A Classy Broad Steps Down
My Night Drinking With UPI Legend Helen Thomas
NewsForChange.com, May 16, 2000
In the end, Helen Thomas was too classy to even blame her retirement today on the fact that the freakin' Moonies just bought the news wire she loved so fiercely.
"United Press International is a great news agency," the 79-year-old dean of the White House press corps said in a statement. "It has made a remarkable mark in the annals of American journalism and has left a superb legacy for future journalists. I wish the new owners all the best, great stories, and happy landings."
Anyone who has had the happy misfortune of working for UPI in the last decade knows how desperately hopeful the phrase "superb legacy" is. Since Scripps Howard sold the wire in 1982, its staff has steadily bled from 1,500 in 200 bureaus to probably less than 100 in 10, and its client list has deteriorated to nearly zero. Some mysterious Saudis bought the thing in 1992, and since then staffers have come to expect wild lurches in strategy, management, pay schedules and morale.
But anyone who has had the fortune of working with Helen Thomas can tell you that she refused to let the convulsions interfere with her work and cussed sense of honor.
I met her in a Prague hotel at 11 p.m. one January 1994 night, when Bill Clinton was in town announcing a new "Partnership for Peace" that would eventually evolve into an expanded NATO. Thomas, wearing huge green combat boots and a bright orange coat, had been doggedly following Clinton's notoriously long and improvisational schedule for days, fighting through jet lags and the insufferable snottiness of the Bubba's first-term press handlers. She had to be up the next morning at 5 a.m. She immediately ordered two bottles of wine, and told hours' worth of delightful R-rated war stories from covering every president since Kennedy.
Besides loving to tell and listen to tall tales, she cared deeply about the dignity of the White House -- which she felt even then that Clinton was profaning -- and about her profession, which she worried was being taken over by careerists with short attention spans who shrank from hard work the way they avoided hard drink. Above all, she hated to witness the steep decline of UPI, and the emergence of the Associated Press as a monopoly.
She was no poet, and history will still think of Bob Woodward and even the horrid Sam Donaldson when it thinks of White House reporters, but Thomas was one of the last and best of a generation that viewed journalism as a rough-hewn public service, and a contrarian partner in the great democratic experiment. Now the Helen Thomases of the world have given way to the Maureen Dowds. It's worth taking a moment and lamenting the changing of the guard.