This post originally appears in Bitch magazine. You can read the full interview there.
[Editor's note: Although this interview was slated to appear in our as-yet unreleased Gray issue (Fall, no. 60), we decided to share it early given Helen Thomas's recent passing. We feel lucky to publish one of the last interviews with this iconic figure.]
Helen Thomas knew she had hit the third rail the second the words left her mouth. When asked to comment on Israel while out on the White House lawn during Jewish Heritage Celebration Day in May 2010, she candidly replied: "Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine." When prodded for further clarification on where she believed the Israeli populace in occupied Palestinian territories should relocate to, she said that they should "go home," and cited Poland and Germany as her first examples.
A week later, the video was posted online. Thomas, after 50 years inside the White House, announced her retirement within a matter of days.
In the battle between what some perceived as anti-Semitic remarks and the First Amendment rights guaranteed to every U.S. citizen, the immediate fallout left little room for dialogue. President Obama declared her comments to be "out of line" and called her decision to retire "the right one," while the board of the White House Correspondents' Association issued a statement calling her words "indefensible" and wondered whether it would be appropriate for opinion columnists to occupy a front-row seat in the White House briefing room ever again. Speaking events were canceled, awards previously given in her honor retracted.
The daughter of Lebanese immigrants, Thomas had come of age at a time when the thought of a little girl growing up to be a newspaperwoman was unimaginable. All the same, she graduated from college in 1942, leaving her hometown of Detroit, Michigan, for Washington, D.C., immediately thereafter. Her life's work began when she covered the Kennedy presidency as a full-time White House UPI correspondent. While given appropriately "female" assignments like covering the birth of John F. Kennedy, Jr. and detailing where the First Lady bought her dresses, it was still a sea-change moment, granting unprecedented White House access to newswomen of that generation.
It was during the Kennedy administration that Thomas became the first woman to ever close a press conference with her memorable "Thank you, Mr. President," a phrase originally coined by her friend and colleague, UPI's Merriman Smith. It was a privilege that would continue up until the presidency of George Bush, Sr. (who preferred longer, afternoon press conferences free from prime-time network regulations). In 1975, she became the first female president of the White House Correspondents' Association, as well as the first woman member (and later president) of the Gridiron Club, breaking a 90-year, men-only tradition.
The 2010 Palestine incident capped off what had turned out to be a turbulent decade for Thomas. In 2000 she departed from UPI's wire service to join Hearst Newspapers as an opinion columnist, allowing her to gain a much wider berth of expression. Two years into George W. Bush's first term in office, Thomas informally declared him "the worst president in American history" and was promptly banished to the back row of the press room. Three years would pass before Bush ever called on her again, although she was more than ready when he finally did, delivering her now-infamous "Why did you really want to go to war?" line of questioning.
During my first visit with Thomas inside her modest Washington apartment in the summer of 2011, little more than a year removed from her abrupt and unceremonious retirement, she still seemed shell-shocked. She had turned 91 the previous week. Although I had never met her before, Thomas was first cousins with my grandmother. They grew up together in Detroit, separated in age by only a few months and were close like sisters. Despite the recent unpleasantness, I was happy to finally have the opportunity to meet her.
As our conversation continued the following summer, I began to understand the complexity of Helen Thomas, an enduring figure who is at times as polarizing as she is revered. While presidents came and went within the White House walls, Thomas remained the one constant, and the men who had to answer to her--10 total throughout her career--always knew exactly what they were in store for as soon as they called on her: gritty, hard-hitting questions from one of the most indomitable spirits in the history of American journalism. As Nixon once told her: "You always ask tough questions--tough questions not in the sense of being unfair, but hard to generalize the answers."
Our conversations, collected over the course of two years and meandering between decades and diatribes along the way, are both familial and freewheeling by nature, as well as unremittingly honest (as most would suspect). Though she'd preferably be the one asking the questions, her answers are the next best thing.
I wanted to ask you about your parents and how they fit in during the first Arab immigration wave from 1880 to 1920. Did they have noticeable problems assimilating?
When my father came in the 1890s, he went directly to Kentucky where two of his brothers were. They had a pushcart, he had a pushcart, and then he had a little grocery store. Then he went back to Lebanon, married my mother, came here. And our whole goal was to be a part of America. My parents were very proud. They wanted all of us to be educated. We didn't live in an Arabic or Syrian or Lebanese community--although there were lots--but we were in a little town called Winchester, 20 miles from Lexington, which was the hub. And Uncle John, your great-grandfather, was in Kentucky as well, and then he moved to Detroit because of the auto boom and his brother did, too, and then they told my dad to come and bring the family.
What was it like to be a woman coming up in your profession? What were the challenges?
Well, I think that women have had a very tough time. It took 70 years of marching and protesting and chaining ourselves to the White House gate for women to get the vote. They protested for 70 years, went to jail, starved themselves. But not only to get the vote, for women to get into real professional jobs. World War I was a breakthrough--they were the secretaries. World War II was a real breakthrough for the women as well. They could work anywhere, in the factories and in the offices getting top jobs.