Helen Thomas: The dogged reporter who made ten presidents squirm

Veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas, who died Saturday, was an aggressive reporter who badgered every president since John Kennedy while acting as a role model for a generation of women in journalism.

Susan Walsh/AP
Helen Thomas asks a question of President Barack Obama during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington in 2010. Thomas, a pioneer for women in journalism and an irrepressible White House correspondent, died Saturday.

In the news cauldron that is Washington, there are journalists who are loved, there are journalists who are respected, and there are journalists who are feared.

Over the course of a long, remarkable, and ultimately controversial career, Helen Thomas was all of those. Also, as so many have said since her passing Saturday, she blazed a trail for the legion of strong women reporting, analyzing, and commenting on the news today – in print and especially in broadcast media.

This being the age of 140-character instant postings, Twitter rattled with response to the news Ms. Thomas had made.

“Helen Thomas made it possible for all of us who followed: woman pioneer journalist broke barriers died today,” tweeted NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell.

“RIP Helen Thomas – died this morning at 92. Amazing trail blazer, fearless journalist and friend & mentor to so many women reporters,” Judy Woodruff, host of the PBS NewsHour, tweeted.

“Any woman who has had the privilege of sitting in the front row of the White House briefing room owes huge debt of gratitude to Helen Thomas,” tweeted Julie Pace, White House correspondent for the Associated Press.

As White House press corps dean, Thomas got to sit front-row-center amidst the greatest collection of egos outside the United States Senate. There, as the Daily Beast noted, she held forth with “a voice full of gravel and a penchant for making powerful men squirm.”

Those powerful men she regularly caused to squirm included ten Presidents of the United States.

“She covered every White House since President Kennedy’s, and during that time she never failed to keep presidents – myself included – on their toes,” President Obama said. “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.”

"Her work was extraordinary because of her intelligence, her lively spirit and great sense of humor, and most importantly her commitment to the role of a strong press in a healthy democracy," Bill and Hillary Clinton said in the statement.

Thomas was the first woman to join the White House Correspondents' Association, and the first to join the exclusive Gridiron Club. But it was the daily work of badgering press secretaries where she made her mark and for which she’s being remembered.

“I respect the office of the presidency,” she told Ms. magazine in 2006, “but I never worship at the shrines of our public servants…. The Washington press corps has the privilege of asking the president of the United States what he is doing and why.”

“We don’t go into journalism to be popular,” she said. “It is our job to seek the truth and put constant pressure on our leaders until we get answers.”

In the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the impeachment of Bill Clinton, she was mad – at the administration and at the press itself for its failures in covering the story.

"Well, I know we're being accused of overkill, but I think that the aggression in the aftermath of being lied to for nine months, where everything was inoperative that they said, and we were the transmission belt, a certain disillusionment does set in, and we all realized that we were not aggressive enough,” she told NPR at the time. “We didn't ask enough questions."

The title of her 2007 book is “Watchdogs of Democracy?: The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public.”

These days, asking tough questions and holding leaders to account, as Obama put it, in some cases has crossed the line into opinion and activism – a good thing, some say, but a retrograde step to others yearning for the elusive notions of “objectivity” and “balance.”

For Helen Thomas, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, that tendency marked the most controversial part of her long career.

Her comments about Israel and Palestine, for which she was forced to apologize, were offensive to many Americans, and they cost her her job with the Hearst Corporation.

She may have made ten US heads of state uncomfortable at times, but Helen Thomas clearly and firmly believed that this was necessary to the preservation of the republic.

“We are the only institution in our society that can question a president on a regular basis and make him accountable,” she once told an interviewer. “Otherwise, he could be king.”

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