Helen Thomas, known as “Queen of the White House Press Corps,” died this weekend at the age of 92. A longtime journalist who gave new meaning to the words “longtime journalist,” she started covering White House politics in the final days of the Eisenhower administration, and lasted all the way through the first few years of President Obama’s term. For five decades (and 10 presidents), she usually sat front and center at press conferences in the White House Briefing Room, and as the leaders of the free world called on her, they steeled themselves as she asked the toughest questions in the room. Colin Powell once asked, "Isn't there some war we can send her to?"
Thomas was born in Kentucky in 1920, the seventh of 10 children to Lebanese immigrants. She joined United Press International in 1943, rising at dawn for years to write radio copy. UPI first sent her to cover President-elect John Kennedy, her favorite Commander-in-Chief, in 1960. She joined the White House UPI team in 1961, eventually working up to the position of UPI's White House Bureau Chief. Her long list of career accolades includes first woman officer of the National Press Club and the first woman president of the White House Correspondents Association. (She also badgered her least-favorite president, George W. Bush, about the war in Iraq.) In a nod to her seniority, she was given the honor of asking the first question at presidential press conferences, and always ended these sessions by saying, “Thank you, Mr. President.”
When UPI was sold to a conglomerate owned by Reverend Sun Myung Moon in 2000, she resigned, and then became a columnist for the Hearst Corporation. In the White House Briefing Room, hers was the only seat with her name on it instead of a news organization. On August 4, 2009, President Obama brought in cupcakes and sang to her, as they shared a birthday.
Her career ended in 2010 after she made remarks about Jews needing to leave Palestine and go back to Poland, Germany, and the U.S. She resigned from Hearst shortly after, and apologized for the comments.
Her legacy includes three books she wrote about her view of the world from the front row at the White House. When Fidel Castro was asked the difference between being the president of Cuba and being president of the U.S., he replied, “I don’t have to answer questions from Helen Thomas.” She took it as a compliment.
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