Growing up in Washington D.C. in the late ’60s, I could count on one hand the number of journalists I knew who were women. How could I break into this gutsy career that many said just wasn’t suited for females?
One woman contradicted that resistance, however. She was United Press International’s “feisty scourge of presidents” Helen Thomas, who began covering the White House in 1961. As photos of her show, she was almost always right there in front, in the faces of nearly a dozen presidents and others in power. Male reporters clustered right behind her as she asked her irritating questions in her hallmark gravely voice.
She’d ask, re-ask and re-ask questions — however annoying or embarrassing — until she got an answer. What, she asked President Richard Nixon, whose 1968 campaign pitched his “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War, IS your secret plan for peace in Vietnam?
Thomas’ body language informed me: Don’t be afraid to ask any question of any official. And if he or she pivots away, or you don’t understand the answer, ask the question again.
Former UPI White House reporter Ira Allen, who worked with me on our college newspaper, sat next to her for nearly five years “elbow to elbow in a cramped booth” and was her friend until she died in 2013 at age 92.
Allen describes Thomas as genuine and generous, but said that “on deadline, Helen could have the charm of a drill sergeant. She was brusque and to the point … and never took no for an answer.”
“She believed it was a reporter’s duty to get in the face of those who dedicate their lives to seeking public office.”
Among her many scoops, Thomas is remembered for her Watergate-era revelations from late night conversations with Martha Mitchell, wife of then Attorney General John Mitchell. Allen said that in 1973, while working the UPI night shift, he’d get a call from Mitchell asking to talk with Thomas, and he’d patch her through.
Mitchell told Thomas she’d seen a Nixon campaign strategy book that revealed plans for what The Washington Post called “Watergate-style operations,” helping further unravel one of the nation’s worst presidential cover-ups.
After her death, President Obama paid her tribute as well: “Helen was a true pioneer, opening doors and breaking down barriers for generations of women in journalism,” he said in a statement. “She covered every White House since President Kennedy’s, and during that time she never failed to keep presidents — myself included — on their toes.”
In her later years, from 2000 to 2010, she was a columnist for Hearst, continuing to write about Washington until she was 89.
Websites show Thomas broke down many doors for women: first female officer of the National Press Club, first female member and president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, first female member of the Gridiron Club, and so on.
Thomas wasn’t perfect, though. Her career ended in controversy in 2010.
Of Lebanese descent, Thomas told a rabbi that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine,” and “go home” to Poland or Germany or “America and everywhere else. Why push people out of there who have lived there for centuries.” She subsequently apologized.
Allen said Thomas had not lost her mental acuity; her co-workers had long known her feelings about Israel. But she never let them invade her writing or made statements like this in public. This time, however, he said, she lost “her filter.”
Today, newsrooms, media briefings and health care meetings include far more women than in the first decade of my career. And I find blank stares and dropped jaws in young reporters when I say that even into the early 1980s, one could count the number of women in many newsrooms on one hand.
Helen Thomas wasn’t exclusively responsible for clearing the path for the rest of us. Of course, it took hundreds of other similarly dedicated, brave and smart women journalists to do that.
But Thomas, back in that day, was among the first.
Her seniority gave her the honor of closing White House press briefings with the words, “Thank you, Mr. President,” which was also the title of a 2008 documentary movie about Thomas’ career.
So it’s fitting to repeat the appreciation: Thank you, Helen Thomas.
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