We shared a profession, Helen Thomas and me. She came to the game decades earlier and managed to stay far longer. She was the star and I was only a satellite working far from the seat of government.
But you can bet that Helen and I shared some of the same experiences along the way. We both lived through some of the tough days of women trying to make their way in journalism careers.
She was a pioneer and it was through her gritty, determined elbowing that she was able to earn such designation as first female member of the White House press corps, first female officer of the National Press Club and first female member of the Gridiron Club. It was her unrelenting pioneering that inspired others to follow.
It helps to remember where she came from: seventh of 10 children, born to immigrants from Lebanon. She formed her decision to become a journalist in high school. In 1942, she got a degree in English, only because her alma mater, Wayne University in Detroit, didn’t offer a journalism degree.
Her first job was working as a copy aide for the Washington Daily News. It was an era when women were hired by papers only because the male reporters had gone off to war. She later joined the United Press and first reported on “women’s topics,” eventually expanding to celebrity news and societal issues.
Helen worked her way up, one tough battle at a time, covering the U.S. Department of Justice, forcing the National Press Club to allow women to attend an address by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, covering President John F. Kennedy and becoming the White House United Press International correspondent in January, 1961.
Fidel Castro was once famously asked what was the difference between democracy in Cuba and the United States. His answer: “I don’t have to answer questions from Helen Thomas.”
Thomas used her position to open doors for others during her long career, covering 11 presidents from Eisenhower to Obama. As far back as 1962, she convinced President Kennedy to refuse to attend the annual dinners held for White House correspondents if they barred women from attending. She was the only member of the White House Press Corps to have her own seat in the White House briefing room, all others were assigned to media outlets.
As a tough questioner, Thomas was not without her detractors — she ignited a firestorm when she fired off an anti-Israeli remark during a Bush conference and had a subsequent bitter exchange over the Israeli-Palestine issue. Her remarks resulted in charges of anti-Semitism and, in the aftermath, she resigned from her post. She was, by then, working with the Hearst newspapers.
In her final days she was employed as a weekly columnist by the Falls Church, Va., News-Press, dying just weeks short of her 93rd birthday.
Helen (as we knew her) accepted many honors during her long career. She will be remembered for many of her firsts. She was a genuine trailblazer. But more than just fighting to become “the first,” she was someone who took time to help others. It was Andrea Mitchell who said it best: “She made it possible for all of us who followed.”