Helen Thomas: The Lady Was a "Watchdog"

By:  Jack Kenny
Helen Thomas: The Lady Was a "Watchdog"

White House Correspondent Helen Thomas, the tough "watchdog" reporter, died on Saturday at the age of 92.

"I'm not a lady, I'm a reporter" was the Helen Thomas (shown in photo with President Obama) retort at being told ladies were not allowed at President Jimmy Carter's Bible class. Thomas, the tough and wizened White House reporter who died Saturday at 92, grew up in a world where "ladies" and reporters were two very separate, even mutually exclusive, categories. As a pioneer in the world of journalism, Thomas achieved a number of "firsts," becoming the first woman assigned to the White House full time by a news service; the first woman to be elected an officer of the White House Correspondents' Association and the first to serve as its president; the first woman elected to the Gridiron Club, a bastion of male journalists for 90 years; the first female officer of the National Press Club.

But throughout her career until its controversial end in 2010 when she was still a working columnist at age 89, Thomas stood out from among her press corps colleagues in ways more significant than age or gender. During times when many reporters and most major news organizations were content to receive and report the official line on current events, Thomas demanded to know the truth behind facile White House explanations. In Watchdogs of Democracy?, one of the four books she authored, Thomas took many of her fellow journalists to task for their willingness to accept the rationale offered by President George W. Bush and members of his administration for the war in Iraq that began in 2003 and lasted for nearly nine years. She was not noticeably bashful about confronting President Bush with the fact that the reasons given for the invasion of the country and the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime — primarily the claim that Iraq possessed and was further developing "weapons of mass destruction" — had proved untrue. 

After she told another reporter in 2003 she was covering "the worst president in American history," Thomas apologized for the indiscretion. Bush accepted the apology but did not recognize her for a question at presidential press conferences for the next three years, despite her front-row prominence and her status as the unofficial "dean" of the White House press corps. When he did finally call on her, he probably wished he hadn't, as her words were as much an indictment as a question.

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