New Documentary Examines Helen Thomas, Icon of American Journalism

Alexandra Stanisic

When former White House Press Secretary Tony Snow contacted ABC's correspondent Ann Compton, he was on his death-bed with a terminal case of colon cancer. Still, he wanted to send a message to legendary White House correspondent Helen Thomas, who was also ill at the time. “If you are in touch with her, would you please pass on my love. I think she knows how much she means to me and to million of others,” Snow wrote in an e-mail message to Compton.

Thomas, 88, occupies a special place in the media: a former White House correspondent for UPI and current White House columnist for the Hearst newspapers, she is known for voicing strong opinions. Having irritated numerous presidents and their press secretaries, she was once accused by the late Tony Snow of representing Hezbollah’s point of view. Recently her professional life was explored in an HBO documentary directed by Rory Kennedy, niece of the very first president that Thomas interviewed at the White House.

Kennedy's documentary highlights Thomas' humble origins. Born in Winchester in 1920 and raised in Detroit, her parents originated from Lebanon's second largest city, Tripoli, which at the time was a part of Syria. Although her parents were illiterate, she defied the odds by making a name for herself. According to Kennedy, her first move was to go to Washington D.C. where she didn’t know a soul.

Launching her career at her high school newspaper, Thomas later joined the United Press International in 1943- a time when there were few women in the field. She became one of America’s pre-eminent journalists, earning the label of the Dean of the White House Press Corps in a male dominated profession.

In her role of White House Correspondent, Thomas became associated with a particular ritual:   During press conferences, she regularly sat in the front row, opening with the first question and closing each conference with "Thank you, Mr. President," which happens to be the title of the HBO documentary.  Her career spanning 60 years, Thomas’s relationship with the White House began with the Kennedy administration and has continued into the present.

The documentary credits her with having been able to maintain personal relationships with each president without compromising her objectivity -- something that has been especially difficult for journalists since the Watergate scandal. According to the LA Times, Thomas honored her journalistic standards by casting aside her personal feelings about each president. "She was able to be at every turn asking the toughest questions," wrote the Hollywood Reporter. 

Despite her challenging questions and occasionally harsh tone, Thomas’s directness rarely strained her relations with presidents. In fact, the documentary reveals that they actually went out of their way to keep a personal connection with Thomas, in spite of, or perhaps because of, her determined and persistent questioning at press conferences. In one shot Thomas is caught laughing with Pat Nixon, while in another she is blowing out candles on a birthday cake held by President Clinton --she is even featured singing.

Did Kennedy intend to tell everything about Thomas in the documentary? Apparently not, according to a New York Times review of  "Thank You, Mr. President." The Los Angeles Times seems to agree, observing that Kennedy introduces neither the questions addressed to presidents nor the ideas expressed in her Hearst newspaper's columns. "Thomas pioneering status in a male dominated profession deserves more insight than this polite documentary can muster," charged the New York Times. Echoing similar views, the LA Times called this documentary of 40 minutes "bafflingly slight."

Despite recent absences from presidential press conferences, Thomas’ colleagues have kept her seat open, according to The Southbend Tribune. 

The World Almanac named Thomas one of the 25 most influential women in America.

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