March 21, 2006. For the first time in 3 years, White House reporter Helen Thomas—who had been covering presidents from the time of Dwight Eisenhower—was being allowed to ask a question to Pres. George W. Bush. After quipping to Bush “You’re going to be sorry,” she launched into her take-no-prisoners query:
I’d like to ask you, Mr. President, your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is, why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, from your Cabinet—your Cabinet officers, intelligence people, and so forth—what was your real reason? You have said it wasn’t … [a] quest for oil, it hasn’t been Israel, or anything else. What was it?
That was Helen Thomas, who died Sunday at age 92: Brash, unafraid, unapologetic. An old-school reporter who asked the tough questions, pressed for answers and, ultimately, was more than willing to say, “The emperor has no clothes.”
Said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation,
Helen Thomas was a strong feminist who deeply believed in women’s rights and fought for them. She was fierce in her quest to expose the truth. We will miss her.
Thomas, who covered 11 presidential administrations, mostly for United Press International, was the first woman to join the White House Correspondents’ Association and the Gridiron Club, professional groups that validated D.C. journalists. She later was president of the White House Correspondents’ Association and Gridiron’s first woman president. Along with fellow women reporters Fran Lewine of the Associated Press and Elsie Carper of the Washington Post, she battled with the National Press Club in the 1950s and 1960s for women to gain admittance. Women were allowed to sit in the balcony at the National Press Club in 1956, winning full membership rights in 1971.
As of January 2012, Thomas was still a weekly columnist, for the Falls Church News-Press, but remarks she made in 2010 about Israel and Israeli Jews had led to her resignation from Hearst Newspapers. No longer would she sit in the front row of presidential press conferences and end them with her traditional, “Thank you, Mr. President.”
With her passing, though, it’s easy to focus once again on her long, extraordinary reporting career. Helen Thomas will, and should be, remembered for how she stood up for women’s equity and for government truth-telling.
Photo of Helen Thomas by Jenny Warburg