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Helen Thomas, White House reporter, dies at 92

10:26 AM, Jul 20, 2013   |    comments
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(Photo: Will Hart HBO via USA Today)

Helen Thomas, the pioneering White House reporter who covered every president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama, died Saturday at 92.

Thomas, the first female member of the White House press corps, was known for her dogged persistence and undaunted determination to get to the facts.

Thomas was among the first female reporters to break out of the White House "women's beat" - the soft stories about presidents' kids, wives, their teas and their hairdos - and cover the hard news on an equal footing with men.

She became the first female White House bureau chief for a wire service when UPI named her to the position in 1974. She was also the first female officer at the National Press Club, where women had once been barred as members. She had to fight for admission into the 1959 luncheon speech where Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev warned: "We will bury you."

But Thomas was as opinionated as she was irrepressible, and her public hostility toward Israel ultimately crashed her career. A videotape circulated on the Internet in 2010 in which she said Israelis should "get out of Palestine" and "go home" to Germany, Poland or the United States. The remark brought widespread condemnation.

For decades Thomas claimed a front seat in the White House press room, and she got to know most of the presidents she covered well. But she told USA TODAY in a 2006 interview that there is one thing all presidents have in common -- they hate the media.

"You have to start with that premise. And as time goes on, their position is, 'Who the hell are you? Howe dare you ask?'" she said.

Thomas was born in Kentucky, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants who could not read or write. She arrived in Washington in 1942, starting as a copy girl for the oldWashington Daily News and in 1943 was hired as a $24-a-week radio writer by United Press.

Her White House career started in January 1961 with JFK's inauguration. In an autobiography, she wrote that at the start of the Kennedy years "a woman reporter at the White House was generally assumed to be little more than a specialized society columnist and I did my share of 'Jackie watching,' keeping tabs on daughter Caroline and reporting on what the first lady wore to lunch on a given day."

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She once hid in the bushes while Kennedy golfed at a men-only club and wrote a piece titled, I Was A Girl Golf Spy.

She was the epitome of the wire service reporter during her decades at United Press International. Presidents gave her the first question as a nod to her seniority, and her seat in the first row, unlike all other reporters', had her name on it. She briefly lost that seat of honor in the move to a new briefing room in 2007, but the White House Correspondents Association restored it. "As the dean of the White House press corps, Helen is an institution," the association said.

She left UPI in 2000 and became a columnist for Hearst Newspapers, where she emerged as an icon of the liberal media. She was particularly critical of President Bush and his Iraq war policy - and of her colleagues for what she said was their passive role in questioning him on the war.

Contributing: Peter Johnson; Associated Press


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