Front row with Helen Thomas
Helen Thomas will be remembered, foremost, as a truly great reporter but also as one of the pioneers who broke down barriers against women in the national media.
She became the first woman to close a press conference with, "Thank you, Mr. President," and has become the first female president of the White House Correspondents Association, the first female officer of the National Press Club, and the first female member -and later president - of the Gridiron Club.
And along the way, Ms. Thomas has provided terrific up-front, day-and-night coverage of eight presidents -starting with Kennedy - and their administrations.
I'm reminded of this as I read her new memoir, "Front Row at the White House." I glow with admiration as I turn the pages and watch her rise to the top, starting from early journalism jobs in Washington. She did it with hard work; no reporter could ever outwork Helen. She also did it with dedication. She loves what she is doing. But it's a fighting, indomitable spirit that has made her unstoppable.
Right here I must declare a conflict of interest: Helen Thomas is a longtime friend of mine. So don't expect too much objectivity.
Indeed, as I hear that this contemporary of mine is still arriving at her White House office at 6:30 a.m. and putting in a long day, day after day, I take off my hat to her.
She's still taking trips abroad with presidents, filing story after story, almost endlessly, until the trip is over. Other old-time reporters, long retired, ask me how she does it. All I can say is, "Well, you know Helen."
But there is a prickly side to Helen, too. "Prickly," is a mild way of putting it. Let anyone - a president, a presidential press secretary, or another reporter - do something she doesn't think is right and she goes into fighting mode.
I was once the "beneficiary" of one of those "fighting moments" of Helen's. When I was vice president of the Gridiron Club, she called me to complain because she'd wanted something done and it wasn't. She had called the club's president, but he was out of the city (lucky fellow). So Helen landed on me with all four feet, including a lot of yelling. I couldn't get a word in edgewise.
A few days later I shared a seat with another female media star on a trip the Gridiron Club was taking. She had heard about that phone conversation and was joshing me about having tasted a bit of what she called "Helen's treatment." I told her I wasn't amused. I had been powerless to do what Helen wanted and, furthermore, I couldn't understand why she hit the ceiling like that with an old friend.
This colleague then said what I really already knew: "Helen has had to fight her way up. When she hits an obstacle, she sometimes explodes. You just happened to be in her way. It wasn't personal."
This was true. The next time I saw Helen (and after her Gridiron issue had been dealt with) she acted as though nothing had happened. And so did I. Our friendship has continued unabated.
Her book is full of fresh insights into what's gone on inside the White House over the years. Here's just one:
"When Leon Panetta joined the Clinton White House as chief of staff in 1994 to bring some order to the chaos, he appeared at a Sperling breakfast - a Washington event for movers and shakers - and The Washington Post reported he used the words 'very gloomy, very dire,' to describe the mood inside the Executive Mansion. The morning that story appeared, I was in the press van following Clinton on his morning jog and shouted, 'Is it all going down the drain?' Seems his staff hadn't alerted him to the story before he left to go running."
I love you, Helen. And you've written a knockout of a book. But, please, don't yell at me anymore!