07/24/2013 11:25 am ET Updated Sep 23, 2013

What I Learned From Helen Thomas


The passing of veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas marked the end of an era. There will never be another like her. She witnessed and reported on more history than any reporter -- man or woman -- in modern times. And she literally became part of the presidency. From John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama, Helen was there. She was like the Energizer Bunny, and it is hard to think of the White House without her.

During the eight years I served as Assistant Press Secretary in the Reagan White House, I had the privilege to get to know Helen Thomas well. I am proud to call her my friend.

Much has been written about her tenacity, trail-blazing and prowess. And it's true.

Helen was absolutely tireless -- always the first reporter in the press room in the morning and usually the last to leave at night. She would "greet" the arriving press office staff every morning with "What's cooking?" even before we had our coats off. Helen never took a true vacation -- only an occasional day trip to make a speech or attend a family function. On grueling foreign trips, she would be up before dawn to be transported to whatever the first presidential event was, and remained on duty until well after the last, usually close to midnight -- often logging four or five 18+ hours days in a row. But to Helen, there was simply no substitute for being there. In the presence. On the scene. She had to be where the president was, furiously taking notes, and then running back to her cramped booth or work station to file the story before anyone else. She had to be first. Always.

In journalism school, students are taught many valuable skills, but the one that cannot be taught, and the one most important to being a successful reporter, is instinct. Either you have it or you don't. Helen had it. Like no one else. She could sense a story when no one else could. It has been said that one cannot get blood from a rock, but Helen could always see a story in something.

Somehow she just knew when to hang out near the press secretary's office, or peek through a window, or loiter near a certain doorway. Her instincts were so sharp that Larry Speakes, the chief White House spokesman for the first six years of the Reagan Administration, used to refer to her and ABC News' Sam Donaldson as the "barometers." If Helen or Sam were asking about something, we'd better pay attention.

Helen had a keen sense of humor, and was self-deprecating. Sometimes after asking a particularly blunt question, she would laugh at herself. Even though she was perhaps the best known White House reporter in the country, she did not consider herself a celebrity. In fact, when people recognized her, she seemed a little surprised. She was always kind and gracious, but she considered herself a reporter, not a "personality."

She was fearless. Powerful people did not intimidate her. Not even the KGB. During their trip to Moscow in 1988, President and Mrs. Reagan made an unscheduled stop along a famous street where artists, craftsmen, antique dealers and others set up shops. They were mobbed by the crowd, and their KGB bodyguards tried to form a ring around them. Helen was part of the small group of reporters with the Reagans, and when she could not see the president, tried to move in closer. A particularly burly KGB agent grabbed her by the arm and she started to scream. Nancy Reagan looked toward Helen and told the KGB agent to let her go, which he quickly did. Not everyone in the White House entourage was thrilled that the First Lady rescued Helen, but both Reagans respected and liked her and would never allow an American reporter to be man-handled that way.

She believed fiercely that the people had a right to know everything a president was doing, and nothing was off limits. Once after spending practically all day at the president's side, she complained about not getting some piece of information. I said: "Helen, you were joined at the hip with him from morning to night. Wasn't that enough?" Her quick reply: "There is no such thing as enough." Alrighty then.

She never hid the fact that she was pro-Palestinian. It was part of who she was. At least she had the decency to be honest about her feelings. Her mean-spirited remarks about Jews a few years ago went beyond anything I remember her saying, and were shocking, but I believe her apology was sincere and heartfelt.

Even though I was a White House official and supposed to be dispensing information, I learned more from Helen than she from me. It was just that way with her. She had sources everywhere. But of all the things I learned from Helen during the eight years of the Reagan Administration, oddly enough, the one lesson that has stuck with me the most has nothing to do with the Presidency or journalism. It was November 1988, and we were in Santa Barbara, California just after the election of George H.W. Bush as Reagan's successor. I took a day off and made a quick trip to Los Angeles to try to nail down the apartment I would rent when I moved out there in January to work in former President Reagan's office. I found one that was close to where the office would be. It was dark and small. But time was not on my side, so I left a small deposit. When I got back to the hotel that night I ran into Helen, who asked if I had found a place that I liked. I told her I had taken something that was "okay, but nothing special." She frowned and told me: "It's important to like where you live."

When I got to my room, I kept hearing that phrase over and over in my head, probably because I really did not like what I had selected, and I knew Helen was right. So the next morning, I went back to LA at the crack of dawn, looked at a dozen more apartments, and found one I really liked. I was not able to get my deposit on the first one back, but I considered it a small price to pay for a valuable lesson.

That was Helen. She knew all about the high and mighty, the big and powerful, the historic and earth-shattering. But she also knew about real life, and she shared her wisdom willingly. In every apartment and house since, I have kept her words in mind.