Skip to main content

Pioneering front-row journalist Helen Thomas dies at 92

By Candy Crowley and Mariano Castillo , CNN
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Sun July 21, 2013
Pioneer journalist and former senior White House correspondent Helen Thomas died on July 20, after a long illness, sources told CNN. She was 92. Here, Thomas reads the newspaper in the White House press room on August 2, 2006. Pioneer journalist and former senior White House correspondent Helen Thomas died on July 20, after a long illness, sources told CNN. She was 92. Here, Thomas reads the newspaper in the White House press room on August 2, 2006.
HIDE CAPTION
Front row with Helen Thomas
Front row with Helen Thomas
Front row with Helen Thomas
Front row with Helen Thomas
Front row with Helen Thomas
Front row with Helen Thomas
Front row with Helen Thomas
Front row with Helen Thomas
Front row with Helen Thomas
Photos: Front row with Helen Thomas
Front row with Helen Thomas
Front row with Helen Thomas
Front row with Helen Thomas
Front row with Helen Thomas
Front row with Helen Thomas
Front row with Helen Thomas
Front row with Helen Thomas
Front row with Helen Thomas
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Thomas covered White House with "intensity and tenacity," Clintons say
  • Thomas will be buried in Detroit
  • She was a trailblazer on the White House press corps
  • Her retirement in 2010 came amid controversy

Washington (CNN) -- Trailblazing White House journalist Helen Thomas has died at age 92 after a long illness, sources told CNN Saturday.

Thomas covered 10 presidents over nearly half a century, and became a legend in the industry.

She was a fixture at White House news conferences -- sitting front and center late in her career -- where she frequently exasperated government spokesmen with her pointed questions.

Helen Thomas: Pioneer and friend
Legendary journalist Helen Thomas dies

Thomas began covering the White House for United Press International when John F. Kennedy became president in 1961 and was a fixture there until her retirement in 2010.

She was considered the dean of the White House press corps because she was the longest-serving White House journalist.

Thomas will be buried in Detroit, and a memorial service is planned in Washington in October, according to her family.

President Barack Obama said that it was "not just the length of her tenure, but her fierce belief that our democracy works best when we ask tough questions and hold our leaders to account," that put her in high esteem.

In a written statement, Obama called Thomas a "true pioneer" and said she kept the presidents she covered -- including himself -- on their toes.

"Helen was just a living inspiration"

Her career, however, came to an end under a cloud of controversy.

Thomas, then working for the media conglomerate Hearst as a syndicated columnist, was blasted for comments she made regarding Jewish people.

In 2010, a YouTube video surfaced showing her saying that Israel should "get the hell out of Palestine," and that the Jewish people should go home to "Poland, Germany ... and America and everywhere else."

Thomas apologized for her remarks, writing, "They do not reflect my heartfelt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon."

She announced her retirement one week later.

In 2012, Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi presented Thomas with an award.

She was a mentor to young journalists

Helen Thomas: Fast Facts

Thomas, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, was born in Winchester, Kentucky, on August 4, 1920. She was one of nine children. Thomas was raised in Detroit, where she attended Wayne State University and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1942.

In October 1971, Thomas married Douglas Cornell; he died in 1982.

She wrote three books: "Front Row at the White House: My Life and Times" (1999); "Thanks for the Memories Mr. President: Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House" (2002); and "Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How it Has Failed the Public" (2006).

Share your memories

In describing her job, Thomas once said, "I've never covered the president in any way other than that he is ultimately responsible."

Along the way, she broke some barriers by becoming the first female president of the prestigious White House Correspondents' Association and Washington's Gridiron Club.

"I hope there are many women following me right in this same spot," she said. Well into her 80s, she was a mentor to many young journalists.

Thomas left UPI in May 2000, when the wire service was sold to a company controlled by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the Korean founder and leader of the worldwide Unification Church.

Two months later, Hearst News Service hired her as a syndicated columnist, and she returned to the White House for fodder for her columns.

Former President Bill Clinton and his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, recalled Thomas' "tough-minded dedication."

"Helen was a pioneering journalist who, while adding more than her share of cracks to the glass ceiling, never failed to bring intensity and tenacity to her White House beat," the Clintons said in a statement.

"... Her work was extraordinary because of her intelligence, her lively spirit and great sense of humor, and most importantly her commitment to the role of a strong press in a healthy democracy."

No question seemed off-limits

Colleagues remember her as a genuinely fearless woman who asked the toughest questions of presidents, no matter their party.

In January 2009, as President George Bush was preparing to leave office, Thomas aimed her editorial guns at him and his administration.

Among her criticisms: that before the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, administration officials ignored "significant early warnings of an imminent strike against the U.S."

Journalists remember Helen Thomas

In a commentary, she slammed Bush for what she considered his failings, including leading the country "into a senseless war against Iraq, a calamity still under way as he leaves office almost six years after the invasion."

She considered him "the worst president ever."

Thomas embraced the freedoms of a columnist with vigor.

"I censored myself for 50 years when I was a reporter," Thomas told an audience at the Massachusetts of Technology (MIT) in late 2002. "Now I wake up and ask myself, 'Who do I hate today?'"

One afternoon in October 2009, she targeted President Barack Obama's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, during the daily briefing.

Health care reform was being debated at the time, and Thomas asked Gibbs every day whether a public option would be part of the package.

In the back-and-forth that ensued, Thomas said that she already had reached a conclusion but could not get a straight answer from the presidential spokesman.

"Then why do you keep asking me?" Gibbs inquired.

"Because I want your conscience to bother you," Thomas replied.

The room broke into laughter as Gibbs turned red.

People we've lost in 2013

CNN's Chelsea J. Carter, John King, Wolf Blitzer and journalist Deb Krajnak contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:30 PM EST, Sun January 5, 2014
Click through our gallery to remember those we lost this year.
updated 7:55 PM EST, Wed January 1, 2014
Actor James Avery, who played the beloved Uncle Phil on the hit 1990s sitcom "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," has died. He was 67.
updated 2:59 PM EST, Wed January 1, 2014
Dr. John W.V. Cordice, the surgeon who operated on Dr. Martin Luther King after he was stabbed in Harlem in 1958, died in Iowa. Cordice was 95.
updated 8:28 PM EST, Wed January 1, 2014
Joseph Ruskin died of natural causes in a Santa Monica, California, hospital. He was 89.
updated 4:19 PM EST, Wed January 1, 2014
Jeffrey Ian Pollack, who directed the popular 1990s films "Booty Call" and "Above the Rim" and produced "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" has died. He was 54.
updated 6:00 PM EST, Mon December 23, 2013
Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Russian gun designer whose AK-47 rifle became the weapon of choice for many national armies and guerrillas around the world, died.
updated 6:53 AM EST, Sun December 22, 2013
Ned Vizzini, who shot to fame at a young age for his teenage novels focusing on youth depression and anxieties, committed suicide at age 32.
updated 4:37 PM EST, Thu December 19, 2013
Al Goldstein, the foul-mouthed publisher of Screw magazine and pornography pioneer died in New York. He was 77.
updated 3:53 PM EST, Tue December 31, 2013
Actor Daniel Escobar, who played a teacher in "Lizzie McGuire," died from complications of diabetes in Los Angeles. He was 49.
updated 7:41 PM EST, Wed December 18, 2013
"Great Train Robber" Ronnie Biggs -- one of the most notorious British criminals of the 20th century -- has died, his publisher told CNN. He was 84.
updated 8:17 PM EST, Mon December 16, 2013
Ray Price, the Nashville star whose trademark "shuffle" beat became a country music staple, has died at age 87, his agent said.
updated 9:23 PM EST, Mon December 16, 2013
Oscar-winning actress Joan Fontaine died, her longtime friend Noel Beutel said. She was 96.
updated 7:40 AM EST, Mon December 16, 2013
Actor Peter O'Toole died peacefully in a hospital at 81 years old.
updated 7:38 AM EST, Mon December 16, 2013
Tom Laughlin, the actor who wrote and starred in the "Billy Jack" films of the 1970s, died at age 82.
updated 7:56 PM EST, Wed December 11, 2013
Jazz guitarist Jim Hall, who played with the jazz greats of the 20th century and influenced the younger ones, has died, his family said. He was 83.
updated 8:46 AM EST, Tue December 10, 2013
Actress Eleanor Parker, nominated for three Oscars and known for her "Sound of Music" role, died Monday at 91, her family said.
updated 11:40 PM EST, Thu December 5, 2013
Freedom fighter, statesman, moral compass and South Africa's symbol of the struggle against racial oppression.
updated 9:18 PM EST, Wed December 4, 2013
Bill Beckwith, who co-hosted HGTV home-improvement show "Curb Appeal," has died. He was 38.
updated 9:58 AM EST, Mon December 2, 2013
Actor Paul Walker, who shot to fame as star of the high-octane street racing franchise "Fast & Furious," died in a car crash in Southern California. He was 40.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Sat November 30, 2013
Paul F. Crouch, co-founder of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, died at age 79.
updated 6:42 PM EST, Fri November 29, 2013
Jane Kean, who played diverse roles during a long career but was best known as Trixie on the TV revival of "The Honeymooners," has died. She was 90.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Mon November 25, 2013
Singer Wayne Mills, whose "outlaw country" songs center on honky-tonk life, died in a Nashville bar shooting.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT