July 20, 2013

Helen Thomas, dean of White House press corps, dies at 92

Not intimidated by power, Helen Thomas reported for the UPI wire service for almost 60 years.

By PATRICIA SULLIVAN The Washington Post

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.

click image to enlarge

In this March 26, 2009, file photo veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas asks White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs a question during the White House daily briefing in Washington. Thomas, a pioneer for women in journalism and an irrepressible White House correspondent, has died. She was 92.

AP

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."

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