For years, Helen Thomas was a fixture at nationally televised White House news conferences. She was the short lady who always wore red to catch the eye of whomever was President, and who traditionally asked the first question.
These days, this President doesn’t call on her any more. She has gone from being a hard news reporter to being a columnist, and President Bush doesn’t like what she has to say.
There are those who see her as a peevish and partisan nag, a scowling old lady who asks irritating questions. Indeed, at one time or another, she has ticked off every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower.
But to me, she is someone who deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award our nation can bestow. She also deserves far more recognition from the feminist community for what she has done for women in journalism.
Let’s talk first about what she has done for women. She became a reporter in an era when women didn’t go into journalism and when no woman could never have dreamed of covering politics in Washington – especially not women of her background.
Helen Thomas was the daughter of working-class Lebanese immigrants who settled in Detroit. She took off for Washington – she said to visit a friend – during World War II and never looked back.
She became White House bureau chief for UPI when United Press was still a very big deal. And she smashed through every glass ceiling they put in her way. Women couldn’t join the National Press Club or the Gridiron Club. Helen, of course, eventually did both.
Martha Mitchell confided in her and gave her scoops during Watergate. Helen competed hard against the AP’s White House bureau chief till he retired . . . and then she married him. She kept her opinions to herself those days, and deep down, even Richard Nixon knew she was fair.
These days, she lets her opinions hang out. She is a liberal, and a proud one. But she is prouder of being an American, and a journalist. “Democracy dies behind closed doors,” she likes to say, and that maxim is behind virtually every question she asks.
Long before almost everyone else, she was asking the White House why they were so sure there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and why they thought they had enough troops to secure the situation. She opposed the war, and openly thinks that this President has violated the law and abused his public trust.
But everyone who knows Helen Thomas knows that if she is still working when the next liberal president takes office, she will make him -- or her -- sweat too. Democracy does die behind closed doors.
Let’s wish Helen Thomas, who turns 86 in August, good luck at kicking a few more of them open.