Editor's note, July 22, 2013: Helen Thomas, who covered the White House for over 60 years, died Saturday at the age of 92. In 2003, we reported on her tenacious reputation as a White House correspondent.
The Washington, D.C. cabdriver couldn’t quite place her but knew that the passenger, a diminutive woman with short dark hair, was somebody important. Finally, the cabbie turned around and asked straight out: "Aren’t you the woman the presidents love to hate?"
Helen Thomas, who at age 82 is the indisputable dean of the White House press corps, tells that story on herself. For decades, she has posed the opening question at every presidential press conference, then closed the event by saying, "Thank you, Mr. President." As a correspondent and White House bureau chief for United Press International for most of her 60-year career, Thomas has been a journalistic thorn in the side of every president from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush. "She has single-handedly gotten under the skin of every president since JFK," says Mike McCurry, press secretary during the Clinton years. As Gerald Ford once observed, Thomas practices a "finely balanced blend of journalism and acupuncture." Jacqueline Kennedy was less subtle: she referred to Thomas and her Associated Press counterpart as "the harpies."
But history has a way of arranging ironic rebuttals. For just as Jackie’s off-white silk chiffon inaugural gown now resides in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, so too do three of Thomas’ White House press passes, showcased in the "American Presidency" exhibit. "The press curbs presidential power," says curator Harry Rubenstein. "And Helen Thomas epitomizes the White House press corps."
Says Bob Deans, one of Thomas’ colleagues and the White House correspondent for Cox Newspapers: "She has great respect for the office of the presidency. But she is not intimidated by the person who temporarily inhabits the office." Thomas’ conduct of this epic adversarial relationship is unstinting, although she no longer works out of the UPI cubicle in the White House. She resigned from that organization in 2000, after the wire service changed ownership. Today, Thomas, who still occupies her traditional front-row seat in the briefing room, covers the White House in a column for the Hearst newspapers. Formal seat assignments notwithstanding, most spots are up for grabs. "But no one sits in Helen’s seat," says Martha Joynt Kumar, professor of political science at Towson University and an authority on the relationship between the press and the White House.
Thomas continues to attend daily briefings most mornings at the White House, and she also continues to decry the inevitable barriers between president and press. When she addressed the National Press Club in 2000, someone asked her which of the then eight presidents she had covered had allowed the greatest access. "None," she replied. "They are all difficult. Once they get in the White House, the iron curtain comes down. Everything is classified. The color of the walls—they would even classify that."
But over the past 50 years, Thomas has scaled a lot of other barriers: she was the first woman to be named White House bureau chief of a major wire service, the first to become a president of the White House Correspondents Association and the first woman member of the Gridiron Club. And she was the first woman to receive the National Press Club’s Fourth Estate Award. "I never aspired to be first," she once said. "Only to be there." But just being there was no mean feat for a female in the then male ranks of Washington journalism. "Helen has done more for the role of women in journalism," says Marlin Fitzwater, press secretary to presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. "She was just always at the door saying, ‘I have a right to be here.’"
Thomas’ approach to her job—first to arrive, last to leave, high speed and tenacity at every moment in between—has left many a younger colleague in the dust and many a press secretary chuckling. (In some cases, the laughter came long after the fact.) "Every morning, I arrived at the White House and found her sitting on my credenza, waiting," Fitzwater recalls of Thomas’ legendary stakeouts. "You had to be prepared, because she was always there." So, too, for McCurry, whose workday invariably began with Thomas’ chirpy query: "What do you have for me?" McCurry’s standard rejoinder: "Helen! I just got to work. All I’ve got for you is a muffin and a cup of coffee!"
In the end, Thomas says, it all comes down to "enthusiasm, noisiness, energy and curiosity. You have to keep asking ‘Why?’"