It was 50 years ago this year that veteran journalist Helen Thomas convinced President John F. Kennedy to boycott the White House Correspondents' Association's annual dinner. If women weren't invited to attend, the president announced, he wouldn't be going, either.
So, she finally suckered up the courage to speak — and to turn the screws on her colleagues by turning the screws on the president of the United States. That takes serious guts. And it also took serious guts for Ms. Thomas, under the glower of resentment from so many people sitting around her at that dinner in 1962, to hold her head high and shrug off the room's pettiness and wrong-headedness.
Sadly, on the 50th anniversary of that historic evening, the White House Correspondents' Association reminds us that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In 2010, the organization announced a new seating policy that restricts all former WHCA presidents, including Ms. Thomas, to only two seats at its swanky, annual dinner — an event where she had hosted a table every year since 1978, when she became the first woman to serve as the association's president.
I'll give the WHCA the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the timing of its policy change had nothing to do with the controversy that erupted weeks earlier when Ms. Thomas made undiplomatic remarks about the Israel/Palestine conflict and the influence of Zionist politics on American government, foreign policy, commerce and media. Perhaps the association's leaders had been considering for many months, even years, the pressing need to establish a policy that would restrict even more tightly who, among current and former holders of White House press credentials, could host a table at their main event.
After all, this dinner is one of D.C.'s hottest tickets. It is a glitzy event where Hollywood stars work the room, and the vast majority of working stiffs in newsrooms nationwide are never invited by their media-mogul bosses.
In 2011, it appeared to me that Ms. Thomas, who is 91-years-old, feared she wouldn't make it to see the golden anniversary of a milestone in her career she perhaps holds more near and dear than any other. She requested a table at last year's event, offering to pay the roughly $3,000 cost from her limited-income pocket just as she had for decades (the dinner partly benefits scholarships, and Ms. Thomas has always generously supported student causes). The association rejected her request, quickly noting she was no longer a White House correspondent.
I know Ms. Thomas — who has covered 10 presidential administrations — was hurt by the rejection, but she didn't make a big deal of it.
Fast forward to this year — the year Ms. Thomas has so looked forward to celebrating in the twilight of her life. She sent a letter personally addressed to each member of the White House Correspondents' Association's board of directors. She asked if she could pay for one, last table she could share with family members and close friends at the association's 98th annual dinner on April 28. So far, Ms. Thomas has received two form letters from this esteemed group (the nearly identical missives are signed by different people, which is tacky at best). Both remind her of The Policy and offer her only two tickets.
We get it. There's a policy. We. Must. Honor. The. Policy. But the WHCA can and should make an exception. If ever there were a person and a specific time for this group to bend a new rule for, these are it. Ms. Thomas' request is very small in the grand scheme of things — and in light of all she has contributed to that organization, the trade of journalism and to our nation. If the WHCA can structure seating policies that accommodate Hollywood starlets and congressional interns, surely it can make room for Helen Thomas to head one, last table.
What a shame it is the association hasn't already reached this conclusion.
Please urge the WHCA to reflect the respect and graciousness so many of us hunger to see more of in our society. You can contact the association by visiting its website at http://www.whca.net/contact.htm or by calling (202) 266-7453.
Christine Tatum is a former staff writer for The Denver Post and the Chicago Tribune. She was the sixth woman in more than 100 years to serve as national president of the Society of Professional Journalists.