Journalist Helen Thomas dies at 92
Helen Thomas, 92, the tenacious and feisty dean of the White House press corps who covered 10 presidents and was a trailblazer for female journalists, has died.
A syndicated columnist for Hearst News Service after spending most of her career as a reporter for United Press International, Ms. Thomas died early Saturday at her apartment in Washington. Her friend Muriel Dobbin said Ms. Thomas had been in declining health for some time and had recently been hospitalized.
Ms. 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 her to end presidential news 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 Association, and the Gridiron Club.
In May 2010, Ms. 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 Ms. Thomas was hired. "She has her differences about foreign policy, but you're allowed that."
Ms. 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 she 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 Richard 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 Association decreed that she should still sit in the front row during briefings, explaining that she was "the dean of the White House press corps."
"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," President Obama, the last president she covered, said in a statement Saturday.
Born Aug. 4, 1920, in Winchester, Ky., where her parents had moved after arriving at Ellis Island from Lebanon in 1903, Ms. Thomas was the seventh of nine children, all encouraged to express opinions - and to go to college.
She got her break in 1956, when UPI gave her a beat covering the Justice Department. Finally, when she was 40, UPI sent Ms. Thomas to the White House to cover the stylish first lady, Jackie Kennedy.
She worked for UPI from more than half a century, until 2000, when the news service was sold to the 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.
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. Choosing career over family in an era when most women left the workplace to raise children, Ms. Thomas called her romance and marriage "the most unexpected and wonderful thing that ever happened to me."
Ms. Thomas, who had no children, is survived by three sisters, according to a family statement.