The woman who broke down stereotypes

One of 10 children born to poor, Greek Orthodox Lebanese parents who migrated to the United States, Helen Thomas scaled the heights in her professional life as a White House reporter – until controversy ended it.

Helen Thomas: White House correspondent; August 4, 1920 – July 20, 2013

Helen Thomas, whose keen curiosity, unquenchable drive and celebrated constancy made her a trailblazing White House correspondent in a press corps dominated by men and who was later regarded as the dean of the White House briefing room, died last month at her home in Washington. She was 92.

Her death was announced by the Gridiron Club, one of Washington’s leading news societies. Ms Thomas was a past president of the organisation. Ms Thomas covered every president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama for United Press International and, later, Hearst Newspapers. To her colleagues, she was the unofficial but undisputed head of the press corps, her status ratified by her signature line at the end of every White House news conference: ‘Thank you, Mr President.’

Her blunt questions and sharp tone made her a familiar personality not only in the parochial world inside the Washington Beltway but also to television audiences across the country.

‘Helen was a true pioneer, opening doors and breaking down barriers for generations of women in journalism,’ President Obama said in a statement (following the announcement of her death). ‘She never failed to keep presidents — myself included — on their toes.’

Presidents grew to respect, even to like, Ms Thomas for her forthrightness and stamina, which sustained her well after the age at which most people had settled into retirement. President Bill Clinton gave her a cake on Aug. 4, 1997, her 77th birthday. Twelve years later, President Obama gave her cupcakes for her 89th. At his first news conference in February 2009, Mr Obama called on her, saying: ‘Helen, I’m excited. This is my inaugural moment.’

But 16 months later, Ms Thomas abruptly announced her retirement from Hearst amid an uproar over her assertion that Jews should ‘get the hell out of Palestine’ and go back where they belonged, perhaps Germany or Poland. Her remarks, made almost offhandedly days earlier at a White House event, set off a storm when a videotape was posted.

In her retirement announcement, Ms Thomas, whose parents immigrated to the United States from what is now Lebanon, said that she deeply regretted her remarks and that they did not reflect her ‘heartfelt belief’ that peace would come to the Middle East only when all parties embraced “mutual respect and tolerance.” ‘May that day come soon,’ she said.

Ms Thomas’s career bridged two eras, beginning during World War II when people got their news mostly from radio, newspapers and movie newsreels, and extending into the era of 24-hour information on cable television and the Internet. She resigned from UPI on May 16, 2000, a day after it was taken over by an organization with links to the Unification Church.

Weeks later, Ms Thomas was hired by Hearst to write a twice-weekly column on national issues. She spent the last 10 years of her working life there.

When Ms Thomas took a job as a radio writer for United Press in 1943 (15 years before it merged with the International News Service to become U.P.I.), most female journalists wrote about social events and homemaking. The journalists who covered war, crime and politics, and congratulated one another over drinks at the press club were typically men.

She worked her way into full-time reporting and by the mid-1950s was covering federal agencies. She covered John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960, and when he won she became the first woman assigned to the White House full time by a news service.

Ms Thomas was also the first woman to be elected an officer of the White House Correspondents’ Association and the first to serve as its president. In 1975, she became the first woman elected to the Gridiron Club, which for 90 years had been a men-only bastion of Washington journalists.

Ms Thomas was known for her dawn-to-dark work hours, and she won her share of exclusives and near-exclusives. She was the only female print journalist to accompany President Richard M. Nixon on his breakthrough trip to China in 1972.

‘Helen was a better reporter than she was a writer — but in her prime had more than her share of scoops the rest of us would try to match,’ Mark Knoller, the long-time CBS News White House reporter, wrote in a Twitter message on Saturday morning.

And, he added, ‘Pity the poor WH press aide who would try to tell Helen, “You can’t stand there”.’

Full obituary in The New York Times:

Obituary on Gulf News:

The controversy which ended the career of Helen Thomas:

Wikipedia on Helen Thomas:

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