For more than half a century, Helen Thomas owned the most valuable piece of real estate in the White House briefing room. Her front-row seat at presidential press conferences and its attendant benefits—she was often called on first and usually ended the gatherings with a signature “Thank you, Mr. President”—made her the unofficial dean of the White House press corps. Her bold, irksome questions were like hot pokers to 10 U.S. presidents, and her fearless approach rattled press secretaries and set a tone for generations of straight-shooting, badgering reporters.
Last summer, still working full-time at 89, she saw her decades-long career fall to pieces after a two-minute video clip went viral on YouTube. A Long Island rabbi and blogger visiting the White House turned his camera on Thomas on May 27 and asked for “any comments on Israel.” Thomas instantly shot back, “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” adding that the Jews “can go home” to “Poland, Germany and America and everywhere else.” Endless media outrage ensued, prompting Thomas to issue an apology and abruptly “resign” from Hearst Newspapers on June 7. Her speaking agency dropped her, journalism schools and organizations rescinded awards named in her honor and she lost that prized seat in the White House.
Thomas’s comments were not a complete shock to those who follow her. In recent years she practically scolded presidents and their gatekeepers for favoring Israel. She had previously asked the White House about Israel’s “secret” nuclear arsenal and why President Obama did not condemn last May’s Israeli attacks on the aid flotilla headed for Gaza.
Born August 4, 1920, Thomas herself is of Arab descent. She was the seventh of nine children born in Winchester, Kentucky to Syrian-born emigrants from Tripoli, Lebanon. Her family soon moved to Detroit, where her father ran a grocery store even though he couldn’t read or write in English. News was often a topic around the house, and after college Thomas landed a job as a girl Friday at a Washington, D.C. newspaper toward the end of World War II. That led her to the copy desk and a cub reporter position and eventually to a job covering government bureaucracy for the wire service United Press International. She remained at UPI for much of her career. As White House correspondent from the Kennedy administration on, Thomas had unusual prominence despite standing just under five feet tall.
Famously direct, Thomas was especially forceful with George W. Bush, whom she once called “the worst president in American history.” She was relentless about getting him to explain his decision to go to war in Iraq, asking over and over, “What was your real reason? What was it? Why did you go to war?” His minions promptly moved Thomas to the back row of the briefing room.
Thomas now writes a column for the Falls Church News-Press in Virginia. She still wakes early to read various newspapers delivered to her door, and she’s still out many nights talking politics at favorite D.C. haunts.
Contributing Editor David Hochman got the idea to call Thomas to see if she wanted to talk. “She picked up the phone and said yes immediately,” he says. “I think she really appreciated the opportunity to do a long-format Q&A to express her side of what happened.”
Based in Los Angeles, Hochman flew to Washington to meet Thomas at her apartment near Dupont Circle. They also broke bread at her favorite Palestinian restaurant. “I was curious whether I’d find the ranting woman from the YouTube video,” Hochman says. “She turned out to be a person in full possession of her faculties and impressively articulate. Mostly she was the Thomas the public has known forever: feisty, passionate and not afraid to speak up.” Does Hochman, who is Jewish, believe Thomas is an anti-Semite? “I’ll let the reader decide. But I did think it was amusing when she presented a plate of ham sandwiches and then said, ‘Oh, I hope I haven’t served the wrong thing.’”