Niagara Gazette — It was 15 years ago when I covered Helen Thomas, the legendary White House correspondent, a guest speaker at Niagara County Community College.
After the program, when all the students had returned to their classrooms, Ms. Thomas invited me to sit for an extended interview in the front row — a spot familiar to her — of the nearly empty auditorium. In retrospect, it was one of the most rewarding experiences I ever had as a reporter. She was down-to-earth, personable, witty, and obviously with a storehouse of knowledge about the 10 presidents she had covered as a half-century member of the Washington press corps. She relished sharing those memorable moments, as evidenced by the constant sparkle in her dark eyes.
I thought more about it when I heard the news Monday that Thomas, who had covered 10 presidents since joining the Washington press corps in 1961, had died at age 92.
Though people sometimes mocked out her looks, the short lady with the harsh voice coveted that front-row seat at the presidential news conferences for nearly 30 years. For a number of years, she had the privilege of asking the first question as well as closing the session with the formal “Thank you, Mr. President.”
That day at NCCC, she recalled her first brush with journalism was on the high school newspaper in Detroit. Later, she was on the staff of The Daily Collegian at Wayne State University. At age 22, she landed a job as a copy girl at the Washington Daily News for $17.50 a week. “My duties included fetching coffee for the editors in the morning but I would have swept the floors, if they told me,” said the woman destined to gain a reputation for badgering presidents until they answered her questions. One obituary writer called her “feisty,” which she would consider a compliment.
Ms. Thomas also remembered starting to work with the old United Press wire service when the restaurant nearby — a place reporters liked to gather on a break —would allow blacks to place takeout orders but they weren’t allowed to sit inside. (Hard to believe in the nation’s capital.) Also in that era, women were not allowed to join the National Press Club.
The dean of the White House correspondents leaned back in her seat and ticked off some priceless anecdotes. Fortunately, I saved my notes. Some quotes from that March day in 1998.
• JACKIE KENNEDY: Thomas was told that the First Lady actually asked if there was any way the president could get her (Helen) out of his hair and off the White House beat, preferably to an assignment overseas.
• MISS LILLIAN: (President Carter’s mother): In an interview with Thomas, she told the journalist: “Sometimes when I look at my children, I wish I’d remained a virgin.”
• BILL MOYERS: (An ordained Baptist minister who served as President Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary): Thomas said that Moyers was saying grace at a White House dinner one night. With his head bent and praying in a low voice, people could hardly hear him. “Speak up, Bill, LBJ commanded in his surly style. “I wasn’t talking to you, Mr. President,” Moyers replied.
• JOHN F. KENNEDY: “He was my favorite of the presidents I covered,” Thomas said, “He understood the past and cared about the future. After all, who else set a goal to land on the moon in a decade?”
• GEORGE H.W. BUSH: The Berlin Wall had fallen, the Soviet Union had collapsed and communism was vanishing in Europe. Bush walked into the pressroom to announce that his defense budget, nearly $290 billion, was the same as last year. “Who’s the enemy?” Miss Thomas asked.
• ON ADVICE: “It’s like I say to young people who ask me about going into journalism. If you want to be loved, don’t go into this business” — Helen Thomas, in her book, “Front Row at the White House.”Contact reporter Don Glynn at 282-2311, ext. 2246.