Helen Thomas Pioneered -- and Fought To The End

White House correspondent Helen Thomas remained a perceptive and outspoken commentator until nearly to the end of her life July 20.

I saw this first-hand on several recent occasions at the National Press Club, where she was the first female officer after the club accepted women as members in 1971.

Profiles of her career following her death focused on her pioneering efforts to help female journalists overcome blatant discrimination. Largely overlooked or oversimplified was her fighting spirit on other social issues even at an advanced age and after being forced into retirement.

At age 92 last December, Thomas delivered a passionate, incisive lecture to the press club's Sarah McClendon Group, a speaker society named in honor of another pioneering White House correspondent. 

Helen ThomasThomas said the country is endangered by what she called government leaders' greed, fear, and subservience to war-mongers. 

“I came here in 1943,” she told a dinner audience of 30, “and I don’t think I’ve ever seen our country so bereft of ideals and ideas. I don’t see anything on the horizon that can pull us out. I hope I’m wrong.” Shown at left in a 2009 photo courtesy of Wikipedia, she described current leaders as weak and selfish.

The self-described liberal doled out criticism to all sides.

“Republicans,” she said, “have one goal: To get Obama. But when they see the country falling apart, that’s all they can do?" 

“As for Obama,” she continued, “I think he’s weak. He has no courage.” She said the country urgently needs “a stand-up guy who’ll do the right thing.”

What are some examples?

“The first priority should be jobs.” Also, “Make people pay their taxes, and stop the wars.” She estimated at least 700 U.S. military bases around the world. “We’re killing all of these people [in undeclared wars]. Why? Is it any surprise that people will fight back for their country? There’s no doubt we want to eliminate Iran. Why wouldn’t they want to defend themselves?”

She was using a wheelchair by the time of another McClendon Group lecture this spring. I sat next to her and swapped perceptions about the White House, including several of my research discoveries for my book this summer covering a century of chief executives, Presidential Puppetry. I was most interested in her unique vantage point to history, of course, but also revealed several of my research discoveries about President Obama's hidden past that tended to explain her overall assessment.

The end of her career came after an ambush video interview in 2010 in which she questioned why Jewish immigrants from Europe should have more rights in Israel than Palestinians. That provoked a huge protest. She made abject but fruitless apologies in a desperate effort to keep her job, literary agent, and previously awarded honors.

More generally, she advocated the now-conventional wisdom that women journalists should have equal opportunity. Her longtime allies in the fight for women's rights when it was not popular included two Justice Integrity Project directors, former National Press Club President Robert Ames Alden, right, and McClendon Group Chairman John Edward Hurley, left, who has chaired for a quarter century the speaker group named in McClendon's honor.

Beyond women's issues, Thomas was a rare voice in the White House media for the downtrodden. Her independence was an ongoing, implicit rebuke to those in the press corps who conform to a go-along, get-along mode of career-building.

Her hard-hitting comments quoted at the beginning of this column provide the kind of analysis that many in the public increasingly realize is missing from mainstream news coverage. In comments virtually ignored by the mainstream media last week, former President Jimmy Carter -- the last U.S. president who was a career military officer before politics -- praised NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and said, according to a translation by Germany's largest newspaper, that the United States “has no functioning democracy.” 

The headlines for the Thomas obituary stress that she prevailed on women's rights. The full story is she raised common sense questions about many issues. As result, her end is not "the end."   

Contact the author Andrew Kreig or comment


The McClendon Group will devote its July 31 meeting at the National Press Club to a discussion of how the independent reporting typified by Thomas has diminished in Washington's mainstream media. I'll be among the speakers discussing how Thomas and Dan Rather were targeted on hoked up controversie and removed from their jobs.

The public is wecome to the round-table discussion, which begins at 7 p.m. and is preceded by a dutch-treat dinner at 6:30. Contact me for details, including free parking at a designated lot.

"Those of us who are familiar with the many decades of White House reporting have noticed with dismay that an obvious requirement of current reporting is that it must not rankle the power structure," commented John Hurley in announcing the dinner. "If this requirement is ignored independent thinking reporters are fast removed from the public scene. This session will deal with practitioners of the reporting arts who have felt the squeeze and have personally experienced over the years how they have been isolated from the major media pool."



Related News Coverage

New York Times, Helen Thomas, Barrier-Busting White House Reporter, Is Dead at 92, David Stout, July 20, 2013. Ms. Thomas covered every president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama, but her career ended ignominiously over remarks she made about Israeli Jews. Helen Thomas, whose keen curiosity, unquenchable drive and celebrated constancy made her a trailblazing White House correspondent in a press corps dominated by men and later the dean of the White House briefing room, died Saturday at home in Washington. She was 92. Her death, which came after a long illness, was announced by the Gridiron Club. Ms. Thomas was a past president of that organization. Ms. Thomas, shown at right in a 2009 White House photo, covered every president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama for United Press International and, later, Hearst Newspapers. To her colleagues, she was the unofficial but undisputed head of the press corps — her status ratified by the signature line she uttered at the end of every White House news conference, “Thank you, Mr. President.” Her blunt questions and sharp tone made her a familiar personality not only in the parochial world inside the Washington Beltway but also to nationwide television audiences. At his first news conference in February 2009, Mr. Obama called on her, saying: “Helen, I’m excited. This is my inaugural moment.” But 16 months later, Ms. Thomas abruptly announced her retirement from Hearst amid an uproar over her assertion that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and go back where they belonged, perhaps Germany or Poland.  Her remarks, made almost offhandedly days earlier at a White House event, set off a storm when a videotape was posted. In her retirement announcement, Ms. Thomas, whose parents immigrated to the United States from what is now Lebanon, said that she deeply regretted her remarks  and that they did not reflect her “heartfelt belief” that peace would come to the Middle East only when all parties embraced“mutual respect and tolerance.” “May that day come soon,” she said.

AP via Huffington Post, 80 Percent Of U.S. Adults Face Near-Poverty, Unemployment: Survey, Hope Yen, July 28, 2013. Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream. Survey data exclusive to The Associated Press points to an increasingly globalized U.S. economy, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs as reasons for the trend. Hardship is particularly growing among whites, based on several measures. Pessimism among that racial group about their families' economic futures has climbed to the highest point since at least 1987. In the most recent AP-GfK poll, 63 percent of whites called the economy "poor."

Catching Our Attention on other Justice, Media & Integrity Issues

Prosecuting Leakers

FireDoglake, President Carter Supports Snowden, Says America Does Not Have A Functioning Democracy, DSWright, July 19, 2013. Former President Jimmy Carter, in an interview with Der Spiegel, said he supported whistleblower Edward Snowden and that the NSA’s domestic spying program was against American values. Carter, shown at left in a file photo, went on to say he does not believe that America currently has a functioning democracy. See also: Salon, Jimmy Carter: US “has no functioning democracy,” Alberto Riva, July 18, 2013. The former president weighs in on NSA and the future of Internet platforms like Google and Facebook.

Der Spiegel, Greenwald: 'Explosive' NSA Spying Reports Are Imminent, July 19, 2013. Journalist Glenn Greenwald says new reports from the trove of NSA data supplied by whistleblower Edward Snowden can be expected in the next few days. Speaking on a German talkshow, he said they would be even "more explosive in Germany" than previous reporting.

Huffington Post, NSA's Keith Alexander Calls Emergency Private Briefing To Lobby Against Justin Amash Amendment Curtailing Its Power, Ryan Grim and Matt Sledge, July 22, 2013. The National Security Agency called for a "top secret" meeting with members of the House on Tuesday to lobby against the first House amendment to challenge the agency's authority to cull broad swaths of communications data, according to an invitation circulated in Congress. The amendment was authored by Rep. Justin Amash, a libertarian Republican from Michigan, and cosponsored by former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and liberal Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers. The House ruled the amendment in order on Monday, and it is expected to get a vote sometime this week. NSA head Gen. Keith Alexander scheduled a last-minute, members-only briefing in response to the amendment, according to an invitation distributed to members of Congress this morning and forwarded to HuffPost. "In advance of anticipated action on amendments to the DoD Appropriations bill, Ranking Member C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of the House Intelligence Committee invites your Member to attend a question and answer session with General Keith B. Alexander of the National Security Agency," reads the invitation.

Huffington Post, A Verdict, Shame and a Gun, Jeanne Bishop, right, July 23, 2013. Editor's Note: Three of Jeanne Bishop's close relatives were murdered two decades ago in one of Chicago's most sensation crimes of its era. I am a public defender, so I looked at the George Zimmerman trial mostly through the eyes of a criminal defense attorney. It was all about the evidence, proof beyond a reasonable doubt. At the end of the trial, I thought the jurors should acquit. I wasn't surprised when they did. An acquittal is not a vindication of all the defendant did. To my lawyer's mind, it simply meant that the State had failed to meet its heavy burden of proof. I understood the outrage that greeted the verdict, but I didn't feel it myself. That changed when I heard this: George Zimmerman wants his gun back. That is as much an indictment of his character as anything his trial brought out.

Center for American Progress, Adapting to the Future of Intelligence Gathering, Peter Juhl, July 23, 2013. We must ensure inherently governmental intelligence functions remain in public hands. According to a 2010 investigation by the Washington Post, the U.S. government contracted 1,931 private companies to work on counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence programs across the country in that year alone. Of the more than 854,000 people with top-secret security clearances, 265,000 were private contractors. One-third of the CIA’s workforce—10,000 positions—is composed of private contractors, while the NSA contracts with at least 484 companies. According to a 2008 study commissioned by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, private contractors made up 29 percent of the intelligence community’s workforce at a cost equivalent to half of the intelligence community’s personnel budget. That is, private-contractor workers cost significantly more than public-sector workers but do not count against the intelligence community’s personnel budgets.

New York Times, Math Behind the Leak Crackdown: 153 Cases, 4 Years , 0 Indictments, Sharon LaFraniere, July 21, 2013. Dennie Blair, former Director of National Intelligence, requested early in the Obama administration a tally of governmet leakers who had been prosecuted. In the previous four years, the record showed, 153 cases had been referred to the Justice Department. Not one had led to an indictment. That scorecard “was pretty shocking to all of us,” Mr. Blair said. So in a series of phone calls and meetings, he and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. fashioned a more aggressive strategy to punish anyone who leaked national security information that endangered intelligence-gathering methods and sources. “My background is in the Navy, and it is good to hang an admiral once in a while as an example to the others,” said Mr. Blair, who left the administration in 2010. “We were hoping to get somebody and make people realize that there are consequences to this and it needed to stop.”

FireDogLake, Obama’s Hawkish Policy on Leaks Was Adopted to Make an Example Out of Someone, Kevin Gosztola, July 21, 2013. President Barack Obama’s administration has developed a reputation for aggressively prosecuting whistleblowers or individuals responsible for national security leaks. Such a comment from Blair [as in the New York Times article] is significant because critics of Obama’s policy on leaks (including this writer) have suggested the policy on leaks was about making an example out of someone in order to send a message to others in government not to leak or think about blowing the whistle on national security policies or programs. This comment would seem to validate that suggestion. Furthermore, one notices that the “aggressive strategy to punish anyone who leaked national security information” does not seem to have been put together with any interest in whether it was the intent of individuals to “endanger intelligence-gathering methods and sources.” The unauthorized disclosures themselves would be enough to prove that an act had taken place that needed to be punished to the greatest extent possible and create a climate simi lar to what might result if the nation actually had an Official Secrets Act that purely criminalized unauthorized disclosures by security or intelligence employees regardless of intentThe policy adopted by the administration was influenced by former director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, who requested a “tally of the number of government officials or employees who had been prosecuted for leaking national security secrets,” according to the New York Times.

Washington Post, In post-9/11 world, dramatic — but largely hidden — growth at the NSA, Dana Priest, July 21, 2013.  As the need for data on al-Qaeda and other enemies grew, so did the agency’s footprint and influence. The NSA’s footprint grows across the country.

War Is A Crime.org, Gen. Hayden's Snow Job on Snowden - or - Have You Finally No Shame? Ray McGovern, July 21, 2013. Editors Note: Ray McGovern is a former CIA analyst who prepared presidential daily briefings. Official Washington’s national security/mainstream media incest was on scandalous display when ex-NSA chief Michael Hayden posed as a CNN analyst to denounce Edward Snowden for exposing surveillance excesses that Hayden had a hand in creating. Former National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden should not throw any more stones, lest his own glass house be shattered. His barrage Friday against truth-teller Edward Snowden and London Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald invited a return rain of boulders for Hayden committing the same violations of constitutional protections that he is now excusing.

Mideast Wars

New York Times, Pentagon Lays Out Options for U.S. Military Effort in Syria, Mark  Landler and Thom Shanker, July 22, 2013. The Pentagon has provided Congress with its first detailed list of military options to stem the bloody civil war in Syria, suggesting that a campaign to tilt the balance from President Bashar al-Assad to the opposition would be a vast undertaking, costing billions of dollars, and could backfire on the United States. The list of options — laid out in a letter from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, to the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin of Michigan — was the first time the military has explicitly described what it sees as the formidable challenge of intervening in the war. It came as the White House, which has limited its military involvement to supplying the rebels with small arms and other weaponry, has begun implicitly acknowledging that Mr. Assad may not be forced out of power anytime soon.

Guardian, Syrian Sunnis fear Assad regime wants to 'ethnically cleanse' Alawite heartland, Martin Chulov and Mona Mahmood, July 22, 2013. Homs land registry fire and handing out of arms to villagers fuel concerns that an Alawite-Shia enclave is being formed in Syria. Sunni residents in the heartland of Bashar al-Assad's Alawite sect say they are being repeatedly threatened and forced to flee their homes, amid fears that the likely fall of the nearby city of Homs will lead to widespread sectarian cleansing in parts of Syria. Communities of Sunnis that live in the country's coastal stretch and along the so-called Alawite spine that runs south-east towards Damascus claim

C-SPAN, Rep. Frank Wolf: Benghazi Question #5, July 22, 2013. In today’s question(s) about what happened in Benghazi, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) asked: Why was the CIA’s security team repeatedly ordered to “stand down” for more than 30 minutes after the attack began? Where did the order to stop the team from responding originate? Was it directed by the CIA or someone else in Washington? If the team had been allowed to respond immediately, could the lives of Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith been saved? Has anyone been held accountable for preventing the security team for so long? Wolf last week announced his plan to raise questions about what happened in Benghazi during the weeks before Congress breaks for its August recess, noting that the House has just seven days of legislative business before the break.  When it returns in September, the one-year anniversary will be two days away.

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