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article imageUnpublished interview with now-deceased reporter Helen Thomas Special

By Kay Mathews     Jul 20, 2013 in Politics
Washington - Legendary White House reporter Helen Thomas died today at the age of 92. She achieved many "firsts" in her career, including opening up the White House Correspondents' Dinner to women. Thomas shared some details of that event with this reporter.
Helen Thomas died in her D.C. apartment in which she had lived for more than 60 years. The cause of death was not disclosed, but The Washington Post states that "Ms. Thomas had been on dialysis for a kidney ailment."
According to Bio., Helen Amelia Thomas' dedication to journalism began when she entered high school. Born in Winchester, Kentucky on August 4, 1920 to Lebanese immigrant parents, Thomas later "graduated with a bachelors degree in English from Wayne State University in Detroit in 1942."
Thomas made her way to Washington, D.C. and to the White House press room. As The New York Times notes, "Ms. Thomas covered every president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama for United Press International and, later, Hearst Newspapers."
CNN details the "firsts" that Thomas achieved in her career, including: First female president of the White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA), first female officer of the National Press Club, first female chief White House correspondent for UPI, and the first woman admitted to the Washington Press Corps club, called the Gridiron Club, where she later served as its president.
Through the years I had become a fan of Thomas'. Like others, I appreciated her no-nonsense, pointed questions to many presidents and, as a woman, I admired her trailblazing career. While working in Washington, D.C. in the early 2000s, I had the chance to exchange "Hellos" with Thomas on a few occasions. As it happened, we both liked the same coffee shop near the White House.
Later, in 2010, after writing for Digital Journal for a short time, I watched the White House Correspondents' Dinner that was televised on May 1. During the telecast, I learned more about the role that Thomas played in getting female journalists to the table. And, I read this on the WHCA's website about its annual dinner, "Until 1962, the dinner was open only to men even though the membership included women. That changed when, at the prodding of Helen Thomas of UPI, President John F. Kennedy said he would not attend the dinner unless the ban on women was dropped."
I decided to send an email interview request to Thomas about that event. She was a columnist for the Hearst Corporation at that time and I found her business email address. On May 4, 2010, I sent an email to Ms. Thomas asking her to tell me about her "experience in opening up the White House Correspondents' Dinner to women. My hope is that you will share a few details with me about how you prompted President Kennedy to essentially boycott the dinner unless women were included."
On May 10, 2010, Thomas replied and wrote:
I certainly did not make the breakthrough alone; there were many women in the cabal against the injustice. I started covering the White House on a daily basis in 1961 with the start of the JFK administration. I could belong to the White House Correspondents' Association; dues were $2 a year but could not attend the annual dinner in honor of the president of the United States. It had been going on for 50 years; the reason given was that the few new members were women and women had never attended the dinner before; we got in touch with Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s press secretary and told him Kennedy should not attend the dinner if we couldn’t and we were members; Kennedy agreed and the dinner suddenly opened up and women attended for the first time in 1962 and from then on. The prejudice against women in professional positions was incredible, but that was women’s place; that was then.
I also asked Thomas to describe what the experience was like when she attended the first White House Correspondents' Dinner that was open to women. Thomas' reply was brief, but interesting. She wrote:
Of course I was happy to go to the dinner. Barbra; Barbra Streisand performed. And Kennedy explained why he chose his brother as attorney general - 'to give him training.'
Shortly after receiving the email from Thomas, a Youtube video surfaced showing her making controversial remarks about the Middle East conflict. Her "career ended in 2010," according to NBC News, "when she abruptly retired after saying Israel should 'get the hell out of Palestine.'" I held off on publishing my interview with Thomas in the wake of the scandal. However, on this day, it seems a fitting tribute to a woman who was nicknamed 'Dean of the White House Press Corps' and who did so much for female journalists.
It should also be noted that Thomas' career in journalism did not actually end in 2010. She wrote for the Falls Church News-Press and Owner-Editor Nicholas F. Benton wrote a truly fitting tribute to the life and work of Helen Thomas.
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