What Helen Thomas Really Thought of First Ladies she Covered

United Press International reporter Helen Thomas stands in front of the White House West Wing, 1962. (Corbis)

United Press International reporter Helen Thomas stands in front of the White House West Wing, 1962. (Corbis)

For nearly an entire half a century, United Press International reporter Helen Thomas, who died yesterday at age 92, covered the White House. To those outside of the Washington political and social scene she was best known as the “dean’ of the White House press corps, often being called on to ask the first question to the President and always marking the end of the press conference by piping up, “Thank you Mr. President.”

Helen Thomas in the White House press room, at the end of her reporting career.

Helen Thomas in the White House press room, at the end of her reporting career.

Just as important as her ruthless, sometimes eviscerating policy-related questions shot straight out to the Chief Executive, however, were her feature stories and exclusive interviews with their wives.

Over the course of my own work as an author, historian and freelance journalist covering the White House, I had many a conversation – and occasionally a confrontation, with Helen Thomas.

To my mind, she represented non-partisanship in an era of the Golden Era of Bipartisanship that was nearly gone by the time we first met, when I came to Washington to pursue a history and journalism degree at George Washington University during the first Reagan Administration.

Which is to say, she was even-handed in expressing cynicism or trust in reaction to what First Ladies and their husbands told her, regardless of their political party.

Unlike many of her fellow White House Press Corps journalists, nobody who lived in the White House intimidated Helen Thomas.

Exactly two weeks after becoming First Lady, Barbara Bush granted an interview to Helen Thomas in the White House family quarters. (Corbis)

Exactly two weeks after becoming First Lady, Barbara Bush granted an interview to Helen Thomas in the White House family quarters. (Corbis)

Not even Barbara Bush.

When she became First Lady in 1989, Bush began to fear that her naturally candid political opinions and sharp tongue would make headlines which overshadowed press coverage of serious issues being generated by the President.

She bluntly told reporters they were not allowed to ask her political questions and rebuked them when they did, once even wrapping a reporter on the head for violating her rule.

Barbara Bush, however, found her match in Helen Thomas.

Helen Thomas was having none of it: “Ah, c’mon. We know she’s got strong opinions. She’s shutting herself up just to be loyal to him.”

Barbara Bush with Helen Thomas.

Barbara Bush with Helen Thomas.

Once the U.S. invaded Panama in 1991, Helen Thomas saw an opportunity and grabbed it at a  seemingly off-the-record luncheon with some of the regular reporters who covered First Ladies.

She provoked Mrs. Bush with questions about the legality of going after its dictator Manuel Noriega there,  playing on the First Lady’s dogged loyalty to her husband. And Helen Thomas got what she wanted: Bush let lose a fury of near-expletives about Noriega and Thomas used the chance to question her opinion about women being permitted into U.S. military combat. Heated by the Panama questions, Mrs. Bush bluntly blurted out her support for it and Thomas got her scoop.  “She’s tough. Very political,” she said about Bush. “She can be a wise-…you-know-what, even about herself.”

It took me a few years before I had the temerity to ask Helen Thomas for an interview during research for my book First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives & Their Power, the second volume, which focused on the years 1961 to 1989, covering the First Ladies she had known. Her praise or criticism for each ran counter to my pre-conceived notions of how she might respond.

In her capacity as president of the Women's National Press Club, Helen Thomas hosted First Lady Mamie Eisenhower's 1959 birthday party, an event which helped  in the fight to provide women reporters with more access to cover political events strictly covered by male reporters. (Corbis)

As Women’s National Press Club president, Helen Thomas hosted Mamie Eisenhower’s 1959 birthday party,. (Corbis)

“Mamie Eisenhower was a reporter’s dream. Se never stopped talking. Almost like she was gossiping, but I noticed she was always looking around to see who might be listening. She knew how to get around a topic she didn’t want to discuss. Now I think that Mamie was actually a feminist who didn’t know she was – and would never want to be called that. But she was always concerned about supporting women of the press. She always came out to our fundraising events which helped our status as women reporters trying to be treated equally with men, but she also got the President to attend one of our events for the first time, which really raised our status. If she realized her wider political statement, she never let herself let on. Especially to me.”

“Fran [Lewine, her friend and rival at the Associated Press] and I used to joke about writing a book called We Got Arrested by Jackie Kennedy,” she cracked when it came to the often sainted First Lady she never ceased to enjoy skewering.

Helen Thomas with her good friend and professional rival Fran Lewine on the White House South Lawn, 1970. (Corbis)

Helen Thomas with her good friend and professional rival Fran Lewine on the White House South Lawn, 1970. (Corbis)

“No, you didn’t,” I shot back. She shrugged. “Well, we were detained by the Secret Service because Jackie got sick of us trailing her on the weekends when she went down to go foxhunting.”

Helen later sent me a copy of a snapshot someone took which showed her and Lewine staring down Mrs. Kennedy as she emerged from a Sunday mass at a contemporary-designed church in Virginia, just before they were detained.

She was proud of it, and was grateful to Jackie for doing it. “It made a great story itself. She put us on the map. Even though she hated us!”

Rosalynn Carter chairing presidential Mental Health Commission

Rosalynn Carter chairing presidential Mental Health Commission, 1977.

Despite the contrast in their personalities and interpretation of their roles as First Ladies, both Rosalynn Carter and Nancy Reagan earned her high regard: “Mrs. Reagan was always very open when I asked her even personal questions about all the conflicts she had with her daughter and Reagan’s two kids by his first marriage. Her voice would catch, she would hesitate and roll her eyes at me or sigh. She didn’t want to answer – but she answered.

Mrs. Carter, she believed, “accomplished more than almost any First Lady but yet never made any effort to take credit or be honored or praised for any of it. She was really in it to help people. But she lost out on public relations.”

My taped interview with Helen Thomas was difficult to transcribe because it had to be conducted while we were walking between the White House, where we had pre-arranged to meet outside the west gates near the press office and the UPI offices. Two follow-ups were over the phone. I never formally interviewed her about Hillary Clinton, but our dialogue on First Ladies did continue.

Helen Thomas and Hillary Clinton. (Clinton Presidential Library)

Helen Thomas and Hillary Clinton. (Clinton Presidential Library)

Over lunch during the Lewinsky scandal, she expressed a rare empathy for one of the powerful she was in the business of pulling down a peg or two.

She’d had a heated conversation with a fellow woman reporter, she told me, who insisted that Hillary would do women a disservice by remaining in the White House after the President admitted to adultery.

“Why should she?” Helen fumed. “She put aside her own career to help get him into the presidency. She wouldn’t be walking away from just a person but from all of her own hard work and effort.”

It was a subtle point that seemed lost on all but those old-timers in the White House Press Corps who had the perspective to recognize the complexities within presidential marriages.

Despite her later reputation for holding to harsh opinions as a columnist, rather than a reporter, I found that Helen Thomas was quite capable of grasping the nuances of compromise which power requires.

Helen Thomas in white, leans back and writes in her notebook while covering President Kennedy in the Oval Office. (JFK LIbrary)

Helen Thomas in white, leans back and writes in her notebook while covering President Kennedy in the Oval Office. (JFK LIbrary)

A year earlier, after a White House book party which Mrs. Clinton hosted upon publication of my  oral history biography of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Helen Thomas had waited to speak with me just beneath the columns of the North Portico. I was sure she was going to criticize the lecture I’d just given. I was wrong. Instead, she raised a topics I’d discussed, Mrs. Kennedy’s own pursuit of professional journalism being thwarted by her deciding to marry. “I never realized that side of her,” she offered. “It made me wonder if she was a little jealous of even all us poor girls because we still got to write for a living.”

And then she paused, and made another observation about a President she had never previously found much fault with: “I wonder if her husband ever fully appreciated what she could have become, or had any inkling how she would change.”

Interviewing President Ford in Vail, Colorado at the end of 1974. (Corbis)

Interviewing President Ford in Vail, Colorado at the end of 1974. (Corbis)

A year later, I was honored to be invited by former President Gerald Ford to join in a conference sponsored by his presidential library on the role of women in politics, a fellow panelists being Helen Thomas. During the first half of dinner the night before,  she recounted just what she believed Betty Ford might have accomplished had she been given a full four years more as First Lady – if only her husband had not lost the 1976 election!

President Ford took it all in stride; it even seemed that he’d never seen his loss quite through the perspective Helen Thomas was offering him.

And then, during the second half of dinner Helen Thomas grilled him unrelentingly about the validity of the Warren Commission on the assassination of President Kennedy, of which he was a member.

Ford wearily defended the final report, Thomas questioning every stated fact. She did not believe in the one-gunman theory.

Former First Lady Johnson with Helen Thomas.

Former First Lady Johnson with Helen Thomas.

“Don’t worry,” the former President sighed, smiling as everyone rose at the end of dinner, “I’m used to having my conclusions questioned at home.”

Also among the panelists was a mutual friend to Helen Thomas and myself, the wisecracking Texan and former press secretary to Lady Bird Johnson, Liz Carpenter. “Lady Bird Johnson really understood the needs of the press and was the most cooperative with us because she’d been trained in journalism and she hired Liz who knew what editors needed.”

Helen Thomas would maintain a friendship with both Liz and Lady Bird long after the LBJ presidency ended, but it didn’t keep the reporter from also praising this First Lady for being “a pretty good actress too. She could exaggerate words and gestures to imply her real opinion – which let her carefully avoid ever saying it for the record.

Helen Thomas declared that Pat Nixon was the most warmly genuinely of the First Ladies she covered, the one she believed had a public persona that was closest to who she was as a private person.

Pat Nixon calling up Helen Thomas and Doug Cornell onto a podium to announce their engagement.

Pat Nixon calling up Helen Thomas and Doug Cornell onto a podium to announce their engagement.

In 1971, when Mrs. Nixon learned that she had become quietly engaged to a fellow reporter Doug Cornell, the First Lady couldn’t help scooping Helen Thomas, and not only announced the impending marriage but hosted a White House party for the couple.

A woman in pants. (Corbis)

A woman in pants. (Corbis)

The unusually cordial relationship between subject and reporter was all the more unlikely because Helen Thomas had such an antagonistic one with President Nixon as his Administration went on, but not just over her famously confrontational questions to him about Watergate – but also about women wearing pants.

When Helen Thomas dared to become the first woman to appear in pants at a White House press conference, Nixon made a point of calling it out in front of the other reporters, more as an unfortunate oddity of modern times than a compliment.

Pat Nixon at center with the women's press corps who covered First Ladies, Helen Thomas standing at far left.

Pat Nixon at center with the women’s press corps who covered First Ladies, Helen Thomas standing at far left.

Helen Thomas later told his wife about this, and according to the reporter she heard Mrs. Nixon gripe under her breath, “Oh, brother,” but decided not to report the incident and lose the First Lady’s trust.

Still, as an intrepid reporter covering Watergate, Helen Thomas may well have fueled the scandal into a bizarre direction and alienated the trust of the presidential family.

She did this simply by taking the wee hour phone calls from the estranged wife of of former Nixon Attorney General on Mitchell, then embroiled in the growing scandal in his later role as chairman of the Committee to Re-Elect the President.

His wife, now largely forgotten, was the blond-coiffed, hard-drinking, and flamboyant Martha Mitchell.

Helen Thomas and her husband with Martha Mitchell.

Helen Thomas and her husband with Martha Mitchell.

Her tales of being seized by F.B.I. agents, rough-handled and locked into a California motel room, drugged and trying to escape over the balcony were reported in colorful detail by Helen Thomas, verbatim from Martha’s phone calls.

Martha Mitchell in the center of Watergate media frenzy.

Martha Mitchell in the center of Watergate media frenzy.

Martha Mitchell’s further claims that President Nixon was lying about his knowledge of the break-in and attempted robbery at the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel, to obtain damaging files on the party’s leaders made global headlines and created serious perceptional damage for the Administration.

Helen Thomas insisted to me years after the fact that, as a pin she still had from that era, proclaimed, “Martha was Right.”

Helen Thomas in her White House press cubicle, 1982. (Corbis)

Helen Thomas in her White House press cubicle, 1982. (Corbis)

My own initial phone calls to Helen Thomas at her Calvert Street apartment, a building which took in a sweeping view of Washington’s Rock Creek Park, however, had been seemingly ignored. They certainly went unanswered. “Why’d you call there?” she snapped, when she finally returned several more messages I left for her, this time at her office. “I’m never at that place.”

Widowed, without children and with at least one devoted niece who lived in Detroit, Helen Thomas practically lived at the White House, operating out of the press room there.

I’ll never forget my surprise while biking home from along the national mall, and spying Helen just exiting the security gate which led to the path which led to the grungy old press room.  It was summertime, a beautiful late June evening when the sun lasts long, but twilight was setting in.

Helen Thomas at her desk and typewriter in the White House, 1962. (Corbis)

Helen Thomas at her desk and typewriter in the White House, 1962. (Corbis)

“Having a good time?” she asked, glancing at me in a tee-shirt and shorts when I biked up to say hello.

“It’s been an amazing day. Are you still working? It’s so late,” I responded.

“I’m going to die with my boots on. Working,” she snapped back.Just then the night floodlights of the White House came on. She turned for a brief moment to notice, then looked at me, wordless, then kept walking ahead, on her own way.

I vividly remember the image that night of her small, dark shadow of those bright white lights, trudging  alone steadily between the glowing, mammoth symbol which meant so much to so many people for all different reason on her right, and broad Pennsylvania Avenue on her left.

Helen Thomas relished her front-row seat at press conferences for a half-century of Presidents and First Ladies.

Helen Thomas relished her front-row seat at press conferences for a half-century of Presidents and First Ladies.


Categories: First Ladies, History, The Eisenhowers, The Kennedys, The LBJs

Tags: , , , , , , ,

12 replies »

  1. Fine article–a great way to start my day. I especially like the way you conclude it. There’s something really fine about the juxtaposition of images here: the vista of Rock Creek Park and the empty apartment; the bike ride home at dusk (I can feel that languid motionless summer air being exhaled by the Potomac as you pass through it); the chance meeting of journalists old and young, fragile and vigorous, in that chance after-hours setting. Despite the monolithic nature of the architectural icons you describe, it is the people you portray living and moving and working among them which really grip the attention. I never thought of Helen Thomas as being vulnerable and even unguarded in her very doggedness before, but that is how she seems to me in this vignette particularly. You also make me nostalgic for Washington, that cynical but disarmingly lovely place, some of whose spirit I think you capture here most vividly, without even trying.

    • As always, massive thanks for reading the piece so closely. Yet again, you managed to pull out the string of words from the soup and actually saw and felt the visual impression one always hopes others might detect – and yet you have not exposed the buried utility lines. You were either a psychologist, a teacher of writers or we are related by blood somehow. Not the first time you’ve pulled that string of words and uncovered the chip placed in the mosaic. For anyone to do that with the writing of another person requires the honor of time – so I am grateful again on many levels. Does all that make sense? Thank you.

  2. There was Helen, there was Sarah McLendon and then…there were all the rest.

    • Well said Kevin. And I recently read an oral history that Sarah did. Life was not easy for many of these women. And even more difficult if one had children. The wages were insulting, but they loved “word,” the art of telling the news as a story. There is one other contemporary of Helen and Sarah. Her name is Trude Feldman. She too has struggled mightily, now nearly 90. All these women reporters covering the White House ever did was….work.

  3. can you show us the photo she sent about being detained by Mrs. kennedy

  4. A remarkable woman. What are your thoughts about her being forced to retire from her position with Hearst Newspapers because of the controversial remark she made that Israel should get the hell out of Palestine? It certainly wasn’t the first harsh remark that ever came out of her mouth on controversial and current issues. It was not secret that she has been a staunch supporter of Palestine for years. For me, her greatest legacy was that she wasn’t afraid to ask the tough questions.

    • Well I think that first of all, her entire career is what counts and not the controversial incident at the end of it. Helen Thomas was so intelligent about the smallest details of any issue – that is fascinating in and of itself – but she could also apply it to the larger picture of any domestic or foreign matter. I also think what many have failed to remember is that her career as a straight and fair and balanced Reporter had ended when UPI was sold. Her remarks were made in the latter part of her career when she was a Columnist, a role where she was expected to express an opinion. I had originally written a lengthy response to you analyzing her Palestinian-Israeli remarks but in doing so, I was wading nto matters far more complex that I have the informational facts readily at hand to comment on with full intelligence, so I deleted it! Anyway thank you again bookpeeps for your contributory remarks!

      • I agree and could not have said it better It was one moment in her 50+ year career. Sorry you had to delete your further comments after taking the time to write them, but I applaud your conscience not feeling right about it, given you don’t have the informational facts. A rarity in our society. Have a good week.

  5. *Great* story! Very enjoyable Sunday evening read, and you brought up one of my favorite White House characters, Martha Mitchell. I still remember her accent when she would appear on afternoon talk shows. Once again, great article, Carl!

  6. Well, I’ve never been a psychologist exactly, though I have taught writing and some other things. Meanwhile, we really ought to look into our family histories and compare notes–we might be surprised at what we’d find! For my part, I’m so happy you take the time to research and write and share these tremendous articles with the rest of us. The mechanics of how you do that so effectively is probably not for me to decipher very accurately (that’s part of the charm of your work), but often I am struck by some particular aspect of what you’ve said, and how you’ve said it. Not always do we have a chance to discuss such things with the author himself, in this case also a friend, and I’m sure all of your readers who comment here are as glad as I am to have the opportunity to do it. That image of your encounter with Helen Thomas in the Washington June evening should really stay with me for the duration.

Trackbacks

  1. A True Journalist! | Another World In Provincetown
  2. Pat Nixon: First-Generation German-American & Her Lincoln Assassination Link « Carl Anthony Online
  3. Cryptoquote Spoiler – 09/05/13 | Unclerave's Wordy Weblog
%d bloggers like this: