HELEN THOMAS HAS TAKEN OFF HER SHOES AND IS hunched over her computer in the White House press room, fighting sleep. It is about 4 a.m. on Thursday, August 2. Iraqi tanks are pushing toward Kuwait City and Thomas is holed up in her tiny cubicle waiting for developments. She has had the press room to herself since a little after midnight when Brit Hume, ABC's chief White House correspondent, who reported the invasion on "Nightline," packed his gear and left. Her cup of black coffee is cold and her back aches a little. But the invasion is on, so she has dug in.

Thomas, White House bureau chief for United Press International, had first heard rumors that Iraqi troops were crossing the border from a waiter who'd been listening to Arabic radio at the Calvert Cafe, where she'd eaten dinner. ("I guess I was slow on the uptake," she'll say later, chastising herself for not being quicker off the mark.) It wasn't until she'd gone home and her news desk had called for help with the story that she'd confirmed the invasion by phone, then jumped in a cab.

So far, only a couple of formal statements have been issued. Thomas has phoned the Kuwaiti Embassy several times for updates and tried to wheedle information out of a White House security guard who had stopped by to ask when she was leaving.

About 5 a.m. President Bush signs an order freezing Iraqi and Kuwaiti assets in this country. Thomas files the story and waits, confident that the president will soon have to make an appearance. It is only a matter of time. She is operating on adrenaline now.

About 7 a.m. the loudspeaker in the press room announces that there will be a "photo opportunity" at 8 with the president and the National Security Council. Bush will make a short statement and take a few questions. This is what Thomas has been waiting for.

At 8:05 a.m. she walks into the Cabinet Room at the White House with a small group of reporters. After his statement, the president calls on her first, and she asks, "Do you contemplate intervention as one of your options?" He surprises her by saying, "We're not discussing intervention."

Thomas covered the White House during Vietnam, Grenada and Panama, and she knows presidents don't rule out military action, so she asks again: "You're not contemplating any intervention or sending troops?" His response, "I'm not contemplating such action," will become a headache for Bush; he'll spend the next day backpedaling, trying to explain that he hadn't really meant what he said. Four days later he will send troops.

"And you were taken by surprise?" Thomas asks a bit later during the photo session with Bush. "Not totally by surprise," Bush responds, "because we have good intelligence . . ." Most of the press focuses on the words "not totally" and reports -- accurately, as it turns out -- that the administration was caught off guard by Iraq's move.

Out of the eight questions that Bush answers this morning, Thomas asks three of them, two of which become the basis for much of the coverage of the president's initial response to the Persian Gulf crisis. HELEN THOMAS IS A WASHINGTON INSTITUTION. AS WITH most Washington institutions, however, her real story isn't obvious to the casual observer.

Most of America knows her as the short woman with the gravelly voice who rises from her seat at presidential press conferences to ask the first or second question -- tough, emotional, theatrical questions that other reporters occasionally find offputting -- and for her signature closing, "Thank you, Mr. President." The first-question privilege is accorded to the two American wire services, and thus Thomas shares it with her competitors at the Associated Press. But the right to close the conferences is traditionally a mark of seniority, bestowed upon the reporter who has covered the White House the longest, the so-called "dean" of the White House press corps. Helen Thomas wins this honor hands down. She has been at her post through seven presidential administrations. Thomas, who turned 70 in August, is sick of people asking her when she's going to retire. "I don't think people should have to apologize for being alive and wanting to work," she says. She is a notoriously hard worker, arriving at the White House on weekdays about 6:30 a.m. so she can have her coffee and read the newspapers before she greets the press secretary at 7:30 to troll for news.

According to one veteran White House reporter, Thomas takes "the vacuum cleaner approach" to the beat, sweeping up every shard of news and getting it on the UPI wire before somebody else reports it first. She's not known as a journalist with inside sources on administration policy-making; her strong suit has always been reporting day-to-day events. Along the way, she has broken big stories (that Richard Nixon's speech writers were working on a resignation statement he would deliver the next day) and trivial ones (that one of Caroline Kennedy's hamsters had died).

Early on at the White House, Thomas developed what former co-worker Alvin Spivak, now public affairs director at General Dynamics, calls "the ability to find and lock in a news source unknown to her victims who was less than obvious to everyone else." Spivak tells of how perplexed -- and angry -- Lyndon Johnson was when he read about his daughter Luci's engagement plans on the UPI wire before her first husband, Patrick Nugent, had asked LBJ for her hand.

Sam Donaldson, ABC's chief White House correspondent from 1977 to 1989, attributes some of Thomas's success to her longevity. "Those of us who had access to the wires were always impressed that Helen, on a day-in and day-out basis, would be, say, 20 minutes ahead of what we knew in the press room . . . Any organization, to a large extent, is run by the bureaucracy. Presidents come and go, but the telephone operators stay forever . . . In 12 years at the White House I'm certain I never met a lot of the people Helen used as her sources."

This kind of reporting may never win Thomas a Pulitzer Prize. But what she does, as Donaldson observes, is question, harangue, cajole and coax the president into making the news that, in turn, "becomes the grist for everyone else's stories and everyone else's thoughts."

Achieving Washington Institution status, however, means that a person's real self -- her history, personal life and true significance -- is often overlooked or misunderstood. Looking at Helen Thomas today, we see the dean of the White House press corps, not the woman who had to battle her way to that position in a profession dominated by men. We see a stereotype of the tough, driven reporter who has no other life than her job, not the partner in a great Washington love story. And we see a media celebrity, always on television asking questions of the president, yet don't realize how much her celebrated job has changed -- how print reporting has evolved as television has taken over so much of the breaking news function, leaving newspapers to explain the story behind the story and wire services to act as tip sheets for the tube.

In some ways, Thomas is a major player in American journalism; in others, she is an anachronism, a survivor from a bygone era. But this much is clear: Helen Thomas's story is a true Washington saga whose themes are work, power, sex, love and institutional evolution. And if she ever does retire, we may never see the likes of her again. IT IS 1:45 P.M. ON MONDAY, AUGUST 6, FOUR DAYS AFTER the invasion of Kuwait. Thomas is sitting at her computer in the UPI booth, feet propped on top of her low-heeled black pumps. She is wearing a black summer suit, white blouse and white beads, and she has ink all over her hands and a tiny smudge under her lower lip -- the result of frantic note-taking at this morning's briefing with press secretary Marlin Fitzwater.

Under her desk is a rat's nest of old newspapers, press releases and White House announcements, a blue backpack, a canvas bag with "Economic Summit 1990" printed on it and two pairs of shoes -- some beat-up black pumps and the white leather Reeboks she wears on presidential trips.

Four UPI reporters work out of this office "the size of three phone booths," as Thomas describes it. Packed in here are three desks with computer terminals, five telephones (only three work), political books, a television, a stand-up file for mail and the ever-clacking UPI machine. An old portable typewriter in a light green case is used now only as a doorstop. The walls are covered with little bits of paper with handwritten phone numbers on them, a calendar with Bush's travel schedule, memos from UPI headquarters, cryptic messages like "Key Audio Middle Drawer" and a bumper sticker: "Free the Lebanon 7."

Like the rest of the White House press room, the UPI booth is a decorator's nightmare, done in fraying yellow wallpaper and matted dark blue carpeting, with old-fashioned fluorescent lights that highlight a ceiling blackening with age. A wall divides the booths of the press room from the briefing room, used for presidential news conferences. At the back of the briefing room, among the cords, ladders, wires and cameras, is a massive audio/visual control panel. At the front, a dark blue drape is partially drawn across the wall behind the lectern. A sign stuck on the drape reads "The White House." An air of impermanence permeates the briefing room, as if it were a set thrown together for one quick TV shot. In fact, both rooms were built over the White House swimming pool 20 years ago, when Richard Nixon declared the previous press area, overcrowded and littered with cigarette butts, moldy coffee cups, food wrappers and the other detritus of daily journalism, "a disgrace."

With one eye on CNN and another on the clock, Thomas eats a small container of cottage cheese and some carrot sticks at her desk. Then she telephones UPI's Jim Anderson, reporting from the State Department. "I know you're under the gun," she says, "but did {State Department spokesman Margaret} Tutwiler say anything about the charge d'affaires in Iraq being called in by Saddam and coming back with a message for Bush? BBC is reporting that." Anderson confirms that the diplomat was summoned but does not know about a message for Bush.

At 2:38 p.m. Thomas picks up her purse, gets out a bright red lipstick and applies it without a mirror, inadvertently outlining just a little above her top lip, giving herself a slightly clownish expression. She grabs a notebook and her tape recorder and goes to the hallway and double glass doors leading to the colonnade outside the Oval Office, where she waits, first in line for the 2:45 p.m. photo opportunity with Bush and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

And she waits. She is ready to ask Bush about the message from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. If she gets anything on this story, it will be by pushing her questions at the photo ops throughout the day. "The big news organizations, the big networks, they get private briefings," explains Ira Allen, an 18-year UPI veteran and former White House reporter, "but not UPI." This is her main chance.

A little after 3 a press aide announces over the loudspeaker: "The photo opportunity with President Bush and Prime Minister Thatcher in the Oval Office has been canceled." NEARLY EVERY DAY, "MAMA" AYESHA ABRAHAM, OWNER OF the Calvert Cafe on Calvert Street NW, calls Helen Thomas at the White House and asks what she wants for dinner; nearly every day Thomas says "whatever you're having," so Mama Ayesha, who came to Washington from Jordan in 1949, saves some of the food the family cooked at home. Friends often drop by her table at the cafe -- "Helen's table," they call it, at the back near the easy chair where Ayesha sits -- and it is here that Thomas is most able to relax. Ayesha, she says, is her "second mother," and the Middle Eastern connection makes her feel whole somehow.

Helen's parents, George and Mary Thomas, arrived at Ellis Island from Lebanon in 1903 and worked their way south to Lexington, Ky., where they had relatives. Neither could read or write. George bought a wagon, loaded it with linens, candy, tobacco, fruits and vegetables and took these into the countryside to sell. Soon he opened a store, and when the family moved to Winchester, Ky., he opened a different one. He kept his books and inventory by memory.

Helen was born in Winchester on August 4, 1920, the seventh of nine children. Four years later, the family moved to Detroit, joining a number of Syrian and Lebanese families hoping to take advantage of the booming automobile industry. "I bow to their courage," Thomas says of her parents. Her father, she believes, "was a man who understood opportunity."

In Detroit, the Thomases bought a house on Heidelberg Street on the city's East Side. Again her father opened a small grocery store, three or four blocks away on Gratiot Avenue. The Thomases chose not to live in the Lebanese section, but in a more racially and ethnically mixed community of blacks, Italians, Germans and Arab Americans. "It was wonderful," Thomas says. "Detroit was very alive, very dynamic, very blue-collar."

At the dinner table and on the front porch of the house on Heidelberg Street the whole family would get together and debate the issues of the day. "My brothers initiated a lot of it," says Isabelle Thomas, Helen's older sister, "and my sisters too; they had strong opinions." On Sundays when the family gathered, Mary Thomas sometimes made traditional Arabic food. She was the more passionate parent, Isabelle says; their father was quiet, and it was Mary who had the ironclad views of right and wrong that she passed on to all of the children. But if there was one overriding opinion in the Thomas household, it was that every child had to get a college education. Eventually, all nine children went to college. George and Mary "put the highest stock in education," Helen Thomas says, "because they had none."

At Eastern High School in Detroit Thomas discovered journalism. She started working on the school paper, loved the bylines and, by the time she graduated, had decided to make it her career. In 1938 she entered Wayne University, then the local city college and now Wayne State University. She lived at home, took the bus to school and, to earn her tuition, worked in the college library and in the office of her brother Matry's gas station. Again, she was devoted to the student newspaper.

Graduating with a BA in English in 1942, Thomas headed for Washington. She worked briefly as a hostess in the Neptune Room, a restaurant on E Street NW, and then as a copy girl on the old Washington Daily News, but was laid off and began going door to door in the National Press Building looking for work. In 1943 she was hired to write for the local radio wire at United Press, later UPI, making $24 a week and reporting to work at 5:30 every morning. She was stuck on the radio wire for more than 12 years, but in some ways felt lucky -- many women reporters were fired after World War II when the men returned, a fact that enraged her.

In 1956, UPI promoted her to a beat and Thomas began covering first the Justice Department and then many of the federal agencies. Her big break did not come until 1960, when she was 40. She was sent to cover the Kennedy family while they were vacationing in Palm Beach, Fla., right after the election. She worked on Inauguration Day, and the Sunday after that she followed President Kennedy to church. That was it. She decided she would just "stay on."

Thomas likes to say she "assigned herself" to cover the White House, but former boss Grant Dillman says that's not quite right. "Julius Frandsen {then UPI vice president and Washington bureau chief} sent her over there to cover Jackie, but he underestimated her. She was soon poking her nose into all aspects of the news of the day as well."

America's appetite for news about the Kennedy clan was insatiable, and UPI, long a two-person White House bureau, suddenly needed three reporters. It was in covering the Kennedys that Thomas became close to one of the few other women reporters on the beat, Frances Lewine, then of the Associated Press and still one of Thomas's best friends. Like Thomas, Lewine was covering Jackie Kennedy and the family -- what else would women cover?

Thomas and Lewine were both low women on the totem pole in a male-dominated White House press corps, and though technically competitors, they soon found themselves working as a team. Before the inauguration, they staked out the Kennedy house on N Street NW together. They stayed on duty together at Georgetown University Hospital when John Jr. was born and -- when the baby was brought home -- together raced after the diaper service delivery man, stopped the truck and interviewed him. After the inauguration, Lewine and Thomas followed Jackie Kennedy and her children everywhere. They interviewed the salespeople in the elegant stores where Jackie shopped, as well as her hairdresser, her caterer, her pianist. They wrote more stories than they care to remember about Caroline's pony and John-John's nursery. "Anything affecting the children was a big story," Thomas says.

Jackie Kennedy called Thomas and Lewine "the harpies" and one Sunday spotted them following her to church. Hoping to make trouble for them or at least get them off her tail, Jackie complained to the Secret Service agents that "two strange-looking Spanish women" were after her. At one point, Thomas says in her book, Dateline: White House, Jackie asked JFK if he could get UPI to transfer Thomas overseas. Mention these escapades and Thomas laughs and shakes her head. "Fran and I. Oh, those were the days! We had fun. We really covered them. Today, there's a pool {of reporters} every time you make a move."

All the while, Thomas, Lewine and other members of the Women's National Press Club had been fighting discrimination at the National Press Club, which barred women. Until 1956, the club's prestigious power lunches with political figures were not open to female members of the press. After 1956, women reporters were allowed into the club's balcony -- "purdah," Thomas called it -- to watch and listen to the speeches, but they were not allowed to ask questions or to sit and eat with male colleagues at tables on the floor. The State Department was complicitous in this -- nearly

every world leader who visited Washington was booked into the National Press Club for his or her one major press appearance.

Thomas, Lewine, Elsie Carper of The Washington Post and others campaigned for years to change the club's policies. They lobbied the State Department, they lobbied the White House, they lobbied the embassies, they sent telegrams to presidents and prime ministers all over the world asking them not to speak at the club. A major breakthrough came in 1959 when Nikita Khrushchev arrived for a state visit. The Soviet Embassy, a target of the pressure, urged Khrushchev to boycott the club. He informed the State Department he would not speak unless newswomen were allowed to cover his address.

Furious negotiations ensued. Reluctantly, the National Press Club agreed for one time only to let 30 women sit at tables, have lunch and report on Khrushchev's speech, in which he explained his infamous "We will bury you" remark. The club was never quite the same after that. During the Kennedy years, heads of state still faced the press at the club but every year grew more uncomfortable about doing so. The women kept up the pressure, and though it took 12 years after Khrushchev's visit, the club finally voted to admit women in 1971.

Throughout this period, life on the White House beat was chaotic. Kennedy was assassinated, Lyndon Johnson assumed power, and the United States plunged headlong into an open-ended commitment in Vietnam. Thomas, still more or less restricted to the "women's beat," turned her attention to Lady Bird Johnson and her daughters, breaking all manner of stories about boyfriends, engagements and pregnancies that had the Johnson family frequently upset. LBJ, who had three wire service machines in his office, learned more than he cared to about his daughters from UPI. He once told Thomas, "You announced Luci's engagement, you announced Luci's marriage, you announced when Luci was going to have a baby, and I resented it."

UPI's chief White House correspondent and Thomas's boss throughout the Kennedy and Johnson administrations was Merriman Smith, one of Washington's most colorful journalistic personalities. "Smitty," as he was known, was Thomas's teacher and mentor. He was the epitome of the old-style, romantic wire service reporter who would stop at nothing to beat his competitors at AP. A vivid, colorful writer, he crafted fine prose in his head at lightning speed. In those pre-computer days, wire service reporters dictated their stories over the telephone, and Smitty was one of the few whose dictated material could go directly on the wire without rewrite. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Kennedy assassination.

As UPI's star, Smitty was on the road a great deal speaking on behalf of the company, and Alvin Spivak, second in command at the White House bureau, increasingly depended upon Thomas to cover more than just the First Family. "I was desperate for help," Spivak remembers. When Spivak left, Thomas took over the number two position.

Star though he was, however, Smitty was a difficult and troubled man -- autocratic and tough on those under him, a longtime alcoholic with an ego as big as the Ritz. In 1966, he suffered through a divorce, and a year later his oldest son and namesake, an Army captain, was killed in Vietnam. He'd been in and out of various alcohol rehab programs in these years, but he never recovered from his losses. On April 13, 1970, while sitting in the bathtub in his home, he shot himself to death.

A struggle ensued over Smitty's job. No woman had ever been a chief correspondent at the White House before, and Julius Frandsen, UPI's Washington bureau chief, favored a reporter named Eugene Risher for the post. But Grant Dillman, Washington news editor, began lobbying for Thomas. He got the ear of UPI's editor in chief, H.L. Stevenson, and with his help eventually won Thomas's promotion. "Helen never asked for any favors," Dillman says. "I felt she was a better White House reporter, and I like to think history has borne me out." AT 3:45 P.M. ABOUT 30 REPORTERS LINE UP AT THE DOUBLE doors leading into the Rose Garden for a "scrum," where Bush and Thatcher will be photographed and take one or two questions. It has started raining. Perhaps 50 still and television photographers, most standing on ladders, face the colonnade in front of the Oval Office where Bush and Thatcher will speak. The shot, already lighted for television, will be framed by the off-white pillars of the colonnade, surrounded by the lush, late-summer flowers in the Rose Garden. Out of the way of the picture-takers is a small roped-off pen on the grass. The reporters are herded into this.

For 10 minutes, they stand cheek by jowl in the rain. Finally, a young man announces: "The president of the United States, the prime minister of Great Britain, the secretary general of NATO."

As Bush, Thatcher and Manfred Woerner of NATO enter from stage left, the photographers lunge forward. Thatcher, in a bright blue outfit, is color-coordinated with Bush in his medium blue suit. Woerner, dark and rumpled from his plane ride, is too severe-looking for the cameras. Each makes a short statement of faith in the United Nations sanctions against Iraq, but it is now raining so hard that reporters' tape recorders are picking up only the noise of the downpour. They hold them up and out, like hands of the hungry outstretched for food. Ink is running off notebooks. Still photographers with giant lenses have invaded the press pen, pushing and shoving for a place at the front of the rope.

The instant Woerner ends his remarks, Thomas throws one arm in the air and leans across the rope toward the lectern, yelling at the top of her lungs, desperate to be heard: "Mr. President! Mr. President!"

Bush looks down at the pen. Blinded by the television lights, he is unable to tell where that shrieking voice, a fraction of a decibel louder than the others, is coming from. Squinting and shielding his eyes he finally sees her -- a 5-foot 3-inch woman, her brown, highlighted hair dripping, waving a hand as though she were going down for the third time.

"Yes!" he says. "Helen!"

"Have you received assurances from Saddam that he will not attack Saudi Arabia?"

"I've received no such assurances," the president says.

The rest of the press corps begin yelling their questions.

Thomas strains across the rope. "Did you receive a message, a personal message from Saddam?" It is as though she is having a discussion with Bush, and the distance, the rain, these other reporters, the rude photographer ramming his lens into her head, are just minor inconveniences.

"No," Bush says, "not directly to me. Look, we've got to go. You're getting wet . . ." ALONG THE HALLWAY LEADING FROM THE ROSE GARDEN back toward the offices of the press secretaries, there are pictures of press rooms and press conferences past. Here is a younger Helen Thomas, bending intently over a notebook in the Oval Office, with Lyndon Johnson sitting behind the desk. There is a recent one with George Bush. And here, here is a classic photograph -- Franklin Roosevelt in an open convertible with the press corps, all men, gathered around him, asking questions and taking notes, inches from the president, no Secret Service, no bulletproof glass. Close to the car is a strikingly handsome young man in pleated trousers with slicked-back hair.

"That's Doug," Thomas says, "that's my husband." She corrects herself. "My late husband."

Sometime in the latter half of the '60s, a funny thing happened to the competitive, hard-driving reporter Helen Thomas had worked so hard to develop inside herself. She fell in love. It didn't happen all at once. She was in her late forties by then, and getting married had never been her ultimate goal. "I didn't have a two-track mind," she says, "to think I could do all the things I realize now women can do. And I suppose I was more career-minded and devoted to that."

None of that changed, really. But gradually her relationship with a man who'd been a friend, colleague and competitor on the White House beat evolved into the great love of her life.

Douglas B. Cornell, 14 years Thomas's senior, was known as the "big story man" for the Associated Press. A contemporary of Merriman Smith's and, like Smitty, a vivid writer, Cornell was more of an elegant stylist, a crafter of what the New York Times called "masterful lead sentences," dictated straight, without benefit of typewriter. He covered the White House full time from FDR's first administration into Richard Nixon's, but, in the 34 years he worked for AP, whenever the wire service had a monumental writing job or one that required great eloquence, it sent for Doug Cornell. He covered all funerals of major public figures, every national political convention from 1936 through 1968 and the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in the '50s, and was assigned the herculean task of writing AP's stories on the end of World War II, using material coming in from all over the globe.

Cornell's first wife, Jenny, had been an invalid for a number of years before she died in 1966. Everyone in the press corps, indeed many on the White House staff, knew that Cornell and Thomas were friends who often went out to dinner together. But as the years went by, they saw more and more of one another, especially on presidential trips. "We were in places like Laguna Beach and Vail, Colorado," remembers Fran Lewine, "and there's lots of time when . . . people can get to know one another."

Thomas and Cornell were very discreet. They were both private people and they worked for competing wire services, for heaven's sake. It was important to remain competitive if they both wanted to stay on the beat. "They didn't talk about it," remembers Helen Smith, then Pat Nixon's press secretary, "but anybody who knew Helen knew that she was fond of Doug and Doug was fond of her."

The quiet little romance turned into the Great Press Room Love Affair in 1971, the year Thomas finally was made number one at the UPI bureau and Cornell reached retirement age. Richard Nixon was giving Cornell a surprise farewell party on September 30 in the state dining room at the White House and had invited the entire White House press corps to attend. A few days before the party, Thomas had quietly told Helen Smith that she would be getting a wedding invitation in the near future but to keep it secret. Thomas had decided that "Doug was one in a billion trillion and I did love him and I think it was time . . . to put it mildly." She was 51 years old.

The night of Cornell's retirement party came. Nixon had prepared a presidential citation for Cornell, and Thomas was pushed to the stage when Nixon asked her to read it. After she finished, Nixon made a short speech and then Pat Nixon grabbed the microphone. Calling it "the biggest news of the century," the First Lady announced the Thomas-Cornell engagement. Tears streamed down Helen Thomas's face as she stood on the platform with Cornell, surrounded by their friends. "At last," Pat Nixon said, "I've scooped Helen Thomas."

They were married a little over two weeks later, on October 16, at St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House. All of Thomas's eight brothers and sisters came for the wedding, and Mama Ayesha was there, of course. She says Thomas was a nervous bride who "changed her mind five times at the church."

Helen "was very soft when she was around him," remembers Connie Girard, longtime assistant to the press secretaries at the White House. "It gave people a warm feeling to see them together." Their personalities were complementary -- Thomas was emotional, passionate and opinionated, everything the cool, reserved Cornell did not allow in his own public persona. Liz Carpenter, Lady Bird Johnson's press secretary, says Cornell once told her with a wry smile that "what I love so much about Helen is she doesn't hold back."

They moved into a two-bedroom condominium near the Shoreham Hotel. Thomas continued to drive herself hard, and Cornell planned to write his memoirs. In 1972, Watergate broke and Martha Mitchell, wife of then-Attorney General John Mitchell, began to call Thomas late at night, pouring out her story of anger and betrayal at the hands of Nixon's men. Mitchell's stories were big news -- shocking and sensational -- and Thomas's already solid career emerged into the limelight. She became not just a reporter but a "personality." On weekends, the couple tried to get away to a beautiful cabin in Rappahannock County near Sperryville, Va., that Cornell had built himself.

Then, several years after they were married, a very strange thing happened. Cornell had planned a surprise anniversary party for Thomas and invited a number of friends. Toward the end of the dinner, Cornell shocked the friend sitting across from him by saying, "Do I know you? Can you tell me your name?"

"We knew Helen was under a terrible strain," Thomas's sister Isabelle says. "She wouldn't talk much about it, because, you know, she was very protective of Doug. But I could see when we would ask how Doug was, we were beginning to suspect that he wasn't well."

Thomas carried on as though things were as they had been since the marriage. Professionally, she was at the pinnacle of her career. She worked long hours at the White House during Richard Nixon's decline and resignation. In 1975, after 32 years as a loyal Newspaper Guild member, she became management, promoted to the newly created post of White House bureau chief -- the first woman to serve in that capacity for a wire service. She was also elected the first woman president of the White House Correspondents Association and was invited to join the Gridiron Club, a previously all-male bastion that, like the National Press Club, had been the target of newswomen's protests for several years. And at night, she and Cornell had an active social life, filled with friendships built over a lifetime. "She made believe that there was nothing wrong," one of her friends says, "but she knew, she wasn't kidding herself."

In 1976, Isabelle Thomas visited her sister and went with Cornell to the doctor. "Then I knew," she says. Cornell's doctor told the family that he was losing his memory. But when Isabelle Thomas, a public health nurse, described Cornell's symptoms to her own doctor in Detroit, he told her it sounded like Alzheimer's disease.

As Cornell reached the point where he needed nearly constant supervision, Thomas would get him ready in the morning before she left for the White House and take him to friends in their condo building. Her housekeeper, Nellie Wigginton, would then pick him up and watch over him until Thomas came back at night.

When Isabelle Thomas retired in 1977, she came to Washington to help her sister with Cornell. "He would take long walks with me to the Sheraton," Isabelle says. "Helen kept him active and so did we. We had puzzles. He had his magazines and he would put them under his arm as though he were getting ready to go up to the Hill."

After two years in Washington, Isabelle Thomas had to return to Detroit to take care of an uncle who was dying. By that time, Doug Cornell needed an increasing amount of care. In Detroit, Isabelle would have the help of other family members, so they decided Cornell would go with her. Helen Thomas came often, but Isabelle says the last years were very hard. Cornell died February 20, 1982, at the age of 75.

Helen Thomas will say nothing about Cornell's illness. It is too painful, and, besides, she says, "I just want him to be remembered for how he was." Framed on the wall in the spare bedroom of her condominium, the one she and Cornell bought when they were first married, is the front page of the Charlotte Observer of August 15, 1945. It is Doug Cornell's piece about the end of World War II, written in a style more elegant than the wire services were ever to see again. A LITTLE AFTER 11 ON THE MORNING the world has learned that Liberian troops massacred 600 civilians, Helen Thomas is first in line for a photo opportunity at a meeting between President Bush and the president of Togo. Once inside the Oval Office, as the photographers record the meeting, she moves near the two white armchairs in front of the fireplace where the presidents are seated. Though Thomas usually asks the first question of the president on such occasions, she has decided to let someone else go first.

Terence Hunt, chief White House correspondent for the Associated Press, jumps in: "Mr. President, what's happening on the budget?" Bush ignores him. He is busy suggesting that his Togolese visitors tour the Johnson Space Center when they travel to Houston later in the day. "I could arrange a visit," he says.

"Mr. President of Togo," Thomas interrupts, "are you trying to mediate the Liberian dispute?"

Bush goes silent, and the president of Togo, after receiving a translation from an aide, begins speaking in French as his aide translates for Thomas. He says the Togolese tried to mediate before the crisis reached its deadly climax, but Liberia's president, Samuel Doe, would not listen. Thomas asks the Togolese's opinion of Doe, and what further they have heard on the massacre. Bush listens intently to what the Togolese are saying.

The White House press aides -- young people in their twenties who manage the office, put out press releases, make announcements and usher reporters in and out of the photo ops -- are getting frantic. "Lights out!" one yells to the network crews. "Lights out! Lights out!" But the Togolese go on talking. Thomas scribbles furiously, immovable.

"Thank you, Helen!" one young woman yells. "Thank you, thank you!" Bush lets his visitor finish his sentence, then says to Thomas in French, "Bonne question,

madame!"

Thomas rushes back to the UPI booth to file her story. Suddenly, one of the press aides rushes in. "Helen!" he screams. "If you ask a question, will you please do it during your own time? You threw everything off!"

She apologizes and the aide storms out. Then she says, summing up the challenge and frustration of her job: "What is my 'own time' to ask questions of the president?" HELEN THOMAS ONCE TOLD "60 Minutes" that the White House press corps sees only "snapshots" of the presidency. Most daily press events at the White House are photo opportunities for television networks and still photographers at the beginning of presidential meetings. A rotating "pool" of reporters is allowed into the photo ops for maybe 60 seconds after the photographers leave, and as a representative of a wire service, Thomas is entitled to be in every pool. When George Bush came into office he tried to lay down the law, insisting that reporters not bother him with questions in these photo ops, because he would not answer them. Thomas was furious. "We don't have to abide by that," she says. "That's prior restraint."

Thomas can always be counted on to ask questions in the photo ops, or at any press event for that matter. Some members of the White House press corps say that on hard-charging, competitive news days, they prefer Thomas in a pool to a more analytic reporter. She asks straightforward questions, "almost like a housewife in Des Moines would ask," as one reporter put it; she nearly always gets the president's attention and, if the pool is lucky, a response. Sometimes Bush or members of his Cabinet drop bits of information they want reported, making the photo ops, Thomas says, "kind of a charade."

Still, the information derived in the photo ops, and whatever can be gleaned from the press secretaries, is extremely limited. Thomas is frustrated by this, but feels her job is to file what she has. "They make some announcements, it's scatter-gun; you have half a story, and as a wire service, you go with what you've got," she explains.

Through the years, Thomas has become very adept at using her position as the first or second questioner at televised presidential press conferences to maximum advantage. Thomas's questions are notorious -- praised by many as tough, irreverent and populist; criticized by others for a pro-Palestinian bias, theatricality and lack of sophistication. Some reporters complain that Thomas too often presents her own position on issues, rather than trying to elicit the president's. Others say her adversarial stance reflects a relationship with the White House that more reporters should emulate.

Last December, for example, when Bush held a press conference on the second day of the Panama invasion, Thomas asked a question she calls "heartfelt": "Did you expect the casualties to be so high on both sides and was it really worth it to send people to their death for this? To get Noriega?" Bush revealed he'd had no firm estimates going in: "We had some estimates, Helen, on the casualties ahead of time, but not in numbers. I mean, it was more general . . ."

It is her chutzpah at the press conferences that has earned Thomas a certain amount of celebrity and a large coterie of fans -- many Americans like seeing their president pressed for explanations on television. Yet even some reporters who have no quarrel with taking the president to task believe Thomas's questions occasionally cross the line between inquiry and advocacy.

Nearly every reporter interviewed for this story mentioned that Thomas sometimes asks pro-Arab questions, even when the subject is not particularly relevant. During the U.S.-Soviet summit last June, for example, she asked Mikhail Gorbachev how his emigration policies would affect Palestinian lands -- a question most found off the wall, though one or two reporters said it "generated the only real news." Some of those who mention Thomas's questions add that it is healthy to have someone raising Arab issues, but Thomas's clear personal interest, in the minds of some journalists, affects her credibility.

"I consider myself a fair reporter," Thomas says in response. "I think I've only raised these questions when it's legitimate. The Middle East problem has been on the front burner since I've been at the White House, and I defy anyone to find bias in anything I've written about the subject."

To Thomas, all of her questions are "simple," asked with the idea of making presidents publicly accountable for what they have done. She believes that as a reporter she is a surrogate for the public. "Press conferences," she says, "are the only forum in our society where the president can be questioned."

All this fuss over Thomas's questions raises a question itself. Is the kind of reporting Thomas does still as significant as it once was? Or has reporting changed and, with that, Thomas's significance?

Many journalists in Washington would chafe at the restrictions of a wire service's constant deadlines. It is not unusual in the course of a day for Thomas to file three or four stories, along with a commentary or one of her weekly columns, "Backstairs at the White House." Name-brand newspaper reporters often call their own shots. Many turn to television punditry because TV is where the money is. Asked why she never crossed over, Thomas says, with characteristic honesty, "No one was beating down my door with job offers." Perhaps equally important, punditry has never fit Thomas's image of her work.

Despite her obviously strong opinions, she prides herself on having always kept her copy objective and fair. She has been a guest on enough talk shows to know that "TV polarizes you. It's not exactly the role of a wire service reporter." And Helen Thomas has remained devoted to the wire, and the philosophy behind it.

There was a time when newspapers relied on wire services for transmitting breaking news from around the globe. Speed was key -- tales abound of Thomas jumping over banquet tables to get to a phone before her competitors. There were two, three, even five newspapers in major cities -- morning and afternoon papers -- and if the news was big enough, the papers put out "extra" editions. The wire services were crucial to news distribution.

But television -- instant communication -- has changed all that. Major newspapers now have their own foreign and domestic bureaus (some even have their own news services), and they are no longer the major source of breaking news for most Americans. Television is -- and, for a smaller audience, radio. Newspapers still break stories, but they are now more in the business of explaining and intrepreting the news. The stories they do break are often the result of weeks or months of reporting, not minutes, and wire copy has become background information, freeing up their reporters for in-depth research.

The broadcast media are now the journalistic outlets that want minute-by-minute coverage of events. "Television is dependent on the wires," observes Fran Lewine, who became a news editor at CNN after leaving AP's White House bureau. Thomas is beloved of broadcast journalists, for whom a 10- or 20-minute jump on a story can make or break a newscast.

Still, it's ironic that as Thomas was fighting the battles and opening the doors for women at the wires and the White House, the profession was changing in ways that made her talents less relevant to those she'd always seen herself as serving best. It's ironic too that as newspapers -- and by extension the wires -- have had to redefine their niche and downplay speed, they have put a higher priority on interestingly written copy; it is widely known that writing is not Thomas's strong suit. "Helen would be the first to admit that she is not the greatest writer in the world," says Jon Frandsen, UPI's chief Washington Desk editor and the son of Julius Frandsen, the man who sent Thomas to the White House. "It may even be true," he adds, "that Helen is a less good writer than some of the people we have here -- but she makes up for it in so many ways."

Thomas has great influence with her peers, according to White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater. "There are two or three people in the press corps who can guide it," Fitzwater says. "If any of these people go after a story, they take the whole press corps with them. Helen is clearly one of those people."

This is paradoxical, since the organization Thomas works for, UPI, is slipping in importance, plagued by financial problems, layoffs and a shrinking subscriber base. AP is now the wire service of choice for most news organizations and is regarded as better staffed and generally more substantive than UPI. Still, Fitzwater says, after the press leaves a photo op at which the president has shut out their questions, Bush will say, " 'Marlin, what was Helen asking me about?' Because he knows that's what the whole press corps is going to be asking about too."

Even at 70, Thomas has mythic physical stamina. NBC's Andrea Mitchell, for seven years a White House reporter, calls Thomas "indefatigable." "The average burnout for a White House correspondent is after one term or at most two terms," she says. "No one can do it on a sustained basis, except Helen Thomas."

When Thomas is not staying up all night in the booth, she is on the road. Since the late '80s she has been a sought-after speaker on the lecture circuit. Though she is witty and a well-known feminist pioneer, much of her popularity as a speaker is due simply to her visibility -- another testament to the way television has changed journalism.

Thomas won't reveal how much she makes each year from lectures, but says rumors that they bring in more than her UPI salary are greatly exaggerated. Her friend Diane Nine, who books many of her appearances, says Thomas is paid anywhere from $2,000 to $8,000 per speech, and has about 20 speaking requests a month -- far more than she can accept. But she also speaks for free, especially to young journalists and Hill interns, and to state press associations and other groups to promote UPI.

If anyone at UPI had any doubt about Thomas's value to the company, it was writ large around 1982, when the wire service was seeking a new contract with the Los Angeles Times. A number of prestigious papers, including the New York Times, had already dropped the wire service. UPI managers begged Tom Johnson, then publisher of the Los Angeles Times and now the president of CNN, to hang in and sign a new contract with increased rates. "I told them, 'I'll sign this,' " Johnson says, " 'provided you assure me that Helen Thomas gets a raise.' " He got word that UPI honored its promise, and the Los Angeles Times is one of the few prestigious newspapers that still subscribe to the full UPI service (as does CNN). "I have always been impressed with Helen," Johnson says, "and I say that as an AP board member."

So whatever she makes, it behooves UPI to keep her happy. "Everyone recognizes she carries UPI from the standpoint of journalistic recognition," Fitzwater says. Grant Dillman, now with Maturity News Service, states the case more plainly. "Helen and a handful of other bylines," he says with sadness, "are all UPI's got anymore."

IT IS 9:28 P.M., AND HELEN THOMAS has been in the booth for 15 hours. She calls her desk. "The overnighter is done," she says, filing her last story. It is a wrap-up of the day's Persian Gulf news, prepared for the few remaining afternoon papers. Thomas likes doing the overnighter, even though she knows it is no longer the prestige piece it once was.

She picks up her purse and walks toward Pennsylvania Avenue to hail a cab. She is going to the Calvert Cafe. She will meet her friends and sit for a while with Mama Ayesha. And tomorrow she will do it all over again.