Helen Thomas was a lot of things to a lot of people. She was the first woman ever elected as an officer of the White House Correspondents’ Association, and the first to be elected to the Gridiron Club, a group of Washington journalists that, 90 years after it was founded, had never included a woman in its membership. Her questions were blunt, and her work ethic incredible. On Saturday, Thomas died in her home at the age of 92.
The New York Times calls Thomas “a trailblazing White House correspondent in a press corps dominated by men and who was later regarded as the dean of the White House briefing room.” The Washington Post‘s obituary headline calls her the “feisty scourge of presidents.” President Obama gave her a cupcake for her 89th birthday, and on Saturday said of the reporter, “She never failed to keep presidents — myself included — on their toes.”
Thomas had a reputation as an incredibly tough journalist. In a 2006 interview with the New York Times, the reporter asked her how she tells the difference between a probing question and a rude one, to which she replied “I don’t think there are any rude questions.” And for nearly 30 years she asked whatever questions she pleased from her front row seat at presidential news conferences.
In an interview with Ms. Magazine, Thomas expressed her view of the presidency. “I respect the office of the presidency,” she told them, “but I never worship at the shrines of our public servants. They owe us the truth.”
She also told Ms.,“We don’t go into journalism to be popular.” And she certainly wasn’t, in certain crowds. Conservative talk-show hosts and pundits often wondered when she would go away. In 2003, she told another reporter that she thought George W. Bush was “the worst president in American history.” He went for three years not calling on her at his news conferences. When he did, she reminded him that nothing had changed. The Washington Post remembers:
“I’d like to ask you, Mr. President. Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is: Why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, from your Cabinet — your Cabinet officers, intelligence people and so forth — what was your real reason? You have said it wasn’t oil — quest for oil — it hasn’t been Israel or anything else. What was it?”
She and Bush went toe to toe, interrupting each other as the president attempted to respond.
In another characteristic interaction in 2009, Thomas confronted Obama’s spokesperson Robert Gibbs every day about whether or not a public option would be part of the health care reform package. CNN reports:
In the back-and-forth that ensued, Thomas said that she already had reached a conclusion but could not get a straight answer from the presidential spokesman.
“Then why do you keep asking me?” Gibbs inquired.
“Because I want your conscience to bother you,” Thomas replied.
Her outspokenness got her into trouble too, when in 2010 she was caught on camera saying that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine.” Thomas apologized, stating that her remarks did not reflect her true feelings, and that she hoped one day for peace and that one day both parties would learn “mutual respect and tolerance.” The incident lead Thomas to retire.
Many credit Thomas with breaking the glass ceiling for women in journalism. President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton remembered Thomas’ tenacity together, writing, “Helen was a pioneering journalist who, while adding more than her share of cracks to the glass ceiling, never failed to bring intensity and tenacity to her White House beat.”
Thomas’s death on Saturday came after a long illness. She will be buried in Detroit, and her family is planning a memorial service in Washington in October.
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