Helen Thomas: Fearless veteran White House correspondent

 

Each profession has a handful of ground-breakers, and for American journalism, Helen Thomas was one of them. When she set out, women were confined to writing about family, fashion and tips on cooking. By the end she was the uncontested doyenne of the White House press corps, traditionally the summit of the trade.

Her firsts were legion: the first woman to be assigned by a news service to cover the White House, the first to become head of the White House Correspondents Association, the first woman elected a member of Washington's starchy all-male Gridiron Club. She became the unofficial but undisputed spokeswoman for her peers at presidential press conferences, which traditionally ended with her words, "Thank you, Mr President."

For the preceding hour or so she would have been in her place in the middle of the front row, firing questions in her raspy voice without fear or favour. They were often pugnacious and invariably straightforward – "like those of a Des Moines [Iowa] housewife," someone once said. When George HW Bush declared that despite the fall of Communism, the Pentagon budget would not be cut, Thomas asked simply, "Who's the enemy?"

Among her colleagues she was famous for the inordinately long days she put in as correspondent of the United Press (later United Press International) wire service, that might begin at 6am. She might not have been the greatest writer but she was an exceptionally tenacious reporter, never intimidated, who bowed to no president, let alone his press secretary. "Who the hell do they think we are – puppets? They are our public servants. We pay them."

Her career spanned 10 presidents, starting with John Kennedy, whose campaign she covered in 1960, and three years later she watched as a teenage Bill Clinton barged forward at a Rose Garden ceremony to shake JFK's hand. With his youth and promise, Kennedy, she later would say, was her favourite occupant of the Oval Office.

The one Thomas rated least was George W Bush – "the worst president ever" – whom she pilloried relentlessly for his invasion of Iraq. By then she was writing from a new vantage point, having left UPI in 2000 to become a columnist for Hearst Newspapers, in which role she could express her views more freely. Her last president was Barack Obama, who in August 2009 presented her a cake to mark her 89th birthday.

A year later she retired, under an uncharacteristic cloud. Helen Thomas was one of 10 children born to Lebanese immigrants, and rarely concealed her sympathy for the Arab cause, especially in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. "Thank you for the Hezbollah view, Helen," Tony Snow, a press secretary to the second president Bush, once replied to a Thomas question.

Such views would be her undoing. In May 2010 she declared that Israelis should "get the hell out of Palestine, and "go home" to Germany, Poland, the United States "or anywhere else." A clip of her remarks quickly appeared on the internet, bringing widespread condemnation. Thomas issued an apology but 10 days retired from Hearst Newspapers. None the less she will be remembered not for those words, but as a pioneer who shattered some of journalism 's thickest glass ceilings.

Rupert Cornwell

Helen Amelia Thomas, journalist: born Winchester, Kentucky 4 August 1920; reporter, United Press (later United Press International) 1943-2000; married 1971 Douglas Cornell (deceased); died Washington, DC 20 July 2013.

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Lewis Hamilton walks back to the pit lane with his Mercedes burning in the background
Formula 1
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con
comic-con 2014
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
i100
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
News
A rub on the tummy sprang Casey back to life
video
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
people
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
News
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
people
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little