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

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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

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.

COVERING KENNEDY

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.

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