By Susan Redden
JOPLIN, Mo. —
She didn’t suffer fools gladly, if at all. At least, that’s my strongest recollection from two face-to-face encounters I had with legendary journalist Helen Thomas.
Called “the dean of the White House press corps,” Thomas, 92, died Saturday in Washington, D.C.
I first met her at Missouri Southern State University, where she addressed students as part of a Women in Government symposium. I’m uncertain of the year, but it was before 2000, because at the time she was still the White House correspondent for United Press International and the one, because of her longevity, who was allowed to close presidential news conferences with the phrase “Thank you, Mr. President.”
I do know it was during the Clinton administration because I was fortunate enough to sit next to her during a luncheon, and I asked her what had happened to some official in the administration of Clinton’s predecessor, George H.W. Bush.
Thomas told me that he was working for a particular foundation and predicted that he would reappear with the next Republican president, adding, “They recycle, you know.”
I was intimidated by the thought of talking to a woman who had covered presidents since John F. Kennedy, but I managed to ask a few more questions and she answered every one. I asked her to sign my reporter’s notebook, and she kindly gave me an autograph that said, “To Susan, with my admiration, Helen Thomas.”
I met her again in November 2007 when she addressed a symposium at Pittsburg (Kan.) State University. She had left UPI by that time and had become a columnist with Hearst Newspapers, where she could — and did — share strongly held opinions.
I remember her observing that there were 15 months left in the term of George W. Bush, then adding, “Let me count the days.”
Though presidents from both parties had been on the stinging end of her criticism, she leveled some of her harshest barbs toward the younger Bush, who she argued had gotten the country into war with no justification. She also had little good to say about the media; she contended they had let the Bush administration off the hook by not sufficiently questioning allegations that weapons of mass destruction existed in Iraq.
She is said to have always been encouraging to other reporters, and that was true for me after the May 2011 tornado. I had become one of the subjects in the “Deadline in Disaster” movie underwritten by the Missouri Press Association about the Globe’s tornado coverage. I was filmed going through what was left of my house looking for, among other things, my autograph of Thomas that I had framed to include with her picture.
That part of the video was in a trailer that found its way to the Internet. It was seen by a kind woman who didn’t know me or Thomas, but who made it her project to get me a replacement. She must have been as persistent as Thomas because in a few months, I ended up with a new autographed photograph that now hangs on my apartment wall. I appreciate it even more because it mentions my husband, Wendell Redden, who died of pancreatic cancer three months before the tornado.
Here’s part of what she wrote: “I’m so unhappy about the loss of your wonderful husband, Wendell, and your great trials shared with the brave people of Joplin. You have been through a lot, above and beyond the call. I respect your career and your dedication to our great profession.”
Thomas was forced to resign from Hearst in 2011 after controversial comments she made about Jews in Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But she has to be remembered as a pioneering journalist who broke the glass ceiling for female reporters. She entered the field when women weren’t even allowed in the National Press Club or the White House Correspondents’ Association. She later became an officer in each of those organizations. She was willing to ask the hard questions and to follow up with another hard question if she didn’t get an answer from the first.
SUSAN REDDEN is a staff writer for the Globe. She can be reached at email@example.com or 417-627-7258. Follow her on Twitter @Susan_Redden.