In Memoriam: Helen Thomas (1920-2013)

STORY BY James Sullivan

Published: July 25, 2013

Truly a loss to American journalism was the passing of former White House correspondent Helen Thomas who died at her home in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, just two weeks shy of turning 93 (which would have been on Aug 4, a birthday she shared with President Obama.) Perhaps more upsetting than the loss of this great personality in news media, was how few people could place her when I spread the word around. I went on Facebook and only one of my colleagues at The Clyde Fitch Report acknowledged her passing on his timeline.

Strangely, Facebook is the primary source when tragedy strikes. A friend posted a brief message on his wall about fellow New Jersey native James Gandolfini, “a farewell to Big Dave Brewster,” and that's how I found out. Facebook messages too, broke the news to me about Ray Bradbury and Roger Ebert. It was through this little note that I first found out and double-checked for sure on Google. Throughout the rest of the day, there were no more tributes of any kind that I came across. Admittedly, even I had to double check the number of papers and media she wrote over the course of a 70-year career in news reporting that began in 1943 when she joined up with United Press as a radio wire service correspondent.

She grew up in Detroit, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants who ran a grocery store. However, she bristled at the term 'Arab-American': “I have always rejected the hyphen and I believe all assimilated immigrants should not be designated ethnically...These are trends that ever try to divide us as a people." In an era when most women could only aspire to becoming secretaries or switchboard operators, Thomas had her sights set on being a journalist from the time she was in high school and attended Wayne University.

Joining the staff of the now-defunct Washington Daily News as a copygirl may have seemed bold enough. However, she only stayed with the paper for eight months, when she was fired for joining her colleagues in going on strike. From copygirl, she moved up the ranks, first doing celebrity profiles, and eventually becoming one of the first reporters to cover news and societal issues from a “woman's angle.”

In 1960, she was assigned to cover the incoming administration of then President-elect John F. Kennedy and from then her writing perspective changed to news of the day. From the time of Kennedy's inauguration (seven months before the birth of incumbent President Obama), she would stay on as a White House correspondent, covering all of the presidents from Kennedy onward, and wrapping up each press conference with her signature line, “Thank you, Mr. President.” Fifteen years later, she became the first female member of the Gridiron Club and the first female president of the White House Correspondents' Association. Eventually, she would become the only member of the Press Corps to have her own seat in the White House Briefing Room.

She would stay with United Press until 2000, when at the age of 80, she began her own syndicated political column for Hearst Newspapers where she still continued to write about national affairs and the White House, becoming increasingly at odds with the George W. Bush Administration. The move to Hearst was largely out of disgust with the takeover of United Press by the conglomerate News World Communications run and controlled by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Throughout her career, she remained defiant, unafraid to speak her mind, or worse, to ask the tough questions. So potent was her reputation, that Fidel Castro is reported to have said “I don't have to answer questions from Helen Thomas,” when asked the difference between Cuba and the United States. True or not, Helen regarded this as the highest form of flattery, holding true to the American ideal of dissent being the highest form of patriotism.

 

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