It was hard getting the news on Saturday that Helen Thomas had died. She was a friend and mentor. When I began covering the White House in 1993, there were three older women who everyone knew: Naomi Nover, who died in 1995 at 84 years old; Sarah McClendon; and Helen Thomas.
Naomi had already taken a walk over the hill, and stories abounded about her hitting people with her umbrella. She also accompanied the President Reagan to China and was with him while he was admiring the terra cotta statues. According to Lloyd Grove of the Washington Post, the story goes like this: “When a Chinese guard blocked her path, she began making a fuss, bitterly complaining in her thin, bleating voice. The guard raised his rifle menacingly, and Gary Schuster of the Detroit News came to her aid. ‘Very important person in our country,’ Schuster told the guard, and held up a dollar bill to point first at Washington’s portrait, then at Nover. The guard, eyes widening, dropped his rifle and let her through.” Although I always said hello to her, the umbrella stories were legendary, and I kept my distance.
I quickly made friends with Sarah McClendon, who was a tough reporter and called out, “Mr. President, Mr. President” at each news conference. She nursed along young reporters and had Friday evening discussions at the National Press Club with her take on the news. Toward the end, her Fridays were filled with various conspiracy theories and most of us took her views with a grain of salt. I remember one, however, that I wish I had paid more attention to.
She was hopping mad about the government involvement in Inslaw. Inslaw developed a software program known as PROMIS. It was purchased by the Justice Department, which was later accused by its developers of making unauthorized copies of the software and a lawsuit followed. Sarah wasn’t upset about the lawsuit. She was worried about the tracking and collection of data by the government. A World War II veteran, she never forgot the lessons of a war that was fought for freedom and she could not believe, in the years before the widespread availability of the Internet, what it meant to have government snooping and collecting data. As the Snowden case unfolds, I revisit in my mind all those Friday nights where Sarah McClendon would rail about the government purchasing PROMIS. She was prescient in her rage about government data collection. If only we had kept on track then and followed her lead.
During my first few days covering the White House, I met Helen Thomas. I was doing long-form talk radio in those days, and Helen took me aside and said, “Never do anyone’s bidding, be your own person.”
She also told me that the most important job in a free society is to be part of the press. “We have to keep them honest” she said. Unlike many of the White House Press Corps, Helen had no ego. She would spend time talking to interns and young reporters, and she thought new reporters were just as important as people who had been on the beat for years. She also had no use for young staffers who tried to throw their weight around, telling a Clinton press staffer who was being quite nasty, “You will be coming to us (the press members) looking for jobs at the end of the administration.”
As people were planning for her 90th birthday party at the White House, Helen gave her views on Jews and Israel. She could hardly walk and did not get help getting to the event. It was a hot June day, and one of my friends was helping her walk. Her aging frontal lobe stopped filtering her thoughts and allowed her thoughts to meld with her speech. Suddenly, Hearst let her go. The White House Correspondents Association had members writing that she should be kicked out the association, where she was the first woman president. I was horrified that this role model for so many of us had been kicked to the curb instead of supporting her. Then there was a race to see who would get her front-row and center seat.
Three years later, with Helen dead, some of the very same voices that did not speak up for her are saying how she was a leader and trailblazer. Helen would be amused. I can hear her chuckling and expounding on them. She never had much use for politicians and two-faced opportunists in the press or anywhere else. She left her no nonsense legacy to those of us women of the White House Press Corps. I hope we can honor her by being as outspoken and as tough as she was.