Helen Thomas, the trailblazing reporter and columnist who was known as the "Dean of the White House Press Corps," has died at 92.
The Gridiron Club, the press group that counted Thomas as its first female member, announced the news in an email, Politico first reported. The Associated Press said Thomas had been sick "for a long time."
Thomas was the first woman to become a chief White House correspondent for a wire service, and the first to join—and lead—the White House Correspondents' Association. She served as White House correspondent for United Press International (UPI) for 39 years. She then moved to Hearst, where she became a columnist with increasingly open political views, though she retained her prime spot at White House press briefings.
Thomas covered every president from Kennedy to Obama. She was the only woman who traveled with Richard Nixon on his trip to China. She was the person who ended every presidential press conference by saying, on behalf of her fellow journalists, "Thank you, Mr. President."
By the end of her career, her chair in the White House briefing room had been adorned with, as the New York Times wrote, "a small plaque with her name, the only seat in the briefing room designated by the name of a person, not a news organization."
Thomas became known for her tough, relentless questioning of presidents and press secretaries. It was not an uncommon sight to see a president repeatedly saying, "Helen—Helen—Helen," as he tried to get a word in edgewise. She became a special foe of the Bush administration, whose policies she openly loathed. President Bush famously refused to call on her at press conferences for years at a time, perhaps due to exchanges like this one, as described by the AP:
In March 2005, she confronted Bush with the proposition that "your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis" and every justification for the attack proved false.
"Why did you really want to go to war?" she demanded.
When Bush began explaining his rationale, she interjected: "They didn't do anything to you, or to our country."
"Excuse me for a second," Bush replied. "They did. The Taliban provided safe haven for al-Qaeda. That's where al-Qaeda trained."
"I'm talking about Iraq," she said.
It was that outspokenness that led to Thomas's resignation from her White House job in 2010. After she was recorded on tape saying she thought Israelis should "get the hell out of Palestine," the ensuing controversy forced her to step down.Even so, on Saturday, her former colleagues remembered Thomas for the paths she carved:
@davidfolkenflik judge her by 7+decades as constant irritant to the powerful and comfortable - even while breaking barriers
— Andrea Mitchell (@mitchellreports) July 20, 2013
Steven Thomma, the current president of the White House Correspondents' Association, hailed Thomas's legacy in a statement:
Starting with the Kennedy administration, she was the first woman to cover the president and not just the First Lady.
At her urging in 1962, Kennedy said he would not attend the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents Association unless it was opened to women for the first time. It was.
And in 1975-76, she served as the first woman president of the association.
Women and men who’ve followed in the press corps all owe a debt of gratitude for the work Helen did and the doors she opened. All of our journalism is the better for it.
Read more on Thomas's life from her Associated Press obituary:
Her disdain for White House secrecy and dodging spanned five decades, back to President John Kennedy. Her freedom to voice her peppery opinions as a speaker and a Hearst columnist came late in her career.
The Bush administration marginalized her, clearly peeved with a journalist who had challenged President George W. Bush to his face on the Iraq war and declared him the worst president in history.
After she quit UPI in 2000 – by then an outsized figure in a shrunken organization – her influence waned.
Thomas was accustomed to getting under the skin of presidents, if not to the cold shoulder.
"If you want to be loved," she said years earlier, "go into something else."
There was a lighter mood in August 2009, on her 89th birthday, when President Barack Obama popped into in the White House briefing room unannounced. He led the roomful of reporters in singing "Happy Birthday to You" and gave her cupcakes. As it happened, it was the president's birthday too, his 48th.
Thomas was at the forefront of women's achievements in journalism. She was one of 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 and she had to fight for admission into the 1959 luncheon speech where Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev warned: "We will bury you."
The belligerent Khrushchev was an unlikely ally in one sense. He had refused to speak at any Washington venue that excluded women, she said.
Thomas fought, too, for a more open presidency, resisting all moves by a succession of administrations to restrict press access.
"People will never know how hard it is to get information," Thomas told an interviewer, "especially if it's locked up behind official doors where, if politicians had their way, they'd stamp TOP SECRET on the color of the walls."
Born in Winchester, Ky., to Lebanese immigrants, Thomas was the seventh of nine children. It was in high school, after working on the student newspaper, that she decided she wanted to become a reporter.
After graduating from Detroit's Wayne University (now Wayne State University), Thomas headed straight for the nation's capital. She landed a $17.50-a-week position as a copy girl, with duties that included fetching coffee and doughnuts for editors at the Washington Daily News.
United Press – later United Press International – soon hired her to write local news stories for the radio wire. Her assignments were relegated at first to women's news, society items and celebrity profiles.
Her big break came after the 1960 election that sent Kennedy to the White House, and landed Thomas her first assignment related to the presidency. She was sent to Palm Beach, Fla., to cover the vacation of the president-elect and his family.
JFK's successor, Lyndon Johnson, complained that he learned of his daughter Luci's engagement from Thomas's story.
Bigger and better assignments would follow for Thomas, among them President Richard M. Nixon's breakthrough trip to China in 1972.
When the Watergate scandal began consuming Nixon's presidency, Martha Mitchell, the notoriously unguarded wife of the attorney general, would call Thomas late at night to unload her frustrations at what she saw as the betrayal of her husband John by the president's men.
It was also during the Nixon administration that the woman who scooped so many others was herself scooped – by the first lady. Pat Nixon was the one who announced to the Washington press corps that Thomas was engaged to Douglas Cornell, chief White House correspondent for UPI's archrival, AP.
They were married in 1971. Cornell died 11 years later.
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 19: This file photo shows reporter Helen Thomas as she questions former US President Ronald Reagan during a press conference at the White House 19 March,1987 in Washington, DC. This was the first press conference that Reagan had held since 19 November 1986, six days before the disclosure that profits from arm sales to Iran were diverted to the Contras. (Photo credit should read DON RYPKA/AFP/Getty Images)
Helen Thomas, correspondent and White House bureau chief for United Press International, leans against a wall with her hand to her mouth as she awaits transcripts of President Richard Nixon's resignation speech in the White House press office, Washington D.C., 8th August 1974. (Photo by Pictorial Parade/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
MAR 5 1976; CORRESPONDENT HELEN THOMAS; Praised President for openness.; (Photo By The Denver Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, : US President Bill Clinton answers question from reporter Helen Thomas, 30 April during a press conference at the White House in Washington, DC. Clinton spoke on variety of subjects including the economy, the ongoing investigation by independent counsel Kenneth Starr, tobacco legislation and the embargo on Cuba. AFP PHOTO/LUKE FRAZZA (Photo credit should read LUKE FRAZZA/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, : US President BIll Clinton (C) and President-elect George W. Bush(L) speak with reporter Helen Thomas(R) during meetings 19 December, 2000 at the White House in Washington, DC for discussions on the transition to power on 20 January 2001. Bush will meet later with US Vice President Al Gore, the man he defeated in the election. AFP PHOTO/Paul J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 5: White House correspondent Helen Thomas watches as a musician play a 1938 Steinway piano in the Grand Foyer at the White House December 5, 2002 in Washington, D.C. First lady Laura Bush hosted a media preview of the decorations that focused on presidential pets. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
383509 02: President Bill Clinton, right, meets with President-elect George W. Bush in the Oval Office at the White House while press reporter Helen Thomas ask questions December 19, 2000 in Washington, DC. Bush and Clinton had an official meeting on Monday for the first time since the presidential elections. (Photo by Dirk Halstead/Liaison)
LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES: Retired White House correspondent Helen Thomas stands in the press gallery at the Democratic National Convention in the Staples Center 17 August, 2000, in Los Angeles, California. AFP PHOTO Paul J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, : US President Bill Clinton (C) listens to the music of Earth Wind and Fire joined by former UPI White House reporter Helen Thomas (L) and Her Royal Highness Lalla Meryem (R), sister of King Mohammed VI of Morocco, at the White House 20 June, 2000 in Washington, DC. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/Tim SLOAN (Photo credit should read TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - FEBRUARY 7: White House correspondent Helen Thomas gets out of a utility vehicle after catching a ride from the front gate to the briefing room at the White House February 7, 2003 in Washington, DC. An overnight snowstorm left four-six inches of snow in the Washington, DC area. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C. - MARCH 26: Journalist Helen Thomas attends Grid Iron Dinner on March 26, 1988 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
04/26/98 - Hilton Hotel - BRIEF DESCRIPTION: White House Correspondents Dinner - UPI's Helen Thomas wipes a tear as she is awarded the first Helen Thomas Award, at the White House Correspondents Dinner. - Photo By Frank Johnston TWP (Photo by Frank Johnston/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
Helen Thomas during '15th Annual Glamour Women of the Year Awards - Arrivals at American Museum of Natural History in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage)
Washington, UNITED STATES: US President George W. Bush waves next to (from left) Helen Thomas of Hearst, comedian Stephen Colbert, Terry Hunt of AP, First Lady Laura Bush, as Tom Curley of AP looks on at the start of the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner 29 April 2006 at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - UNDATED: (NO U.S. TABLOID SALES) U.S. President Ronald Reagan greets the press, including Helen Thomas (C), in the Oval Office during a press conference in the White House in Washington, DC. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, who has served US President George W. Bush 2.5 years since taking office, smiles after saying 'Good-Bye' to the Senior White House Correspondent Helen Thomas(L) who has covered every US President since John F. Kennedy as he chats with reporters during a White House Press Room farewell party 14 July 2003 in Washington, DC, his final day serving as White House Spokesman. AFP Photo/Paul J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J.RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - AUGUST 2: Senior White House Correspondent Helen Thomas reads the newspaper while sitting in her chair in the White House press room August 2, 2006 in Washington, DC. The White House Press Corps will leave the facility in the West Wing of the White House while the 1970's era work spaces and briefing room are updated in a renovation that is estimated to take up to nine months. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)
Washington, UNITED STATES: Veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas (C) and other members of the press gather for the final press briefing in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House 02 August 2006, in Washington,DC. The Briefing Room, as well as the press working spaces, are being renovated. Reporters who cover the White House are being evicted this week from their dingy, depressing digs in what was once the West Wing swimming pool area, for what is set to be a months-long renovation. AFP PHOTO/Jim WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Washington, UNITED STATES: US President George W. Bush (C) shakes hands with reporters as he speaks with veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas (2nd L), and other reporters during the final press briefing in the James Brady Press Briefing Room, at the White House 02 August 2006, in Washington,DC. The Briefing Room, as well as the press working spaces, are being renovated. While journalists have complained for years about the crowded, dirty conditions and the absence -- until actor Tom Hanks stepped in -- of a proper coffee machine, their chief fear is of not being allowed to return. White House spokesman Tony Snow, asked to address that concern on Wednesday, played off the fact that the blue-curtained briefing room was built over the swimming pool last used by a US president when Lyndon Johnson was in office. AFP PHOTO/Jim WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - JULY 11: (AFP OUT) Long-time White House correspondent Helen Thomas takes her seat on the front row of the remodeled James S. Brady Press Briefing Room in the West Wing of the White House July 11, 2007 in Washington, DC. The briefing room was closed for about one year to update broadcast technology, remove asbestos and remodel the space. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Veteran White House reporter and columnist Helen Thomas poses for photographers as she leaves the White House in Washington, DC, 16 October 2007. AFP PHOTO/SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - AUGUST 04: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) brings surprise birthday cupcakes to celebrate the birthday of White House veteran correspondent Helen Thomas (L) in the White House briefing room August 4, 2009 in Washington, DC. August 4 is also the birthday of President Obama. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - AUGUST 04: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) kisses White House veteran correspondent Helen Thomas (L) as he brings surprise birthday cupcakes to celebrate her birthday in the White House briefing room August 4, 2009 in Washington, DC. August 4 is also the birthday of President Obama. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - MAY 01: Reporter Helen Thomas (C) arrives at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner on May 1, 2010 in Washington, DC. The annual dinner featured comedian Jay Leno and was attended by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - MAY 27: Veteran reporter Helen Thomas (C) asks her question to U.S. President Barack Obama during a news conference at the East Room of the White House May 27, 2010 in Washington, DC. Obama announced an extension on the moratorium for deepwater oil drilling for six months. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)