Kentucky native and longtime United Press International White House correspondent Helen Thomas died early Saturday, July 20. She was 92.
Thomas covered every president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama for UPI and later Hearst News Service, opening doors for other female journalists every step of the way. In the world of Beltway political journalism, I’m hard-pressed to think of a single “first” for women in journalism that wasn’t achieved by Thomas.
I’m sad I never got a chance to meet my former UPI colleague, especially since she played an important part in one of my first big “scoops” and probably never even knew it.
During the Dec. 16, 1998 formal sentencing of convicted Heath High School gunman Michael Carneal, I ended up being one of only three photographers allowed in the courtroom (and almost certainly the only one shooting color negative and slide film, as opposed to the low-resolution digital cameras — barbaric, by today’s standards — in use by my competitors at the time).
I laid out my case on the judge’s answering machine — it could have been voicemail, but in 1998 was still most likely an answering machine — and got a call back from Hines’ assistant later that day saying the judge was granting my request to photograph Carneal’s sentencing.
My argument had won the judge over, she explained, but he did have one question: Would Helen Thomas be writing the story? “He’s a big fan of Ms. Thomas’s work,” the judge’s assistant explained. “Can we request Helen Thomas?” she asked, jokingly.
I told the judge’s assistant I couldn’t promise anything, but I’d certainly pass His Honor’s request up the food chain. I can’t remember who was working the photo desk in DC that day (probably Ricardo Watson), but I do remember they got a big kick out of hearing how I was able to gain courtroom access for the sentencing. Not bad for a Kentucky boy, I guess.
“She was very fond of photographers,” former UPI photographer Dirck Halstead wrote on the White House News Photographers Association blog after Thomas died. “She held them in great respect as colleagues; especially those who she knew had worked for UPI.”
Halstead and Thomas both started covering the White House for UPI at the outset of the Kennedy administration. Halstead spent more than 15 years at the wire service in total, being elevated to photo chief of its Saigon bureau during the Vietnam War. He then went on to become one of TIME magazine’s most prolific political photographers and still holds the record for most TIME covers shot by a single photographer — 47, over the course of approximately 29 years.
In the nine or so years I worked for UPI covering mostly Kentucky and Tennessee, the venerable old wire service was already a mere shell of its former self, long since giving up its seat on Air Force One to save money and hardly ever traveling with the president outside suburban Washington. Otherwise, Thomas might have traveled with President Bill Clinton during his April 1998 visit to Kentucky, the first presidential assignment I ever covered.
After 57 years at UPI, Thomas resigned in May 2000 — one day after the flagging wire service was purchased by News World Communications, a media conglomerate established in 1976 by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church.
Thomas never said publicly she was leaving UPI because of News World Communications’ ties to the Unification Church, but she also wasn’t the only journalist to jump ship after the acquisition. Lee Michael Katz, then UPI’s international editor, called his own resignation following the change in ownership a “no-brainer” and told the New York Times he was certain Thomas quit for the same reason.
“Look at the timing of this,” Katz told the Times in 2000, “and Helen’s devotion.”
If not for the Moonie invasion, I suspect I would have gotten to work with Thomas at some point during Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign — my second presidential race and the first one I photographed extensively. I criss-crossed the Mid-South covering Gore that year, photographing his formal campaign announcement, running mate announcement, Super Tuesday victory celebration, election night returns party and numerous other rallies and town hall meetings in between.
UPI sent a reporter from Washington to Nashville for Gore’s election night event and I made sure we got together, although I can’t immediately recall his name. Had Thomas still been a Unipresser at the time, I suspect that reporter would have been her.
It’s possible Hearst may have sent Thomas to Nashville for the election, but, if so, I never knew it. Either way, our paths probably wouldn’t have crossed at the time since she wasn’t with UPI anymore.
Current and future generations of political journalists — especially women — would do well to make use of a different phrase: “Thank you, Helen Thomas.”
May she rest in peace.