In Washington, the city that breathes political correctness and is consumed with lobby control, Helen Thomas was the exception. The 92-year old Arab-American pioneering journalist, who died yesterday, swam against the tide and set a standard of her own in challenging ten U.S. Presidents, and asking tough questions at the toughest times.
When George and Mary Antanios left Tripoli, Lebanon in 1890, fleeing the Ottoman rule to raise a family of nine in Kentucky, south of the United States, little did they know that their daughter Helen would break all kind of social and political odds, challenge the highest authority in the most powerful country in the world for the sake of reporting the truth. From John Kennedy to Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W.Bush and Barack Obama, Helen Thomas was there in the front row of the White House briefing room, questioning every decision they made from Cuba, to Vietnam to Iraq to sex scandals and intelligence flaws that no one else dared to ask.
“I want your conscience to bother you”
Helen Thomas did not take no or “I have no information” for an answer. She was blunt, gutsy, feisty and courageous. In a post-September 11 America, and at a time when most of media outlets were beating the drums of war, she was questioning the Bush administration about intelligence failure, torture, wiretapping and a “senseless war” in Iraq that cost the U.S. and the region thousands of lives and a trillion dollars (Brown University). She called W. Bush the “worst President in all history”, and said that Obama “has a conscience but lacks courage”. She had more affinity to the Clintons and to John F. Kennedy, and she used to wait outside his house in the 1960s, rain or shine, to get a story.
Helen Thomas did not take no or “I have no information” for an answer. She was blunt, gutsy, feisty and courageous.Joyce Karam
The power of journalism in a democracy was embodied in Helen Thomas’s persona. Her persistence and pursuit of the truth was not exclusive to foreign policy issues or U.S. military interventions. During the Healthcare debate, Thomas was relentless in asking former spokesperson Robert Gibbs about the “public option”, and when he questioned her intent about asking the same question every day and expecting a different answer, she replied with a line that sums up her whole legacy: “I ask it day after day because it has great meaning in this country...because I want your conscience to bother you.”
Helen Thomas the Arab-American
I encountered Ms. Thomas at few press briefings prior to her retirement in 2010, and at embassy functions and often at Middle Eastern grocery stores shopping for some Lebanese Hummus and Baklawa. She often reminded me of the Lebanon that her parents left, Tripoli that was part of Ottoman Syria, and she yearned for a more tolerance and justice in the Middle East. She identified with pride as Arab-American and had empathy for the people of the region whether the cause is ending an occupation or rejecting authoritarianism.
She was petite and very modest, and even after earning the title “Dean of the White House Press Corps”, she never forgot where she came from or the drive for her career, to seek the truth and be the voice of the public. It was unfortunate and deeply painful for her when her career ended on an inflammatory comment she made about Israel, she apologized for and regretted.
But the journey and legacy of Helen Thomas remain one of a stellar journalistic voice, a fearless mind who broke many barriers as a woman, and an Arab-American. U.S. President Barack Obama spoke of “her fierce belief that our democracy works best when we ask tough questions and hold our leaders to account”, and in that Helen Thomas set an example for all of us.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam