WASHINGTON (AP) — For 28 years, Helen Thomas scowled at me whenever we ran into each other. “Traitor,” she would hiss.
She said it with a smile. But she said it.
Helen, who died Saturday at age 92, and I had been Washington colleagues at United Press International for 12 years. But we became competitors after I jumped ship to The Associated Press in 1980, and she never forgave me.
At UPI, I had been one of a handful of rewriters whose job was to put into shape stories that had been dictated over the phone by reporters.
It was a clumsy system, but it was fast, and in those pre-computer days it was the best anyone could think of. The AP operated the same way.
Reporters simply dictated their stories off the top of their heads. It was a skill; you had to be able to remember what you’d said three paragraphs up. “Unloading” was the unpretty word for the process.
The dictated stories could come in unpretty too, often just a jumble of information. It was up to the rewrite bank to turn this stuff into printable, readable news stories.
Helen — no one ever called her anything else — was one of UPI’s reporters at the White House. Her dictation was complete, but ragged. She needed her ghost writers more than most.
Thus the “traitor” comment when I left to work for the enemy.
Helen was unlike other reporters, who saw their jobs as gathering information. She saw that responsibility, but she couldn’t resist using her bully front seat to press a viewpoint.
Typically, at a news conference she confronted President Barack Obama with a question more intended to make a point than to elicit news: “Mr. President, when are you going to get out of Afghanistan? Why are you continuing to kill and die there? What is the real excuse? And don’t give us this Bushism, ‘If we don’t go there, they’ll all come here,’” she said.
Her unwillingness to curb her tongue finally ended her career.
On May 27, 2010, Rabbi David Nesenoff, who ran a website, had gone to the White House for Jewish heritage Day. Outside, he spotted Helen Thomas, no longer a UPI reporter but now a columnist for Hearst News Service.
Wearing a yarmulke and carrying a video camera, the rabbi approached her and asked if she had any comments on Israel.
“Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” she blurted. “Remember, these people are occupied and it’s their land. It’s not Germany, it’s not Poland.”
Asked where they should go, she answered, “They should go home.”
“Where’s home?” Nesenoff asked.
“Poland, Germany and America and everywhere else,” Thomas replied.
That display of opinionating, tinged with anti-Semitism, was too much. Presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs called it “reprehensible.” Thomas’ colleagues in the White House Correspondents Association called it “indefensible.”
Helen often had said she expected to be carried out of the White House feet first. It was not to be.
During the uproar, she said she was sorry and issued a statement: Her words had not reflected “my heartfelt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance.”
Whatever her shortcomings as a writer and her departures from even-handed objectivity, she was a strong reporter. Nothing newsworthy happened within her range that didn’t get poured into the telephone. She was on the phone every few minutes. Much of it was trivial, but all of it was there. Helen dictated everything, even the color of the wallpaper.
Once, during the years of Vietnam protest, Lady Bird Johnson arranged a “women doers” luncheon in the Blue Room of the White House. President Lyndon Johnson dropped by, and guest Eartha Kitt, the singer, exploded at him: “You sent the best of the country off to be shot and maimed.”
That was news. Thomas ran to the UPI booth in the press room and dictated thousands of words. Including the color of the walls. (Blue.)
During the Watergate scandal in the Nixon administration, the eccentric Martha Mitchell, wife of the attorney general, used to vent to Thomas in late-night phone calls. “We just kind of fell into each other’s arms,” Mrs. Mitchell said.
Thomas would get off the phone with Mrs. Mitchell and get on the phone with UPI. She produced a stream of exclusive stories. Competitors stewed.
News conferences then were formal affairs, held in the evening, widely watched. Thomas was unawed by presidents or anyone else. She said she asked the questions a housewife in Des Moines, Iowa, would want asked. Her questions — often accusatory, irreverent and irrelevant — made her known nationally.
She endured the scorn and the put-downs of patronizing press secretaries and the snubs of exasperated presidents.
She simply didn’t buy into the proposition that reporters must keep opinions to themselves.
In March 2006, President George W. Bush called on her for the first time in three years.
“You’re going to be sorry,” she said.
Then she launched: “I’d like to ask you, Mr. President. Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is, why did you really want to go to war?”
Bush replied that her premise was “flat wrong”; he didn’t want war or like war.
Thomas didn’t like Bush. At a journalists’ banquet, she told an autograph seeker, “I’m covering the worst president in American history.”
She wrote four books and gave paid lectures. She loved to be interviewed.
A San Francisco Chronicle reporter once asked her whether she had faced obstacles as a female reporter. Thomas replied with scorn: “Where did you come from, Mars?”
In 2000, the company led by the founder of the Unification Church, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, bought what was left of UPI, which by then was not much of a player in the world of news. The next day, Thomas quit the wire service after 57 years of racing for the phone. She said the Moon deal was “a bridge too far.” But soon she was back in the press room, this time as a Hearst columnist.
For half a century she had been a model for women in a man’s world. She had been a gutsy questioner of 10 presidents. She disdained colleagues whom she considered a spineless lot. “Where is the outrage?” she asked them.
Sometimes she asked presidents questions that had not been asked and needed asking. But she just couldn’t keep her opinions to herself.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Mike Feinsilber retired after a 50-year wire service career, half with UPI and half with AP.