet head of state to visit the U.S., was to attend a summit with President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the Press Club. Thomas and others protested for being barred from the meeting and were eventually granted permission to attend. It was the first time women were allowed to attend a luncheon at the National Press Club. Over the span of her career, Thomas was the first female officer of the National Press Club, the White House Correspondents Association and the first female member of the Gridiron Club. During this period, Thomas’ first book, “Dateline: White House,” was published.
In 1972, she was the only print journalist to go on President Nixon’s historic trip to China; incidentally, she was also the only female member of staff allowed by the Chinese to accompany him. She also travelled with presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush while covering every presidential economic summit. Thomas stayed with UPI for 57 years, until 2000, when the company was purchased by News World Communications, founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, leader of the Unification Church.
However, Thomas’ career was not without conflict or controversy. She was known to be outspoken on matters of war and critical of the Presidents. Her ruthless pursuit of the truth made her unpopular among them, especially during the George W. Bush administration where she was moved to the back row during the presidential press conferences. “He is the worst president in all of American history,” she told the Daily Breeze of Torrance, CA.
She was openly critical of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and said, “We are involved in a war that is becoming more dubious everyday,” at Brigham Young University in 2003. “I thought it was wrong to invade a country without any provocation.” Furthermore, she confronted Bush in a press conference in March 2006 stating, “Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis,” as she unceasingly demanded an answer from Bush.
“People will never know how hard it is to get information,” Thomas told an interviewer, “especially if it’s locked up behind official doors; if politicians had their way, they would stamp top secret on the colour of the walls.”
After her resignation from UPI, the Hearst Corporation hired Thomas as a columnist. She received a lifetime award from the National Newspaper Association in 2002 and a lifetime achievement award from the Washington Press Club Foundation in 2007.
However, it was controversy that finally ended her career. Rabbi David Nesenoff asked Thomas in May 2010 whether she had any comments on Israel.
“Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” she answered. “Remember, these people are occupied and it’s their land. It’s not Germany, it’s not Poland.” Upon being asked where they should go, she responded, “They should go home. Poland, Germany and America and everywhere else.”
Thomas eventually issued an apology about her remarks: “They do not reflect my heartfelt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognise the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon.”
Within days she retired from columnist position and from her seat in the White House Briefing room. However, Nicholas F. Benton, owner and editor of the Falls Church approached Thomas to write for the weekly paper. She responded, “You do not want me. I’m poison.”
However she continued to write about national issues with dedication until her health failed her. On July 20, 2013 Thomas died after a long illness at her Washington D.C. apartment where she lived for more than sixty years. In a statement, President Obama observed: “What made Helen the ‘Dean of the White House Press Corps’ was not just the length of her tenure, but her fierce belief that our democracy works best when we ask tough questions and hold our leaders to account.”
Image from: http://www.theguardian.com/media/2013/jul/21/helen-thomas
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