The first day I walked into the White House, at a time of day when few yet were in their offices, the first person I saw was a guard and then I ran into Helen sitting on that credenza who asked, nonchalantly, something about an overnight story. I didn't even say good morning worried I'd be quoted.
Helen was the dean of the White House press corps, covered nine presidents from the front row in the briefing room and caused many a sleepless night for many a press office staffer, and for those nine presidents. Helen was a leader not just in journalism, but in making sure women had their proper place -- equal to men -- in journalism and journalism organizations. Thanks to Helen, the Press Club admitted women, for example.
For the two years I worked there, Helen was a presence in the front row, and in history. She was a pain to deal with most days, but other days she'd give you that charmingly sinister smile and you had to smile back.
Was she anti-Semitic? I don't know, but she certainly was pro-Lebanese and often anti-Israel. It was clear through her questions on the Middle East. But she also kept the White House honest in many ways. The first time I briefed the White House press, my voice was shaking I was so nervous. Thankfully, they give a first-time briefer a break, knowing he or she isn't going to say anything newsworthy anyway. And, after that 15- or 20-minute briefing. I heard the sweetest two words I'd ever heard. And they came from Helen Thomas. She said, "thank you." Which was the clarion signaling the briefing was over and I was off the hook.
I like to think I got better at briefing after that first time, but thank goodness Helen, and her colleagues, were gentle with me the first time. It was well appreciated.
In my post-White House days, I saw Helen a few times at book parties or other events. She always was very nice to me. Frankly, I was surprised she remembered me, but she did. At my last briefing, I said thank you to all those who helped me or appointed me along the way. I saved my biggest praise and thanks for the late Malcolm Baldrige, the former secretary of commerce during President Reagan's terms and the man who brought me to Washington. Helen always remembered those words because she'd remind me of them when I'd see her, saying it was one of the nicest tributes she'd heard.
Helen died at 92 today. Rest in peace, Helen.