Late last week the pioneering journalist, Helen Thomas died. It would be easy to frame her accomplishments just in terms of the barriers she brought down for other aspiring women, but that would do short shrift to a far more expansive and substantive career.
Thomas was both bane and delight for 10 U.S. presidents, beginning with John F. Kennedy. Kennedy in particular seemed to have a respect for Thomas’ vision and professionalism.
According to a statement from the White House Correspondents Association, Thomas urged Kennedy to boycott the organization’s annual dinner unless it began to admit women. Kennedy threatened as much and the barrier to membership was lifted. It should come as little surprise that Thomas was the first woman to serve as president of the White House Correspondents Association.
The statement also read in part, “Starting with the Kennedy administration, she was the first woman to cover the president and not just the First Lady.”
This tenacity made Thomas one of the most recognized reporters in America. USA Today describes her as, “a short, dark-eyed woman with a gravelly voice who, for many years, rose from her front-row seat at presidential news conferences to ask the first or second question. For nearly 30 years, she closed the sessions with a no-nonsense ‘Thank you, Mr. President.’”
The New York Times summed her tenor and heft succinctly, “Her blunt questions and sharp tone made her a familiar personality not only in the parochial world inside the Washington Beltway but also to television audiences across the country.”
In an indirect way, Thomas had a connection to Pine Bluff. During the Watergate era, she was a confidante of a Pine Bluff native, Martha Mitchell, the wife of John N. Mitchell, President Richard M. Nixon’s attorney general and campaign official. During these discussions, Mitchell told Thomas that responsibility for the “third-rate burglary” at the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington and the cover-up that followed it had gone far above the midlevel officials who were implicated early on.
As history records, detractors attempted to discredit Mitchell with allegations of alcoholism and emotional instability. Whatever demons may have besieged Mitchell a paucity of damning Watergate truths was not among them. Following Mitchell’s 1976 death, Thomas famously cast her as, “one of the first victims, and perhaps the only heroine, of the Watergate tidal wave.”
As the unofficial dean of the White House Press corps, Thomas had few sacred cows. In a 2006 profile for Ms. Magazine, Thomas told Ann McFeatters “I respect the office of the presidency, but I never worship at the shrines of our public servants. They owe us the truth.”
From her front row perch in the White House Briefing Room, Thomas presented a grandmotherly visage that betrayed the interrogative tremors she unleashed. Presidents’ faces from Kennedy to Obama became furrowed from her questions.
Of her tenure and import President Obama said, “Helen was a true pioneer, opening doors and breaking down barriers for generations of women in journalism. She covered every White House since President Kennedy’s, and during that time she never failed to keep presidents — myself included — on their toes.”