The Gridiron Club, of which Thomas was a member, said she died yesterday at her apartment in Washington, where she lived for more than six decades. No cause of death was given, though the club said she had been ill for a long time.
As White House correspondent for United Press International, where she worked for 57 years, then as a columnist for Hearst Newspapers, Thomas covered presidents from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama as they confronted the Cuban Missile Crisis, wars in Vietnam and Iraq, the Watergate scandal, oil shortages, the nuclear arms race and economic crises.
She was the first woman elected president of the White House Correspondents Association and the first female to join the Gridiron Club, a fraternity for inside-the-Beltway journalists. She was also the first woman to cover the presidency, the correspondents group said.
Her work ethic was legendary. “She’s always the first one in the White House and the last one to leave,” Frances Lewine, who covered six presidents for the Associated Press, said in a September 2007 interview. Lewine died in January 2008.
Thomas, whose parents were Lebanese, also drew notice for her critical views of Israel. “Well, thank you for the Hezbollah view,” White House spokesman Tony Snow once retorted after Thomas suggested the U.S. should stop an Israeli military operation in southern Lebanon.
In videotaped comments in May 2010, following a White House ceremony marking Jewish Heritage Month, Thomas said Israelis should “get the hell out of Palestine” and return “home” to “Poland, Germany, and America and everywhere else.” Within days she apologized and retired from Hearst.
In 2012, Palestinian leaders gave Thomas an award for her career. According to an account in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, a magazine critical of U.S. foreign policy in the region, Thomas told supporters at the Virginia home of Maen Areikat, the top Palestinian envoy to the U.S., that she accepted the honor “on behalf of brave supporters of Palestinians who have taken an unpopular stand despite the personal and professional costs.”
Her long career put Thomas on the scene as history was written.
She sat at the head table at Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s “We will bury you” speech at the National Press Club in 1959, having joined other women in a successful battle for one-day access to what was then a male bastion.
Fought for Access
She was at Georgetown Hospital in 1960 when John F. Kennedy Jr. was born, 17 days after his father won the presidency. She traveled with President Richard Nixon on his 1972 trip to China. In 1974, she stood in the Oval Office as President Gerald Ford announced on national television that he was pardoning Nixon for any crimes committed during the Watergate scandal.
At UPI, Thomas fought for access and openness and chronicled day-to-day White House news with the terse language of the wire-service reporter.
“The presidency awed me, but presidents do not,” Thomas wrote in “Dateline: White House,” her 1975 memoir. “Perhaps I have always expected too much of them, but I believe that when they reach the highest office in the land, they should live up to the greatest honor that can come to a person in American political life. Some have stood the test better than others.”
Thomas quit UPI and became a syndicated columnist at the start of George W. Bush’s presidency in 2001, and her dislike of the 43rd president — particularly his decision to invadeIraq in 2003 — became evident in her writing and questions. Once guaranteed a question at presidential news conferences, she was rarely called on by Bush.
“Her loathing for Bush is palpable,” Jack Shafer, media critic for Slate.com, wrote in March 2003, citing the “snarky speeches she delivers in lieu of asking questions.”
On one of her few opportunities to question Bush, in 2006, Thomas asserted that he had wanted to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein from the time he took office.
“Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime,” she told the president. “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?”
As Bush countered that the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had recast the threat posed by “safe havens” such as Iraq, Thomas interrupted: “They didn’t do anything to you or to our country.”
Thomas took her profession to task in a 2006 book. After Sept. 11, reporters “were afraid to challenge the government, were afraid to be seen as un-American, unpatriotic, and as a consequence, they really let the country down,” she said in an August 2007 interview on CNN.
In February 2009, Obama became the 10th president to call on Thomas at a news conference. He brought cupcakes to the briefing room to mark her 89th birthday on Aug. 4, 2009. She said she told the president that her birthday wish was for “world peace and a real health-care reform bill.”
“What made Helen the ‘Dean of the White House Press Corps’ was not just the length of her tenure, but her fierce belief that our democracy works best when we ask tough questions and hold our leaders to account,” President Obama said in an e-mailed statement.
Thomas was born on Aug. 4, 1920, in Winchester, Kentucky, and grew up in Detroit, the seventh of nine children in the Lebanese-American family. Thomas recalled her mother, Mary, as “strong-willed” with “a burning sense of justice.”
At Detroit’s Eastern High School, Thomas got hooked on the school newspaper. After graduating from Wayne State University in 1942, she moved to the nation’s capital and landed a job as copy girl at the Washington Daily News. She moved to UPI — then called United Press — to write radio news copy.
Her gender proved a short-term benefit — she was hired in part because so many men were being drafted — but she became outraged at what she said was “the priority given to men in the news business.”
Thomas covered the Justice Department and other federal agencies before joining UPI’s White House team on Jan. 20, 1961, Kennedy’s first day as president. Back then, about 1,000 U.S. newspapers subscribed to UPI, the top competitor to AP.
At first, Thomas, Lewine and other female White House reporters were relegated mainly to covering first ladies and activities outside the Oval Office.
“Guys didn’t want to cover the social events,” Lewine recalled. “But we made hard news at those social events, and then everybody wanted to cover them.”
Thomas, as UPI’s correspondent at a 1963 Kennedy press conference, was responsible for deciding when to end the event. She chose to do so after Kennedy had tiptoed his way through a difficult answer on the threat posed by Cuba.
“Mr. President, thank you,” Thomas said, uttering what are usually the final words at such an event.
This time, Kennedy added, “Thank you, Helen.”
President Lyndon Johnson’s tense relationship with the press included what came to be known as “walkie-talkie” press conferences, during which reporters would fall over each other trailing the president and his dogs on brisk walks around the South Lawn.
“Often he spoke in a whisper to bedevil us for questioning him,” Thomas recalled. She kept flat shoes at her desk as a way to compete with her male competitors during such events.
One Sunday afternoon, Thomas was alone in the White House press room when Nixon popped in for a look at the empty bottles, wadded paper and other trash of a press room and told her, “This is a disgrace.”
Soon after, the Nixon administration began work on a new press center — nicer, but lacking the location and freedom of movement reporters had enjoyed. “We began to see the renovation of our offices as a subtle part of the Nixon war against the press,” Thomas wrote.
Thomas both regretted, and excused, that she played only a bit part in what may have been the biggest presidential story in U.S. history — the Nixon White House’s link to the Watergate break-in.
The stars of that story, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post, weren’t part of the White House press corps. White House reporters “were remiss, but we operated under many more wraps,” Thomas wrote.
Thomas stayed on as UPI passed through a series of ownership changes in the 1990s and lost readership and clout. She quit in 2000 when Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church bought the news service. She joined Hearst as a syndicated columnist.
In 1971, Thomas married Douglas Cornell, who had been her friendly rival for years as the White House correspondent for the Associated Press. First Lady Pat Nixon announced their engagement at Cornell’s retirement party.
Thomas said she got notes from friends saying she had encouraged them by finding a spouse at 51.
Cornell, who had been widowed in 1966, died in 1982 at 75.