Obituary: Helen Thomas / Trailblazing journalist was dean of White House press corps

Aug. 4, 1920 - July 20, 2013

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Helen Thomas, the tenacious and feisty dean of the White House press corps who covered 10 presidents and was a trailblazer for female journalists, has died. She was 92.

A syndicated columnist for Hearst News Service after spending most of her career as a reporter for United Press International, Ms. Thomas died early Saturday at her apartment in Washington, D.C. Her friend Muriel Dobbin, a longtime Baltimore Sun reporter, said Ms. Thomas had been in declining health for some time and had recently been hospitalized.

Ms. Thomas covered every administration from John Kennedy to Barack Obama, and, as Gerald Ford put it, practiced "a fine blend of journalism and acupuncture." As the senior correspondent at the White House, it fell to Ms. Thomas to end presidential news conferences with the declaration, "Thank you, Mr. President."

Perhaps her most lasting achievement as a journalist was to shatter the glass ceiling in the press room. She was the first woman to serve as White House bureau chief for a wire service -- UPI -- and the first female officer of three Washington institutions that defined press power: the National Press Club, the White House Correspondents Association and the Gridiron Club.

In May 2010, Ms. Thomas was forced to give up her Hearst column after making anti-Israel remarks in a short recorded video interview. Days later, she apologized for saying that Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and "go home," but she couldn't escape the controversy and resigned.

In 2011, she began writing a column for the weekly Falls Church (Va.) News-Press and continued until early 2012. "She's not bigoted or racist or anti-Semitic," owner-editor Nicholas Benton told the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot when Ms. Thomas was hired. "She has her differences about foreign policy, but you're allowed that."

Ms. Thomas had a reputation for asking questions with an edge and was so vociferous in her criticism of the war in Iraq that for three years President George W. Bush never called on her. When he finally did, she rose and said, "You're going to be sorry," before launching into a tirade-turned-question about the war.

She broke news -- Lyndon Johnson was enraged when Ms. Thomas reported his daughter Luci's engagement before Patrick Nugent had asked the president's permission. She made history as the only female journalist to accompany President Richard Nixon on his historic trip to China. She made foes -- "I'm persona non grata," she said of her relationship with George W. Bush. But when she left UPI to become a columnist, the White House Correspondents Association decreed that she should still sit in the front row during news briefings, explaining that she was "the dean of the White House press corps."

Born Aug. 4, 1920, in Winchester, Ky., where her parents had moved after arriving at Ellis Island from Lebanon in 1903, Ms. Thomas was the seventh of nine children, all encouraged to express opinions -- and to go to college. Growing up in Detroit, she discovered journalism on the Eastern High School newspaper, and enrolled in Wayne University (now Wayne State University), where she earned money working in the college library and at her brother's gasoline station. She devoted the rest of her spare time to the student newspaper.

Earning a bachelor's degree in English in 1942, she headed to Washington. It was wartime, and with men in the service women were getting career chances once unheard of in the workplace. She worked briefly as a copy girl at the gritty Washington Daily News. When she was laid off, she headed to the National Press Building, where she knocked on doors until United Press, later UPI, hired her for $24 a week to write copy for radio broadcasters. She held the job for 12 years.

She got her break in 1956, when UPI gave her a beat covering the Justice Department. Finally, when she was 40, UPI sent her to the White House to cover the stylish first lady, Jackie Kennedy.

Ms. Thomas eventually worked her way onto the men's side of White House coverage, clamoring to end gender discrimination at the National Press Club, where foreign dignitaries and other visiting notables spoke to reporters and often made news.

Finally, in 1971, the club opened its doors to women. Ms. Thomas was its first female member.

Similar stories applied to the other two organizations. The White House Correspondents Association black-tie dinner was not open to women until 1962, when Kennedy, at Ms. Thomas' prodding, threatened not to attend unless women were allowed in. Ms. Thomas and Fran Lewine of the rival Associated Press broke through the Gridiron's male-only policy in 1974, when they attracted big-name guests to a counter-Gridiron party that stole the original's thunder. The next year, they were in.

By then Ms. Thomas was a fixture in Washington, and at the White House. She was named UPI's Washington bureau chief in 1974.

She worked for UPI from more than half a century, until 2000, when the news service was sold to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. She quit, and went to work as a columnist for Hearst, trading in her reporter's dictated facts for the opinions that had long dominated her thinking -- and her family tradition.

At 51, Ms. Thomas married a colleague, Douglas Cornell. Four years later, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and she cared for him until his death in 1982 with help from a sister who was a nurse. They had no children.

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First Published July 21, 2013 4:00 AM


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