Helen Amelia Thomas was born with an inquisitive nature. Even as a child, she was fascinated with the world around her. And it was this insatiable curiosity about life that took her all the way to the White House.
Born in Winchester, Ky., and raised in Detroit, Thomas was the daughter of Lebanese immigrants. Her father George came to the U.S. in 1892 from Syria; at Ellis Island the immigration officer Anglicized his surname Antonious to Thomas. Although he couldn’t read or write and was blind in one eye, he married her mother Mary, fathered nine children (Helen was the seventh) and operated a small grocery store. In the midst of such a large family, the short-statured and painfully shy Helen developed a loud voice and a quick wit that would help her later in life.
Thomas was 12 years old when she decided to become a newspaper reporter, and her fate was sealed in the 10th grade after she saw her first byline in the school paper. At Wayne University (now Wayne State University), she majored in English because the college didn’t offer journalism courses, and worked on the college newspaper. With the firm belief that she had “printer’s ink” in her veins, Thomas moved to Washington D.C. after graduating in 1942.
The country was at war in Europe and the Pacific, and many industries that were dominated by men began opening their doors to female applicants. Yet it still took Thomas a full year of knocking on doors at the city’s four newspapers to land a job as a “copyboy” on the now-defunct Washington Daily News. There she ran errands, fetched wire stories and made coffee — all for $17.50/week. But Thomas didn’t care. “I guess I would have swept the floors if they told me to. As far as I was concerned, I was working in journalism,” she wrote in her book, “Front Row at the White House: My Life and Times.”
After a few months, Thomas was promoted to cub reporter and assigned to cover local news. One of her duties involved writing obituaries, which required her to call up the families of soldiers who appeared on the casualty rolls. “The horror of it all was that sometimes we called the families before the War Department (there was no Pentagon then) had even notified them. We’d hear the screams over the phone. This was a very sobering thing,” she wrote.
Within a year, the young and energetic reporter went to work for United Press (later United Press International), where she remained for nearly 60 years. Thomas covered the Justice Department, the Supreme Court, the Post Office, the Federal Communications Commission, the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. For years she toiled, writing hundreds of stories, and it was her hard-driving, competitive nature and utter devotion to the job that brought her to the White House press room.
In 1960, United Press already had two reporters covering the president of the United States: Merriman “Smitty” Smith and Al Spivak. But after Thomas began showing up to help out with various stories — and to cover First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy — they generously allowed her to join their previously all-male ranks.
Thomas believed that the White House belonged to the American people and she felt that in many ways it was hallowed ground. So she always counted herself “immensely privileged, even lucky” to go there every day and keep a watchful eye on the country’s leaders. “People hunger for information,” she wrote. “One of the great things about being in journalism is that you’re helping to educate people, that you are really giving them information that they need to preserve a democracy.”
Over the course of covering 10 administrations — from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama — Thomas took it upon herself to ask the hard questions. She soon became known as the White House watchdog, or as The New York Times described her, an equal-opportunity pit bull, one who refused to allow the people in power to work unchecked. In this way, Thomas was the epitome of everything the fourth estate stood for: to act as the people’s voice and to make sure those in power wielded it responsibly. “It’s been said that the questions I ask of presidents are the kind that are on the mind of a ‘housewife from Des Moines,’ and I hope that is true,” Thomas wrote. “To me, she personifies what the nation wants to know, and too many times these presidents have forgotten they are responsible and accountable to her and the country.”
The tradition of giving the wire services the first question and a front row seat in the press room provided Thomas with the opportunity to set the tone for presidential briefings, and made her the bane of both presidents and press secretaries alike. Her dogged pursuit of the truth was viewed by some to be overly combative, but others appreciated her penchant for asking hard-hitting questions.
Thomas’ reporting prowess lead to a promotion in 1974 to White House bureau chief, and once the briefings were televised, the public began to recognize her as the feisty woman up front who would demand the truth and end press briefings with the polite phrase “Thank you, Mr. President.” On a cab ride in 1988, the driver turned around and asked her, “Aren’t you the woman the presidents love to hate?”
Thomas was at the hospital when John F. Kennedy Jr. was born. She danced with Lyndon B. Johnson at an inauguration party, but later earned his ire when he found out that his daughter Luci was getting engaged from one of her stories. She was the only female print journalist to travel with President Richard Nixon to China during his historic trip in 1972, and was the only reporter to land an exclusive interview with Martha Mitchell (the wife of Attorney General John Mitchell), which helped expose some aspects of the Watergate scandal. Thomas described Gerald Ford as friendly and down-to-earth and found Jimmy Carter to be very religious and amiable. Although she thought Ronald Reagan lacked credibility, she listened to him describe the terrible pain he felt after being shot and accompanied him to the beaches of Normandy to commemorate the 40th anniversary of D-Day.
While she described President George H.W. Bush as personable, Thomas viewed his son, George W. Bush, as the “worst president in American history.” When those comments were published in a California newspaper, the second Bush White House retaliated by not calling on her during a press conference (it was the first time in four decades that she was not granted the first question). Thomas later apologized to the president, and Bush accepted it, but her view of his decisions did not change. In her book, “Watchdogs of Democracy: The Waning Washington Press Corps And How It Failed The Public,” Thomas also took the White House and Pentagon reporters to task for blithely accepting the Bush administration’s rationale for going to war: “I honestly believe that if reporters had put the spotlight on the flaws in the Bush administration’s war policies, they could have saved the country the heartache and the losses of American and Iraqi lives.”
The feisty journalist described Bill Clinton as brilliant, secretive and quick to anger, but noted that he took the time to attend a surprise party for her birthday and even tried to interview her. As for Obama, she liked him well enough; however, she strongly disapproved of the way his administration tried to control the press.
When Thomas wasn’t reporting the news, she penned “Backstairs at the White House,” a popular syndicated column that offered an insider’s view of each administration. “I can say that after all these years of president-watching, I’m still in awe of the presidency and what it means to Americans, but not necessarily in awe of the man who was sitting there at any given time,” she wrote.
As the longest-serving White House journalist, Thomas earned numerous nicknames, including “First Lady of the Press” and the “Dean of the White House Press Corps.” Her groundbreaking career helped clear the path for countless women in journalism; she not only led by example, she shattered the glass ceiling in the press room and then encouraged others to follow in her stead.
Thomas served as president of the Women’s National Press Club from 1959 to 1960, and financial secretary of the National Press Club (once women were allowed to join). She was elected the first woman president of the White House Correspondents Association, and was inducted as the first woman member of the Gridiron Club.
Thomas was the first woman and the first wire service reporter to ever receive the National Press Club’s Fourth Estate Award (other recipients include Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid). She also received more than 30 honorary degrees and numerous other awards, including the William Allen White Foundation Award for Journalistic Merit and the Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media. In 1998, the White House Correspondents’ Association honored her by establishing the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award.
On May 17, 2000, the day after United Press International was acquired by News World Communications Inc., an international media conglomerate controlled by Unification Church leader Reverend Sun Myung Moon, Thomas resigned in protest. She joined Hearst Newspapers as an opinion columnist two months later, but the move cost her the right to ask the first question in press briefings.
Despite such an illustrious career, Thomas retired in 2010 following the broadcast of controversial, off-hand statements she made about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A rabbi who was visiting the White House pulled out a video camera and asked Thomas for comments about Israel. She replied: “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.” When asked where Israeli Jews should go, she said they could “go home” to Poland or Germany or “America and everywhere else. Why push people out of there who have lived there for centuries?” Thomas later apologized for the remarks, but they cost her a great deal of respect in the industry. The Society of Professional Journalists voted to retire the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement, and her alma mater discontinued the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity Award.
Outside of work, Thomas lived a fairly quiet life. She woke each day at dawn, and by 6 a.m. was reading the newspapers and wires as she drank her coffee. Her home office was filled with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and six of the books on those shelves bore her name.
At 51, she wed Douglas Cornell, an Associated Press reporter who she described as her “competition for 10 years and her husband for 11.” Since he was also a journalist, Cornell understood Thomas’ devotion to the job, so in that way, they were well-matched. Unfortunately, after only four years of marriage, Cornell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He died in 1982 at the age of 75. “He left a big hole in my life. He was a wonderful husband, wise and good and a great friend,” Thomas said. When asked if she liked being married, Thomas replied, “It was probably the most unexpected and wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Thomas died on July 20. Cause of death was not released. She was 92.
Photo by Michael Foley. Used with permission.