On this date in 1920, Helen Thomas was born in Winchester, Kentucky, the seventh of nine children of immigrants from Tripoli in what had been part of the Ottoman Empire and later Lebanon. She was a Christian, and member of the Antiochian Orthodox Church.
A longtime news service reporter, member of the White House press corps and opinion columnist, she worked for the United Press and its successor United Press International for 57 years. She covered the administrations of eleven U.S. presidents, from the final years of the Eisenhower administration to Obama’s second year.
Thomas was the first female officer of the National Press Club, the first female member and president of the White House Correspondents’ Association and the first female member of the Gridiron Club. She wrote six books. Thomas retired from Hearst Newspapers on June 7, 2010, following controversial comments she made about Israel and the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Thomas was raised mainly in Detroit, where her family moved when she was four years old, and where her father ran a grocery store. She earned a degree in English at Wayne State University in 1942, and moved to Washington, D.C. Her first job in journalism was as a copygirl for the old Washington Daily News, but after eight months there, she joined with her colleagues in a strike action and was fired.
She joined United Press in 1943 and reported on women’s topics, moving on to the celebrity circuit later in the decade and into the early 1950s. In 1955, she was assigned to cover the Department of Justice, then the Department of Health, as well as Capitol Hill.
She served as 1959-60 president of the Women’s National Press Club. In 1959, she and a few of her fellow female journalists forced the National Press Club, then barred to women, to allow them to attend an address by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
In November 1960, Thomas began covering then President-elect John F. Kennedy, switching from reporting the “women’s angle” to hard news. She became the White House UPI correspondent in January 1961, and chief of UPI’s White House bureau in 1974. She became known as the “First Lady of the Press.” The Christian Science Monitor called her “a fixture in American politics…outspoken, blunt, demanding, forceful and unrelenting. Not only does she command respect by the highest powers in the U.S., her reputation is known worldwide.”
In 1962, Thomas convinced President Kennedy not to attend the annual dinners for the White House correspondents and photographers if they disallowed women from attending. Kennedy asked for the dinners to be combined into one event, with women allowed to attend.
Thomas circled the globe several times, traveling with every U.S. president from Richard Nixon through Barack Obama. She was the only member of the White House Press Corps to have her own seat in the White House Briefing Room. All other seats are assigned to media outlets.
On May 17, 2000, the day after it was announced that UPI had been acquired by Unification Church leader Rev. Sun Myung Moon, Thomas resigned after 57 years with the organization. She shortly joined Hearst Newspapers as an opinion columnist, and became less circumspect in her criticism.
During President George W. Bush’s first term, Thomas reacted to Press Secretary Ari Fleischer’s statements about arms shipments to the terrorists by asking, “Where do the Israelis get their arms?” After some robust exchanges she interrupted him, saying, “Palestinian people are fighting for their land.”
In January 2003 Thomas told an autograph-seeker, “I’m covering the worst president in American history”; her offhand comment found its way into print. After that she was not called upon during a press conference for the first time in over four decades. Although she apologized to the president, she was moved to the back row during press conferences. She said, “They didn’t like me…I ask too mean questions.”
On March 21, 2006, Thomas was called upon directly by President Bush for the first time in three years. Thomas asked Bush about the war in Iraq:
“I’d like to ask you, Mr. President, [about] your decision to invade Iraq…. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is: Why did you really want to go to war?…. You have said it wasn’t oil…it hasn’t been Israel, or anything else. What was it?”
At the July 18, 2006, White House press briefing, Thomas remarked, “The United States…could have stopped the bombardment of Lebanon. We have that much control with the Israelis…. We have gone for collective punishment against all of Lebanon and Palestine.” Press Secretary Tony Snow responded, “Thank you for the Hezbollah view.” Media critics began saying her questions sounded more like “tirades” and “anti-Israeli rhetoric.”
In a press conference on November 30, 2007, Thomas questioned White House Press Secretary Dana Perino as to why Americans should depend on General David Petraeus in determining when to re-deploy U.S. troops from Iraq. Perino began to answer when Thomas interjected, “You mean how many more people we kill?” Angry exchanges followed, with Thomas challenging the worth of “regret” when Perino responded that the administration regretted the loss of all innocent Iraqi lives.
Thomas was present (and in the front row) for newly elected President Obama’s first news conference on Feb. 9, 2009. President Obama called on her, and Thomas asked if any Middle Eastern country possessed nuclear weapons. Obama replied that he did not want to “speculate” on the matter. By the summer of 2009, Thomas was openly complaining about the control and lack of openness and transparency in the Obama administration’s handling of the press.
On May 27, 2010, Rabbi David Nesenoff asked Thomas, as she was leaving the White House, for comments on Israel. She replied: “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine” and “Remember, these people are occupied and it’s their land. It’s not German, it’s not Poland…. Why push people out of there who have lived there for centuries?” She also mentioned she was of “Arab background.” A one-minute excerpt of that interview was posted on Nesenoff’s website on June 3, and the next day Thomas issued regrets about her comments. “They do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon.” On June 7 Thomas abruptly resigned from Hearst Newspapers.
The next day, in an interview on NBC’s Today Show, President Obama called her remarks “offensive” and “out of line” and said her retirement was “the right decision.” He remarked that it was a “shame” her celebrated career had to end in such controversy, and at the same time he recognized her long service covering U.S. presidents, calling her “a real institution in Washington.”
Thomas also had her share of defenders who felt she was being attacked too harshly. Ralph Nader noted the “double standard” where one offhand “ill-conceived remark” ended Helen Thomas’ career while “ultra-right wing radio and cable ranters” engaged in “bigotry, stereotypes and falsehoods directed wholesale against Muslims, including a blatant anti-Semitism against Arabs.”
Thomas later reflected that by making those statements, “I hit the third rail. You cannot criticize Israel in this country and survive.” On another occasion she said, “I just think that people should be enlightened as to who is in charge of the opinion in this country.”
Thomas received more than 30 honorary degrees, and numerous awards, although her final years were darkened over the Israel-Palestine issue. Throughout her career she fearlessly challenged the status quo as much as possible within the constraints of the “established” media, and at the end understood more clearly the role such media played in molding public opinion.
Thomas died in 2013 at the age of 92, recognized as a trailblazer who broke the glass ceiling. President Obama called her “a true pioneer” and said that “she never failed to keep presidents – myself included – on their toes.”
Adapted from Wikipedia and other sources.
People’s World senior political correspondent, Tim Wheeler, wrote how Helen Thomas once came to his rescue, read it here.
Photo: “Helen Thomas and Barack Obama 2009” by White House (Pete Souza) / Official White House Photostream. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.