Helen Thomas was born the year women got the vote and entered the work force writing radio copy during World War II when the men were away fighting and there were jobs for women. When the men returned home, the women were expected to do the same, but Helen held her ground, displaying the determination and the grit that would mark a career that spanned 10 presidents, from Kennedy to Obama.
When Thomas died at her home in Washington on Saturday at age 92, she took with her the title, dean of the White House press corps, bestowed by her colleagues. No other media figure regularly covering the White House today comes even close to Thomas’s longevity and devotion to a briefing room that must compete with and is often overshadowed by a whole new media universe in the digital age.
Woody Allen said 90 percent of life is showing up, and Thomas showed up earlier and stayed later than any other reporter. She never lost her sense of awe at being able to walk up the long winding driveway and enter the White House. President Clinton came to the briefing room with a birthday cake when she turned 77; President Obama appeared with cupcakes for her 89th birthday, sitting next to her in the front row with his arm around her to pose for pictures.
She never let the awe she felt temper her tough questions. She regarded presidents as flawed human beings just passing through, and she had a contentious relationship at times with every president. After she left United Press International for Hearst Newspapers, President George W. Bush took the opportunity to move her out of the front-row seat reserved for wire service reporters in presidential press conferences to a back row where he could better ignore her sharp questions about the Iraq War.
Thomas had her share of scoops, and they included being the first to report on the death of Caroline Kennedy’s hamster. Laugh if you will, but this was big news in the age of Camelot, when the public was eager for every scrap of information about the first family and their young children. Thomas called White House press secretary Pierre Salinger at 3 a.m. to get confirmation.
In her book, Front Row at the White House, Thomas describes the phone calls she received from Martha Mitchell, wife of Attorney General John Mitchell, after the break-in at the Democratic headquarters. The Nixon administration portrayed Martha Mitchell as a bit daft, perhaps drunk, and not to be taken seriously. Thomas filed stories that sometimes made it onto the wires, and at other times got spiked by disbelieving editors. As the Watergate scandal unfolded, Martha Mitchell’s ramblings looked prescient. She told an interviewer, “Helen Thomas, I knew, would print the truth no matter what it cost her personally, and I wanted the truth to be known.”
After Watergate, as journalism became a more glamorous and sought-after profession, Thomas would often get the question “When are you going to retire?” In her 60s, she had no intention of walking away from a career she loved. “They never asked Pablo Casals when he was going to retire,” she would say. The famed cellist played into his 90s, just as Thomas came close to doing.
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