Helen Thomas of United Press International is a Washington institution. America knows her as the short woman with the gravelly voice who rises at presidential press conferences to ask the first or second question - tough, emotional, theatrical questions that other reporters occasionally find off putting - and for her signature closing, "Thank you, Mr. President." Thomas shares the first-question privilege with her competitors at the Associated Press, but the right to close the conferences is traditionally bestowed on the reporter who has covered the White House the longest.
Helen Thomas wins this honor hands down: She has been at her post through seven presidential administrations. Thomas is not known as a journalist with inside sources; her strong suit has always been day-to-day events. Along the way, she has broken big stories -that Richard Nixon's speechwriters were working on a resignation statement - and trivial ones - that one of Caroline Kennedy's hamsters had died.
This kind of reporting may never win Thomas a Pulitzer Prize. But what she does, Sam Donaldson observes, is question, harangue, cajole and coax the president into making the news that, in turn, "becomes the grist for everyone else's stories and everyone else's thoughts."
Thomas's parents, George and Mary Thomas, arrived at Ellis Island from Lebanon in 1903 and worked their way to Lexington, Kentucky. Neither could read or write. George bought a wagon, loaded it with linens, candy, tobacco, fruits and vegetables and took these into the countryside to sell. Soon he opened a store, and kept his books and inventory by memory. Helen was born in 1920, the seventh of nine children. Four years later, the family oved to Detroit. Her father, Thomas believes, "was a man who understood opportunity."
At the dinner table the whole family would debate the issues of the day. Mary Thomas was the more passionate parent, says Helen's older sister Isabelle, with ironclad views of right and wrong. But if there was one overriding opinion in the household, it was that every child had to get a college education. Eventually, all nine did. George and Mary "put the highest stock in education," Helen Thomas says, "because they had none."
Thomas likes to say she "assigned herself" to cover the White House, but former boss Grant Dillman says that's not quite right. UPI vice president Julius Frandsen "sent her there to cover Jackie [Kennedy], but he underestimated her," Dillman says. "She was soon poking her nose into all aspects of the news of the day as well." Through the years, Thomas's questions have become notorious - praised as tough, irreverent and populist; criticized for a pro-Palestinian bias, theatricality and lack of sophistication. Some reporters complain that Thomas too often presents her own position on issues; others say her adversarial stance reflects a relationship with the White House that more reporters should emulate. Thomas believes that, as a reporter, she is a surrogate for the public. "Press conferences," she says, "are the only forum ... where the president can be questioned."
She has great influence with her peers, according to White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater. "There are two or three people in the press corps who can guide it," he says. "If any of these people go after a story, they take the whole press corps with them. Helen is clearly one of those people.
Amanda Spake is a senior editor of The Washington Post Magazine.