Unintimidated by presidents or press secretaries, Ms. Thomas was known as the dean of the White House press corps for her longevity in the beat. She reported for the United Press International wire service for almost 60 years.
Among the most-recognized reporters in America, Ms. 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 a no-nonsense “Thank you, Mr. President.”
“Helen was a true pioneer, opening doors and breaking down barriers for generations of women in journalism,” President Obama 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.”
Ms. Thomas’s 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 Richard M. Nixon point-blank what his secret plan to end the Vietnam War was, and she asked President Ronald 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 profile in Ms. magazine, “but I never worship at the shrines of our public servants. They owe us the truth.”
Ms. 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 presidents on overseas trips. She was the only female print reporter to accompany Nixon on his historic visit to China, and later, in her 70s and 80s, she often outdistanced younger reporters on arduous around-the-world travels.
Her unparalleled experience covering the presidency earned her the respect and affection of both colleagues and public officials for decades.