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gutless wonder

Helen Thomas

Helen Thomas (born August 4, 1920) is an American news service reporter, a Hearst Newspapers columnist, and member of the White House Press Corps. She served for fifty-seven years as a correspondent and, later, White House bureau chief for United Press International (UPI). Thomas has covered every president since John F. Kennedy, was the first woman officer of the National Press Club, was the first woman member and president of the White House Correspondents Association, and the first woman member of the Gridiron Club. She has written four books; her latest is called Watchdogs of Democracy?: The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public.

Early life and career

Thomas was born in Winchester, Kentucky, to Lebanese immigrants from Tripoli, Lebanon, which at the time was part of Syria. She was reared in Detroit, Michigan and attended Wayne University (now Wayne State University), graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1942. Thomas' first job in journalism was as a copygirl for the now-defunct Washington Daily News, but shortly after she was promoted to cub reporter she was laid off as part of massive cutbacks at the paper.

Thomas joined United Press International in 1943 and reported on women's topics for their radio wire service. Later in the decade she wrote their "Names in the News" column, and after 1955 she covered federal agencies such as the Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Thomas served as president of the Women's National Press Club from 1959–60.

Presidential correspondent

In November 1960, Thomas began covering then President-elect John F. Kennedy, following him to the White House in January 1961 as a UPI correspondent. Thomas became known as the "Sitting Buddha", and it was during Kennedy's administration that she began the tradition of ending all presidential press conferences with a signature "Thank you, Mr. President".

Thomas was the only female print journalist to travel with President Richard Nixon to China during his historic trip in 1972. She has traveled around the world several times with Presidents Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, and has covered every Economic Summit since 1975, working up to the position of UPI's White House Bureau Chief, a post she would hold for over twenty-five years. While serving as White House Bureau Chief, she authored a regular column for UPI, "Backstairs at the White House," which provided an insider's view of various presidential administrations.

Resignation from United Press International

On May 17, 2000, after fifty-seven years working with the organization, Thomas resigned from UPI the day after the announcement of its acquisition by News World Communications Inc., a company founded and controlled by Unification Church leader Reverend Sun Myung Moon. She later described the change in ownership as "a bridge too far".

Less than two months later, she joined Hearst Newspapers as a columnist, writing on national affairs and the White House.

Bush administration

Traditionally, Thomas sat in the front row and asked the first question during White House press conferences, but according to Thomas in a 2006 Daily Show interview, this ended because she no longer represents a wire service. Thomas has since been moved to the back row during press conferences, although she still sits in the front row during press briefings. She is called upon at briefings on a daily basis but no longer ends Presidential news conferences saying "Thank you, Mr. President". When asked why she is now seated in the back row, she said, "Because they don't like me... I ask too many questions."

On March 21, 2006, Thomas was called upon directly by President Bush for the first time in three years. Thomas asked Bush about the war in Iraq:

I'd like to ask you, Mr. President, your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is: Why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, from your Cabinet—your Cabinet officers, intelligence people, and so forth—what was your real reason? You have said it wasn't oil—quest for oil, it hasn't been Israel, or anything else. What was it?

Bush responded by discussing the overall "war on terror", and stated as a reason for the invasion, that Saddam Hussein chose to deny inspectors and not to disclose. Thomas was criticized by conservative commentators for her exchange with Bush.

Thomas has publicly expressed her opinion about Bush. After a speech at a Society of Professional Journalists banquet, she told an autograph-seeker who asked why she was sad, "I'm covering the worst president in American history." The autograph seeker was a sports writer for the Daily Breeze and her comments were published. After she was not called upon during a press conference for the first time in over four decades, she wrote to the president to apologize. She also told The Hill "The day Dick Cheney is going to run for president, I'll kill myself. All we need is another liar... I think he'd like to run, but it would be a sad day for the country if he does.

At a student journalism conference hosted by the Center for American Progress on June 2, 2006, Thomas opined that many journalists did not give accurate, critical reports on the Iraq War. She said she hopes for the return of hard reporting, and that the student audience should be "out on the street" in protest instead of sitting in the conference room.

At the July 18, 2006 White House press briefing, Thomas remarked, "The United States is not that helpless. It could have stopped the bombardment of Lebanon. We have that much control with the Israelis... we have gone for collective punishment against all of Lebanon and Palestine." Press Secretary Tony Snow responded, "Thank you for the Hezbollah view." According to Tom Shales, questions like the one above have sounded more like "tirades" and "anti-Israeli rhetoric". Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher described Shales' attack as "disturbing" and said he "offers no evidence".

On July 12, 2007, Thomas accused President Bush of starting the Iraq War as his "war of choice" and insisted that he alone could end it anytime he wanted to by handing it over to the United Nations.

Thomas has also been critical of the United States Congress. At a question and answer session held at Drake University on September 27, 2007, Thomas said that the "gutless wonder Congress doesn't have the courage to do what it needs to do" regarding the war.

In a press conference on 30 November 2007, Helen Thomas questioned Dana Perino, the White House Press Secretary, as to why we should depend on General David Petraeus in determining when to redeploy U.S troops from Iraq. Ms. Perino began to answer when Thomas interjected with "You mean how many more people we kill?" Perino immediately took offense, responding, "Helen, I find it really unfortunate that you use your front row position, bestowed upon you by your colleagues, to make such statements. This is a— it is an honor and a privilege to be in the briefing room, and to suggest that we, at the United States, are killing innocent people is just absurd and very offensive.

A December 6, 2007 CNN report by Jeanne Moos showed video of a seating chart of reporters covering a press conference given by President Bush concerning reports of Iran not having pursued nuclear weapons since 2003. The spot for Thomas was crossed out with an X and she was never called upon.

Thomas developed a stomach infection in May 2008, and has not appeared in press conferences or written her weekly column since. She is expected to recover and return to work.

Awards

Appearances in other media

  • Thomas appeared in a cameo in the 1993 movie Dave and also uncredited in The American President.
  • The Final Days, President Clinton's 2000 parody of his own waning term of office, features Thomas among other pundits and White House staffers. Clinton makes a major policy speech to the White House press corps only to find the briefing room empty except for a snoozing Thomas who, awakened, impatiently asks him, "Are you still here?" (Complete clip: )

  • Thomas was featured in the "audition tape" made by Stephen Colbert for the position of Press Secretary. The segment was shown after Colbert's speech at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. After Colbert deflects a number of questions from other journalists, Thomas begins asking her question regarding the Iraq war. This sends a panicked Colbert to the streets, where he is stalked by Thomas all the way to New York City. Widely distributed online, a portion of the clip later aired on Colbert's show The Colbert Report on Comedy Central on May 2, 2006.
  • She has also appeared in an episode of The West Wing.
  • Thomas was interviewed on Enough Rope as part of the Elders series conducted by Andrew Denton. The interview provided an intimate portrait of the life of Helen Thomas.
  • Thank You, Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House (2008) (TV). Biographical documentary on Helen Thomas, centered on her years on the White House Press Corps, directed by Rory Kennedy (daughter of RFK). .

Notes

Bibliography

  • Watchdogs of Democracy? : The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public (Scribner, 2006) ISBN 0-7432-6781-8
  • Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President : Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House (Scribner, 2003) ISBN 0-7432-0226-0
  • Front Row at the White House : My Life and Times (Scribner, 2000) ISBN 0-684-86809-1
  • Dateline: White House (Macmillan, 1975) ISBN 0-02-617620-3

External links

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