WASHINGTON — Helen Thomas, the feisty, trailblazing White House reporter who tore down historic barriers that had stymied women journalists for generations, died Saturday at 92.
After becoming the first woman reporter assigned to cover the president rather than just the first lady, Thomas covered 10 presidents from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama. Most of the time, she reported for United Press International.
Thomas got her break when assigned to cover President-elect Kennedy’s post-election vacation in Palm Beach, Fla. She soon fought her way to the news side of coverage, a move unheard of at the time. She would go on to become an officer at three of Washington’s loftiest symbols of journalistic clout: The White House Correspondents Association, the Gridiron Club and the National Press Club. In 1974, she became the first woman White House bureau chief for a wire service.
Thomas became embroiled in controversy in recent years because of her remarks critical of Israel. But she was remembered Saturday for her groundbreaking career. “Helen was a true pioneer, opening doors and breaking down barriers for generations of women in journalism,” President Barack Obama said Saturday.
“She never failed to keep presidents — myself included — on their toes. 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.”
Steven Thomma, White House Correspondents Association president, called Thomas “a trailblazer in journalism and in the White House press corps.”
“Women and men who have followed in the press corps all owe a debt of gratitude for the work Helen did and the doors she opened. All of our journalism is the better for it,” said Thomma, who is senior White House correspondent for McClatchy.
Thomas was born in Winchester, Ky., the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, and grew up mostly in Detroit. She became interested in reporting while working on her high school newspaper. After graduating from what was then Wayne University, she got a job as a copy girl, running errands and grabbing coffee for higher-ups, at the Washington Daily News.
She was eventually hired at United Press, later UPI, as a local news writer for radio. Like most women of her time, she was assigned to “women’s” items such as society features.
Thomas moved to the White House beat after being assigned to cover the Kennedy vacation. She quickly got a reputation as dogged and fearless; President Lyndon Johnson would become annoyed at how Thomas’ story told him his daughter Luci was engaged. In 1972, she was the only female reporter to accompany President Richard Nixon on his historic visit to China.
While Thomas was firmly entrenched as a White House correspondent, she still faced historic hurdles. The White House Correspondents Association annual dinner was closed to women until 1962. Thomas, the story goes, urged Kennedy to stay away unless women were allowed in, so they were. She became the group’s first woman president in 1975.
She would be among the first group of women to break the gender barrier at the National Press Club in 1971. In February 1975, Thomas became the first women member of the Gridiron Club, a group of prominent Washington journalists.
She became a journalistic celebrity, author and frequent talk show guest. The World Almanac in 1976 called her one of the 25 most influential women in America. She got dozens of honorary degrees, was a presidential debate panelist and the subject of a 2008 television documentary.
The public came to recognize her for saying, “Thank you, Mr. President” at the end of presidential press conferences. It was a tradition that had been shelved for years before Thomas revived it during the Kennedy administration.
Colleagues and policymakers knew her for her tenacity — and sometimes her strong opinions. “If you want to be loved, go into something else,” she once said.
She left UPI in 2000 after 57 years. The wire service’s influence had waned and it was sold to News World Communications, founded by the Unification Church’s Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
She became an opinion columnist for Hearst, and her last years were marked by turmoil. In May 2010 the website Rabbi.com posted an interview with Thomas. Asked about Israel, she said, “Tell them to get hell out of Palestine.” Asked where they should go, Thomas said they should go home to Germany, Poland or the United States. Jews found that offensive, since many had escaped Germany and Poland during the Holocaust.
The White House Correspondents Association branded her comments “indefensible.” She lost her front row seat in the briefing room and resigned from Hearst, and went on to write a column for the Falls Church, Va., News-Press, a weekly newspaper.
Tributes poured in Saturday. Dana Perino, press secretary during the George W. Bush administration, recalled on Twitter how “first day I ever took the podium she came to encourage me.”
“Amazing trailblazer, fearless journalist and friend & mentor to so many women reporters,” said PBS’ Judy Woodruff.
NBC’s Ann Curry tweeted a Thomas quote: “The truth, rather than an agenda, should be the goal of a free press.”
Thomas married Douglas Cornell, then the Associated Press White House reporter, in 1971. He died in 1982.
©2013 McClatchy Washington Bureau