Meet The Lebanese-American Who Worked Under Ten US Presidents At The White House

JFK Library | The Denver Post

Dubbed as the griller of US Presidents, and the bulldog in the White House, Helen Thomas, a pioneer in women journalism, was born in Winchester, Kentucky (USA) to Lebanese immigrants from Tripoli, North Lebanon.

She was known for her strong outspoken opinions and for “her persistence to the point of badgering” to get answers from the White House. 

Helen Thomas was raised in Detroit, Michigan, and attended Wayne University (now Wayne State University), graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1942.

Her first job in journalism was as a copygirl for the now-defunct Washington Daily News. Shortly after she was promoted to cub reporter, she was laid off as part of massive cutbacks at the paper. 

Thomas joined then United Press International (UPI) in 1943 and reported on women’s topics for their radio wire service.

Later in the decade, and in the early fifties, she wrote the U.P.I’s column Names in the News, for which she interviewed numerous Washington celebrities.

For 12 years, Thomas had to be at work at 5:30 a.m. to write radio news for U.P.I.

Helen Thomas

She later had several beats around the federal government, including the Department of Justice, the F.B.I., the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and the Capitol Hill, before she began covering President-elect John F. Kennedy in 1960.

In January 1961, Thomas entered the White House as a member of the U.P.I. reporting team headed by the late Merriman Smith and was there until May 2000.

Afterward, from 2000 to 2010, she worked as a columnist for Hearst Newspapers, writing on national affairs and the White House.

Thomas covered the administrations of ten U.S. presidents—from the final years of the Eisenhower administration to the second year of the Obama administration. 

She retired from Hearst Newspapers on June 7, 2010, and served as an opinion columnist for the Falls Church News-Press until February 2012.

Thomas described herself as a liberal. For most of her adult life, she was seen to have chosen her work over her personal life.

At age 51, she married Douglas Cornell, a fellow journalist, who was just retiring as the White House reporter for the Associated Press.

Four years later he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and she cared for him until his passing in 1982.

Helen Thomas wasn’t just any journalist. At her death in 2013 at the age of 92, The Guardian U.K. wrote the following:

“Helen Thomas, the irrepressible White House correspondent who used her seat in the front row of history to grill 10 presidents, often to their discomfort, has died.”

“(…) Thomas made her name as a bulldog for United Press International in the great wire-service rivalries of old, and as a pioneer for women in journalism.”

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