Helen Thomas’ life was a relentless search for the truth, without fear or favor. It was her calling, profession and duty.
She loved being a journalist, and she strived daily to deliver accurate news to the American people. “If your mother says she loves you,” she was fond of saying, “get a second opinion.”
Helen burned with outrage at injustice. As the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, she was at the receiving end of racism and discrimination growing up in Detroit.
The memory of slurs hurled at her as a child still stung. She decried the racism and segregation she found in Washington, DC in the 1940s, arriving as a young ambitious reporter.
But she was gratified to eventually witness the civil rights transformation, covering Martin Luther King Jr’s march on Washington, and thrilling to Marion Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial.
She pushed fearlessly into the male-dominated press corps, enlisting Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to help advance women in journalism and government. Unpretentious, Helen encouraged young journalists and supported their careers, remaining approachable with a common touch.
She admired the first ladies as women of character and thought they all served the country well — sometimes better than their husbands.
Helen questioned ten presidents during her career. They didn’t like it. She didn’t care. When she was moved to the back of the White House pressroom and her questions ignored, she remained tenacious in seeking the truth. She minced no words.
Operation Iraqi Freedom, she wrote in her book Watchdogs of Democracy, was “an unnecessary war that has cost thousands of lives of innocent civilians, American and foreign military, and journalists,” noting that the alleged “weapons of mass destruction were never discovered.”
On television, challenging the president of the United States — the most powerful man in the world — Helen seemed ten feet tall to me. In reality, she was petite. “How tall are you, Helen?” I asked one day. “Five foot three — and a half,” she exclaimed.
“How then did you learn to ask such big questions?” I queried. “I ask big,” she replied, “for the American people.”
Helen had great integrity and believed the media was important to protect and preserve democracy. “Let the people know the facts and the country will be safe,” she would say, quoting Abraham Lincoln.
She found the current media’s lack of fight against “the manipulation of government officials who play the fear card” astounding. She lamented that so many “reporters became stenographers instead of interrogators.” Passionately anti-injustice, Helen believed she had to speak for those who had no voice.
For Helen, that meant speaking out about the Middle East conflict. Ironically for someone who had defended the freedom of the press all her life, furor over her poorly worded comments forced her to retire.
In time, however, her critics will find that Helen correctly evaluated the injustice of the conflict, and not because she was biased, but because she was an excellent journalist and had verified the facts.
She knew that Israeli forces expelled the overwhelming majority of the indigenous Palestinians from their homeland during the Nakba — catastrophe — of 1948, and later the 1967 war. She remained outraged at Israel’s ongoing oppression of the Palestinians.
As the dean of the White House press corps, “Thank you, Mr. President,” was Helen’s signature close to presidential press conferences for so many years. America has lost a national treasure, a vigilant watchdog of democracy, a truth seeker, and a proud patriot. Thank you, Ms. Helen Thomas.
You will be well remembered by your profession, by this nation, and throughout the world for your courageous stand for truth and justice. You have fought the good fight, and you have finished the race.
Rosemarie M. Esber is co-producing a documentary of Helen Thomas’ life.