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Former White House Bureau Chief & Correspondent; Columnist, Hearst Magazines
Helen Thomas defined the way modern reporters cover presidents, from the glowing months of John F. Kennedy’s Camelot, through the dark years of Watergate, all the way up to the dawn of the new millennium and the Internet age.
Helen, a Hearst newspaper columnist who served for 57 years as a correspondent for United Press International and White House bureau chief was born in Winchester, Kentucky. She was raised in Detroit, Michigan where she attended public schools and later graduated from Wayne State University. Upon leaving college, she served as a copy girl on the old, now defunct Washington Daily News. In 1943, Ms. Thomas joined United Press International and the Washington Press Corps.
For twelve years Helen wrote radio news for UPI, her work day beginning at 5:30 am. Eventually she covered the news of the federal government including Justice, the FBI, Health and Human Services, and Capitol Hill.
Helen got to the White House by dint of sheer will. As a young reporter in UPI’s Washington bureau when president-elect Kennedy and his young family were thrust into the public eye. She camped outside their elegant townhouse in Georgetown to keep track of the parade of dignitaries coming to call. On Inauguration Day, Helen simply marched herself into the White House press room, and never left. It was during this first White House assignment that Helen began closing presidential press conferences with “Thank you, Mr. President.”
Helen stuck to fundamentals. Never one to bother with a cell phone or a laptop computer like her colleagues, Helen’s White House technique was simple: Tough questions, asked relentlessly. She did not take “no comment” or “off the record” without a fight.
As a wire service reporter, Helen worked for all of us. Her dispatches, and her weekly insiders’ column "Backstairs at the White House", were distributed by United Press International to newspapers, radio and television newsrooms coast-to-coast and around the globe. She had a front row seat to history by virtue of UPI’s role in the journalism food chain, and she used that perch to insist on access, information, and the truth for all the reporters sitting in the rows behind her.
Her personal life was inseparable from her professional one. In September 1971, on the night that President Nixon held a farewell reception honoring the retirement of Helen’s chief competitor, Douglas Cornell of The Associated Press, the Nixons surprised guests with the news that Helen and Doug were going to be married now that they were no longer news rivals. Helen cried, but kept taking notes while the president spoke.
Helen was the only woman print journalist traveling with then President Nixon to China during his breakthrough trip in January 1972. Since then, she went to China with then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Presidents Ford, Reagan, and Bush. She has the distinction of having traveled around the world several times with Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush, during the course of which she covered every Economic Summit.
There was one issue that tested the bounds of her objectivity: The Middle East. Daughter of Lebanese immigrants, Thomas was at times passionate about the plight of the Palestinians and their treatment at the hands of the Israelis.
Most remarkable about Helen is the power of her presence. She was unfailingly helpful to the generations of reporters coming along in her wake, especially women, and right through her last months covering the White House, she arrived earlier than almost anyone else, stayed later, and never slowed down.
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