[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.
Of all the nasty, no-class acts the last president (I've already forgotten his name) committed was his deliberate slight of my friend and former colleague, Helen Thomas. She was sitting in her customary front row seat in the White House briefing room when the president held his last press conference. He refused to call on her.
Only a few of us noticed, including Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, who asked Thomas about it. She was not surprised at the snub, she said, for this president did not like her or the kind of questions she asked. Indeed, he hated challenging questions. Thomas told Goodman that she wanted to get away from those silly no-news nostalgia, what-do-you-regret questions, and ask him "why do you continue to support the killing in Gaza?"
And so this president once more insulted the press, in general, and this 89-year-old woman, who was covering Washington 60 years ago when he was dirtying his diapers. As far as I know, he has been the only president who was afraid of Helen Thomas.
Other presidents she's covered, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, may not have liked her nagging questions, but they did not ignore her; more often they enjoyed the banter with reporters. And they accorded Helen the respect that went with her unofficial title as Dean of the White House Press.
I met Helen when she was covering Johnson in the Sixties and I was an occasional visitor, as a reporter, to the White House. I was reading the wires with her on the clattering teletype in the press room one day, when there was a Presence hovering over us. It was Johnson, who had come out of his office to read the wires and he asked us, "What's going on?"
It was not unusual, Helen told me. LBJ was a restless man, who came out from behind his desk often to talk to reporters, because he liked them.
But I'm getting ahead of the story. After nearly 20 years reporting in Washington, Helen had first come to the White House for the United Press to cover John F. Kennedy, who she knew as a member of Congress. She had covered him and, especially the doings of his wife, Jacqueline, in Palm Beach, Florida, as they prepared to assume the presidency.
It was during one of Kennedy's press conferences, when the questions went on too long and the president wanted to quit but didn't know how, that Helen began what became a tradition, when she called out, "Thank you, Mr. President."
Vivacious and pretty with a dimple in her cheek, Helen was a hard-charger, the personification of the old United Press, a more aggressive wire service than the older and stodgy Associated Press.
Her boss was the late Merriman Smith, who scooped the AP on the Kennedy murder in 1963 while riding in the motorcade then dictated a masterful, prize-winning account of the tragedy.
Helen suffered a personal tragedy after she married in 1971, Douglas B. Cornell, the White House reporter for the AP who had covered and was a favorite of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1976, Helen has written, he began showing symptoms of what is believed to be Alzheimer's disease. She cared for him until he died in 1982, but she kept on working.
Although my stories took me to the White House occasionally during the Johnson and Nixon years, when Helen had become was the chief White House correspondent for the UP, I got to know her really well when I was assigned to cover Gerald Ford, who I knew as a member of Congress, and his successor, Jimmy Carter.
The press was lodged in the Best Western Motel, in Americus, Georgia, during the Ford-to-Carter transition. That's when I learned Helen had a great torch-singer's voice as she sang to my wife's piano-playing in the makeshift press room outside the adjoining Red Neck bar.
On New Year's eve, 1976, she got Ford on the phone in Colorado to wish him well. Carter in Plains, eight miles away, refused to take our call, which told us something about him.
Later, during my eight years covering the Reagan presidency, I often sat in Helen's tiny office chatting, and watching her type out her stories. Helen was the daughter (one of nine children) of Lebanese immigrant parents, who raised her in Detroit. And she's never forgotten her roots.
So she was in pain when she had to cover hard-line Israelis visiting the White House whom Reagan admired and supported. She could ask them pointed questions about Israel's latest offensive against Palestinians who had taken refuge in Lebanon. But her feelings never crept into her copy, which was always clean and straight.
That professionalism helped her break the gender barriers at the National Press Club and the good-old-boy Gridiron Club. She took to wearing red at press conferences with Reagan, when we discovered that he called more often on people who wore red. But Reagan continued the tradition of calling first on the wire reporters at press conferences. And Reagan depended on Helen to end them with her "Thank you. Mr. President."
United Press International, as it became known, was low on funds and curtailed Helen's ability to travel with the White House during the last years of the elder Bush's presidency. But White House reporters, including me, chipped in on a kind of travel slush fund, to help pay for food in press rooms on the road and, surreptitiously, for Helen's travel. Hillary Clinton, who didn't much like the press, started an investigation of the slush fund, which became known as "travelgate." It soured the Clintons' relations with much of the press.
After UPI was bought by the Moonies, Helen quit on principle. And eventually she went to work as a columnist for Hearst, where she is at last free to voice her views. But when the most recent president came along, he banished her to a back row at formal press conferences, and recognized her for a question only once, a year ago.
She might have lost her front row seat in the briefing room, except for the protests of the White House press. Still, Bush's press people treated her as a nag, and worse. Tony Snow, for example, accused her of voicing "the hezbollah view" when she asked why the US did not stop the Israeli bombing of Lebanon. It was a fair question.
But Helen gave as good as she got. She was the first, two years ago, to call our immediate past president "the worst president in our history." That may be why he refused to recognize her at that last press conference.
But he is gone. And Helen Thomas is still there.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Susan Gulliford reflects on a problem I have had all too often in Lost Car - or Just Misplaced.]