By Paul Schwietering
On Saturday, July 20, Helen Thomas died. She was 92. According to The New York Times, “Her death was announced by the Gridiron Club, one of Washington’s leading news societies. Ms. Thomas was a past President of that organization.”
“Ms. Thomas covered every President from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama for United Press International and, later, Hearst newspapers. To her colleagues, she was the unofficial but undisputed head of the press corps – her status ratified by her signature line at the end of every White House news conference, ‘Thank you, Mr. President.’”
“Her blunt questions and sharp tone made her a familiar personality not only in the parochial world inside the Washington Beltway, but also among television audiences across the country.”
“Helen Thomas was born in Winchester, Kentucky. on August. 4, 1920 and grew up in Detroit, one of ten children of George and Mary Thomas. Her father, who could not read or write, encouraged his children to go to college.”
“In 1942, when Ms. Thomas graduated from what is now Wayne State University in Detroit with a major in English, the country was at war. She went to Washington to look for a job.”
“She found one, as a waitress, but she didn’t last long. ‘I didn’t smile enough,’ she recalled years later.”
“The Washington Daily News soon hired her in a clerical job; soon after that, she began her career with United Press News Service.”
Ms. Thomas’s career bridged two eras, beginning during World War II when people got their news mostly from radio, newspapers and movie newsreels, and extending into the era of 24-hour information on cable television and the Internet. She resigned from U.P.I. on May 16, 2000, a day after it was taken over by an organization with links to the Unification (“Moonie”) Church.
“Weeks later, Ms. Thomas was hired by Hearst to write a twice-weekly column on national issues. She spent the last ten years of her working life there.”
Such are the facts (as reported by The New York Times) of the career of Helen Thomas. When she took a job as a radio writer for United Press in 1943 (15 years before it merged with the International News Service to become United Press International), the standards of reporting were much different than they are today. As reporter and author William Greider recounts in his book, “Who Will Tell The People,” “when one reporter (at the Cincinnati Post in the 1950’s) nervily asked the managing editor about his own party affiliation, he replied, ‘I’m a Democrat when the Republicans are in and a Republican when the Democrats are in.’”
The fact that Helen Thomas personified this type of hard-boiled reporting, with its emphasis on asking the “uncomfortable” questions that need to be asked by reporters if a democracy is to function, should not surprise anybody since she had worked her way into full-time reporting by the mid-1950’s, reporting on federal agencies.
Ms. Thomas covered John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960, and when he won she became the first woman assigned to the White House by a news service. She was also the first woman to be elected an officer of the White House Correspondents’ Association and the first to serve as its president. In 1975 she was the first woman ever elected to the Gridiron Club.
Although Helen Thomas was a pioneer in the truest sense of the word, she will also be remembered for her dawn to dusk work hours and the exclusives that this work regimen produced.
According to The Times, “Presidents grew to respect, even to like, Ms. Thomas for her forthrightness and stamina which sustained her well after the age at which most people had settled into retirement.” The Times goes on to mention that President Clinton gave her a cake for her 77th birthday (in 1997) and President Obama gave her cupcakes 12 years later, for her 89th.
There was one administration which feared her questions so much that they changed her seat, removing her from the front row of seats for the White House Correspondents in an attempt to prevent her from asking the tough questions. That George Bush, Jr., was evidently intimidated by Helen Thomas is not surprising since, as a draft-dodging coward, he had avoided participation in the Vietnam War (although he liked to play the part of a pilot on T.V.). The administration of Bush, Jr., was also the only administration in American history known to have planted a fake “reporter” at White House Press conferences (even Nixon hadn’t attempted that).
The fact that Ms. Thomas intimidated the slimiest administration in American history can only add to her laurels.
During the Bush, Jr. administration, Thomas wrote an editorial for the Hearst newspaper chain in which she argued that the administration of Bush, Jr., was the worst in American history. At the time, I held out for the administration of Herbert Hoover, with Bush, Jr., a close second (with Grant’s administration third, and Harding’s fourth).
However, as time goes on and more information about the administration of Bush, Jr., comes out, I am forced to concede that she may have been right.
One thing is certain: There is no one in the mealy-mouthed corporate-controlled “mainstream” media today who can replace her in her role of asking the tough questions which eventually point to the truth.
Paul Schwietering is a former Democratic state central committeeman for the 14th state senate district.