Helen Thomas dies at 92; journalist was the feisty scourge of presidents

Helen Thomas, a wire service correspondent and columnist whose sharp questions from the front row of the White House press room challenged and annoyed 10 presidents and who was effective in divulging information that federal officials tried to keep secret, died July 20 at her home in Washington. She was 92.

A friend, retired journalist Muriel Dobbin, confirmed her death. No immediate cause of death was disclosed, but Ms. Thomas had been on dialysis for a kidney ailment.

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.

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.”

The remarks ignited a controversy that had been simmering for years. The daughter of Lebanese immigrants, Ms. 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. Bush spokesman Tony Snow once famously answered one of her questions with, “Thank you for the Hezbollah view.”

Ms. 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 attempted 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.”

Ms. 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.”

Ms. Thomas had 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, Ms. 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. The club, with the help of the U.S. State Department, booked world leaders to speak, and women, even those who worked for prominent press outlets, were not allowed.

The lobbying finally paid off after a planned appearance of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was nearly canceled. 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.

Ms. 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, the first woman to be admitted to the Gridiron Club, the first woman to serve as president of the White House Correspondents’ Association and the recipient of multiple lifetime achievement awards.

High school journalist

Helen Amelia Thomas was born Aug. 4, 1920, in Winchester, Ky., one of nine children of immigrants from present-day Lebanon. A few years after her birth, the family moved to Detroit, where her father ran a grocery store in a neighborhood that was home to people of Italian, African, German and Arab ancestry.

She found her career while working on her high school newspaper, then studied journalism at what is now Wayne State University in Detroit. She paid for her education by working in the college library and helping out at her brother’s gas station.

After graduating in 1942, she moved to Washington, where she was briefly a copy girl, the newsroom equivalent of a gofer, at the old Washington Daily News. 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.

When World War II ended in 1945, many single female journalists were laid off to make room for the returning veterans. But Ms. Thomas stayed on, and by 1956, she had joined the UP’s national staff to cover federal agencies. (The United Press took over the International News Service in 1958 to become United Press International.)

In 1960, she was assigned to report on the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy. When Kennedy won the election, there was suddenly a huge demand for stories about his glamorous wife, Jacqueline.

Ms. Thomas interviewed hairdressers, clerks at clothing stores, caterers, pianists who played at the family’s parties and even the owner of the diaper service. She and Lewine staked out the hospital when John Kennedy Jr. was born and were such a frequent presence in Jacqueline Kennedy’s life that the first lady began calling them “the harpies” and complained to the Secret Service that “two strange Spanish-looking women” were stalking her.

The Kennedy administration was her favorite, she said in one of her four books, “Front Row at the White House: My Life and Times” (1999), because of the “vibrancy and vigah” that the family exuded. She was on hand when Kennedy shook hands with a teenage Bill Clinton in July 1963.

Over the next decade, Ms. Thomas began reporting harder news, still finding the unusual and juicy tidbit. President Lyndon B. Johnson was furious when he learned through Ms. Thomas’s UPI report that his daughter Luci was engaged.

“You announced Luci’s engagement, you announced Luci’s marriage, you announced when Luci was going to have a baby, and I resented it,” he once told her. But in those more informal times, he also invited her to lunch in the family quarters of the White House when he learned about her worry for her family after Detroit erupted in riots, she wrote.

In 1970, her longtime mentor, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Merriman Smith, committed suicide. Ms. Thomas was named UPI’s senior White House correspondent, the first woman to hold that post.

Few knew at the time that she was dating journalist Douglas B. Cornell, who also covered the White House for the rival Associated Press newswire. Cornell, 17 years her senior, was retiring in 1971, and Nixon gave him a going-away party. In the midst of the ceremony, first lady Pat Nixon grabbed the microphone and announced the Thomas-Cornell engagement. “At last,” the first lady said, “I’ve scooped Helen Thomas.”

A few years later, Cornell learned that he had Alzheimer’s disease. He died in 1982. Ms. Thomas had no children; a complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

Ms. Thomas was named UPI’s White House bureau chief in 1974, and Nixon noted that hallmark at a news conference.

“So after he had been so gracious, he pointed to me for the first question,” she wrote in her White House memoir. “ ‘Mr. President,’ I said. ‘Mr. Haldeman, your former top aide in the White House, has been charged with perjury because he testified you said it would be wrong to pay hush money to silence the Watergate defendants.”

She continued, in “Front Row at the White House”: “It’s like I say to young people who ask me about going into journalism: If you want to be loved, don’t go into this business.”

Sharp-edged humor

Known for her quick wit, Ms. Thomas didn’t hesitate to exercise it on presidents. When a set of fortune-telling scales once spewed out a card for Gerald Ford saying, “You are a brilliant leader,” she glanced at the card and cracked, “It got your weight wrong, too.”

In China, she accompanied Pat Nixon to a farm, where the first lady wondered about the breed of some pigs in a pen. “Male chauvinist, of course,” Ms. Thomas piped up. And when a man told her that ladies were not allowed in a Bible study class taught by Jimmy Carter, she retorted, “I’m no lady, I’m a reporter.”

Her performances at the annual Gridiron Club song-and-dance show often brought down the house. She appeared in comedian Stephen Colbert’s mock audition tape in 2006 for the job of presidential spokesman, playing herself in relentless pursuit of him. She turned up in President Bill Clinton’s 2000 spoof tape as well and had a brief appearance in the 1993 movie “Dave,” rolling her eyes at the fake president’s grand pronouncements.

In the 1980s, after the official planting of a Lebanon cedar tree on the South Lawn of the White House, fellow reporters urged Ms. Thomas, a Lebanese American, to pick up the ceremonial shovel and toss some dirt into the hole to cover the roots.

“And as she shoveled,” ABC News broadcaster Sam Donaldson later said, “I heard the ghosts of presidents past and present say, ‘Shove her in.’ ”

Ms. Thomas was president of the Women’s National Press Club in 1959 and was named one of the “25 Most Influential Women in America” by the World Almanac in 1976. In 1998, she was the first recipient of a prize established in her name by the White House Correspondents’ Association — the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award.

In 1984, when she received the National Press Club’s Fourth Estate Award, Reagan told Ms. Thomas: “You are not only a fine and respected professional, you have also become an important part of the American presidency.”

After spending most of her working life at UPI, Ms. Thomas quit the wire service in 2000, the day after the announcement of its acquisition by News World Communications, a company founded and controlled by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, leader of the Unification Church. Within two months, she became a columnist for Hearst Newspapers and resumed her seat in the White House briefing room, but in the back row rather than the front row.

At the time, colleagues and sources lined up to praise her.

“It’s not too strong to say that Helen’s a hero of journalism — to work that long, that well, under that much pressure at that high an altitude,” said former CBS News anchorman Dan Rather.

She returned to her seat in the front row in 2007, courtesy of the White House Correspondents’ Association.

Although she identified herself as a political liberal, Ms. Thomas did not hesitate to criticize the Democratic administration of President Obama, even after he presented her with cupcakes on Aug. 4, 2009, their shared birthday. She once told CNSNews.com that not even Nixon attempted to control the news media the way Obama’s administration tried to do.

“What the hell do they think we are — puppets?” Ms. Thomas asked. “They’re supposed to stay out of our business. They are our public servants. We pay them.”

Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.