By Monica Kast
In 1992, Helen Thomas spoke at Western Kentucky University. Listen to her speech below, where she talks about covering every administration since John F. Kennedy, and why she was committed to learning and writing about the truth.
One cannot write about female political journalists without including the longest serving member of the press corps, Helen Thomas.
Thomas was born in Winchester, Kentucky, in 1920. Thomas would become a trailblazer for journalists, covering every president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama. Thomas was the longest serving White House journalist. She died in 2013 at the age of 92.
After moving to Washington D.C., Thomas started writing for the Washington Daily News. A few years later, she began working for the United Press International in 1943, covering “local, female-oriented stories,” according to an article from CNN. In 1955, she was assigned to report on the Department of Justice and was later promoted to White House Correspondent in 1960. Thomas quickly made her name as the “First Lady of the Press,” known for sitting in the front row and asking pointed questions of press secretaries and presidents.
She was the first woman to join the White House Correspondents’ Association, and would go on to be the first female president of the group, according to an article in Politico written after Thomas’ death.
In 1962, Thomas again made strides for female journalists when she pressed Kennedy to not attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner until women were allowed to attend, according to an article from CNN. Kennedy suggested combining the dinners that were still separated by gender, and thus, women were allowed to attend alongside their male co-workers.
In 1970, Thomas was named United Press International’s chief White House Correspondent, the first female to be the chief White House Correspondent for any wire service, according to CNN. Thomas would continue writing for United Press International until 2000, when she resigned and began writing as a columnist for Hearst Papers, according to Politico.
In 1992, Thomas spoke at Western Kentucky University and talked about covering different presidents and why she was seemingly unafraid in front of presidents.
“I guess I don’t have to tell you that I rarely waste my sympathy on presidents,” Thomas said in the speech. “That’s because I think that they enjoy one of the greatest honors that can come to anyone – and that is the trust of the American people. Irreverence is the way we play this game.”
At that same event, Thomas talked about covering various presidents, and specifically mentioned covering Richard Nixon during his resignation.
“I can assure you, there is no joy in the fall from grace of any president, shattering of all good faith in our country,” Thomas said. “On the other hand, there is some satisfaction in knowing that no man, not even a president, is above the law.”
Thomas also reflected on covering Gerald Ford, who Thomas said made a “crack” at her and her questioning style.
“I remember Gerald Ford’s crack at me, that ‘If God had created the world in six days, on the seventh day, he could not have rested. He would have had to explain it to Helen Thomas,’” she said. “I hope I would have been asking my favorite question – ‘Why?’”
Thomas’ career was not without controversy, however. Her career as a White House correspondent came to an end in 2010, when “she told a rabbi that Jewish settlers should ‘get the hell out of Palestine’ and go back to ‘Poland, Germany, America and everywhere else,’” according to the Washington Post. After those comments surfaced in a YouTube video, Thomas apologized and resigned from Hearst Papers.
Despite that controversy, Thomas was still remembered fondly after her death. Then-president Obama released a statement, saying:
“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. She covered every White House since President Kennedy’s, and during that time, she never failed to keep presidents – myself included – on their toes.”
Obama went on to say that Thomas was a well-respected journalist because of “her fierce belief that our democracy works best when we ask tough questions and hold our leaders to account.”
At WKU in 1992, Thomas said something similar about why she worked to hold leaders accountable.
“I’ve always considered myself greatly privileged to cover the White House and to be a witness to instant history,” Thomas said. “I’ve watched presidents with their highs and lows, their ups and downs, their triumphs and defeats, and I’ve always thought of the presidency as the top of the mark – ain’t no other place to go. Therefore, a man or a woman in that job should only want to do right for all mankind.”
After her death, White House Correspondents’ Association President Steve Thomma issued a similar statement:
“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. All of our journalism is the better for it.”
In the end, perhaps Thomas herself could best summarize why she was so hard on politicians in power. Speaking at WKU, Thomas said journalists are “not looking for trouble; we must be ever-watchful.” Thomas said the American public relies on journalists to tell them the truth.
“I believe that people can handle the truth, and they deserve no less,” she said.