By Johanna Neuman
11:35 AM EDT, July 20, 2013
Helen Thomas, the tenacious and feisty dean of the White House press corps who covered 10 presidents and was a trailblazer for female journalists, has died. She was 92.
A syndicated columnist for Hearst News Service after spending most of her career as a reporter for United Press International, Thomas died early Saturday at her apartment in Washington. Her friend Muriel Dobbin, a longtime Baltimore Sun reporter, said Thomas had been in declining health for some time and had recently been hospitalized.
Thomas covered every administration from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama, and, as Gerald R. Ford put it, practiced "a fine blend of journalism and acupuncture." As the senior correspondent at the White House, it fell to Thomas to end presidential press conferences with the declaration, "Thank you, Mr. President."
Perhaps her most lasting achievement as a journalist was to shatter the glass ceiling in the press room. She was the first woman to serve as White House bureau chief for a wire service — UPI — and the first female officer of three Washington institutions that defined press power: the National Press Club, the White House Correspondents' Assn. and the Gridiron.
In May 2010, Thomas was forced to give up her Hearst column after making anti-Israel remarks in a short videotaped interview. Days later she apologized for saying that Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and "go home," but she couldn't escape the controversy and resigned.
In 2011 she began writing a column for the weekly Falls Church (Va.) News-Press and continued until early 2012. "She's not bigoted or racist or anti-Semitic," owner-editor Nicholas Benton told the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot when Thomas was hired. "She has her differences about foreign policy, but you're allowed that."
Thomas had a reputation for asking questions with an edge and was so vociferous in her criticism of the war in Iraq that for three years President George W. Bush never called on her. When he finally did, she rose and said, "You're going to be sorry," before launching into a tirade-turned-question about the war.
She broke news — Lyndon Johnson was enraged when Thomas reported his daughter Luci's engagement before Patrick Nugent had asked LBJ's permission. She made history as the only female journalist to accompany President Nixon on his historic trip to China. She made foes — "I'm persona non grata," she said of her relationship with George W. Bush. But when she left the UPI news service to become a columnist, the White House Correspondents Assn. decreed that she should still sit in the front row during press briefings, explaining that she was "the dean of the White House press corps."
Born Aug. 4, 1920, in Winchester, Ky., where her parents had moved after arriving at Ellis Island from Lebanon in 1903, Thomas was the seventh of nine children, all encouraged to express opinions — and to go to college. Growing up in Detroit, she discovered journalism on the Eastern High School newspaper, and enrolled in Wayne University (now Wayne State University), where she earned money working in the college library and at her brother's gas station. She devoted the rest of her spare time to the student newspaper.
Earning a bachelor's degree in English in 1942, she headed to Washington. It was wartime, and with men in the service women were getting career chances once unheard of in the workplace. She worked briefly as a copy girl at the gritty Washington Daily News. When she was laid off, she headed to the National Press Building, where she knocked on doors until United Press, later UPI, hired her for $24 a week to write copy for radio broadcasters. She held the job for 12 years.
She got her break in 1956, when UPI gave her a beat covering the Justice Department. Finally, when she was 40, UPI sent Helen Thomas to the White House to cover the stylish first lady, Jackie Kennedy.
It was a mismatch from the start. Joining forces with the Associated Press' Fran Lewine, the two staked out the Georgetown house where the Kennedys lived before the inauguration, ditto at Georgetown University hospital when John Kennedy Jr. was born and shadowed Jackie on her shopping trips. The first lady called them her "harpies" and once tried to lose them by complaining to the Secret Service that "two strange-looking Spanish women" were trailing her. In her 1975 book "Dateline: White House," Thomas wrote that Jackie Kennedy even asked the president to get her news organization to transfer Thomas overseas.
By then, Thomas had worked her way onto the men's side of White House coverage, clamoring to end gender discrimination at the National Press Club where foreign dignitaries and other visiting notables spoke to reporters and often made news. She, Lewine, Elsie Carper of the Washington Post and others lobbied the State Department — which was complicit in booking foreign leaders at the club — and embassies.
Change came to the tradition-bound club reluctantly. In 1956, the club deigned to allow women to sit in the balcony without asking questions or eating lunch. Thomas called the balcony "purdah," referring to the Hindi and Muslim practice of shielding women from strangers. In 1959, visiting Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev refused to speak at the Press Club unless women were allowed to cover his speech. The club allowed a one-time only exception: 30 female reporters could sit on the main floor, eat lunch and cover the address, during which Khrushchev told the West, "We will bury you." Finally, in 1971, the club opened its doors to women. Thomas was its first female member.
Similar stories applied to the other two organizations. The White House Correspondents Assn. black-tie dinner was not open to women until 1962, when Kennedy, at Thomas' prodding, threatened not to attend unless women were allowed in. Thomas and Lewine broke through the Gridiron's male-only policy in 1974, when they attracted big-name guests to a counter-gridiron party that stole the original's thunder. The next year, they were in.
By then Thomas was a fixture in Washington, and at the White House. She was named UPI's Washington bureau chief in 1974. She liked to get to work early, starting the day at 5:30 a.m. with the newspapers and some coffee, parking herself outside the press secretary's office by 8 a.m. "to see if I could buttonhole them early." She liked routine, often dining at Lebanese restaurant Mama Ayesha's in Washington's Adams-Morgan neighborhood.
She worked for UPI from more than half a century, until 2000, when the news service was sold to Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. She quit, and went to work as a columnist for Hearst, trading in her reporter's dictated facts for the opinions that had long dominated her thinking — and her family tradition.
"I wrote dull copy because I was afraid even a verb would sound pejorative or judgmental," she said in a 2004 interview with Progressive magazine. "But now I go for broke." After 57 years of playing it straight, she could say it out loud. "I was a liberal the day I was born, and I will be until the day I die."
At 51, Thomas married a colleague, Douglas Cornell. Four years later he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and she cared for him until his death in 1982 with help from a sister who was a nurse. Choosing a career over family in an era when most women left the workplace to raise children, Thomas called her romance and marriage "the most unexpected and wonderful thing that ever happened to me."
Thomas, who had no children, is survived by three sisters, according to a family statement.
Neuman is a former Times staff writer.
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