Helen Thomas In Memoriam

Helen Thomas, who would become the dean of the White House press corps and I arrived on our new beats at the White House at the same time, after the inaugural of John F. Kennedy as President in 1960. We were both working for the same company, United Press.

From her first briefing in the West Wing, press secretary Pierre Salinger learned she was a formidable presence.

For many reporters currying favor with the press office, each briefing becomes a process of negotiation. This is especially true of network reporters who depend on access for their daily reports. But from the start, Helen refused to play that game. Under her boss, Merriman Smith (at the time the dean of the press corps), Helen refused to be intimidated. Press secretaries began to learn that “you don’t mess with Helen!”

Although she would start each day with a smile, and a coy sense of humor, if the press secretary would start the briefing with a bogus version of the day’s events, the storm clouds would gather over Helen’s seat. The balance of credibility in the room would suddenly shift, as Helen would start ripping apart the administration’s arguments. Once Helen would pounce, other reporters would start to smell blood in the room and their follow-ups would quickly put the administration spokesman on the defense.

Then came Watergate, which Helen personally took as an outrage to our Constitution and presidential powers. From dawn to dark, she would challenge the administration in plain terms. Using words like “lie” and “cover up.” The network correspondents had their few minutes of airtime every night, but Helen was on the story day and night. She could not be intimidated, even when the President himself would try to attack her questions. And her words were being read in hundreds of newspapers. Her sources were legendary. Martha Mitchell, the wife of the attorney general, would call her privately at night to give her leads.

But even though she had the power, as the lead White House reporter, she never abused it. She did not editorialize, she simply reported, straight and factually. From her front row seat in the White House press room, Helen loved nothing more than a good “dust up” with administration spokesmen. At these times, her face looked like “the cat that had swallowed the canary.”

Eventually Helen outlasted her employer United Press International, moving on to Hearst Newspapers as a columnist from 2000 to 2010.

Once she moved to Hearst her reporting became much more controversial. In her columns and in hundreds of speaking engagements around the country, she increasingly became a thorn in the side of the presidency. Her constant haranguing on behalf of the Palestinian cause
became increasingly bitter. If before as a wire service reporter, she was considered a major irritant to the administration, she now became perceived as a major threat.

She was very fond of photographers. She held them in great respect as colleagues; especially those who she knew had worked for UPI.

There will never be another reporter like her. She blazed the path for women journalists, and set the bar for all those who would follow her.

— Dirck Halstead