Remembering Helen Thomas and the White House Beat

A group of close friends gathered to tell stories about the late journalism legend.
Some close friends of the late Helen Thomas at a Georgetown party in her honor where they shared stories of working with her on the White House beat. In this photo: (front row) Vijay Kumar and Alexis Simendinger; (second row) Carl Cannon, Linda Kenyon, Tina Rafalovich, and Paula Wolfson Stevenson; (third row) Gene Gibbons, George Condon, Martha Joynt Kumar, Ellen Ratner, Patty See, and April Ryan; (fourth row, from center) Kia Johnson, Nancy Ognanovich, Paula Cruickshank, Ken Bazinet, and Catherine Berger. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.
Some close friends of the late Helen Thomas at a Georgetown party in her honor where they shared stories of working with her on the White House beat. In this photo: (front row) Vijay Kumar and Alexis Simendinger; (second row) Carl Cannon, Linda Kenyon, Tina Rafalovich, and Paula Wolfson Stevenson; (third row) Gene Gibbons, George Condon, Martha Joynt Kumar, Ellen Ratner, Patty See, and April Ryan; (fourth row, from center) Kia Johnson, Nancy Ognanovich, Paula Cruickshank, Ken Bazinet, and Catherine Berger. Photograph 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.”

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