I met Helen Thomas briefly in Toronto in 1988 at a Ronald Reagan press conference during what was then known as the G7 Summit. To be honest, it wasn’t so much a meeting as being given a very public dressing-down by the legendary White House correspondent.
At the time, I was the Canadian correspondent for New York-based Fairchild News Service and was covering the summit for half-a-dozen Fairchild trade papers. The summit was attended by the world leaders – Ronald Reagan (U.S.), Margaret Thatcher (U.K.), François Mitterrand (France), Helmut Kohl (West Germany), Ciriaco de Mita (Italy), Noboru Takeshita (Japan), Jacques Delors (European Commission) and host Brian Mulroney (Canada) – not to mention hundreds of government officials and international media.
Because I worked for an American news service, I was able to score entry to President Reagan’s June 21 Toronto press conference. I was both excited and optimistic when I arrived early at the Royal York Hotel. The president’s podium had been placed at one end of the meeting room facing rows of chairs set up for the media. I noticed that the front rows had been reserved for specific journalists, their names written on sheets of paper placed on the chairs.
Not quite grasping the pecking order, I marched to the front of the room fully expecting my name to be on one of those chairs. As I walked along the rows, I saw placeholders for Sam Donaldson (ABC News)… Terence Hunt (Associated Press)…. Helen Thomas (United Press International)…. It finally dawned on me that I’d be sitting at the back of the room with the rest of the hacks.
I don’t remember much about the content of the press conference, other than the fact that everyone stood up when Reagan entered the room, he was very charming, and after taking several questions from the White House press corps he made a special point of taking questions from the local media. (Read a transcript of the June 21, 1988 press conference.)
As soon as the press conference ended, the media was in full flight. While some ran out to find a hotel telephone so that they could call in their stories, the rest of the crowd scrambled toward the back of the room where the press office had just put out piles of official statements and backgrounders.
Having sat so close to the back, I easily pushed my way through and grabbed a copy of each handout for myself. But as I walked away, Thomas – who was still trying to get near the pile of papers – loudly admonished me for not getting copies for her, too.
It’s common courtesy, she loudly explained, that if you get to the handouts first, you’d pick up several copies and pass them out to your fellow journalists. That was how it was among reporters covering the president, she scolded.
I had no idea who this elderly, gravelly-voiced woman was, and why she’d decided to single me out. I didn’t know that, at the age of 68, she was an icon who’d blazed a trail for women in journalism; that she was the first female president of the White House Correspondents Association; and that she’d covered every presidency since John F. Kennedy (and would end her career under a cloud of controversy in 2010 during the Obama administration). She was the dean of the White House press corps – perhaps she wanted me to acknowledge that?
To be fair, I’m not entirely sure Thomas meant to admonish me. She was a legendary straight-shooter who, as President Barack Obama said in a statement yesterday, “never failed to keep presidents — myself included — on their toes.”
Perhaps she was offering a helpful lesson in press corps etiquette; you know, showing the ropes to a newbie. In a tribute, Karen Tumulty, national political correspondent for the Washington Post, remembers Thomas this way: “To younger colleagues, she was the opposite of that woman who had made every president since John F. Kennedy squirm. She went out of her way to offer advice and help.” (What Helen Thomas taught us)
My encounter with Thomas was brief. She showed me an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera she said she always carried in her purse so that she could take personal photos of the presidents and of the important events she witnessed over her long career.
Unfortunately, I have absolutely no recollection of what I said to her during our conversation.
What’s more important is that I heard what she had to say. Journalists are very competitive; they want to be first at everything, whether it’s breaking a news story or grabbing handouts. I like to think that Helen Thomas was making a point about common courtesy and looking out for colleagues – even when you consider them to be your competitors.
Helen Thomas died July 20, 2013, at the age of 92 after a lengthy illness.
Read one of the many obituaries online:
New York Times: 50 Years of Tough Questions and ‘Thank You, Mr. President’
CBS News: Remembering Helen Thomas
Main image is a Creative Commons enhanced photo used courtesy of Glenn Dettwiler