Helen Thomas and Her 6 Presidents : Veteran Reporter's View of the Top

Times Staff Writer

When Helen Thomas began her journalism career 40 years ago, she was relegated to covering what was then euphemistically called "women's news," society items and chatty profiles of celebrities.

Even in the late '50s, while Thomas was considered competent enough to cover so-called "hard news beats" such as the Justice Department, Federal Bureau of Investigation and Congress--and to write for United Press International's (UPI's) radio news network--she still was considered unsuited to be a broadcast announcer.

"Women weren't hired by radio in those days to appear on the air because they weren't considered to have good speaking voices," Thomas recalled in a speech Sunday to the state convention of the American Assn. of University Women, a nationwide organization dedicated to the promotion of higher education and equitable treatment of women.

Today Thomas, at 64, is White House bureau chief for UPI, the first woman to occupy such a position with a major wire service. She is known to millions of Americans as the voice that often closes presidential news conferences with "Thank you, Mr. President."

"In the battle for equality for women, we have come a long way, but we are not there yet," Thomas told a luncheon audience of 570 women at the Westin South Coast PlazaHotel in Costa Mesa.

During her 30-minute talk, Thomas gave a candid, at times humorous assessment of her coverage of six presidents during a quarter of a century, beginning with John F. Kennedy.

"During the years I've had this ringside view of presidents, I've learned something: Presidents are human too. I've witnessed their joys, sorrows--and rare acts of nobility."

Thomas' audience-pleasing combination of toughness and wry humor, she later suggested in an interview, was born of her attempts to break down barriers in the basically all-male world of Washington journalism.

Broke a Barrier

For 90 years the prestigious National Press Club in Washington, D.C., was closed to women until Thomas became a member--and later its first female officer. For half a century the White House Correspondents Assn. had no women officers until Thomas was elected to its presidency in 1975.

It took the Gridiron Club, an exclusive social organization for the press in Washington, 90 years to open its doors to a woman; that woman was Helen Thomas, who became a member in 1975.

After listening to these and other accomplishments detailed in a lengthy introduction, Thomas stepped to the podium and quipped: "It's hard to hear your obituary when you think you're still alive."

Small in stature, Thomas wore a red dress. ("Is that 'Reagan Red?' " one member of the audience teasingly asked later during the question and answer session.)

Shaky Start

According to Thomas, "President Reagan's second term is getting off to a shaky start." She ticked off a number of the President's recent reversals, including the controversy surrounding his planned visit to a military cemetery for German soldiers killed in World War II and Reagan's failed attempt to get Congress to adopt an aid package for so-called contras, guerrillas seeking to overthrow the Marxist-led Sandinista government of Nicaragua.

"Other presidents," Thomas said, "have faced similar predicaments in an office that has been described as a 'splendid misery.' This perhaps explains why presidents age so much in office. But President Reagan seems to have managed to freeze the biological clock. He seems to take all these pressures in stride."

Although Thomas is presently covering the Reagan White House, she did not shrink from offering a critical and candid analysis of the President's programs. "The President wants to wipe out--and chip away at what he can't wipe out--the social programs of the New Deal and Great Society," Thomas said.

"This Administration's philosophy can best be summed up by (Director of the Office of Management and Budget) David Stockman's comment that: 'Government owes people no services.' This is the same David Stockman who did not pay off his college loan until after this fact was exposed in the press.

"There can be no doubt that the President's 'Revolution of the Right' continues to enjoy wide popular support; you can't argue with a 49-state mandate (which Reagan achieved in last fall's presidential election)."

But it will be during Reagan's second term, Thomas contended, that the American people will see the "real Reagan. During the President's first term, he was surrounded by (a host of advisers) who were practiced in shielding the President from following his natural instincts. Now they are gone; it's a whole new ballgame. The result is that Reagan thinks he's the President."

Son's Comment

Whatever burdens or difficulties a president encounters in office, Thomas asked her audience to keep in mind an observation once made by Jeff Carter, former President Jimmy Carter's youngest son.

"One Christmas, early in the Carter presidency, Carter was holding one of his grandchildren in his lap while the child unwrapped a Christmas present; Carter was clearly playing to the cameras.

"We called Jeff over and asked him if he ever felt sorry for his father because of the burdens he had to face as President. Jeff looked at his father and said: 'No. He asked for it.' "

Thomas maintains that each of the six presidents she has covered has disliked the way they were treated by the press.

"Kennedy said: 'I'm reading more and enjoying it less,' " Thomas recalled. Kennedy was the first president she covered after becoming a member of the UPI White House team in 1961, and among those presidents she has covered, he remains the one she most admires.

"I think he was the most inspired--and inspiring--of them all," Thomas said in an interview. "And Kennedy had the greatest sense of the difference between war and peace."

Declining to rate the six presidents she has covered from her most favorite to least admired, Thomas explained: "Each made his contribution and each fell by the wayside. Even Kennedy had his Bay of Pigs (U.S. support of the abortive attempt of Cuban emigres to overthrow the Communist government of Fidel Castro on Cuba)."

Press in Mental Ward

As further proof of presidential irritation with the press, Thomas recalled a time when Lyndon Johnson went to the hospital for an operation and the mental ward was converted to a press room.

"Johnson asked Bill Moyers, who was his press secretary, 'Where are the patients?' " Thomas recalled. "Moyers replied, 'We gave them all press cards.' "

During the Nixon presidency, Thomas said the press once was trooped through the Oval Office for a so-called "photo opportunity." As the press entered the room, Nixon greeted them by saying: "It's only a coincidence that we're talking about pollution." Even the general public holds the press--particularly the White House press corps--in low esteem, Thomas said. She said the press is all too often perceived by the public as "vultures causing a nice President (Reagan) a lot of trouble by throwing questions at him all the time."

"We in the press know that we are not loved," Thomas said, "and we're not going to win any popularity contests. Ancient rulers used to kill messengers who brought bad news; I'm sure much of the public would like to do the same with today's press.

"But we in the press will continue to let the chips fall as they may. And we will continue to report the news fairly and responsibly."

UPI, where Thomas has worked since 1943 after graduating from Wayne State University in Detroit--where she grew up--is in deep financial difficulty. This week the wire service is seeking the protection of bankruptcy laws in order to keep operating.

"Thanks for making my day," Thomas jokingly chided one member of the audience when questioned on UPI's fate. "We've had two years of trouble. We are living with the hope that UPI will make it."

Covering President Reagan

Indeed, Thomas did not allow UPI's cloudy future to dampen her reverie at "being back in my old stomping ground. I used to spend a lot of time down in San Clemente covering 'you know who,' and I'm spending a lot of time up in Santa Barbara these days covering President Reagan."

But such is the stalwart nature of Helen Thomas, who rose from being a "copy girl" 40 years ago for the now-defunct Washington Daily News to the pinnacle of success in print journalism--covering the White House--only to find that the long-sought prize has turned out to be more apparent than real. Television, Thomas acknowledged in an interview, has eclipsed print journalism when it comes to covering the White House.

"In the 24 years I've covered the White House," Thomas said, "the greatest change in the way the press covers the president is due to the advent of TV. As recently as the Kennedy Administration, the TV cameras were not there all the time.

"Now they're there 24 hours a day. Not only is there round-the-clock coverage by the three networks--and CNN--but sometimes they each will have three or four correspondents and three camera crews at the White House when something's breaking.

"And the President pays more attention to TV than to print journalism. His goal is to get one minute on the evening news. That is more valuable to him than two pages in the Los Angeles Times.

"But I'm not knocking TV; it's done a terrific job of covering the White House," said Thomas.

Indeed, notwithstanding TV's inroads and UPI's uncertain future, Thomas, the widow of retired Associated Press reporter Douglas B. Cornell, has no plans to leave journalism.

"I love my job," said Thomas who is childless and was married to Cornell for 10 years prior to his death three years ago, "and I think I'm lucky to be there (covering the White House).

"I can't conceive of myself retiring. I will continue to be a reporter--one way or another."

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