OFF BEAT

OFFBEAT: Helen Thomas, last of legendary White House press corp, dies at 92

Phil Potempa's daily entertainment news column
2013-07-23T00:00:00Z OFFBEAT: Helen Thomas, last of legendary White House press corp, dies at 92By Philip Potempa philip.potempa@nwi.com, (219) 852-4327 nwitimes.com

President John F. Kennedy once described UPI White House Bureau Chief Helen Thomas as "a nice girl if she ever got rid of the pad and pencil."

But Thomas' pad and pencil were as much a part of her personality as her determination and outspoken style of questioning Washington, D.C.'s, and the world's, most famous and infamous newsmakers.

Thomas, 92, who has become a legend in reporting circles and famous for her signaling the end of chief executives' press conferences by saying, "Thank you, Mr. President," died surrounded by family and friends at her Washington apartment on Saturday. Her friend, Muriel Dobbin, a retired White House and national political reporter for McClatchy Newspapers who lived in the same apartment building, told The Associated Press that Thomas had been ill for a long time (including being on kidney dialysis), and in and out of the hospital, before coming home Thursday.

I met and interviewed Thomas a few times over the years and was always fascinated by her stories, while equally impressed by her love and zest for this vocation that is the field of journalism.

"I love covering the White House and having an orchestra seat on history," Thomas told me during an interview in September 1999, when she was 79 and in Chicago to discuss new book, "Front Row at the White House."

"It's a privilege to be a reporter because you're first to know the 'news,' and it's a tremendous feeling to be the one telling the world."

Of course, this was still before internet erupted on the communication scene and long before Myspace, Facebook, Twitter and the like, captured attention spans.

In addition to her 57-years as a reporter for United Press International Wire Service, 39 of which spent covering every president from Kennedy to Bill Clinton, Thomas left in 2000 to become a columnist with the Hearst Syndicate, where she continued to cover President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, in addition to writing her books and spending a great deal of time traveling the lecture circuit, sharing the experiences behind her byline.

Thomas told me she was often described as someone who "asks the questions on the mind of a housewife from Des Moines," a comparison she didn't mind.

"I hope it's true that these are the kinds of questions I seem to ask," she said.

"I think it's the housewife from Des Moines that personifies what the nation wants to know, and it's the presidents who need to remember they are accountable to this person and to the entire country."

Thomas' other trademark, in addition to her familiar phrase "Thank you, Mr. President," was her fondness for red suits, a fashion preference she adopted during the 1980s during President Ronald Reagan's administration. She used the dress to help get the president's attention, since his wife Nancy had a passion for attire of that color.

"When you're competing with others to ask questions, you have to be seen," Thomas said. "Everybody sees red. It's as simple as that."

Thomas, who was the seventh in a family of nine children, said her parents emphasized to them the importance of striving "to be somebody" and to "do something with your life."

It was when her family moved to the Detroit area Thomas said she first began to show an interest in writing while attending Detroit's Eastern High School.

After graduating in 1938, she enrolled at Wayne State University in Detroit where she earned a bachelor's degree in English in 1942. She began working for UPI in 1943, writing local features aimed at "women's interests." After 15 years of local community features, she eventually obtained a reporting job covering Washington's political personalities.

While her wire obits say it was after Thomas was assigned to cover feature stories about the Kennedy White House that her "reputation began to grow." One of her initial "White House" assignments she told me she always recalled with fondness, was the first chance that allowed her to write about any family of the Oval Office. While Thomas never credited that her writing tenure included covering President Dwight Eisenhower, she did get to write a piece about a birthday cake celebration given in honor of First Lady Mamie Eisenhower on Oct. 19, 1959 at the Women's National Press Club.

While Thomas was a favorite writer of President Kennedy, she did not rank high on the list of first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

"What surprised me most about Jackie Kennedy's resistance to allow her family's lives to be covered by the press is the fact that she used to work as a member of the press for a time," Thomas said.

"She used to write a daily column and shoot photos for The Washington Times-Herald. But she certainly didn't like the exposure she had to endure as a first lady when it came to the press reporting on the first family."

Thomas said she since has found the families who occupy the White House each have their own attitudes about the media.

"I've always treated all of the first families the same while doing my job," Thomas said. "They deserve respect, but not awe or fear. We all have a job to do."

When she was first assigned to the White House, originally she was only allowed to cover "women's news," which as Helen told me, meant writing about "the first lady, kids and pets." So the ever-persistent Helen decided to prove herself, becoming the ever-present chronicler of everything about Jackie, Caroline and John Jr.

President Kennedy was amused at Helen's dedication, while Jackie found it obtrusive and frustrating. At one point, after scheduling another interview with the first lady following countless others with Helen, Jackie famously said: "What else is there to know Helen? You already know everything about us."

Helen, via her widely circulated wire service reports, could also generate a great deal of media attention on the First Family, at times, about subjects Jackie thought trivial.

One of her Helen's most notorious scoops was at 3 a.m. when she was tipped off about the death of Billie or Debbie, one of Caroline's two hamsters, which met its demise after an encounter with one of the First Family's dogs. By the time Jackie had awakened for breakfast, Helen's story had all the headlines.

JFK's successor, President Lyndon Johnson, later complained that he learned of his daughter Luci's engagement from Thomas' story, even before his future son-in-law was able to ask permission to wed.

In 1970 when Merriman Smith, UPI's chief White House correspondent, committed suicide, Thomas was promoted to the position. By 1974, she was named UPI White House Bureau chief, becoming the first woman to hold the position.

"When I'm asking questions to anyone, no matter who, I never try to 'nail' them on a topic," she said. "But I do think they need to be held accountable and I'm not afraid to ask questions the make them have to explain or defend their actions."

In 1971, Thomas, at age 51, married for the first time and it was to Douglas Cornell, her Associated Press reporting rival, with First Lady Pat Nixon taking much delight announcing it to the White House press room even before Thomas had the chance. When Cornell died in 1982, Thomas she said she immersed herself into her work even more.

During the Watergate years of the Richard Nixon administration, the only other reporter who could rival Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's famed secret source Deep Throat aka the FBI's William Mark Felt, was Thomas. Her source was the loose cannon southern belle Martha Mitchell, the outspoken wife of Nixon's Attorney General John Mitchell, who made it her habit to call Thomas in the middle of the night with her personal "scoops" of "why Nixon should resign," much to the chagrin of the president and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

"I love what I do and I want to continue to do it as long as I can," she said to me in 1999.

"Let's just say I want to die with my notebook and pen in hand."

She is the only reporter with her name inscribed on a chair in the White House briefing room. Thomas is to be buried in Detroit, "the beloved city of her youth," her family said. A memorial service in Washington is planned for October, according Charles J. Lewis, senior editor and former Washington bureau chief for Hearst News Service.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at philip.potempa@nwi.com or (219) 852-4327.

Copyright 2014 nwitimes.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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