"I'm still here, still arriving at the White House in the wee hours of the morning, reading the papers and checking the wire, still waiting for the morning briefing, still sitting down to write the first story of the day and still waiting to ask the tough questions."
From the woman who has reported on every president from Kennedy to Clinton for United Press International: a unique glimpse into the White House -- and a telling record of the ever-changing relationship between the presidency and the press.
From her earliest years, Helen Thomas wanted to be a reporter. Raised in Depression-era Detroit, she worked her way to Washington after college and, unlike other women reporters who gave up their jobs to returning veterans, parlayed her copy-aide job at the Washington Daily News into a twelve-year stint as a radio news writer for UPI, covering such beats as the Department of Justice and other federal agencies.
Assigned to the White House press corps in 1961, Thomas was the first woman to close a press conference with "Thank you, Mr. President," and has covered every administration since Kennedy's. Along the way, she was among the pioneers who broke down barriers against women in the national media, becoming the first female president of the White House Correspondents Association, the first female officer of the National Press Club and the first woman member, later president, of the Gridiron Club.
In this revealing memoir, which includes hundreds of anecdotes, insights, observations, and personal details, Thomas looks back at a career spent with presidents at home and abroad, on the ground and in the air. She evaluates the enormous changes that Watergate brought, including diminished press access to the Oval Office, and how they have affected every president since Nixon. Providing a unique view of the past four decades of presidential history, Front Row at the White House offers a seasoned study of the relationship between the chief executive officer and the press -- a relationship that is sometimes uneasy, sometimes playful, yet always integral to democracy.
"Soon enough there will be another president, another first lady, another press secretary and a whole new administration to discover. I'm looking forward to it -- although I'm sure whoever ends up in the Oval Office in a new century may not be so thrilled about the prospect."
- American Book Award
The veteran Washington reporter gives her account of instant history at the White House, the result of her fly-on-the-wall perch covering the administrations of every president since JFK for United Press International. Thomas is always on hand with a jaded eye, a cynical word and a probing question. And her story gives a view of the Fourth Estate surprisingly dissimilar to those that predominate today. In Thomass telling, the press is an institution, one of the many necessities of a democratic society. Gossip and scandal dont drive events, she asserts, as much as the desire to get the story and tell it first. Contained within her memoirs are remarkable recollections of Lyndon Johnson, who investigated the press as much as it investigated him; of Richard Nixon, who asks Thomas to say a prayer for me in one of Watergates darkest hours; of Martha Mitchell, a cabinet wife (of Nixons John Mitchell) who got sucked in and spat out by Beltway politics; and of First Ladies who offer birthday greetingsand others who close off their private lives. While the book is woefully thin on personal motivation and inner thoughts (one of the shortest chapters is on Thomass husband, former AP White House reporter Doug Cornell), it provides a sharp chronicle of the nations recent historyand of the crusade of women reporters to be considered the equal or better of their male counterparts.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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May 02, 2000
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Excerpt from Front Row At The White House by Helen Thomas
A reporter's work involves observing, listening and writing about people, places and events. I've been fortunate in that I've spent most of my time as a reporter writing about people in high places.
But it's difficult for me to write about myself. I am always astonished when I'm out speaking to one group or another about the leaders and prominent figures of our country, the movers and shakers who make it all happen, and someone will inevitably raise a hand and ask the question: "What about you?"
I believe such a query stems from a sincere curiosity about what makes someone want to be a reporter and to make journalism a life's work. The answer is that the excitement associated with the field, the daily rush in one's search for the whys and wherefores and all the other cliches attached to the profession through the years are real.
Glamour has been another word I've heard bandied about to describe my profession, and sometimes it may apply, but believe me, glamour is the last thing I'd think of when I've been standing in a cold, pouring rain from 6:30 A.M. on, held captive with my White House colleagues behind a rope, getting pushed and jostled as we all wait for someone to come out and give us the details of what just went on in the Oval Office.
How many times have I heard, "You meet such interesting people." That's true enough, as is "You lead such an interesting life." But as for anyone else who chooses this kind of work, the real magnet that draws one to such a demanding way to make a living is the irresistible desire to "be there" when the major historic events of our time occur. The driving force is and will ever be an insatiable curiosity about life, people and the world around us.
Let me be quick to point out that I've always felt it's not my life as a White House watchdog that may be interesting, but the lives of those I've been privileged to catalog at the seat of power. And that privilege has carried a huge responsibility. Little did I know when I was growing up that I would choose a profession that was an education every day.
In addition to observing, listening and writing, a reporter learns how to ask the important -- though sometimes unpopular -- questions.
I suppose I displayed signs of wanting to know everything early in my childhood. I remember when a young woman friend came to visit my older sisters and I started asking her about herself, her clothes, where she lived and on and on.
In exasperation, she chided me, "You're so inquisitive."
Well, what could I do but ask my sisters, "What does 'inquisitive' mean?"
"Helen, you ask too many questions," they responded.
I guess some habits are hard to break, but that is one I'm glad I've hung on to over the years. I'm sure any number of presidents will disagree with me on that point.
Strangers still approach me on the street, or in airports, and ask me, "Aren't you a reporter, the one in the front row?" Or they will say to me, "You ask tough questions." And many will add an encouraging, "Keep asking those questions. You're asking them for us."
Perhaps the most colorful comment of that type came in 1988. I was on my way home from work one night and the woman cabdriver turned around and said, "I've been trying to figure out who you are. Aren't you the woman the presidents love to hate?"
General Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, once offered another solution to my penchant for questions. It was Christmas 1992, and he and I were guests at a party given by my friend and fellow enfant terrible Sam Donaldson.
The Washington Post had reported that President-elect Clinton was going to tap Powell as his secretary of state. I spotted Powell at the party and naturally I had to get the story from the subject.
I walked up to Powell and asked, "Is it true that Clinton has asked you to be secretary of state?"
Powell kind of sighed, looked at the person standing on the other side of him, pointed to me and said, "Isn't there a war somewhere we can send her to?"
One of my family's dearest friends, Lily Siegert, who was my sister Isabelle's roommate in nursing school at Deaconess Hospital in Detroit, once reminded me that I told her when I was twelve years old that I intended to become a newspaperwoman. It was the Christmas season and Lily was spending the holidays with us, and as was our custom, we were gathered around the black upright piano in our parlor.
They say there is a little bit of ham in every reporter, and even though I had been shy as a child -- believe it or not -- I wanted to be a star in my close family of nine children. So when it came time for me to perform, I tried to imitate the Broadway singer-actress Fanny Brice and belted out a rendition of "My Man," complete with a catch in my throat and a tear in my voice.
Lily remembers asking me: "Helen, do you intend to become a torch singer when you graduate from school?"
"Oh, no," I replied. "I want to be a newspaper reporter" and added I wanted to be a great one. It's a goal I still aspire to.
Three years later, my choice of career was sealed. I was a sophomore at Eastern High School in Detroit and my English teacher liked a story I'd written and had it published in the school newspaper, The Indian.
Seeing my byline for the first time was an ego-swelling event, and soon afterward I joined the staff of the paper. I loved the ambience, the collegiality and the just plain fun of putting out the weekly. Printer's ink was in my veins, I decided, and I became dedicated to the proposition that this was the life for me. In my last year of high school I was presented with a book of poems, Wine from These Grapes by Edna St. Vincent Millay. It was inscribed: "To Helen Thomas: In appreciation of the long hours spent with the staff, January 26, 1938."
I'm sure many other reporters of my generation and those succeeding got their start this way as well, and the same was true later on when I attended the local city college, Wayne University (now Wayne State University), and worked on the college paper, The Daily Collegian. In fact, I can safely say that working on that paper was my vocation while attending classes and getting a degree became an avocation.
The experiences on those school papers gave me a sense of direction and dedication that have stood me in great stead throughout my life. Little did I dream, however, that I would someday become a White House correspondent covering presidents, oftentimes at eyeball range, with the audacity and insouciance to interrogate them and put them on the spot. Then again, asking questions was never a problem for me.
I am often asked whether I had any role models when I was growing up. Without a moment's hesitation I always reply, "My parents." My teachers inspired me, but my parents were my foundation and my guiding lights.
My father, George, immigrated to the United States in 1892 from Tripoli, Syria, which later became part of Lebanon. He was seventeen at the time and traveled in steerage. His possessions consisted of a few cents in his pocket and a small pouch he wore around his neck that contained a prayer in Arabic for voyagers. To this day, in my family, we say we're glad our father did not miss the boat.
At Ellis Island, the immigration officer Anglicized his surname, Antonious, to Thomas and sent him on his way to Winchester, Kentucky, where he had relatives. He bought a wagon, loaded it up with fruit, vegetables, linens, candy and tobacco and sold them around the countryside.
In 1901 he returned home and married my mother, Mary, who was seventeen. My sister Kate was born in Syria in 1902, and when she was six months old the family returned to Kentucky.
I will always marvel at the courage, determination and independence of my parents. Their story is the story of every immigrant of every era. They had great hopes and worked hard for the fulfillment of the promise of a better life, especially for their children. I know my parents never thought it would be easy. They knew what was expected of them as new citizens of a remarkable new, young, vibrant nation.
I was born in Winchester on August 4, 1920, the seventh of nine surviving children -- Katharine, Anne, Matry, Sabe, Isabelle, Josephine, myself, Barbara and Genevieve. My older brother Tommy was killed when he was twelve in a terrible accident when he and my brother Matry had gone to the theater. A wall that had been left standing in the empty lot next door collapsed on the roof of the theater during a blizzard, killing 115 people inside. Many times, as a young girl, I remember coming home from school and seeing my mother, holding my baby sister Genevieve in her arms, crying over him.
My family has been blessed with a makeup that has given most of us long life and good health, but in 1988, my sister Genevieve, the baby of the family, was the first to pass away. Like my mother, to this day I cannot think or speak of my beloved sister without choking up. Later on, I lost my dear brother Sabe and my sister Kate.
We moved to Detroit in July 1924, urged on by my parents' relatives, who preceded them to the auto boomtown, and we settled in at 3670 Heidelberg Street on the East Side, a five-bedroom home on a lovely, tree-shaded street. My father paid $7,000 for the house, and we lived there until we sold it in 1946 -- for $7,000. The house developed its own history after we left. After passing through several owners, one decided to turn it into some kind of monument to abstract art: It was painted in a variety of colors and certain household plumbing items were attached to various parts of the roof, the front and the sides. The house drew so many gawkers who came to look and comment that complaints from the neighbors finally forced the owner to tear it down in the 1990s.
My parents adapted to their new midwestern home and we children did our best to Americanize them, but my father still traveled every year back to Kentucky to visit family and friends. We would eagerly await his return because we knew his suitcases would be crammed with hot Kentucky sausage, blackberry preserves and other goodies pressed on him by family and friends.
In Detroit, my parents set about raising our large family, and that meant long hours, hard work and services at the Greek Orthodox church every Sunday. My parents were deeply religious. My mother instructed us that if we dropped a piece of bread -- the sustenance of life -- on the floor we should pick it up and kiss it. One of my father's favorite expressions was inshalla, or "God willing." From my mother we always heard -- when things turned out and we were safe -- the phrase nichke Allah, or "we thank God."
For my father, the American dream meant owning property and seeing his children get college educations. He bought a grocery store and a few pieces of real estate consisting of several rental houses and a building that housed six stores. He paid $20,000 for that building and lost it in the stock market crash of 1929, but he managed to hang on to the other properties.
My father couldn't read or write, but he understood numbers and he had a quick mind for figures. Sometimes I think he had a computer in his head to figure out the bills that had to be paid. He kept his daily "business papers" in a bag, and at the end of the day, one of us children would read them out to him and he would do his daily accounts. And even though he couldn't understand our report cards, he was thrilled when we'd tell him what our grades were.
My father looked like Theodore Roosevelt. He was a tall and imposing figure but full of humility, a very sociable man who loved people. My parents loved company and their social life revolved around parties at home and visits with their Arab-speaking friends, who would regale them with stories of the old country.
George Thomas also had a sense of social responsibility. He kept his store all through the Great Depression, and several times a week he would bring home the unsold produce in a burlap bag, which my mother would distribute to our neighbors on the block.
A botched cataract operation left him blind in one eye and a few years later, when I was eight, he developed the same condition in the other eye. Fortunately, this time the operation was successful.
But while his vision was impaired, before the second operation, I remember walking with him and guiding him as he would make a round of visits with his friends.
In those days poverty was all around us and everyone knew hardship. Our neighborhood was a real mix of German and Italian families -- we were the only Arab family on the block -- but everyone helped everyone else in time of need. At school, I was one of three students designated to go from homeroom to homeroom, picking up pairs of shoes that needed new soles or heels. The shoes went into a paper bag with each student's name written across it, and the local shoemaker would repair them and return them to the school.
Next door to us lived Eva Kay and her six children. She had arrived from Germany to work as a housekeeper and was perhaps the best baker I have ever known. I have always marveled at how she kept herself and her children alive during the Depression, especially since many weeks the only income was a $13-a-week stipend from the city.
When I look at the old newsreels from that era -- rich men selling apples on street corners, autoworkers lined up in the bitter cold outside the Ford Motor Company praying to get called in to work that day -- I'm struck by the immense deprivation that went on, and yet, the sense of community prevailed.
Many years later, when I was working at United Press, a highly skilled Teletype operator, Gregory Eaton, told me of the despair all around him in those days in Washington and recalled the comforting words of Franklin D. Roosevelt in his inaugural address on March 4, 1933: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." These words raised his hopes and inspired him and millions of other Americans.
We did not think of ourselves as hyphenates, which seems to be the standard description when one talks of ethnic background. The term melting pot has fallen into disrepute these days, but that is how we saw ourselves on Heidelberg Street. There was a wealth of diversity of heritage and culture in our neighborhood that instilled in us a tremendous sense of tolerance. It was the epitome of the American dream that so many presidents speak about.