When Helen Thomas began her journalism career 40 years ago, she was relegated to covering what was then euphemistically called "women's news," society items and chatty profiles of celebrities.
Even in the late '50s, while Thomas was considered competent enough to cover so-called "hard news beats" such as the Justice Department, Federal Bureau of Investigation and Congress--and to write for United Press International's (UPI's) radio news network--she still was considered unsuited to be a broadcast announcer.
"Women weren't hired by radio in those days to appear on the air because they weren't considered to have good speaking voices," Thomas recalled in a speech Sunday to the state convention of the American Assn. of University Women, a nationwide organization dedicated to the promotion of higher education and equitable treatment of women.
Today Thomas, at 64, is White House bureau chief for UPI, the first woman to occupy such a position with a major wire service. She is known to millions of Americans as the voice that often closes presidential news conferences with "Thank you, Mr. President."
"In the battle for equality for women, we have come a long way, but we are not there yet," Thomas told a luncheon audience of 570 women at the Westin South Coast PlazaHotel in Costa Mesa.
During her 30-minute talk, Thomas gave a candid, at times humorous assessment of her coverage of six presidents during a quarter of a century, beginning with John F. Kennedy.
"During the years I've had this ringside view of presidents, I've learned something: Presidents are human too. I've witnessed their joys, sorrows--and rare acts of nobility."
Thomas' audience-pleasing combination of toughness and wry humor, she later suggested in an interview, was born of her attempts to break down barriers in the basically all-male world of Washington journalism.
Broke a Barrier
For 90 years the prestigious National Press Club in Washington, D.C., was closed to women until Thomas became a member--and later its first female officer. For half a century the White House Correspondents Assn. had no women officers until Thomas was elected to its presidency in 1975.
It took the Gridiron Club, an exclusive social organization for the press in Washington, 90 years to open its doors to a woman; that woman was Helen Thomas, who became a member in 1975.
After listening to these and other accomplishments detailed in a lengthy introduction, Thomas stepped to the podium and quipped: "It's hard to hear your obituary when you think you're still alive."
Small in stature, Thomas wore a red dress. ("Is that 'Reagan Red?' " one member of the audience teasingly asked later during the question and answer session.)
According to Thomas, "President Reagan's second term is getting off to a shaky start." She ticked off a number of the President's recent reversals, including the controversy surrounding his planned visit to a military cemetery for German soldiers killed in World War II and Reagan's failed attempt to get Congress to adopt an aid package for so-called contras, guerrillas seeking to overthrow the Marxist-led Sandinista government of Nicaragua.
"Other presidents," Thomas said, "have faced similar predicaments in an office that has been described as a 'splendid misery.' This perhaps explains why presidents age so much in office. But President Reagan seems to have managed to freeze the biological clock. He seems to take all these pressures in stride."
Although Thomas is presently covering the Reagan White House, she did not shrink from offering a critical and candid analysis of the President's programs. "The President wants to wipe out--and chip away at what he can't wipe out--the social programs of the New Deal and Great Society," Thomas said.
"This Administration's philosophy can best be summed up by (Director of the Office of Management and Budget) David Stockman's comment that: 'Government owes people no services.' This is the same David Stockman who did not pay off his college loan until after this fact was exposed in the press.
"There can be no doubt that the President's 'Revolution of the Right' continues to enjoy wide popular support; you can't argue with a 49-state mandate (which Reagan achieved in last fall's presidential election)."
But it will be during Reagan's second term, Thomas contended, that the American people will see the "real Reagan. During the President's first term, he was surrounded by (a host of advisers) who were practiced in shielding the President from following his natural instincts. Now they are gone; it's a whole new ballgame. The result is that Reagan thinks he's the President."
Whatever burdens or difficulties a president encounters in office, Thomas asked her audience to keep in mind an observation once made by Jeff Carter, former President Jimmy Carter's youngest son.