Today Helen Thomas died at the age of 92.
Helen Thomas was a legend in White House reporting. She started covering the White House in 1960, choosing to eschew the traditional “female reporting” angle – First Lady’s fashion choices, travel plans, and other light fare – in favor of real daily reporting. She 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. As a senior and much-respected member of the White House press corps, Thomas sat for many years in the front row of all White House press briefings. She commonly asked the first question.
Thomas was born in Winchester, Kentucky in 1920 to immigrant parents from Lebanon. Her father’s original surname was Antonius, but that was Anglicized to Thomas when he arrived in America. Her heritage as Arab-American would follow her throughout her life, informing her decisions and questions, especially on matter regarding Middle East peace processes and conflicts.
During her tenure in the briefing room, she asked hard questions, holding the feet of every Press Secretary to the fire when needed. She grew bolder and more willing to ask questions that took people aback in her old age. Bush-era secretary Dana Perino once chided her for being brash in her questioning about deployment of troops to Iraq, when Thomas asked about “… how many more people we kill.”
Helen, I find it really unfortunate that you use your front row position, bestowed upon you by your colleagues, to make such statements. This is a…it is an honor and a privilege to be in the briefing room, and to suggest that we, the United States, are killing innocent people is just absurd and very offensive.
Thomas openly stated that she considered George W. Bush to be “the worst president in American history”, a statement that caused her to be passed over for the first question for the first time in anyone’s memory. She apologized to the president in writing.
But she was an equal opportunity offender. She railed about President Obama’s control of the White House Press Corps, saying that not even Nixon had been so controlling.
Thomas covered the White House until a controversy over statements she made in 2010 about Israelis forced her retirement. Many condemned her statements that Israelis should “go back home”, i.e. leave Palestine. Some said her forced retirement was appropriate. Others decried it as a hypocritical stance when so many other people say incendiary things about Muslims in talk radio and news every day.
Thomas is widely considered to have blazed and paved the way for many female journalists to follow her.