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Legendary Journalist Celebrates 50 Years at the White House

Award-winning reporter Helen Thomas covered 10 US Presidents

Award-winning journalist Helen Thomas has been covering Washington politics for more than 60 years. In 1961, she became the first woman to cover the White House during President John F. Kennedy's administration and has reported on every U.S. President since.

The early years

Helen Thomas was born in Winchester, Kentucky in 1920; the seventh of nine children born to Lebanese immigrant parents. Thomas says her parents eagerly adapted to the culture of their new American homeland and went about setting high goals for all nine of their children:

"They couldn't read or write but they were extremely intelligent," she says, adding that the one thing they really wanted for all their children was a college education.

In keeping with her parents' dreams, Thomas ended up at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan where she studied journalism. After graduating in 1942, she headed to Washington where she worked as a copy girl at the now defunct Washington Daily News. She joined the United Press International (UPI) news agency in 1943 and stayed for 57 years.

A passionate journalist

Thomas says journalism has always been her calling. "I love history, and I knew this would be the place where I could always keep learning," she says. Thomas also believes journalism offers reporters opportunities to help their country, "because we seek the truth and try to inform the American people."

The Kennedy and Nixon years

In 1961, during President John F. Kennedy's administration, Thomas became the first female journalist to cover the White House. She says it was a wonderful experience:

"There was great hope with the Kennedy administration. Young people were taking over and they had great goals," she says. She believes Kennedy was aware that time was short. "I think he had a sense of destiny, [a] rendezvous with death, believe it or not."

During the past 50 years, Thomas has covered 10 U.S. presidents and traveled with many of them on official trips overseas. One of her most memorable travel assignments came when she accompanied President Richard Nixon on his historic trip to China in 1972.

"Going to China on the breakthrough trip after a 20-year hiatus where we had no relations with China, everything was a story." According to Thomas, every reporter in Washington wanted to be on that trip. There was a story in everything. "What the Chinese ate, how they looked, what they wore." Even trivial things were important, Thomas says, "because we felt we were showing the world a country that had been locked down for 20 years."

The Reagan years

Recalling another memorable White House trip, President Ronald Reagan's 1988 visit to the former Soviet Union, Thomas recounts an observation the late president made upon their return to Washington.

"I said 'Mr. President, don't you think it would have been better if you'd gone to Moscow ten years ago, twenty years ago? You might have found out the Russians were not the evil empire; that they were human; they laughed and cried.' And he said, 'Nope. They've changed!'"

Asking the tough questions

Despite the feeling of camaraderie she enjoyed with some of the presidents she covered, Thomas developed a reputation for asking them tough, no-nonsense questions.

During a White House press conference in 2006, Thomas asked President George W. Bush the following question about the War in Iraq:

"I'd like to ask you, Mr. President, your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis; wounded 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?"

President Bush's response: "I think your premise, in all due respect to your question and to you as a lifelong journalist, is that - I didn't want war. To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect."

The exchange between Thomas and former President Bush made news.

A dominating presence in the White House Briefing room

Although she no longer travels on presidential trips, Thomas routinely attends daily White House press briefings where she is often the first to be called upon from her front-row seat.

Many White House press secretaries have been on the receiving end of some of her tough questioning. Dee Dee Myers was press secretary to former president Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1994. She remembers Thomas well. "She saw her job as making sure that you were telling the facts like they were, that you were credible, that you were reliable, that you were thorough; she always wanted you to say more than you wanted to and she was relentless," says Myers.

Myers says one of the qualities she most admires about Thomas is how "day after day, week after week, administration after administration, she's always there trying to get to the facts."

Thomas acknowledges that she's a force to be reckoned with."I've been shunned a lot. I think a lot of presidents have been, not afraid, but they don't want to tangle with me in terms of my questions, so they're not very happy to call on me. But I feel that we are representing the American people who don't get a chance to ask the president a question so it's a privilege and we should not think lightly of it."

Being shunned is something Thomas is all too familiar with. When she first started covering politics in Washington more than 60 years ago, women reporters were barred from joining major press organizations:

"We newswomen fought to get into the National Press Club which is a professional club, but everything has been a struggle." Since that time, says Thomas, "all the clubs in this country that barred women have had to open up."

Listen Up Mr. President!

At almost 90 years old, Helen Thomas shows no signs of slowing down. She is currently a columnist with Hearst Newspapers, writing about national affairs and the White House. She is also the bestselling author of five books.

Her latest is, Listen Up Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President To Know And Do. She describes the book, which is co-authored by writer and political commentator Craig Crawford, as the sum total of their experience covering politicians.

It's also offers a set of guidelines to help all new presidents. "What we think they did wrong, and what they can do right," she says.

Regarding President Obama's first year in office, Thomas believes he is "trying very hard," but says "he needs to have more courage."

"There's no such thing as an instant president," she says. "They're all on a learning curve. You only hope they'll learn and remember the lessons from the past so they don't repeat them."

Thomas is regarded by many as an icon of the White House press corps. Bill Plante, a White House Correspondent at CBS News for 25 years, also thinks of her as a pioneer, both for breaking barriers for women in the workplace and as a veteran journalist.

"She became one of the first, if not the first woman, to actually cover the news at the White House," says Plante. It was a major breakthrough in the middle of her life. "But the big breakthrough is that she has persisted and been able to do it with the respect of her colleagues to this advanced age," says Plante.