Helen’s first job out of college was waiting tables in New York. She didn’t last long because she wasn’t particularly fond of serving people and she didn’t smile enough.
From there, she became a trailblazing journalist in a press corps dominated by men.
Helen Thomas, who died over the weekend at the age of 92, covered every president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama for United Press International and later Hearst Newspapers.
She earned her spot as the first reporter to be called on during every White House news conference.
Her career started during World War II when people got their immediate news from radio and the news or record from newspapers.
She was a radio writer for United Press in 1943 (it later became United Press International – UPI). At the time, most female journalists wrote about homemaking and other topics for women.
Men were hired to cover war, crime and politics. That’s what Helen wanted to do. Men got together after work to drink and talk about their jobs. Helen wanted to do that too.
Thomas continued writing about the subjects she was interested in and eventually was able to cover federal agencies.
The break she had been preparing for her entire career came when she covered John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. When he was elected, she became the first woman assigned to cover the White House.
“Helen was a true pioneer, opening doors and breaking down barriers for generations of women in journalism,” President Obama said in a statement.
“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.”
Former President Bill Clinton added, “Helen was a pioneering journalist who, while adding more than her share of cracks to the glass ceiling, never failed to bring intensity and tenacity to her White House beat. Throughout her career she covered the issues and events that shaped the course of our world with perseverance and a tough-minded dedication.”
Thomas fought for a more open presidency, saying, “People will never know how hard it is to get information…if politicians had their way, they’d stamp TOP SECRET on the color of the walls.”
There are a lot of “firsts” next to Helen’s name.
She was the first woman elected as an officer of the White House Correspondents’ Association and the first to serve as its president.
She became the first woman elected to the Gridiron Club, which for 90 years had been a men-only club of Washington journalists.
Thomas wrote half a dozen books.
I interviewed Thomas for a book I’m working on called “The Story that Changed My Life: Top journalists reflect on the one story that changed the way they view the world or themselves.”
She had a hard time settling on the significance of a single story – there have been so many with Helen.
“Every story changed me in some way,” Thomas said as she told me about a particular incident during Watergate.
I talked with her after she had “retired” from Hearst amid an uproar over her assertion that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and go back where they belonged, perhaps Germany or Poland. Her remarks, made almost offhandedly days earlier at a White House event, set off a storm when a videotape was posted.
Her parents immigrated to the United States from what is now Lebanon, raising Helen and nine of her siblings in Michigan. Helen’s father couldn’t read or write, but encouraged his children to go to college and be involved in world affairs.
Thomas later apologized for her comments and said they did not reflect her “heartfelt belief” of “mutual respect and tolerance.”
Reporters who sat next to her in White House press conferences recalled her feisty “doubting Thomas” nature as she’d often turn and say, “Do they expect us to believe this?”
By LINDA THOMAS