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Helen Thomas, 92; pioneering woman for White House press corps

Helen Thomas smiled after a White House briefing in 2007.

Ron Edmonds / Associated Press

Helen Thomas smiled after a White House briefing in 2007.

WASHINGTON — Helen Thomas, the most famous of a generation of White House correspondents and a pioneer among women in journalism, died Saturday at her Washington home.

She would have marked her 93d birthday Aug. 4.

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Her death was confirmed by her niece, Judy Jenkins, who said Ms. Thomas had been suffering from kidney failure.

She spent 40 years as UPI’s White House correspondent and 11 years as a columnist for Hearst Newspapers. But her career ended in an uproar when she told a videographer that Jews should ‘‘get the hell out of Palestine’’ and ‘‘go home’’ to Germany and Poland.

When the video hit the Internet and triggered an avalanche of criticism, Ms. Thomas issued a statement that said ‘‘I deeply regret my comments’’ and she resigned as a columnist.

Helen Thomas interviewed President Carter aboard Air Force One in October 1979.

Charles Tasnadi / Associated Press

Helen Thomas interviewed President Carter aboard Air Force One in October 1979.

Ms. Thomas was passionate about her work, her values, and her conviction that the news media served as the people’s representative in holding public officials to account.

When she was questioning presidents at televised news conferences, audiences saw that passion as fearless persistence as she demanded answers and rejected evasive responses. Some thought her style occasionally approached rudeness, as her questions often reflected her strong feelings about social justice, war and peace, and the Middle East.

That passion had fueled her all the way from growing up in Detroit as the child of illiterate Lebanese immigrants to being one of the most famous journalists in America.

She was usually the first journalist to arrive at the White House each day and often she was one of the last to leave. Her intuition was razor sharp. Some days she would walk around the press room saying, ‘‘Something’s up; something’s up.’’ And generally she was correct.

‘‘If you hear a rumor — it’s true,’’ she would say, only partly in jest.

Ms. Thomas was the inventor of the ‘‘multiparter’’ question, a technique she devised of loading her question to a president with run-on sentences, each a different question. She would finally end her extended query with the statement, ‘‘And I have a follow-up.’’

In an interview with the New York Times in 2006, Ms. Thomas was asked to define the difference between a ‘‘probing question and a rude one.’’ She replied: ‘‘I don’t think there are any rude questions.’’

She told an audience in 2000: ‘‘We are the self-appointed, self-anointed watchdogs of democracy. We don’t win any popularity contests — but so what?

‘‘At the same time, we should never forget we have the power to ruin lives and reputations — and that should never be taken lightly.’’

She said she believed ‘‘that people can handle the truth — and they deserve no less. And a constant spotlight should be kept on presidents who have life-and-death power over all humanity today. It is our duty to keep the people informed and democracy alive.’’

Helen Angela Thomas was born in Winchester, Ky., to immigrant parents from Tripoli, Syria, now part of Lebanon. She was the seventh of nine children. The family moved to Detroit when Ms. Thomas was 4 and she always counted Detroit as her hometown.

Her father, George, couldn’t read or write, she said, but was very good with numbers and owned a successful grocery store. She was a child of the Depression, helping her family make do with little.

Thomas celebrated her 89th birthday on Aug. 4, 2009, with President Obama, who turned 48 that day.

J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press

Thomas celebrated her 89th birthday on Aug. 4, 2009, with President Obama, who turned 48 that day.

Ms. Thomas got the journalism bug when as a sophomore at Detroit’s Eastern High School she had a story published in the school newspaper.

After graduating from Wayne State University in Detroit, she moved to Washington. It was World War II, and women were getting jobs traditionally filled by men. The Washington Daily News, a Scripps-Howard newspaper, hired her as a copy girl at age 22, an event that Ms. Thomas heralded as getting ‘‘my foot in journalism’s door.’’

‘‘Sometimes I even made the coffee. But I guess I would have swept the floors if they told me to. As far as I was concerned, I was working in journalism.’’

She soon found work at United Press. For years she filed the weather forecasts, rewrote stories for the radio wire, and filed the Washington City news wire designed as a tip service for other news bureaus and government offices. She later covered the Justice Department and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

When she turned 40, her professional life was just beginning.

John F. Kennedy became president that year. Ms. Thomas had covered his campaign. She persuaded UPI to assign her to the White House to cover the East Wing, that is, the first lady. The Oval Office already was covered by Merriman Smith, who later won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Kennedy assassination.

Soon after Smith died in 1970, Ms. Thomas became UPI’s top White House reporter and was named UPI White House bureau chief in 1974. This entitled her to alternate with the Associated Press reporter in asking the first question at a presidential news conference, thus becoming the first woman to have that privilege.

She also became the first woman reporter to close a presidential news conference in 1961 during Kennedy’s first term with the traditional ‘‘Thank you, Mr. President.’’ That role traditionally went to the senior wire service reporter.

When asked who her favorite president was, she always said: ‘‘Kennedy. He brought the country vision.’’

Ms. Thomas was the only woman print journalist traveling with President Richard M. Nixon to China during his historic trip in January 1972. As a UPI correspondent, she also traveled with presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.

She was proud of her personal rapport with most of the 10 presidents who occupied the White House during her tenure. A notable exception was President George W. Bush, whom Ms. Thomas had difficulty warming to because of her deep scorn for his policies, particularly the US invasion of Iraq.

In a 2003 interview with the Daily Breeze of Torrance, Calif., she termed Bush ‘‘the worst president in all of American history.’’ She later indicated regret at making the statement.

The chill at the White House was palpable. Bush appeared to avoid calling on Ms. Thomas at news conferences.

Bush made a peace overture in 2008 when, at the end of the Gridiron Club’s annual spring dinner, he sought out Ms. Thomas on the stage. Bush and Ms. Thomas locked elbows and joined the audience and the chorus in singing the traditional closing song, ‘‘Auld Lang Syne.’’

A week before retiring in June 2010, she posed her last question at a news conference that President Obama had devoted to the BP oil spill. Ms. Thomas changed the subject: ‘‘Mr. President, when are you going to get out of Afghanistan?’’

It was at the White House briefing room where she found romance.

She and Douglas Cornell, her competitor as AP’s correspondent, fell in love. Stories abound that when she and Doug were together and she got a story, she went into the women’s bathroom and called the UPI desk to transmit the story privately.

Their engagement was announced by Pat Nixon in the White House state dining room in 1971 where she and President Nixon had gathered reporters to salute Cornell on his retirement.

‘‘At last, I've scooped Helen Thomas,’’ Mrs. Nixon joked.

Cornell died in 1982.

Ms. Thomas abruptly left UPI in 2000 when the agency was sold to the Unification Church. Hearst then hired her as a columnist.

Ms. Thomas became one of the first women to become a member of the National Press Club and was elected the club’s first woman officer. She was the first woman member of the Gridiron Club, an organization of Washington journalists, and was elected its first woman president.

She received many professional awards, including the National Press Club’s Fourth Estate Award and the Columbia University Journalism Award, and was the author of six books.

In February 2002, Ms. Thomas sensed that the Bush administration was preparing for war. She demanded an explanation of then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.

After the US invasion of Iraq began on March 20, 2003, Ms. Thomas used her front-row seat at White House briefings to express skepticism about US motives and to demand evidence to justify the invasion.

In her book ‘‘Watchdogs of Democracy?,’’ Ms. Thomas chides the news media for failing to share her doubts about the Bush administration’s prewar claims about Iraq’s links to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

Thomas was assigned a seat, front and center, in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press

Thomas was assigned a seat, front and center, in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room.

As a White House reporter, Ms. Thomas avoided injecting her point of view into her copy.

But as a columnist she felt liberated to express in writing what her friends and colleagues had long known — that she hated war, that she was a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, that she felt Israel had claimed its land at the expense of the Palestinians.

This latter view came tumbling out in the 2010 encounter with the videographer outside the White House.

In an impromptu interview, the cameraman — a rabbi — asked her for career advice for two teens accompanying him who were interested in becoming journalists. She said: ‘‘Go for it. You'll never be unhappy. You'll always keep people informed and you'll always keep learning. The greatest thing of the profession, never stop learning.’’

Then the rabbi asked, ‘‘Any comments on Israel?’’

‘‘Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.’’ She laughed a bit, and then added: ‘‘Remember, these people are occupied. It’s their land.’’

When the rabbi asked where they should go, Ms. Thomas added: ‘‘They can go home — Poland, Germany, and America and everywhere else. Why push people out who have lived there for centuries?’’

Then she said: ‘‘I'm of Arab background.’’

In the firestorm that followed, Ms. Thomas quickly apologized and said what she desired was a Middle East based on ‘‘mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon.’’

It was too late. Her publicity agent resigned, her coauthor disassociated himself from her, and she resigned from Hearst Newspapers. Obama said: ‘‘I think she made the right decision’’ to retire.

Upon hearing of Ms. Thomas’s death, Steven Thomma, president of the White House Correspondents Association and a journalist with McClatchy Newspapers, issued a statement Saturday saying: ‘‘Women and men who've followed in the press corps all owe a debt of gratitude for the work Helen did and the doors she opened. All of our journalism is the better for it.’’

Wes Pippert was a longtime colleague of Helen Thomas at UPI.
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