WASHINGTON – Helen Thomas, a pioneer for women in journalism who used her seat in the front row of history to grill nine U.S. presidents and refused to keep her strong opinions to herself, died Saturday. She was 92.
Thomas died surrounded by family and friends at her Washington apartment on Saturday, the family said in a statement. A friend, Muriel Dobbin, told The Associated Press that Thomas had been ill for a long time, and in and out of the hospital before coming home Thursday.
The longtime White House correspondent made her name as a bulldog for United Press International in the great wire-service rivalries of old. She was the only reporter with her name inscribed on a chair in the White House briefing room.
Her refusal to conceal her opinions, even when posing questions to a president, and her public hostility toward Israel, caused discomfort among colleagues.
In 2010, that tendency finally ended a career which had started in 1943 and made her one of the best known journalists in Washington. On a videotape circulated on the Internet, Thomas, whose parents were Lebanese immigrants, said Israelis should “get out of Palestine” and “go home” to Germany, Poland or the United States. The remark brought down widespread condemnation and she ended her career.
In January 2011, she became a columnist for a free weekly paper in a Washington suburb, months after the controversy forced her from her previous post.
“What made Helen the ‘dean of the White House Press Corps‘ was not just the length of her tenure, but her fierce belief that our democracy works best when we ask tough questions and hold our leaders to account,” President Barack Obama, the last president she covered, said in a statement Saturday.
Thomas’ disdain for White House secrecy and dodging spanned five decades, back to President John F. Kennedy.
The Bush administration marginalized her, clearly peeved with a journalist who had challenged President George W. Bush to his face on the Iraq war and declared him the worst president in history.
After she quit UPI in 2000 — by then an outsized figure in a shrunken organization — her influence waned.
Thomas was accustomed to getting under the skin of presidents, if not to the cold shoulder.
“If you want to be loved,” she said years earlier, “go into something else.”
There was a lighter mood in August 2009, on her 89th birthday, when Obama popped into the White House briefing room unannounced. He led the roomful of reporters in singing “Happy Birthday to You” and gave her cupcakes. As it happened, it was the president’s birthday too, his 48th.
Thomas was at the forefront of women’s achievements in journalism. She was one of the first female reporters to break out of the White House “women’s beat” — the soft stories about presidents’ kids, wives, their teas and their hairdos — and cover the hard news on an equal footing with men.
She became the first female White House bureau chief for a wire service when UPI named her to the position in 1974. She was also the first female officer at the National Press Club, where women had once been barred as members and she had to fight for admission into the 1959 luncheon speech where Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev warned: “We will bury you.”
The belligerent Khrushchev was an unlikely ally in one sense. He had refused to speak at any Washington venue that excluded women, she said.
She also pushed open the doors for women at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. At her urging, Kennedy refused to attend the 1962 dinner unless it was open to women for the first time. The tactic worked. More than a decade later, Thomas was the first woman to serve as the association’s president.
Born in Winchester, Kentucky, to Lebanese immigrants, Thomas was the seventh of nine children. It was in high school, after working on the student newspaper, that she decided she wanted to become a reporter.
After graduating from Detroit’s Wayne University (now Wayne State University), Thomas headed straight for the nation’s capital. She landed a $17.50-a-week position as a copy girl, with duties that included fetching coffee and doughnuts for editors at the Washington Daily News.
United Press — later United Press International — soon hired her to write local news stories for the radio wire. Her assignments were relegated at first to women’s news, society items and celebrity profiles.
Her big break came after the 1960 election that sent Kennedy to the White House, and landed Thomas her first assignment related to the presidency. She was sent to Palm Beach, Florida, to cover the vacation of the president-elect and his family.
JFK’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, complained that he learned of his daughter Luci’s engagement from Thomas’s story.
Bigger and better assignments would follow for Thomas, among them President Richard M. Nixon‘s breakthrough trip to China in 1972.
When the Watergate scandal began consuming Nixon’s presidency, Martha Mitchell, the notoriously unguarded wife of the attorney general, would call Thomas late at night to unload her frustrations at what she saw as the betrayal of her husband John by the president’s men.
It was also during the Nixon administration that the woman who scooped so many others was herself scooped — by the first lady. Pat Nixon was the one who announced to the Washington press corps that Thomas was engaged to Douglas Cornell, chief White House correspondent for UPI’s archrival, The Associated Press.
They were married in 1971. Cornell died 11 years later.
Thomas stayed with UPI for 57 years, until 2000, when the company was purchased by News World Communications, which was founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, leader of the Unification Church.
At age 79, Thomas was soon hired as a Washington-based columnist for newspaper publisher Hearst Corp.
A self-described liberal, Thomas made no secret of her ill feelings for George W. Bush, a Republican. “He is the worst president in all of American history,” she told the Daily Breeze of Torrance, California.
In March 2006, she confronted Bush with the proposition that “your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis” and every justification for the attack proved false.
“Why did you really want to go to war?” she demanded.
When Bush began explaining his rationale, she interjected: “They didn’t do anything to you, or to our country.”
“Excuse me for a second,” Bush replied. “They did. The Taliban provided safe haven for al-Qaida. That’s where al-Qaida trained.”
“I’m talking about Iraq,” she said.
Thomas is survived by three sisters, and many nieces, nephews and cousins, according to her family.
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