Posted by on June 24, 2014 in Blog
Prominent reporter Helen Thomas was born in 1920 in Winchester, Kentucky to Syrian-born immigrants from Tripoli, Lebanon. Feisty and passionate, Thomas covered the administrations of eleven U.S. presidents over five decades in relentless pursuit of the truth, making her one of the the best White House correspondents this country has ever seen.
When she was four years old, Helen’s family moved to Detroit, Michigan where she spent most of her childhood. Her father, George, was a grocer, and her mother, Mary, was a homemaker raising nine children. Both parents were illiterate upon entering the United States at Ellis Island.
Filled with boundless curiousity, Helen knew from early on that she wanted to become a journalist. After graduating from college with a B.A. in English from Wayne State University in Detroit in 1942, Helen moved to Washington, D.C., determined to make her mark as a journalist. She started off as a copy girl for The Washington Daily News. In demonstrating her superior skills and competency, Helen was quickly promoted to reporter. In 1943, she was hired by the United Press (later renamed United Press International [UPI]) and began covering women’s interests and celebrietites, the only real body of news female journalists were given at that time. Fearless Helen, whose passion was always news and politics, persisted until she was assigned to cover the U.S. Department of Justice in 1955. This job, which Helen worked for 57 years, included coverage of Capitol Hill, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
In 1959, Thomas, president of the Women’s National Press Club, and some female colleagues successfully forced the then all-male National Press Club to allow them to attend an address by Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev. Thomas became the National Press Club’s first female officer in 1971, and the first female member and president of the Gridiron Club in 1993.
Thomas’ first presidential assignment was covering a vacation of President John F. Kennedy and his family. She fell in love with presidential coverage and began attending presidential press conferences and briefings. Thomas earned a reputation for asking blunt and irksome questions with a contemptuous and populist flavor. Her brave approach rattled press secretaries and set a tone for generations of straight-shooting, badgering reporters.
In 1970, Thomas was promoted to White House correspondent and was the only print journalist to accompany Former President Richard Nixon on his historic trip to China. In 1974, Thomas became UPI’s White House Bureau Chief, the first woman to ever hold this position for a wire service. After leaving UPI in 2000, Thomas became a syndicated columnist at Hearst News Service, writing on national affairs and the White House. Thomas authored six books, including the memoirs White House (1975), and Front Row at the White House: My Life and Times (1999). Her last book, published in 2009 was Listen Up, Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do. She wrote that it is imperative for reporters to continue pushing for the truth, letting “the chips fall where they may.”
Helen was always a strong voice for clarity and truth in reporting on U.S. policy. In a heated exchange with President George W. Bush, she pushed hard on the President to take responsibilty for ending the war he began in Iraq and the damage that it caused the Iraqi people. Daringly, Helen took President Obama’s administration to task on their policy concerning Israeli settlement expansion. She interrogated President Barack Obama about Israel’s “secret” nuclear aresenal and hammered the White House for not condemning Israeli attacks on the aid flotilla in Gaza. Not shy or concerned with winning friends, Helen’s dogged insistence on U.S. accountability for it’s domestic and foreign policies established her as one of the most respected and feared member of the White House Press Corps.
Helen Thomas passed away on July 20th, 2013 at the age of 92. President Obama released a statement in her rememberance, identifying Thomas as “a true pioneer,” saying that “she never failed to keep presidents—myself included—on their toes.”
Helen Thomas was not simply a reporter. She destroyed barriers for female journalists, and set an example as the most fearless and respected leader of the press. Arab Americans are immensely proud to have had Helen as a part of our community, and she is dearly missed by all.
Read more stories about Arab immigrants and their descendants on the "Together We Came" main page.