Date: October 1st, 2001
Presidents may come and go, but Helen Thomas is still at her post, after all these years. The dean of the White House press corps, Thomas is the unrivaled "Energizer bunny" of reporters who cover the president's every move. Ironically, her White House beat began in 1961, after John Kennedy's razor-thin victory; it has lasted all the way through the nail-biter of an election that ushered in George W. Bush.
But after covering nine presidents, what still gets her juices flowing? In a word, "Outrage," she says. "I'm really interested in what's going on in the world. That's what keeps me going." In an era when many Americans have been jaded by endless political bickering and scandals, Thomas finds political battles fascinating: "It never gets old - news is news, and there's never a day without news."
Staying interested and engaged may be why she's still a working journalist at age 81, well after most of her peers have retired. "I think information is extremely important, and I just don't understand how you can turn away from life," she says. "It's constantly rewarding, constantly enlightening."
As United Press International's White House correspondent for 40 years, Thomas traditionally asked the first question at presidential news conferences. Her pointed questions have been described as "a mixture of journalism and accupuncture." Was she ever nervous about confronting Presidents with the questions they least wanted to answer? "Sure-I'm not that brave," she readily admits. Nevertheless, she felt privileged to be given the opportunity to question Presidents directly. "I've been very, very lucky I've been able to cover history every day."
Thomas has chronicled some of the nation's historic highs - and lows. "Going to China with President Nixon was one of the greatest stories I ever covered," she says. The two nations, estranged for decades, had severed diplomatic relations years earlier. "It really was like landing on the moon," she marvels. "But this was a great opening, and we were able to write stories with 'new eyes.'"
Yet just two years later, Nixon was gone, the first president to be forced to resign. A quarter century later, the nation was engulfed in another crisis, as President Bill Clinton was impeached over dalliances with an intern and his subsequent efforts to cover up the affair. "I think it was a very traumatic time for the country," Thomas says.
In 1971, she got engaged to fellow newsman (and Associated Press competitor) Douglas Cornell. The two kept their engagement secret from almost everyone, until Cornell's retirement party, hosted by President and Mrs. Nixon. Pat Nixon's surprise announcement of their engagement brought gasps from her colleagues. "At last, I've scooped Helen Thomas," Pat quipped.
The two were married in October 1971. But within a few years, Cornell was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. His health declined rapidly until he died in 1982. Characteristically, Thomas met the loss head-on: "I think people don't really die, if you really loved them," she says. "I think they're always with you, and you have that sense of comfort."
Work also became a refuge from grief. "You have to keep up your interests," she explains. "There's always something new." She has taken new technologies in stride, from E-mail to cell phones: "I think it's much better to have a cell phone when something's happening, instead of having to run across an open field to find a phone booth," she explains.
Reporters like to say, "You're only as good as your last story," and Thomas has certainly taken that wisdom to heart. "There's no such thing as success," she says, downplaying her remarkable career. "There's always another mountain to climb."
And yet, when asked what's next for her, she asks wistfully, "Do I have to have any other plans? Can't I just be a good reporter?" Thomas left UPI in May 2000. She now channels her outrage into the two editorials she writes for Hearst Newspapers each week.
Is she cynical after more than 50 years as a reporter? Not in the least. "Cynicism is a luxury we can't afford," Thomas says. "I think there's more goodness in life than bad. I see goodness all around me." So much for the stereotype of the hard-bitten, cynical reporter. "It isn't that I'm... not facing life," she explains. "But I think too many of us overlook all the good things. We should count our blessings."
As for her own life, Thomas says, "I'm so lucky to have picked a profession that is an education every day."