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Veteran White House Reporter Helen Thomas Dead At 92

Helen Thomas LBJ

Helen Thomas, a White House reporter who broke the gender barrier in the White House Press Corps and covered every President from Eisenhower to Obama, has died at the age of 92:

WASHINGTON — Helen Thomas, whose bottomless curiosity and an unquenchable drive made her a prominent White House reporter at a time when men dominated the profession, died Saturday at her apartment in Washington. She was 92.

Her death, which came after a long illness, was announced by the Gridiron Club where Ms. Thomas had been a former president.

Ms. Thomas covered every president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama for United Press International and, later, Hearst Newspapers. Colleagues called her the unofficial dean of the White House press corps. Her blunt questions and sharp tone made her a familiar personality not only in the sometimes parochial universe inside the Beltway but also to nationwide television audiences.

Presidents grew to respect, even to like, Ms. Thomas for her forthrightness and energy, which sustained her well after the age at which most people have settled into retirement. President Bill Clinton gave her a cake on Aug. 4, 1997, her 77th birthday.

But on June 7, 2010, Ms. Thomas announced her immediate retirement from Hearst amid an uproar over her assertion that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and go back where they belonged, perhaps to Germany and Poland. Her remarks, made almost offhandedly days earlier at a White House event, set off a storm when a videotape was posted.

In her retirement announcement, Ms. Thomas, who would have turned 93 next month, said that she deeply regretted her remarks and that they did not reflect her “heartfelt belief” that peace would come to the Middle East only when all parties embraced “mutual respect and tolerance.” “May that day come soon,” she said.

Ms. Thomas’s career bridged two eras, beginning during World War II when people got their news mostly from radio, newspapers and movie newsreels, and extending into the era of 24-hour information on cable television and the Internet. She resigned from U.P.I. on May 16, 2000, a day after it was taken over by an organization with links to the Unification Church.

Weeks later, Ms. Thomas was hired by Hearst to write a twice-weekly column on national issues. She continued working until her retirement.

When Ms. Thomas got a job as a radio writer for United Press in 1943 (15 years before it merged with the International News Service to become U.P.I.), most female journalists wrote about social events and homemaking. The “real” journalists — the ones who covered war, crime and politics and congratulated one another over drinks at the press club — were men.

She worked her way into full-time reporting, and by the mid-1950s was covering federal agencies. She covered John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960, and when he won, she became the first woman assigned to the White House full time by a news service.

Ms. Thomas was also the first woman to be elected as an officer of the White House Correspondents’ Association and the first to serve as its president. In 1975, she became the first woman elected to the Gridiron Club, which for 90 years had been a “men only” bastion of Washington journalists.

Ms. Thomas was known for her dawn-to-dark work hours, and she got her share of exclusives and near-exclusives. She was the only female print journalist to accompany President Richard M. Nixon on his breakthrough trip to China in 1972. In the Watergate era, she was a favorite late-night confidante of Martha Mitchell, the wife of John N. Mitchell, Mr. Nixon’s attorney general and campaign official.

Mrs. Mitchell told Ms. Thomas that responsibility for the “third-rate burglary” at the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington and the cover-up that followed it had gone far above the midlevel officials who were implicated early on.

People with a vested interest in discrediting Mrs. Mitchell hinted that she was emotionally unstable and that she drank too much. But volatile or not, she was right. Ms. Thomas called Mrs. Mitchell, who died in 1976, “one of the first victims, and perhaps the only heroine, of the Watergate tidal wave.”

On April 22, 1981, three weeks and two days after the attempt on President Ronald Reagan’s life, Ms. Thomas and a reporter for The Associated Press interviewed the president, who told them of the “paralyzing pain” he had felt when a bullet went into his chest and of the panic that had overcome him when he could not breathe.

For decades, as dean of the press corps, Thomas would be the first person called on to ask a question in a Presidential Press Conference, and the one to say “Thank you, Mr. President” when it was over. Those customs have mostly fallen by the wayside in recent years as there has been far more turnover in the press room, but her influence over the room lasted well into her tenure, as the interview she gave to Mediaite’s Tommy Christopher, which I’ve embedded below, shows. The end of her career, of course, will forever be marred by remarks that many deemed as anti-semitic, a characterization that seems to be sadly all to accurate even reading them again today. It was a sad way to end a career that had many noteworthy achievements.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. 11B40 says:

    Greetings:

    I’m almost always bemused by these “when men dominated the profession” or industry slurs. Coming from those who obviously consider themselves as having some degree of wordsmithery, it’s a troubling formulation. It seems to refer to men making up a preponderance of the population being examined. Yet, if that is the case, then aren’t the menfolk “dominating” other men? And certainly that is preferable to them “dominating” other genders or near-genders, no?

    But, in a every cloud has a silver lining kind of way, at least the writer, for some reason or other, didn’t label them “white men” which certainly would have been accurate but probably would have opened the door to some “white Hispanic men” confusion.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 7

  2. john425 says:

    Left wing media empires and anti-Semitic journalists everywhere are bowing their heads in a moment of silence. The rest of us don’t care.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 6

  3. James Joyner says:

    To have risen as far as she did as a women, in the period in which she did it, she must have been really something, indeed. Sadly, she hung on too long and become something of a punching bag in her later years.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  4. Sejanus says:

    I know that this comment will be downvoted to death, but frankly all I have to say is good riddance. I’m not going back to Poland nor anywhere else.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 4

  5. Tillman says:

    @11B40:

    I’m almost always bemused by these “when men dominated the profession” or industry slurs. Coming from those who obviously consider themselves as having some degree of wordsmithery, it’s a troubling formulation. It seems to refer to men making up a preponderance of the population being examined. Yet, if that is the case, then aren’t the menfolk “dominating” other men? And certainly that is preferable to them “dominating” other genders or near-genders, no?

    I think you’re confusing a “slur” for a description, and confusing different meanings of the word “dominate.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  6. Jenos Idanian says:

    Ever since I was called out by someone for using “bemused” as a synonym for “amused,” I’ve been amused by people who make the same error.

    And Helen Thomas will always be remembered for telling the Jews to “get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home to Poland and Germany.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  7. 11B40 says:

    @Tillman:

    Greetings, Tillman:

    Thanks for your feedback. At your kind encouragement, i took a look at “dominate” in my Webster’s New world Dictionary, Second College Edition. Down at the third level, I found “to have foremost place in, as to dominate a sports league”. That seems to me to be a bit of a subset of a subset. But having survived the Chubby Checker era, I still appreciate a good Twist especially in service to the NARRATIVE. Still that kind of domination is a bit too overt and competitive for my use, if you get my drift.

    Alternatively, the first level definition, “to rule or control by superior power or influence” seems to align much better with the self-image I’m supposed to be developing in order to really enjoy my while male serfdom. Having worked long and hard to become a true progressive, I diligently practice my breast-beatings, false god genuflections, and reparation donations. I really, really really am open to both gaining and accepting progressive enlightenment.

    What I’m struggling with in this item’s regard is that I still remember so much of my personal experience that, non-terpsichorean that I am, I just can’t seem to twist appropriately. Growing up, back in the Bronx of the ’50s and ’60s in a working/lower middle class neighborhood, it seemed an awful lot of women, even opposite-sex married women were involved in the workforce that President Obama has managed so successfully to shrink. My father had three sisters who never married, one was a Registered Nurse (the kind with the wonderful white uniform and headwear), one was a manager for a cosmetic firm, and one was a manager for an insurance company. My own mother stayed home until my sister and I went off to high school and then she went back to worked. Her sister, who lived across the street worked full-time for what was then known as Ma Bell. I would estimate that at least half the opposite-sex married women in the neighborhood, along with the joys of motherhood, enjoyed, perhaps even more, the joys of workforce participation.

    So, I struggle on with resolving the known and consenually-proven science of the workforce genocide that was inflicted on all the women of this country especially in the combat branches of our military services. But I know that at the end of evolvement, I will reach my personal development goal and be a progressive, and then I will take ownership of the power to determine what is a “slur”, too.

    You didn’t really think “male-dominated” was a self-esteem builder now did you ???

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  8. 11B40 says:

    @Tillman:

    Greetings, once more, Tillman:

    Looking at the photo included in the item, don’t you just love the way all those men “dominated” Ms. Thomas to the front and center of their pack ???

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  9. wr says:

    @Jenos Idanian: “And Helen Thomas will always be remembered for telling the Jews to “get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home to Poland and Germany.” ”

    Yes. By losers who know nothing they don’t hear about from Fox News. To a pathetic little troll like you has never accomplished anything in his life, it must feel good to be able to dismiss a lifetime’s worth of accomplishments because Red Eye gives you a reason to hate.

    I pity the oxygen that gets sucked into your lungs.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  10. Jenos Idanian says:

    @wr: Knee-jerk idiot give idiotic knee-jerk reaction. Quelle surprise.

    Since you’re stalking my comments thread to thread, go to the US bombs Great Barrier Reef” discussion. I put up a couple there, including one where I made a funny.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  11. wr says:

    @Jenos Idanian: I took a walk this morning, and noticed that dogs had crapped in two different places. According to your logic, that would mean I was stalking dog turds.

    Which would, frankly, be more productive and more pleasant that stalking your leavings.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. Jenos Idanian says:

    @wr: I took a walk this morning, and noticed that dogs had crapped in two different places.

    Wow! You found a jury of your peers!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0