First Lady and dean of the White House press corps, trailblazer, firebrand, and pioneer all are words used to describe Helen Thomas, White House bureau chief for United Press International for 26 years and since 2000 syndicated columnist for Hearst Newspapers.
Born in 1920 in Winchester, Kentucky, to Syrian/Lebanese parents from Tripoli, Thomas moved to Michigan where she was educated in the Detroit public schools and later received a BA from Wayne State University. Immediately upon graduation she moved to Washington, DC and began her 63-year career in news reporting. She worked her way up. Beginning as a copy girl for the now defunct Washington Daily News, she later worked for United Press as a $24-a week radio writer, starting each day at 5:30 am. Gradually she moved to reporting on the federal government, covering the Justice Department, the FBI, HEW (Health, Education, and Welfare), and Capitol Hill.
When John F. Kennedy was running for president in 1960, Thomas began covering the campaign; she eventually followed him to the White House as a writer for United Press International, beginning her long tenure as White House and presidential reporter. She was White House bureau chief for UPI from 1974 to 2000. Her career at the White House spans the terms of nine presidents, from Kennedy to George W. Bush. She visited China with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and later with Presidents Ford, Reagan, and Bush, and covered every economic summit while traveling the world with Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush. Helen Thomas, who began the tradition of closing White House press conferences with, "Thank you, Mr. President," was seen across the United States in the front row of countless White House press conferences.
Ms. Thomas was a pioneer in women's journalism, responsible for many firsts as a representative woman journalist. When President Richard Nixon made his historic visit to China in 1972, she was the only print journalist traveling with him. From 1959 to 1960 she served as president of the Women's National Press Club, and when it merged with the National Press Club, she became the first woman office holder in the club's 90-year history. Named Newspaper Woman of Washington in 1968 she became the first woman officer of the White House Correspondents Association in its then 50-year history and its first woman president in 1975. In that same year she became the first female member of the prestigious, 90-year-old Gridiron Club. The following year the World Almanac listed her as one of the twenty-five most influential women in America. At a special White House dinner in 1998, hosted by President and Mrs. Clinton, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the White House Correspondents Association. Another first: Helen Thomas is the first woman to receive an honorary degree from the American University of Beirut.
Helen Thomas, now 82 years old and still actively involved in news reporting, attracted awards and honors throughout her long and ongoing career. As of September 2002 she had received twenty-six honorary doctoral degrees from a variety of universities and colleges, among them her alma mater Wayne State University, Brown University, the University of Missouri, Northwestern University, and Michigan University. Throughout her career, awards and distinctions have paid tribute to her work. She has been named to halls of fame (Sigma Chi Delta, Michigan Women's, Michigan State University Journalism) and received countless awards in journalism and telecommunications from a variety of universities and press organizations.
She is the author of four books based on her White House and presidential experiences: Dateline: White House, 1974; Front Row at the White House: My Life and Times (1999); Thanks for the Memories Mr. President: Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House (2002).
Always feisty and outspoken, in recent months Ms. Thomas has been at odds with President George W. Bush and the press corps, which she has labeled the compliant media. Describing Iraq's neighbors worries about US intentions, she wrote, There is a strong suspicion in the region that the United States is digging in for the long haul . . . . She pointed out the huge discrepancy between Bush's campaign statements against nation building and in favor of a humble foreign policy which would not appear to be throwing our superpower weight around on the one hand and the current reality on the ground and in administration rhetoric on the other. Maybe these statements, her negative reaction to the USA Patriot Act, and her [Socking] it to the White House, (title of a printed exchange with Bush's spokesperson Ari Fleischer) brought about her relegation to the third row in a March press conference (Joseph Curl in The Washington Times, March 7, 2003).
Helen Thomas shows no sign of slowing down. She writes two columns a week for Hearst Newspapers. Her coverage of nine presidents remains vivid in her memory. I feel they have the highest honor that anyone can have, she wrote, and that is the trust of the American people.
A Brief Note on Sources: Sources used for the preceding biographical sketches include recent resume's, personal interviews (including e-mail), works by the recipients, and on-line magazine, journal, and newspaper articles.