For over 50 years, she had the honor of opening and closing presidential press conferences in the White House, a destiny that her parents, who emigrated from Lebanon in 1890, would never have thought of.
Helen Thomas, who covered every U.S. president John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, is gone.
But who is that lady who made a difference in history?
Her father, Gergios Touma and her mother, Marianne Rawadi, came from Tripoli and could neither read nor write. They first settled in Kentucky where they opened a grocery store and have set in Detroit. They had nine children they have pushed to advanced studies. Helen attended the University of Wayne where, by supporting the drafting of the Gazette of the campus, she decides she will become journalist. After graduation, she started to tackle Washington. In 1961, she becomes the UPI correspondent in the White House and gets the privilege of asking the first question to the Head of State during his press conferences. And the statement “Thank you Mr. President” whereby which she used to close the sessions, became famous.
Nevertheless, this honor had never prevented her from grilling all heads of state, without exception, including George W. Bush about whom she said “he was the worst American president”. And President Bush ended up not answering her questions. Still, her reputation, personality and strong character were not affected in any way; her beliefs were not either.
Helen Thomas did not hesitate to ask hard-President Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal, just after she was praised for being the first woman head of the UPI office near the White House. She was also the first woman to be accepted to the prestigious Gridirion Club exclusively reserved for men, after President John Kennedy had refused to attend the annual dinner of the club if it continued to exclude women.
Her omnipresence in the “press room” of the White House earned her the appellation of “Seated Buddha” and the “First Lady of the press”.
However, even in the absence of strict security measures, there was a gentlemen’s agreement for journalists to keep secret “presidential escapades” she always said.
Helen Thomas did not spare neither her fellow journalists, those who supported the war against Iraq after September 11 nor those persecuting Bill Clinton on behalf of the extreme right. She never ceased to have a sharp tongue, pushing itself to cause her resignation in May 2010, in response to a question about Israel, in conjunction with a celebration at the White House; she had said that the Israelis were to be “out of Palestine”.
“Remember that these people (the Palestinians) are living under occupation and that it is their land,” she said. “They (the Jews) can go home, Poland, Germany, the United States or elsewhere.”
In 1971, she married a colleague from the rival agency, AP, Douglas Cornell, who died in 1982.
An icon of American journalism and a proud Arab American, Thomas has written hundreds of columns and five books.
She had to retire from life at the age of 92 on July 20, 2013
We have honored her at TAKREEM in 2011 where we still recall the standing ovations.
To her memory we bow for she impacted our lives…