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Veteran Washington Reporter's Career Spans 7 Presidencies


Helen Thomas is the most senior and the first female member of the White House press corps. She has been keeping a close watch on the White House and Washington politics for 57 years.

Thomas was born in Winchester, Kentucky, in 1920, to Lebanese immigrant parents who eagerly embraced the culture of their new home. She says they considered themselves Americans from the moment they stepped foot on U.S. soil.

"My parents had the greatest influence on me. I think they had a great sense of ethics, of high principles," she says. "They believed in doing the right thing at any cost and they taught us."

Thomas says her lifelong obsession with journalism started in high school. Driven by an intense curiosity about the world that bordered on nosiness, she started working as a reporter on her high school newspaper.

"I loved the whole ambiance, the whole feeling of freedom. Really everything rides on you as a reporter to tell the truth and seek the truth," she says. "I loved that whole profession and I had a one-tracked mind I never deviated from it from high school on. I wanted to be a reporter."

After graduating from Wayne State University in Michigan in 1942, she landed her first job in journalism as a copygirl for the Washington Daily News. In 1943, she joined United Press International, where she covered women's topics for the UPI's radio wire services. In 1955, Thomas was assigned to cover federal agencies in the capital city. Four years later, she was elected to be the first female president of the National Press Club, a professional journalists' association headquartered in Washington.

Thomas' national recognition soared in 1960, when UPI assigned her to cover President John Kennedy's election campaign. She followed him to the White House as UPI's correspondent there. The American public became familiar with Thomas for the way she signaled the end of every Presidential news conferences with the emphatic "Thank you, Mr. President!"

"It went back to President Roosevelt, with the senior wire service reporter saying, 'Thank you, Mr. President,' and from then on, anyone who was senior (and I became the senior) would say that at the end of the news conference."

In 1976, the World Almanac named Helen Thomas one of the "25 most influential women in America." The reporter says she has merely tried to fulfill her responsibilities as a journalist, a job she sees as essential to preserving a healthy democracy.

"I think when you have one chance to ask the President of the United States a question, you should make it good. I think that Presidents should always be put on the spot. They should be very accountable for what they do because they have the fate of the world now in their hands."

Helen Thomas has traveled around the world many times with Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George Bush Senior, Clinton and George W Bush. She developed a reputation for asking blunt, tough questions of the President from the front row at every Presidential press conference until 2003, the year Bush sent U.S. forces to invade Iraq.

"I was removed from the front row at a news conference just before the war when I had been asking questions: why should we go to war and what is the threat?

They thought (the questions) were off base and I thought they were right on target."

Thomas has shared her long experience at the White House in a series of books she has written, including Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President, and Front Row at the White House. In her latest book, Watchdogs of Democracy, she blames the Washington press corps for failing the public by not sufficiently challenging the Bush Administration's policies in Iraq.

"Every day I felt that the press has rolled over and played dead. They accommodated the administration, they did not ask the questions they should have asked, and they gave up their one weapon of skepticism and cynicism to say why are we going to war?"

She says journalists should have asked for proof of the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. "I think in that respect, reporters laid down on the job, they rolled over and gave the President an easy path."

Thomas says she is worried by the growing influence of big corporations like General Electric, Viacom and Disney, which have gradually acquired the major broadcast media outlets, such as NBC, CBS and ABC. She says corporations do not care that much about the credibility or balance of broadcast news. What they care about, she says is having a ringside seat at the White House.

Thomas is nostalgic for what she calls the "heyday" of American journalism, and some of its legendary reporters -- journalists like Edward R. Murrow, who broadcast from London during Hitler's bombardment of the city; and Peter Arnett, who earned a Pulitzer Prize for his fearless reporting of the Vietnam War.

Helen Thomas says she hopes people will remember her as a journalist who adhered to the basic principles of her profession: "That I sought the truth and tried to tell it."

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