HELEN THOMAS | 1920-2013
50 Years of Tough Questions and ‘Thank You, Mr. President’
Frank Wolfe/LBJ Library, via Reuters
By DAVID STOUT
Published: July 20, 2013
WASHINGTON — 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 on Saturday 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 organization.
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 on Saturday. “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 U.P.I.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 longtime 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.' ”
In the Watergate era, she was a favorite late-night confidante of Martha Mitchell, the wife of John N. Mitchell, Mr. Nixon’s attorney general and campaign official. Mrs. Mitchell told Ms. Thomas that responsibility for the “third-rate burglary” at the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington and the cover-up that followed it had gone far above the midlevel officials who were implicated early on.
People with a vested interest in discrediting Mrs. Mitchell hinted that she was emotionally unstable and that she drank too much. But volatile or not, she was right. Ms. Thomas called Mrs. Mitchell, who died in 1976, “one of the first victims, and perhaps the only heroine, of the Watergate tidal wave.”
On April 22, 1981, three weeks after the attempt on President Ronald Reagan’s life, Ms. Thomas and a reporter for The Associated Press interviewed the president, who told them of the “paralyzing pain” he had felt when a bullet went into his chest and of the panic that had overcome him when he could not breathe.
In 1971, Ms. Thomas married Douglas Cornell, a widower, who was about to retire as a White House reporter for The A.P. and was 14 years her senior. He died in 1982.
Ms. Thomas wrote half a dozen books. Her first, “Dateline: White House,” was published by Macmillan in 1975. Four others were published by Scribner: “Front Row at the White House: My Life and Times,” in 2000; “Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President: Wit and Wisdom From the Front Row at the White House,” in 2003; “Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public,” in 2006; and “Listen Up, Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do,” written with Craig Crawford, in 2009. With the illustrator Chip Bok, she also wrote a children’s book, “The Great White House Breakout,” about a little boy whose mother is president.
Helen Thomas was born in Winchester, Ky., on Aug. 4, 1920, and grew up in Detroit, one of 10 children of George and Mary Thomas. Her father, who could not read or write, encouraged his children to go to college.
In 1942, when Ms. Thomas graduated from what is now Wayne State University in Detroit with a major in English, the country was at war. She went to Washington to look for a job.
She found one, as a waitress. But she did not last long. “I didn’t smile enough,” she recalled years later.
The Washington Daily News soon hired her in a clerical job; soon after that, she began her career with the United Press news service.
“Where’d this girl come from?'” she asked of herself in an appearance before a women’s group in 1999. “I love my work, and I think that I was so lucky to pick a profession where it’s a joy to go to work every day.”
Before she left U.P.I. in May 2000, the news service had been shrinking its payroll and closing bureaus for years, a decline that led to its takeover by News World Communications, the organization founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, leader of the Unification Church. It also publishes The Washington Times, a favorite of conservative readers in Washington.
“I do not intend to stay,” she said on departing. “United Press International is a great news agency. It has made a remarkable mark in the annals of American journalism and has left a superb legacy for future journalists. I wish the new owners all the best, great stories and happy landings.”
Ms. Thomas bitterly opposed the war in Iraq and made no effort to appear neutral at White House news conferences, where some of her questions bordered on the prosecutorial. In “Watchdogs of Democracy?,” she wrote that most White House and Pentagon reporters had been too willing to accept the Bush administration’s rationale for going to war.
In an interview with The New York Times in May 2006, Ms. Thomas was characteristically uncompromising and unapologetic.
“How would you define the difference between a probing question and a rude one?” she was asked.
“I don’t think there are any rude questions,” she said.
Helen Amelia Thomas (August 4, 1920 – July 20, 2013) was an American author and news service reporter, member of the White House press corps and opinion columnist. She worked for the United Press and post-1958 successor United Press International (UPI) for 57 years, first as a correspondent, and later as White House bureau manager. She was a columnist for Hearst Newspapers from 2000 to 2010, writing on national affairs and the White House. She covered the administrations of eleven U.S. presidents—from the final years of the Eisenhower administration to the second year of the Obama administration.
Thomas was the first female officer of the National Press Club, the first female member and president of the White House Correspondents' Association and the first female member of the Gridiron Club. She wrote six books; her last, with co-author Craig Crawford, was Listen Up, Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do (2009). Thomas retired from Hearst Newspapers on June 7, 2010, following controversial comments she made about Israel, Jews and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
Early life and education
Born in Winchester, Kentucky, Thomas was the seventh of the nine children of George and Mary (Rowady) Thomas, immigrants from Tripoli in what was, at the time, part of the Ottoman Empire (later, the area became Lebanon). Thomas has said her father's surname, "Antonious", was anglicized to "Thomas" when he entered the U.S. at Ellis Island, and that her parents could neither read nor write. Thomas was raised mainly in Detroit, Michigan, where her family moved when she was four years old, and where her father ran a grocery store. Of her experience growing up, Thomas has said,
"We were never hyphenated as Arab-Americans. We were American, and I have always rejected the hyphen and I believe all assimilated immigrants should not be designated ethnically. Or separated, of course, by race, or creed either. These are trends that ever try to divide us as a people."
She has also said that in Detroit in the 1920s, she came home crying from school, "They wanted to make you feel you weren't 'American'... We were called 'garlic eaters' ". She was raised as a Christian in theGreek Orthodox Church.
Thomas attended public schools, and decided to become a journalist while in high school. She enrolled at Wayne University in Detroit, receiving a bachelor's degree in English in 1942, as Wayne University did not offer a degree in journalism.
Thomas moved to Washington, D.C.. Her first job in journalism was as a copygirl for the now-defunct Washington Daily News. After eight months at the paper, she joined with her colleagues in a strike action and was fired.
Thomas joined United Press in 1943 and reported on women's topics for its radio wire service, earning $24 ($318 today) a week. Her first assignments focused her on societal issues, women's news and celebrity profiles. Later in the decade, and in the early fifties, she wrote UP's Names in the News column, for which she interviewed numerous Washington celebrities. In 1955, she was assigned to cover the United States Department of Justice. She later was assigned to cover other agencies, including the United States Department of Health, as well as Capital Hill.
Thomas served as president of the Women's National Press Club from 1959 through 1960. In 1959, she and a few of her fellow female journalists forced the National Press Club, then barred to women, to allow them to attend an address by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
In November 1960, Thomas began covering then President-elect John F. Kennedy, taking the initiative to switch from reporting the "women's angle" to reporting the news of the day. She became the White House UPI correspondent in January 1961. Thomas became known as the "Sitting Buddha," and the "First Lady of the Press." It was during Kennedy's administration that she began ending presidential press conferences with a signature "Thank you, Mr. President," reviving a tradition started by UPI’s Albert Merriman Smith during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt.
In a 2008 article, the Christian Science Monitor wrote: "Thomas, a fixture in American politics, is outspoken, blunt, demanding, forceful and unrelenting. Not only does she command respect by the highest powers in the US, her reputation is known worldwide." When Cuban leader Fidel Castro was asked in the early 2000s what was the difference between democracy in Cuba and democracy in the United States, Castro reportedly replied, "I don't have to answer questions from Helen Thomas." Thomas considered Castro's reply to be "the height of flattery."
In 1962, Thomas convinced President Kennedy to not attend the annual dinners held for the White House correspondents and photographers if they disallowed women from attending. President Kennedy moved for the dinners to be combined into one event, with women allowed to attend. In 1970, UPI named Thomas their chief White House correspondent, making her the first woman to serve in the position. She was named the chief of UPI's White House bureau in 1974.
Thomas was the only female print journalist to travel to China with President Richard Nixon during his 1972 visit to China. During the Watergate scandal, Martha Beall Mitchell, wife of United States Attorney General John N. Mitchell, frequently called Thomas to discuss how the Nixon administration was using Mitchell as a scapegoat.
Thomas circled the globe several times, traveling with every U.S. president from Richard Nixon through Barack Obama. She covered every Economic Summit since 1975, working up to the position of UPI's White House Bureau Chief, a post she would hold for over 25 years. While serving as White House Bureau Chief, she authored a regular column for UPI, "Backstairs at the White House." The column provided an insider's view of various presidential administrations.
In 1975, the Washington Press Corps club, known as the Gridiron Club, admitted Thomas, making her the first woman to become a member. From 1975 through 1976, she served as the first female president of the White House Correspondents Association.
Thomas was the only member of the White House Press Corps to have her own seat in the White House Briefing Room. All other seats are assigned to media outlets.
Departure from UPI
On May 17, 2000, the day after it was announced that the UPI had been acquired by News World Communications Inc., an international media conglomerate founded and controlled by Unification Church leader Reverend Sun Myung Moon which owns The Washington Times and other news media, Thomas resigned from the UPI after 57 years with the organization. She later described the change in ownership as "a bridge too far." Less than two months later, she joined Hearst Newspapers as an opinion columnist, writing on national affairs and the White House.
After leaving her job as a reporter at the UPI, Thomas became more likely to air her personal, negative views. In a speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she quipped, "I censored myself for 50 years when I was a reporter. Now I wake up and ask myself, ‘Who do I hate today?’"
George W. Bush administration
During President George W. Bush's first term, Thomas reacted to Press Secretary Ari Fleischer's statements about arms shipments to the terrorists by asking: "Where do the Israelis get their arms?" He responded "There's a difference Helen, and that is --". "What is the difference?", she asked. He responded: "The targeting of innocents through the use of terror, which is a common enemy for Yasir Arafat and for the people of Israel, as well as --". She interrupted him, saying: "Palestinian people are fighting for their land." He responded: "I think that the killing of innocents is a category entirely different. Justifying killing of innocents for land is an argument in support of terrorism."
In January 2003, following a speech at a Society of Professional Journalists banquet, Thomas told an autograph-seeker, "I'm covering the worst president in American history." The autograph-seeker was a sports writer for The Daily Breeze and her comments were published. After that she was not called upon during a press conference for the first time in over four decades. She wrote to the President to apologize.
Traditionally, Thomas sat in the front row and asked the first question during White House press conferences. However, according to Thomas in a 2006 Daily Show interview, this ended because she no longer represented a wire service. During the Bush administration, Thomas was moved to the back row during press conferences; She was called upon at briefings on a daily basis but no longer ended Presidential news conferences saying, "Thank you, Mr. President." When asked why she was seated in the back row, she said, "they didn’t like me...I ask too mean questions."
On March 21, 2006, Thomas was called upon directly by President Bush for the first time in three years. Thomas asked Bush about the War in Iraq:
I'd like to ask you, Mr. President, [about] your decision to invade Iraq ... 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? .... You have said it wasn't oil...quest for oil, it hasn't been Israel, or anything else. What was it?
Bush responded by discussing the War on Terror, and stated as a reason for the invasion that Saddam Hussein chose to deny inspectors and not to disclose required information. Thomas was criticized by some commentators for her exchange with Bush.
In July 2006, she told The Hill, "The day Dick Cheney is going to run for president, I'll kill myself. All we need is another liar... I think he'd like to run, but it would be a sad day for the country if he does."
At the July 18, 2006, White House press briefing, Thomas remarked, "The United States ... could have stopped the bombardment of Lebanon. We have that much control with the Israelis... we have gone for collective punishment against all of Lebanon and Palestine." Press Secretary Tony Snow responded, "Thank you for the Hezbollah view." Other members of the press weighed in. According to Washington Posttelevision critic Tom Shales, questions like the one above have sounded more like "tirades" and "anti-Israeli rhetoric."
In a press conference on November 30, 2007, Thomas questioned White House Press Secretary Dana Perino as to why Americans should depend on General David Petraeus in determining when to re-deploy U.S troops from Iraq. Perino began to answer when Thomas interjected with "You mean how many more people we kill?" Perino immediately took offense, responding:
Helen, I find it really unfortunate that you use your front row position, bestowed upon you by your colleagues, to make such statements. This is a...it is an honor and a privilege to be in the briefing room, and to suggest that we, the United States, are killing innocent people is just absurd and very offensive.
Refusing to back down, Thomas responded immediately by asking Perino if she knew how many innocent Iraqis had been killed and then questioned the worth of regret when Perino responded that the administration regretted the loss of all innocent Iraqi lives.
On February 9, 2009, Thomas was present in the front row for newly elected President Obama's first news conference. President Obama called on her with the statement, "Helen. I'm excited, this is my inaugural moment," seemingly a reference to her long-term presence in the White House Press Corps. Thomas asked if any Middle Eastern country possessed nuclear weapons. Obama replied that he did not want to "speculate" on the matter.
On July 1, 2009, Thomas commented on the Obama administration's handling of the press, "we have had some control but not this control. I mean I'm amazed, I'm amazed at you people who call for openness and transparency and you have controlled...". She also said that not even Richard Nixon tried to control the press as much as President Obama.
On August 4, 2009, Thomas celebrated her 89th birthday. President Obama, whose birthday is on the same day, presented Thomas with birthday cupcakes and sang Happy Birthday to her before that day's press conference.
Rabbi David Nesenoff of RabbiLive.com, on the White House grounds with his son and a teenage friend for a May 27, 2010, American Jewish Heritage Celebration Day, questioned Thomas as she was leaving the White House via the North Lawn driveway. When asked for comments on Israel, she replied: "Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine." and "Remember, these people are occupied and it's their land. It's not German, it's not Poland..." When asked where Israeli Jews should go, she replied 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?" She also mentioned she was of "Arab background." A one-minute excerpt of the May 27, 2010, interview was posted on Nesenoff's website on June 3.
On June 4, Thomas posted the following response on her web site:
Thomas's agency, Nine Speakers, Inc., immediately dropped her as a client because of her remarks. Craig Crawford, who co-authored Listen up, Mr. President, said "I ... will no longer be working with Helen on our book projects." Her scheduled delivery of a commencement speech at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, was canceled by the school. The White House Correspondents' Association, over which she once presided, issued a statement calling her remarks "indefensible." In January 2011, the Society of Professional Journalists voted to retire the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement.
On June 7, Thomas abruptly tendered her resignation from Hearst Newspapers. The next day, in an interview on NBC's Today Show, President Obama called her remarks "offensive" and "out of line" and said her retirement was "the right decision." He remarked that it was a "shame" her celebrated career had to end in such controversy, and at the same time he recognized her long service covering U.S. presidents, calling her "a real institution in Washington." Her comments also garnered rebukes from numerous others, including White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, former special counsel to and White House spokesman for President Bill Clinton, Lanny Davis, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Hoover Institution senior fellow Victor Davis Hanson.
Thomas also had her share of defenders who felt she was being attacked too harshly, including former Presidential candidate Ralph Nader, Fox News contributor Ellen Ratner, former UPI managing editor Michael Freedman and The Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel. Nader noted the "double standard" where one off-hand "ill-conceived remark" ended Helen Thomas’ career while "ultra-right wing radio and cable ranters" engaged in "bigotry, stereotypes and falsehoods directed wholesale against Muslims, including a blatant anti-semitism against Arabs." Paul Jay on Huffington Post wrote Thomas "clearly" was referring to Jews from Germany, Poland and America who had to go to Israel after World War II, mostly because "the American, Canadian and British governments would not drop their anti-Jewish quotas" and that most refugees would have preferred to go to those nations.
Thomas said in an October 2011 radio interview with Scott Spears of WMRN that she realized soon after making the comments that she would be fired, stating, "I hit the third rail. You cannot criticize Israel in this country and survive." She added that she issued an apology because people were upset, but that ultimately, she still "had the same feelings about Israel's aggression and brutality."
2010 speech on Arab Americans
On December 2, 2010, shortly before a speech for the eighth annual "Images and Perceptions of Arab Americans" conference in Dearborn, Michigan, Thomas told reporters that she still stood by the comments she had made to Nesenoff. Referring to her resignation, she said "I paid a price, but it's worth it to speak the truth." During the speech, Thomas said: "Congress, the White House, Hollywood and Wall Street are owned by Zionists. No question, in my opinion." Thomas defended her comments on December 7, telling Scott Spears of Marion, Ohio AM radio station WMRN, "I just think that people should be enlightened as to who is in charge of the opinion in this country."
The next day, the Anti-Defamation League called for journalism schools and organizations to rescind any honors given to Thomas. The organization said that Thomas had "clearly, unequivocally revealed herself as a vulgar anti-Semite" in the speech.Hours later, Wayne State University in Detroit discontinued the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity in Media Award, which it had been granting for more than ten years, citing what it called her antisemitic remarks. Thomas herself reacted with scolding remarks saying that "the leaders of Wayne State University have made a mockery of the First Amendment and disgraced their understanding of its inherent freedom of speech and the press." Asked by the Detroit Free Press how she'd respond to people who say she's anti-Semitic, Thomas responded: 'I'd say I'm a Semite. What are you talking about?'".
Thomas was employed as a weekly columnist by the Falls Church News-Press from January 2011 to January 2012. Owner-Editor Nicholas Benton repeatedly defended the decision to hire her despite her controversial comments. He noted in 2011 that he was "outraged" when the Society of Professional Journalists voted on retiring a scholarship award named for Thomas. Benton said that Thomas "is herself a Semite" and was "expressing a political point of view [in the interview with Nesenoff above], and not a bigoted racial sentiment."
Thomas described herself as a liberal. For most of her adult life, she chose her work over her personal life. At age 51, Thomas married a colleague, Douglas Cornell, who was just retiring as the White House reporter for the Associated Press.Four years later he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and she cared for him until his death in 1982.
Thomas died on July 20, 2013, at her home in Washington, D.C. at the age of 92, two weeks short of her 93rd birthday. Many female journalists memorialized Thomas on Twitter, including Judy Woodruff, who called her a "trailblazer", and Lynn Sweet, who said she was a "glass ceiling breaking journalist". Andrea Mitchell tweeted that Thomas "made it possible for all of us who followed." Dana Perino, who served as press secretary to President George W. Bush, remembered that on her first day as Press Secretary, Thomas approached her to give her words of encouragement. President Obama released a statement calling her "a true pioneer" and that "she never failed to keep presidents -- myself included -- on their toes."
Thomas received numerous awards and more than 30 honorary degrees. In 1976, Thomas was named one of the World Almanacs 25 Most Influential Women in America.
In 1986 she received the William Allen White Foundation Award for Journalistic Merit from the University of Kansas. Thomas received an Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media from the Freedom Forum in 1991. The White House Correspondent's Association honored her in 1998 by establishing the "Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award". In 2000, her alma mater, Wayne State University, established an award for journalists in her honor, the "Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity award". In December 2010, the award was discontinued by Wayne State which cited her renewed remarks similar to those in May 2010. Speaking for Wayne State, Matthew Seeger, its interim dean said, that the award is given to promote the importance of diversity in the media and that this award "is no longer helping us achieve our goals." In 2007, Thomas received a Foremother Award from the National Research Center for Women & Families.
In October 2010, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) honored Thomas with a lifetime achievement award.
In April 2012, Thomas received an award from the Palestine Liberation Organization's General Mission to the United States. The award was presented by PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi to "recognize Thomas’ long career in the field of journalism, during which she defended the Palestinian position every step of the way."
- Listen Up Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do. (with co-author Craig Crawford) (Charles Scribner's Sons, 2009) ISBN 1-4391-4815-5
- The Great White House Breakout. (with co-author and illustrator Chip Bok) (Penguin Group, 2008) ISBN 978-0-8037-3300-8 (children's book)
- Watchdogs of Democracy? : The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public (Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006) ISBN 0-7432-6781-8
- Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President : Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House (Charles Scribner's Sons, 2003) ISBN 0-7432-0226-0
- Front Row at the White House : My Life and Times (Scribner, 2000) ISBN 0-684-86809-1
- Dateline: White House (Macmillan, 1975) ISBN 0-02-617620-3