Regarded as the dean of the Washington, D.C., press corps, reporter Helen Thomas (born 1920) has served as White House bureau chief for United Press International (UPI) since 1974.
To those who regularly watch presidential press conferences, Helen Thomas is a familiar figure. Usually dressed in red (a tradition dating back to the administration of Ronald Reagan) and always seated in the front row, she is invariably the first or second reporter the president calls upon. It is an honor she has earned by virtue of her long and distinguished career in Washington, and it is one she relishes. Besides, it affords her the perfect opportunity to do what she does best-bluntly challenge the president (and other public officials) to tell the plain, unvarnished truth. "We (reporters) are not there to curry presidential favor, nor can we respond to efforts at presidential intimidation," she asserted in her memoir, Dateline: White House. "Our priority is the peoples' right to know-without fear or favor. We are the peoples' servants."
Parents Valued Hard Work and Education
Helen Thomas was born in Winchester, Kentucky on August 4, 1920, the seventh of nine children. Her Lebanese immigrant parents, George and Mary Thomas, had arrived in the United States in 1903 with a mere $17 in their pockets. Living at first in Lexington, Kentucky, where several relatives had already settled, George Thomas supported his growing family as a door-to-door peddler of food and household items. Eventually, he was able to open his own grocery store and move his family to the Kentucky town of Winchester. They later moved to Detroit, Michigan, where Helen Thomas was raised.
All of the Thomas children were brought up to value education, and all were expected to make something of themselves-"even us girls, as uncommon as that thinking was in those days," Thomas explained in an interview with Alan Ebert published in Good Housekeeping. She made up her mind while she was still in high school to become a reporter after a stint as a writer for the student newspaper. "A teacher praised my work," recalled Thomas in her memoir, "and I liked the bylines!" She pursued her dream of a career in journalism at Detroit's Wayne University (now Wayne State University), where she majored in English and once again worked on the school paper.
After receiving her bachelor's degree in 1942, Thomas headed straight for Washington, D.C., in search of a newspaper job. Before long, she landed one as a copy girl at the now-defunct Washington Daily News, where her duties in the male-dominated newsroom included fetching coffee and doughnuts for the paper's reporters and editors. The eager young woman nevertheless found the atmosphere exciting and stimulating and was convinced she had made the right career choice. Her mother kept asking her when she was coming home, but Thomas knew she had found what she has described as "a journalist's paradise" in Washington and that she was in the nation's capital to stay.
Joined UPI Staff
Not long after she received a promotion to cub reporter, Thomas found herself without a job when a labor-management dispute at the Daily News resulted in massive staff cutbacks. Making the rounds once again, she was hired by United Press International in 1943. For the next dozen years, she wrote local news stories for UPI's radio wire service on subjects deemed to be of interest to women (the only topics female reporters were allowed to cover in those days). Beginning in the late 1940s, however, Thomas picked up some additional writing assignments, including the "Names in the News" column for UPI, which featured interviews with famous Washingtonians. From time to time, she also wrote about the comings and goings of President Harry S Truman's wife, Bess.
Thomas moved on to more serious reporting in 1955 when she was assigned to cover the U.S. Department of Justice. Her federal government beat later expanded to include the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services), and Capitol Hill. She thrived professionally in other ways as well, serving as president of the Women's National Press Club in 1959-60.
Covered Kennedy White House
Her big break came shortly after the 1960 presidential election when she was sent to Palm Beach, Florida, to report on the vacation of President-elect John F. Kennedy and his family. Determined to ferret out the details not only of their public moments but of their private ones as well, Thomas followed the Kennedys everywhere and talked to anyone she could find who had had some kind of contact with them. She focused in particular on the glamorous but aloof First-Lady-to-be, Jacqueline, a figure of endless fascination to the American public. Jackie did everything she could to thwart such intense scrutiny, but to no avail; Thomas interviewed caterers, hairdressers, and even employees of the diaper service company the family used to obtain the inside information she wanted. This relentless pursuit of the "story behind the story," combined with Thomas's bold tactics, her pointed questions, and sometimes biting sarcasm, have since become hallmarks of her reporting style and still occasionally annoy and exasperate the newsmakers she covers.
Once Kennedy took office, Thomas shifted her focus from the president's family to his policies. She began attending the daily press briefings at the White House as well as presidential press conferences, instituting the tradition of closing such sessions by saying, "Thank you, Mr. President" (a custom that endures to the present day). She enjoyed an especially friendly rapport with Kennedy, whom she had known since the early 1950s when he was a young, unmarried senator. "I liked JFK," Thomas told Ebert. "He had a marvelous wit, and I loved how he inspired young people. And he was a doting, loving father." As for his infidelities, she said, "in those years, that kind of inside information only circulated among the men. We women were excluded, almost as if the men had formed a protective shield against harm coming to a president because he proved to be 'human."'
Named UPI Bureau Chief
Before long, Thomas had expanded the scope of her coverage to include other U.S. government officials and world leaders, yet the White House remained her primary beat. During the early 1970s she posted a string of major accomplishments, both professional and personal. In 1970, she was named UPI's chief White House correspondent, and in 1974 she became chief of UPI's White House bureau, making her the first woman ever to hold that position for any of the wire services. The following year, she reached two more important milestones when she became the first woman admitted to the Gridiron Club (Washington's most exclusive press club) as well as the first woman elected president of the White House Correspondents Association. She also was the first female officer of the National Press Club, an all-male bastion that did not vote to accept women members until 1971. That same momentous year, Thomas married Douglas B. Cornell, a reporter for the rival Associated Press (AP) news organization.
Thomas has covered every president since Kennedy, noting in her memoir that "my sense of awe at the responsibility I have assumed has grown with the years. Presidents are human beings, and I have always tried to be conscious of that fact, trying not only to be accurate, but compassionate. … I have seen presidents in moments of glory, bursting with their own sense of being, caught up in public adulation. I have also seen presidents in despair, overburdened, brooding, emotional, seeking understanding."
Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, had a rocky, love-hate relationship with the Washington press corps. If Thomas wrote something he did not like, "he would walk right by me as though I wasn't there," she remarked to Ebert. At other times, he could be brimming with folksy friendliness and earthy candor. In his complexity, Thomas noted, he was "an incomparable combination of medicine man, evangelist, and statesman."
Accompanied Nixon to China
Richard Nixon was among her least favorite presidents (although his wife, Pat, was one of her favorite first ladies). Their relationship started out as one of mutual respect, but as the Watergate scandal unfolded, Nixon became more and more hostile toward the press. Prior to that troubled time, however, Thomas was among those reporters handpicked by the White House to accompany the president on his historic visit to China in 1972. She was one of only three women out of 87 journalists granted permission by the Chinese government to make the trip.
Thomas characterized Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford, as a decent man who as president was approachable, accessible, and at ease with the office he held. She greatly admired his wife, Betty, whom she found to be "a no-nonsense, straightforward woman," as she told Ebert. "Many Republicans feared Betty's seeming liberalism and thought it might hurt the president and the party. But President Ford never panicked or interfered. He handled things well. He matched his wife's courage. I thought he was a real man to her real woman."
Thomas always sensed Jimmy Carter felt out of place in Washington, "never quite connected, even to his own party," as she explained to Ebert. "But today, in terms of compassionate contribution to society, he certainly has proven to be our best past president." His wife, Rosalynn, "was never quite at ease with the press," reported Thomas. But the veteran White House correspondent described her as "a doer, very knowledgeable and intelligent."
Critical of Reagan-Bush Years
As for Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Thomas found them both lacking in compassion. "All of us who covered the Reagans agreed that President Reagan was personable and charming. But I'm not so certain he was nice," she told Ebert. Nancy Reagan, Thomas opined, was "well-intentioned" but "insecure" and "the kind of woman who would never take credit but would want her husband to have it all." President Bush was a genuinely nice man, according to Thomas, but "he was not Ronald Reagan, and the ultra-right… never believed he was a true conservative. … I believe if he'd walked his own road, he would have been a very different president, and a better one." Thomas found his wife, Barbara, to be similar to Nancy Reagan in that "she often put her husband's views and feelings before her own because she believed her job was to support Mr. Bush in all things."
Thomas's initial impression of Bill and Hillary Clinton was a positive one, although the president at first seemed taken aback by this diminutive older woman with a habit of springing out from behind a bush to fire a question at him while he was on his early-morning run. "He's accomplished a lot more than people give him credit for," Thomas said to Kay Mills in a 1996 Modern Maturity article. Hillary she found to be much like Rosalynn Carter-dynamic, compassionate, well informed, and more than willing to speak her mind.
But in the wake of the impeachment battle that concluded in early 1999, Thomas described Bill Clinton in a UPI "Washington Window" news release as a man with "a big job ahead. He must repair his credibility, not just for his own sake, to be believed again, but for the United States." As for Hillary, Thomas noted in another UPI news release, she has "a lot of hang-ups about the press.… Not that she can't handle any question put to her, but she ignores even the simplest inquiry as if it was an intrusion. … The first lady is going to have to come to terms with the press if she really wants to make a run for a [political] post."
Over the years, Thomas found her job "exciting, demanding, inspiring-and sometimes depressing," but never boring. And she insisted that she still experienced a sense of wonder when she walked through the White House gates on her way to yet another briefing, press conference, or interview. With no plans to retire, she remained committed to seeking out answers to difficult questions and took very seriously her duty to "keep an eye on the president." Declared Thomas in her memoir: "As a reporter, I do not sit in judgment (although it may sometimes seem otherwise), but I do believe that our democracy can endure only if the American people are informed. The people decide, and therein lies the transcending greatness of the land we love."
Thomas, Helen, Dateline: White House, Macmillan, 1975.
Thomas, Helen, Front Row at the White House: My Life and Times, Scribner, 1999.
Good Housekeeping, July 1993.
Insight on the News, April 27, 1998.
Modern Maturity, September-October 1996, pp. 46-47.
New York Times, December 8, 1991, p. 38.
"Backstairs at the White House," http://www2.vny.com/upiwire/backst.htm (March 4, 1999).
"Helen Thomas: First Lady of the White House Press," http://www.upi.com/corp/bio/helen_thomas.html (February 17, 1999).
"Washington Window," http://www2.vny.com/upiwire/window.htm (March 4, 1999).
"White House Correspondent to Receive 1998 Thomas Paine Journalism Award," http://www.mediapro.net/cdadesign/paine/award.html (February 13, 1999). □