Helen Thomas

(WOMENSENEWS)–A by-now famous exchange between Helen Thomas and Ari Fleischer demonstrates why the 83-year-old reporter is venerated as the woman who always talks back to the powerful–asking yet another tough question.

When the National Organization for Women honored Helen Thomas with an Intrepid Award this July, alongside the biography the group provided on its Web site was a link to an exchange between the veteran reporter and Fleischer, the former White House spokesperson.

In the back and forth that took place before the United States launched its war on Iraq, Thomas grilled Fleischer on the wisdom of pre-emptive strikes and the subsequent cost in innocent civilian lives.

Her questions and numerous follow-ups, which rarely allowed Fleischer to finish his sentences, set Thomas apart from a White House news corps that some commentators considered subdued by fears of appearing anti-patriotic.

Thomas herself has criticized her fellow reporters for their timidity.

“They’re not probing enough,” she said in an interview with Women’s eNews. “Maybe they’ve gotten scared. They don’t probe; they don’t ask the questions that are obviously out there. I think people, observant people, are watching these briefings and they throw their hands up and say ‘why did you let him get away with this?'”

Shunned at War Press Conference

The Thomas-Fleischer exchange quickly became a staple of anti-war sites on the Internet and when President George Bush gave one of his rare live news conferences shortly thereafter, he did not even call on Thomas, who has traditionally opened and closed news conferences.

So it is not surprising that when asked to name her biggest challenge in 42 years of covering the White House, her immediate response is to say: “Just getting the news–because government is very secretive.”

“The American people will never know how difficult it is to get any facts on anything because most people who go into government . . . want to cover their tracks and don’t want you to know their business,” Thomas said. “So it’s a constant struggle to find out what’s going on.”

Thomas had been engaged in that struggle–often still seen as a man’s game–for five decades. In 1943, she joined United Press International as a White House correspondent and since 1961 she has covered every president since John F. Kennedy’s administration, traveling the world with presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton. She was the only female reporter to accompany President Nixon on his historic trip to China in 1972.

Lucky to ‘Cover History Every Day’

“I think I’ve been the luckiest woman in the world to cover the White House. I cover history every day,” Thomas said. “Everything comes to the White House. From the smallest, most trivial story to war and peace. The range of stories you do everyday is phenomenal. So I think when I decided in high school that I wanted to be a reporter, I made the best decision in my life.”

Although she left United Press International in 2000 after the Unification Church bought the news affiliate, she has continued to grill the chief executive and his spokespeople for a syndicated column she writes for Hearst Newspapers.

Pointing to the paltry number of news conferences that Bush has given so far, Thomas laments how hidden the administration keeps its cards.

“Most (presidents) would have at least one a month and, if they’re really good, two a month,” she said. “I think he obviously doesn’t like to hold news conferences and doesn’t want to be grilled but he should be. I really suffer because of that. He’ll answer questions on the run–that’s not the same thing because you can’t nail them.”

Thomas said these opinions, which she calls “very liberal, very strong,” have garnered her mostly negative feedback for her columns.

Magnet for Superlatives

Whatever adjective chosen to describe her, there is little doubt that Thomas’ decades at the White House inspires superlatives–the “grande dame of American journalism” Freedom Forum said when it announced her departure from UPI; “trailblazer” according to NOW; and cliches such as the “First Lady of the Press.”

At the Arab American Institute Foundation’s 5th Annual Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Humanity Awards in April, Washington Post columnist Nora Boustany presented Thomas with an award and spoke for many younger female journalists for whom Thomas has been an icon.

“I’ve always known that Helen Thomas was a giant in American journalism. She defined her role with spunk, savvy, and class and she set the standard for directness in inconstancies in American foreign policy,” Boustany said.

Ask Thomas how it was to be one of first women in the White House press corps and she deftly nudges focus away from her own achievements and struggles to those of women in general.

Women’s Battle for Rights Continues

“I knew we had to struggle for equality on all scores, not just in the White House, everywhere, in government, in the country,” she said. “Women did not have the same rights and they still don’t. The battle still goes on. I think any woman who wants to go ahead in the world, business world or professional world, should understand that they all have to fight for their rights.

“There’s no equality in the workplace yet. And when women are paid a lot less, all these things, then they certainly aren’t in the top strata,” Thomas said. “Some make it; some don’t. But there’s no equality yet. I believe you should never stop fighting for your rights.”

If she was aware that she had to struggle as a woman, Thomas said she never felt her Arab heritage was an impediment. Born to Lebanese immigrants in Kentucky, Thomas grew up in Detroit, which along with neighboring Dearborn, is home to one of the largest Arab American communities in the United States.

“I’m more aware of being a woman discriminated against,” she said. “I’m sure blacks have felt much more the color line. There certainly might have been (anti-Arab sentiment) but I didn’t feel it once I got into Washington . . . Sure I think there is a lot of ethnic discrimination but I personally didn’t feel it here–it was more in the sort of clannishness in Detroit.”

Retirement Out of the Question

The author of three books, including “Thanks for the Memories Mr. President: Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House,” Thomas is as formidable on the receiving end of questions as she always has been firing them off. Asked how long she thinks she will continue writing, Thomas–who turned 83 in August–retorts:

“Do you have to ask a stupid question like that? It’s stupid because you’re asking me if I’m going to retire. I’m working–why should I even think about tomorrow in that respect? I’m irritated because people always think you reach a certain point in your life and you should retire. People should live their own lives . . . I’m a columnist now and I like being a columnist, period.”

She later apologized for her defensiveness. But ask her if she ever gets bored and her answer makes it clear why she is so impatient with what she thinks are questions on her retirement.

“Never. Never. Never. There’s too much to do, to see, to learn.”

Mona Eltahawy is managing editor of Arabic Women’s eNews.