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.