In an era when men controlled and ran the media, Helen Thomas became a trailblazer for women by speaking up and challenging presidents with questions that were often tougher than those asked by male colleagues. She wasn’t afraid of backlash from politicians or the “boys” in the press room. She was an aggressive reporter in the best sense. Her goal was to probe for the truth and whatever that took, she would go after it.
But Helen also had a softer side. She was devoted to her large Lebanese-American family and to a very large circle of friends, young and old. She cared for her late husband and former AP competitor, Doug Cornell, for years after he got Alzheimer’s and never complained. For many years, she went to dinner every Saturday night with a small group of women journalists, many also pioneers in cracking the glass ceiling including her AP competitor at the White House, Fran Lewine, who was one of her closest friends.
I competed against Helen during Jimmy Carter’s visit to South Korea when I was based in Hong Kong (from 1978-81) and we became close friends through Fran Lewine. When I came to the UN, I used to go to Washington D.C. often to stay with Fran, and I would be part of those Saturday night dinners.
Helen wasn’t awed or blinded by the presidency. She loved America and
believed that our democracy worked because journalists could ask
presidents tough questions and keep them from becoming kings in glass
cages. She often said she was asking the questions that ordinary people
wanted answered. And if they made 10 presidents squirm, so be it.
From her 2000 OPC Awards Dinner keynote address, she began by saying she felt like an interloper but went on: “…I am here to tell you about walking through the minefields of the West Wing, seeking information that has been controlled, managed, manipulated and spun before it’s handed out.”
“I have never wasted my sympathy on presidents and that’s because I think they have the greatest honor that can come to anyone and that is the trust of the American people.”
“As for the press, we don’t expect to win popularity contests. We are the self-appointed, self-annointed watchdogs of democracy.”
by Sonya K. Fry
I can still see Helen standing at the podium in the living room of Club Quarters addressing a full house of members and guests in June 2002. She officially talked about her new book Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President, but she sidetracked and told us we should rally and do something about President Bush and his march to war. During the question and answer she relayed quips of the various U.S. Presidents she had covered. For Nixon, Thomas said that during Watergate, he always had “two roads to travel and always took the wrong one.” For Carter, his mother was asked if she was proud of her son and she asked, “Which one?”
The Sunday New York Times ran a front page story and CNN had extensive coverage. She had a long and distinguished career as a journalist and broke many barriers for women in journalism. Trailblazer, passionate, legend, inspiration, dedicated — these are some of the words of praise that resonated throughout the obituaries of Helen.