Enemy of secrecy: White House reporters owe a debt to Helen Thomas

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For years, Helen Thomas ended every presidential press conference by saying: "Thank you, Mr. President." She shattered glass ceilings, was a trailblazer for women in journalism and never took no for an answer, either from presidents or from stuffy organizations that denied membership to reporters who were women.

Ms. Thomas died last weekend in her Washington, D.C., home, two weeks before her 93rd birthday. She spent most of her life as the hard-working White House bureau chief for United Press International, once a powerful wire service. After she left UPI in 2000, she became a syndicated columnist.

Her career ended sadly in 2010, when Ms. Thomas, long a critic of Israeli policies, said that Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and go back to Russia, Germany and the United States. There was no excuse for those outrageous remarks; she apologized, but was forced into retirement.

That blemish should not overshadow her career. One of 10 daughters of a Lebanese immigrant, she grew up in working-class Detroit, put herself through Wayne State University and left for Washington in 1943.

Women were not supposed to cover hard political news then, much less the White House. But she did. Told that women could not join the National Press Club, she forced her way in and eventually became its president.

She had her share of scoops, especially during Watergate, and she summarized her working philosophy: "Democracy dies behind closed doors."

Those words, and the trail she blazed for women journalists after her, are how she deserves to be remembered.

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