Remembering Helen Thomas and the White House Beat

A group of close friends gathered to tell stories about the late journalism legend.

By: Carol Ross Joynt

In her 92-year lifetime, pioneering White House reporter Helen Thomas made her mark on journalism, but also on her Washington colleagues, and since her death in July those impressions have been noted at a few memorial gatherings, including one at the National Press Club. The most recent, an intimate get-together of people who worked alongside her at one time or another on the White House beat, took place Monday night at a private dinner in Georgetown. A group of 16 told stories and laughed as they recalled their dear friend. Carl Cannon, who covered the White House for the National Journal before joining Real Clear Politics, called her a “reporter’s reporter. Forget the gender, the politics—she was a pure reporter.” Tina Rafalovich, who covered the White House for Bloomberg Radio, said, “When you raise your glass it’s not just to Helen, it’s to everybody in this room, and all the ladies.”

Thomas was a trailblazer for women in media, breaking into bastions that had long been boys’ clubs, a fact noted by President Barack Obama in a statement after her death. She began her career in Washington in 1943, and by 1960, after covering the election campaign of President John F. Kennedy, she became the first woman reporter assigned full-time to the White House beat by a news service, United Press International. She was the first woman elected president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, the first woman elected to the Gridiron Club, and the only woman print reporter to travel with President Richard Nixon on his historic 1972 trip to China. Anyone who followed presidential news conferences recognized her as the woman in the front row, usually in pearls and a red dress, who asked the first question and closed out the session with, “Thank you, Mr. President.”

At the party some of the women guests wore pearls or red as a homage to their friend.

The stories the group told spanned trips with presidents, long hours in the White House briefing room, and social occasions, including a birthday celebration at Mama Ayesha’s, Thomas’s favorite restaurant, which served the cuisine of her Lebanese heritage. “A bunch of us got together at Mama Ayesha’s for her 90th birthday,” said Linda Kenyon of Salem Radio News. “When she turned 91 we went to do it again. We’re all sitting around the table and a bunch of us started asking, ‘Where’s Helen?’ We forgot to invite her.’” Each thought the other had done the deed. Immediately someone called her. “She was there lickety-split,” said Kenyon. “She showed up dressed beautifully—pearls, her makeup was just perfect—and she was so gracious.” What did Thomas say at the party she almost missed? “Ah, to be 90 again.”

George Condon and Gene Gibbons both recalled trips with her aboard Air Force One, trekking with one president or another to different parts of the planet. Condon, who covered the White House for National Journal, told of a trip in 1984 with President Ronald Reagan. “On the old Air Force One the press section was extraordinarily cramped,” he said. “You had a table. The seat did not recline. You were jammed in. I sat next to Helen on the flight from Shanghai to Alaska, which is not a short flight. Most of it she spent asleep on my shoulder.” She was wide awake and ready, however, when Reagan met with Pope John Paul II in Fairbanks. But this woman who never shied from barking out any question to world leaders “was just a little intimidated. She was not going to shout a question at the Pope.”

Gibbons, who worked with Thomas at UPI before joining Reuters, said he had a young assistant who asked whether he had traveled much with the famous reporter. “Helen and I slept together around the world,” he joked.

Ken Bazinet, who also worked with Thomas at UPI, said she did not let her celebrity status go to her head. She grew up during the Great Depression in a big family in Detroit, where her father owned a grocery store and made sure “no one in the neighborhood starved,” Bazinet said. “It didn’t matter that there were nine siblings. What mattered was her neighborhood was a neighborhood. She never let the job, the access, change the fact she was a woman who grew up in a neighborhood that was very blue-collar.” He recalled that during the Clinton administration, when Thomas had become more or less a household name, a constant parade of people came by the UPI White House booth to meet her. “Every day there was another person whose face you would have known, whether it was a Hollywood person or a politician or a Democratic fundraiser or whatever.” He said “her legacy is her graciousness.”

Thomas had strong opinions about journalism and world affairs, particularly war. She was an opponent of the Vietnam War and the war in Iraq and, according to Bazinet, “was the only person in the city for a long time who asked questions on behalf of the Palestinians. It was taboo. You were not allowed to question Israel.” In 2010 that very subject brought a crushing end to her career. In a social media interview on the White House lawn she said Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and go instead to Germany, Poland, or the US. The video went viral, causing an immediate uproar. Thomas apologized but also abruptly retired from her job with Hearst Newspapers, for whom she wrote a column about the White House and national affairs.

Her friends said that after that episode, Thomas’s spirit was broken. “It had a profound impact on her,” said Bazinet. “She went too far.” Presidency scholar (and, full disclosure, my sister-in-law) Martha Joynt Kumar, the evening’s host, said Thomas was deeply dispirited by “the reaction of people close to her, like her agent.” Paula Wolfson Stevenson of WTOP radio said, “I’m Jewish, and I didn’t take offense. What I got out of that was her frustration at life in general at that point.”

Condon brought up happier times. He said Thomas was a “complete ham” who couldn’t sing but appeared in the annual Gridiron stage show regardless. “We would be in rehearsals beforehand, and she always missed the cue, always sang the wrong tune. The night of the show she’d get out there with the costume on and she wouldn’t do it perfectly, but she would sell it.”

As everyone raised a glass of Champagne, Bazinet said, “The beautiful thing about Helen is she was around so long it really feels like she’s still around. And if she listened to us tell these stories about her, by now she would have told us to shut up.”