Helen Thomas didn’t think there were any rude questions, and that unflinching and uncompromising attitude made her a pioneer for women in journalism and the unofficial head of the White House press corps. She died today after a long illness at her home in Washington, D.C. She was 92.
“Michelle and I were saddened to learn of the passing of Helen Thomas. Helen was a true pioneer, opening doors and breaking down barriers for generations of women in journalism,” President Barack Obama said in a statement. “She never failed to keep presidents – myself included – on their toes. What made Helen the ‘Dean of the White House Press Corps’ was not just the length of her tenure, but her fierce belief that our democracy works best when we ask tough questions and hold our leaders to account.”
Her career began on the copy desk at the Washington Daily News in 1942, but she shortly moved on to covering federal agencies for the United Press International wire service. She covered JFK’s presidential campaign, and when he was elected Helen Thomas was the first woman to be assigned by a news service to cover the White House full-time.
Thomas’ time in the press corps spanned nine presidencies. She was the first woman to be an officer of the White House Correspondents’ Association and the first woman to be its president. She was known for asking blunt, to-the-point questions and never shying away from a subject. According to the Washington Post:
She asked President Richard M. Nixon point-blank what his secret plan to end the Vietnam War was, and she asked President Ronald Reagan what right the United States had to invade Grenada in 1983. When President George H.W. Bush announced that the defense budget would remain the same after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of communism in Europe, she succinctly asked, “Who’s the enemy?”
Thomas was forced to retire in 2010 after remarking that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine.” She later apologized.
“Any woman who has had the privilege of sitting in the front row of the White House briefing room owes huge debt of gratitude to Helen Thomas,” tweeted Julie Pace, White House correspondent for the Associated Press.
“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,” said Steven Thomma, president of the White House Correspondents Association, in a statement. “All of our journalism is the better for it.”