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Helen Thomas dies at 92; pioneering journalist

Known for her persistent and blunt questioning of 10 presidents, Helen Thomas broke down a succession of barriers to women in the Washington press corps and became a White House fixture.

July 20, 2013|By Johanna Neuman

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, Thomas died early Saturday at her apartment in Washington. Her friend Muriel Dobbin, a longtime Baltimore Sun reporter, said Thomas had been in declining health for some time and had recently been hospitalized.

Thomas covered every administration from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama, and, as Gerald R. Ford put it, practiced "a fine blend of journalism and acupuncture." As the senior correspondent at the White House, it fell to Thomas to end presidential press 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' Assn. and the Gridiron.

In May 2010, Thomas was forced to give up her Hearst column after making anti-Israel remarks in a short videotaped 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 Thomas was hired. "She has her differences about foreign policy, but you're allowed that."

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 Thomas reported his daughter Luci's engagement before Patrick Nugent had asked LBJ's permission. She made history as the only female journalist to accompany President 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 the UPI news service to become a columnist, the White House Correspondents Assn. decreed that she should still sit in the front row during press 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, 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 gas 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 Helen Thomas to the White House to cover the stylish first lady, Jackie Kennedy.

It was a mismatch from the start. Joining forces with the Associated Press' Fran Lewine, the two staked out the Georgetown house where the Kennedys lived before the inauguration, ditto at Georgetown University hospital when John Kennedy Jr. was born and shadowed Jackie on her shopping trips. The first lady called them her "harpies" and once tried to lose them by complaining to the Secret Service that "two strange-looking Spanish women" were trailing her. In her 1975 book "Dateline: White House," Thomas wrote that Jackie Kennedy even asked the president to get her news organization to transfer Thomas overseas.

By then, Thomas had 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. She, Lewine, Elsie Carper of the Washington Post and others lobbied the State Department — which was complicit in booking foreign leaders at the club — and embassies.

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