Born: August 4, 1920 – Winchester, Kentucky
Died: July 20, 2013 – Washington, D.C.
Helen Amelia Thomas was a famous White House correspondent and a trailblazer for women in Washington journalism. Born in Winchester, Kentucky, she was one of nine children of Lebanese immigrants. Her father was a grocer, and he moved the family to Detroit in 1924.
Thomas earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Wayne State University in Detroit in 1942. She became a copy girl at the Washington Daily News and was quickly promoted to reporter. In 1943, she joined United Press and began covering local news and stories about women. In the early 1950s, Thomas began covering Washington celebrities and government agencies.
United Press merged with International News Service in 1958 to become United Press International. Two years later, Thomas began covering president-elect John F. Kennedy for UPI as one of the few women in the White House press corps. Thomas was named UPI’s chief White House correspondent in 1970 and White House bureau chief in 1974, a job she held until 2000.
Thomas was the only female print journalist to accompany President Richard Nixon during his historic 1972 trip to China. As her career progressed, Thomas continued to remove barriers for female journalists. In 1975, she became the first woman to be admitted to the Gridiron Club, the historic Washington press group, which later named her its president. Thomas was the first female president of the White House Correspondents Association, 1975-1976.
Thomas covered 10 presidents over five decades and became a well-known public figure for her hard-hitting questions. During many of those years, she was the senior wire service reportercovering the White House, which meant she got to both ask the first question at presidential news conferences and end each session by saying, “Thank you, Mr. President.” She resigned from UPI in 2000 after it was acquired by Sun Myung Moon’s New World Communications. She soon joined the Hearst Corporation as a columnist.
Thomas received more than 30 honorary degrees and numerous awards, including the William Allen White Foundation Award for Journalistic Merit from the University of Kansas in 1986. The World Almanac named her one of America’s 25 most influential women in 1976. The White House Correspondents Association honored her in 1998 by establishing the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award.
Thomas’ career ended in controversy in 2010 when a YouTube video surfaced in which she said that Israelis should “… get the hell out of Palestine” and return home to “… Poland, Germany, and America and everywhere else.” Thomas issued an apology about her remarks: “They do not reflect my heartfelt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon.” Thomas retired a week later, but in July 2011 she returned to write a column for the Falls Church News-Press.
“I respect the office of the presidency, but I never worship at the shrines of our public servants,” Thomas once said. “The Washington press corps has the privilege of asking the president of the United States what he is doing and why.”
Dateline: White House. New York: Macmillan, 1975.
Front Row at the White House: My Life and Times. New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 2000.
Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President: Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003.
Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006.
The Great White House Breakout, with co-author and illustrator Chip Bok. New York: Penguin Group, 2008 (children’s book).
Listen Up Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do, with co-author Craig Crawford. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2009.