Helen Thomas has been the epitome of journalistic integrity for over 57 years, serving as a correspondent and White House bureau chief for United Press International. She has covered every U.S. president since John F. Kennedy, and continues to be a dynamic leader in the Washington press. Her leadership among women in the press is unprecedented, having served as the first woman member and president of the White House Correspondents Association, and president of the Woman’s National Press Club. She was also the only woman to accompany President Richard Nixon on his historic trip to China. Most famously, she closed presidential press conferences with the tagline “Thank you, Mr. President,” a dualistic trademark of her personality and professionalism .
The daughter of Lebanese immigrants, Thomas was raised in Detroit and received a Bachelor’s degree from Wayne State University. Her journalistic contribution on behalf of the Arab American community is unsurpassed. She consistently asks the tough questions of past and current administrations in regards to corrupt policy here and abroad.
Thomas’s career began to take off after she became a presidential correspondent to Kennedy in 1960, as she quickly gained a reputation for being insistently critical and blunt on administration policies rather than merely accepting rhetorical press releases. She states that, “When the Cold War ended after fifty years with both superpowers aiming — but not triggering — weapons of mass destruction at each other, we thought we were going to live happily ever after. The Twentieth Century was personified by war, death and destruction: two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War. Of course there were great breakthroughs – we landed on the moon, we reached out, we led the world in high tech, we promoted civil rights, women’s rights and human rights. We thought we had learned our lesson.”
Thomas has recently faced a dilemma in her illustrious career. She has come to realize that her very own press corps has been asleep for the duration of the Bush administration. She notes that, “The naďve complicity of the press and the government was never more pronounced than in the prelude to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The media became an echo chamber for White House pronouncements.”
As media criticism became essentially non-existent towards the Bush administration’s many faulty decisions, Thomas became uneasy about the direction of the press, and their utter surrender of the basic tenets of journalism. “Of all the unhappy trends I have witnessed — conservative swings on television networks, dwindling newspaper circulation, the jailing of reporters, and “spin” — nothing is more troubling to me than the obsequious press during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. They lapped up everything the Pentagon and White House could dish out — no questions asked.”
Thomas’ tumultuous relationship with the Bush administration caused the removal of many privileges she had earned in her award-winning career. Traditionally she sat at the front row during White House press conferences and was allowed to open with her questions, but according to Thomas in a 2006 Daily Show interview, this ended because she no longer represented a wire service.
On March 21, 2006, Thomas was called upon by President Bush for the first time in three years. She then said, “I’d like to ask you, Mr. President, your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis — every reason given , publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is: Why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, from your Cabinet — your Cabinet officers, intelligence people, and so forth — what is your real reason? You have said it wasn’t oil — a quest for oil, it hasn’t been Israel, or anything else. What was it?”
The president’s response was traditional rhetoric, and for the first time Thomas began sitting in the back row at press conferences.
At the July 18, 2006 White House press briefing, Thomas remarked, “The United States is not helpless. It could have stopped the bombardment of Lebanon. We have that much control with the Israelis…we have gone for collective punishment against all of Lebanon and Palestine.” Press secretary Tony Snow responded, “Thank you for the Hizbullah view.”
From “Watchdogs of Democracy,” Thomas writes, “Something vital has been lost — or have American journalists forgotten that their role is to follow the truth, without fear or favor, wherever it leads them? The truth, rather than an agenda, should be the goal of the free press.”
Thomas remains a guidepost for future generations of journalists, as she bestows upon the media her unrelenting quest for genuine truth using razor- tongued criticism. She writes, “I don’t believe it is our duty to worship at the shrine of any leader, but to keep the spotlight on them constantly to see whether they are upholding public trust.”