Update

Helen Thomas Dies at 92

Helen Thomas Dies at 92
Helen Thomas
Jeff Hutchens/Getty

07/20/2013 10:25AM

Helen Thomas, the irrepressible White House correspondent who used her seat in the front row of history to grill nine presidents – often to their discomfort – and was not shy about sharing her opinions, died Saturday. She was 92.

Thomas, who died at her apartment in Washington, had been ill for a long time, and in and out of the hospital before coming home Thursday, according to a friend, Muriel Dobbin.

Thomas made her name as a bulldog for United Press International in the great wire-service rivalries of old, and as a pioneer for women in journalism.

She was persistent to the point of badgering. One White House press secretary described her questioning as "torture" – and he was one of her fans.

Her refusal to conceal her strong opinions, even when posing questions to a president, and her public hostility toward Israel, caused discomfort among colleagues.

In 2010, that tendency finally ended a career that had started in 1943 and made her one of the best-known journalists in Washington.

Anti Secrecy

In her long career, she was indelibly associated with the ritual ending White House news conferences. She was often the one to deliver the closing line: "Thank you, Mister. President" – four polite words that belied a fierce competitive streak.

Her disdain for White House secrecy and dodging spanned five decades, back to President John Kennedy. Her freedom to voice her peppery opinions as a speaker and a Hearst columnist came late in her career.

The Bush administration marginalized her, clearly peeved with a journalist who had challenged President George W. Bush to his face on the Iraq war and declared him the worst president in history.

Thomas was accustomed to getting under the skin of presidents, if not to the cold shoulder. "If you want to be loved," she said years earlier, "go into something else."

There was a lighter mood in August 2009, on her 89th birthday, when President Barack Obama popped into White House briefing room unannounced. He led the roomful of reporters in singing "Happy Birthday to You" and gave her cupcakes. As it happened, it was the president's birthday too, his 48th.

A Pioneer

Thomas was at the forefront of women's achievements in journalism. She was one of the first female reporters to break out of the White House "women's beat" – the soft stories about presidents' kids, wives, their teas and their hairdos – and cover the hard news on an equal footing with men.

She became the first female White House bureau chief for a wire service when UPI named her to the position in 1974. She was also the first female officer at the National Press Club, where women had once been barred as members and she had to fight for admission into the 1959 luncheon speech where Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev warned: "We will bury you."

Thomas fought, too, for a more open presidency, resisting all moves by a succession of administrations to restrict press access.

"People will never know how hard it is to get information," Thomas told an interviewer, "especially if it's locked up behind official doors where, if politicians had their way, they'd stamp TOP SECRET on the color of the walls."

Impressive Career

Born in Winchester, Ky., to Lebanese immigrants, Thomas was the seventh of nine children. It was in high school, after working on the student newspaper, that she decided she wanted to become a reporter.

After graduating from Detroit's Wayne University (now Wayne State University), Thomas headed straight for the nation's capital. She landed a $17.50-a-week position as a copy girl, with duties that included fetching coffee and doughnuts for editors at the Washington Daily News.

Her big break came after the 1960 election that sent Kennedy to the White House, and landed Thomas her first assignment related to the presidency. She was sent to Palm Beach, Fla., to cover the vacation of the president-elect and his family.

Bigger and better assignments would follow for Thomas, among them President Richard M. Nixon's breakthrough trip to China in 1972.

When the Watergate scandal began consuming Nixon's presidency, Martha Mitchell, the notoriously unguarded wife of the attorney general, would call Thomas late at night to unload her frustrations at what she saw as the betrayal of her husband John by the president's men.

It was also during the Nixon administration that the woman who scooped so many others was herself scooped – by the first lady. Pat Nixon was the one who announced to the Washington press corps that Thomas was engaged to Douglas Cornell, chief White House correspondent for UPI's archrival, AP.

They were married in 1971. Cornell died 11 years later.

End of a Career

At age 79, Thomas was soon hired as a Washington-based columnist for newspaper publisher Hearst Corp.

A self-described liberal, Thomas made no secret of her ill feelings for the second President Bush. "He is the worst president in all of American history," she told the Daily Breeze of Torrance, Calif.

Her strong opinions finally ended her career.

After a visit to the White House, David Nesenoff, a rabbi and independent filmmaker, asked Thomas on May 27, 2010, whether she had any comments on Israel. "Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine," she replied. "Remember, these people are occupied and it's their land. It's not Germany, it's not Poland," she continued. Asked where they should go, she answered, "They should go home." When asked where's home, Thomas replied: "Poland, Germany and America and everywhere else."

The resulting controversy brought widespread rejection of her remarks. Within days, she retired from her job at Hearst.

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