The news of Helen Thomas’s death on Saturday morning jolted me. It wasn’t surprising in one sense, because she was 92 years old, but it made me pause to reflect on my own presence in the White House press corps and how she opened the door for so many reporters, including me.
I first saw Helen Thomas in the White House briefing room when I started attending daily briefings at the start of the Obama administration, working the beat for federal LGBT politics. Blade reporters had been kicked out of the briefing room during George W. Bush’s second term, so it was a new era and an exciting time.
I remember thinking Thomas could move around the press area deftly for a woman in her late 80s and could hold her own in conversations with other reporters. During a news conference with President Obama in the East Room, she had to have someone escort her by hand over the wires and between the chairs, but otherwise she seemed full of energy.
Bestowed with a front row seat in the briefing room by her colleagues, Thomas would pester then-White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs with questions that would probably veer a little too close toward editorializing than other reporters in the briefing room would be comfortable asking.
One such instance occurred in October 2009 when Thomas asked Gibbs if the administration had given up on including a government-run public option as part of health care reform. Gibbs replied, somewhat light-heartedly to the octogenarian reporter, that he had answered the question several times before.
“I apparently don’t answer it to your satisfaction,” Gibbs said. “I’ll give you the same answer that I gave you unsatisfactorily for many of those other days.”
When Gibbs said the administration would work to include choice and competition in health care reform, Thomas vocally surmised, “You’re not going to get it.” And when Gibbs responded with his own question about why Thomas kept asking, she responded, in an almost grandmotherly way, “Because I want your conscience to bother you.”
But Thomas was holding the White House accountable long before the Obama administration. Getting her start in the Kennedy administration, Thomas broke up the boys’ club that was the White House Press Corps and was the first female reporter to cover the president, rather than the first lady.
In 1962, she pressed Kennedy to skip the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents Association unless it were open to women. After he said he wouldn’t attend, the dinner for the first time admitted women.
One of my major regrets is that I never initiated a conversation with Thomas during the times I saw her in the White House briefing room or the press area. Our time that coincided covering the White House in 2009 was very short. Also, I was little intimidated as I was still getting my bearings. Lesson to all: If you see someone you admire, take the opportunity to speak to them before it’s too late.
It’s unfortunate that her White House career came to a somewhat ignominious end.
In 2010, when Thomas was questioned on Jewish Heritage Celebration Day by a reporter about her thoughts on Israel, she replied, “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.” Asked where Israeli Jews should go, Thomas offered that Poland, Germany or the United States would be good options instead of Israel, adding “Why push people out of there who have lived there for centuries?” As a controversy unfolded and supporters of Israel grew angry, Thomas submitted her resignation to Hearst Newspapers.
I remember Gibbs responded to the controversy in a much more grave tone than the manner in which he addressed her questions about the public option. He took the liberty of not just speaking for the White House, but for the press corps.
“Those remarks were offensive and reprehensible,” Gibbs said. “I think she should, and has, apologized because, obviously those remarks do not reflect certainly the opinion of, I assume, most of the people in here .. and certainly not the administration.”
Still, the way in which Thomas’s role as a White House reporter ended was a small part of her half-century career. As President Obama noted in his statement upon her death, Thomas was a “true pioneer, opening doors and breaking down barriers” for women in journalism.
And her courage opened for the door for me as well. The way Thomas broke down barriers and made sure women had a place in the White House press corps — as well as the continued tenaciousness of her questioning over the decades — made it easier for me to work as an openly gay reporter in the White House briefing room representing an LGBT publication.
I would never compare my work to Thomas’s, but the way she shook things up started a process that allowed me decades later to come to the briefings and — regardless of the news of the day occupying mainstream reporters — ask questions about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, the president’s evolution on marriage equality, and why the administration continues to withhold an executive order protecting LGBT workers.
Thanks to Thomas, if White House officials aren’t doing enough to advance LGBT rights, we can make sure their consciences will bother them.