Although President Obama declared himself “saddened” by the death of legendary White House reporter Helen Thomas, Thomas sharply criticized Obama’s control of the media shortly after he took office.
Thomas died Saturday at the age of 92, leaving behind a well-respected body of work and a legacy as one of America’s most dogged and, in later years, controversial political journalists.
Thomas, known as the “Dean of the White House Press Corps,” worked for United Press International (UPI) beginning in 1943 and wrote a syndicated column for Hearst Newspapers later in her life. Thomas became White House correspondent for UPI in 1961 and instantly became linked in the public imagination with President John F. Kennedy’s widely-viewed and oftentimes lighthearted televised press conferences. Thomas coined the term “Thank you, Mr. President,” which she said at the end of Kennedy’s press conferences, and which became indelibly linked to the Kennedy administration.
Thomas’ best moment in recent years may have come in July 2009, when she slammed Obama’s then-press secretary Robert Gibbs for the administration’s close management of the press and for planting prepackaged questions for the president.
“The point is the control from here. We have never had that in the White House. And we have had some control but not this control. I mean I’m amazed, I’m amazed at you people who call for openness and transparency and have controlled…” Thomas said.
“Nixon didn’t try to do that,” Thomas said after her confrontation with Gibbs. “They couldn’t control (the media). They didn’t try. What the hell do they think we are, puppets? They’re supposed to stay out of our business. They are our public servants. We pay them.”
The criticism of Obama came as a surprise to observers accustomed to Thomas’ liberal views and hostile relationship with the George W. Bush administration.
Thomas became an outspoken critic in her later years of Israel and Zionism, resulting in controversial comments that led to her 2010 resignation from Hearst.
“Michelle and I were saddened to learn of the passing of Helen Thomas. Helen was a true pioneer, opening doors and breaking down barriers for generations of women in journalism,” President Obama said in a statement. “She never failed to keep presidents – myself included – on their toes. What made Helen the ‘Dean of the White House Press Corps’ was not just the length of her tenure, but her fierce belief that our democracy works best when we ask tough questions and hold our leaders to account.”
“Her work was extraordinary because of her intelligence, her lively spirit and great sense of humor, and most importantly her commitment to the role of a strong press in a healthy democracy,” said Bill and Hillary Clinton in a joint statement.