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 United Press International 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 “Thank you, Mr. President.”
‘A TRUE PIONEER’
“Helen was a true pioneer, opening doors and breaking down barriers for generations of women in journalism,” President Obama said. “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 Nixon point-blank what his secret plan to end the Vietnam War was, and she asked President 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 magazine profile, “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.
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.
TOE TO TOE WITH BUSH
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 tried 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 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.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Thomas, Associated Press reporter Fran Lewine and Washington Post writer Elsie Carper fought to gain admittance to the newsmaking luncheons at the National Press Club, which then barred women from its membership.
Women were allowed in starting in 1956, but were relegated to a balcony, where they were not permitted to ask questions of the guests. After another decade of activism, women were finally allowed to join the National Press Club as full members in 1971.
Thomas became the club’s first female officer, as well as the first woman to be named White House bureau chief of a major wire service.
Helen Amelia Thomas was born Aug. 4, 1920, in Winchester, Ky., one of nine children of immigrants from present-day Lebanon. She found her career while working on her high school newspaper, then studied journalism at what is now Wayne State University in Detroit. After graduating in 1942, she moved to Washington, where she was briefly a copy girl, 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.
In 1960, she was assigned to report on 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 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 when Kennedy shook hands with a teenage Bill Clinton in July 1963.
Over the next decade, Thomas began reporting harder news, still finding the unusual and juicy tidbit. President Johnson was furious when he learned through Thomas’ UPI report that his daughter Luci was engaged.
In 1970, her longtime mentor, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Merriman Smith, committed suicide. Thomas was named UPI’s senior White House correspondent, the first woman to hold that post.
Known for her quick wit, 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,” she 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,” 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.”