Monday, May 4, 2009

Washington Social Diary

Sitting beside Chip Reid of CBS News, Helen Thomas was in the front row - as always - at President Obama's 100th day press conference. "He's really trying to do the right thing," she said, "but he doesn't walk on water."
Helen Thomas
By Carol Joynt

The other night, in the private dining room of a K Street restaurant, 18 women who work in journalism, or close to it, gathered to honor a legend of the industry, who the invitation hailed as “the First Lady of the Press,” Helen Thomas. Her diminutive but dynamic 88-year-old self walked in midway through cocktails to greet each guest warmly by name and with a hug and an appreciative smile. Teatro Goldoni’s chef served a menu that included spring terrine, lobster risotto, tomato pasta, seared tuna, rack of lamb and vanilla-orange panna cotta. Helen served her friends amusing, dramatic and historic recollections of her 50 years as a White House correspondent.

The anecdotes were priceless. You name the chief executive and she had a story to tell. For example, the night Sen. John F. Kennedy gave her a ride home after an embassy party. “Did he make a pass at you?” everyone wanted to know. Oh, no, Helen said. “Did you find him sexy?” Oh, no, Helen said. “He was kind of dull.” Later, his administration would be the first she covered as a White House correspondent, and to this day she believes “he was a great president.” She recalled President Lyndon B. Johnson “couldn’t stand to be alone,” and that her favorite press secretary was Pierre Salinger, because “he was a bon vivant, had personality and knew the right wines.”
A view into the private dining room at Teatro Goldoni.
Helen came to Washington from Michigan in 1942, the daughter of Lebanese Christian parents. She was a graduate of Wayne State University. Why did she come to Washington and take the plunge into journalism? “Growing up in Detroit, nobody ever told me it was a man’s world. My parents never told me I couldn’t be whatever I wanted to be.”

I told her I planned to write about the evening, and my memories of our friendship over the years. “Please embellish it,” she said, laughing.  No embellishment is necessary.

There was a time in American journalism, before journalists were called “the media,” and before every beauty pageant contestant aspired to be a “news anchor,” when the dominant force behind newspapers and radio and TV broadcasts were “the wires.” Almost every country seemed to have a wire service, and they were, with their mantra of “a deadline every minute,” the prototype for what became the 24/7 news cycle and ultimately the all-news cable TV. France had Agence France Press, the Soviet Union had TASS, the Brits had Reuters, and so forth. But the major players worldwide were headquartered in New York City - the Associated Press and United Press, which later became United Press International.
The menu...
In 1969, fresh out of high school, I begged my way into an entry-level job at the Washington bureau of UPI. The glass front door opened into a vast room – a quarter of a floor of the National Press Building – and a musical, magical din from the clicking and clacking of teletype machines, bells announcing breaking news, barking editors, old school phones that didn’t beep gently but rang loudly, and a black and white TV perched precariously over the “national” desk. There was no air, only cigarette smoke. The day editor in the “slot” did wear a visor, did have fingers stained yellow from his Camels, the switchboard operator was named “Elsie,” and the boss did post a memo that said “henceforth females will be permitted to wear pants to the office so long as they are part of a tasteful ensemble.”

My first days on the job were defined by eagerness and intimidation, and no two people intimidated me more than our White House correspondents, Merriman Smith and Helen Thomas. “Smitty” was an icon, he’d broken the story of JFK’s assassination. Helen was a force of nature, blazing an unprecedented trail for women in journalism in general and White House coverage in particular. Between them they daily played a hardball game of beating the competition from the AP. That was all that mattered, because news coverage in general flowed from what the wire services reported, whether it was the major newspapers or the upstart networks.
Helen Thomas at the Obama press conference, front row, lower right in purple.
My job was “dictationist,” a stepping stone to reporter, and we quaked when Elsie blasted over the P.A. system that Helen was on the line with a “bulletin” from the White House. You quickly slipped on your headset, rolled a carbon “copybook” into the black manual Smith-Corona, and poised your hands over the keys. No niceties from Helen. She just rattled off her story and you had to keep up. You never asked Helen to repeat a sentence. That was the kiss of death. As with all wire service reporters, she wrote her stories off notes and the top of her head, including punctuation and new paragraphs. It was an art form.  The only time she let down even a little, and sometimes even laughed at her own turn of phrase, was on Fridays when she phoned in her Sunday column, “Backstairs at the White House.”

In the era before faxes and computers, one of us kids would be sent to the White House press room on delivery or pick up missions. I loved this. It got me in the White House and into the company of Helen and Smitty. The first time I entered the West Wing was the end of the Johnson Administration, the last days of the old White House press room, a relic of earlier in the century. There was a dark and dreary wide hallway where reporters napped on big leather sofas outside Press Secretary Bill Moyer’s office. The press room itself was small and cramped with desks. UPI and AP had choice positions, closest to the two wooden phone booths that had pay phones. Episodes were legend of reporters fighting each other to get into those phone booths. My favorite involved Helen: in a rush to beat AP with a breaking story, she got her dress caught on a door, the dress ripped wide open in the back, exposing what all, but she grabbed the phone and dictated her story anyway.
Everybody took turns sitting with Helen and getting their picture taken with Helen.
President Richard Nixon came into office and immediately moved the press out of the corner of the West Wing and into a fancy new press room over the old indoor swimming pool. There would be no more camping on sofas in the West Wing hallway. The press would now be sequestered. Sometimes Helen would let me tag along for a visit in the Oval Office or Nixon’s “hideaway” in the Old Executive Office Building. There would be maybe six or eight of us, and Nixon would be right there, only a few yards away. Even though he was a famously controlled politician, this was before Watergate, and there was an intimacy between him and the reporters that disappeared once the scandal broke and, for many reasons, never returned to the relationship between the press and the president – any president.

But back then in the Oval Office I watched as Helen casually chatted up Nixon, then would suddenly and slyly wing in a sharp question, get her answer and race back to dictate a fresh lead to the day’s story, with me running behind her. That’s how it’s been for her all these decades, all these presidents, and so many historic moments.
Dinner host Janet Donovan with Helen Thomas and Martha Joynt Kumar. CJ and Helen Thomas - a 40-year friendship.
Donna Shor tells a Helen Thomas story, with Vicki Bagley in the background. Stephanie Green of The Washington Times, Helen Thomas, and Amy Artgetsinger of The Washington Post.
Helen was the only woman print journalist to travel with Nixon on his historic China trip. By then, I was her favored dictationist. She learned I could type fast and didn’t open my mouth to ask questions. Helen was in Peking but dictated her stories by phone to me on the desk in Washington, and from there they were relayed to the world. It was exciting, even though when it was daytime in Peking it was the wee hours of the morning in Washington. In a thoughtful gesture, she brought me a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book.

Helen was objective and fair in her reporting, but privately she had strong opinions about politics and the men and women who ran the country. She was especially opposed to the Vietnam War. In 1970 I got a glimpse of her vulnerable side the April night Nixon announced to the nation a massive military attack on Cambodia. When our work was done, Helen invited me to Nino’s, a popular late night pizza joint. We were joined by Frances Lewine, AP’s White House correspondent and, coincidentally, Helen’s best friend. They didn’t carry their competition into dinner. In Helen’s case, it was only sadness. She cried through the meal, her head in her hands, tears streaming down her face, ranting about Nixon and the bombing and the “senseless loss of lives.”
The dinner for Helen Thomas at Teatro Goldoni Restaurant in Washington.
Helen has endured many bumps along her fascinating journey. Her UPI friend and White House partner, Merriman Smith, committed suicide in 1970. She married late, to Douglas Cornell who, like Lewine, was her competition at the AP. First Lady Pat Nixon scooped Helen on her own engagement. They held off marrying until 1971, after Doug left the White House beat. At the dinner, she claimed the delay was due to her own skepticism about marriage, but most people believe it was because she couldn’t bear to be married to the competition – true love or no true love. Quietly, when Doug became ill with Alzheimer’s, she took devoted care of him till his death while also handling her rigorous White House duties. Lewine died last year.

I left UPI in 1972 to move to New York to work for Time Magazine. Helen and I would bump into each other here and there. Each time she asked me about my work, my family, what was going on with me, “are you in love?” So many questions. Meanwhile, she broke down barriers at the National Press Club, the White House Correspondents Association, and the Gridiron, wherever women journalists didn’t get equal treatment. And, of course, she continued to break and make news. When UPI was sold to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, she called it “a bridge too far,” quit and now works for Hearst Newspapers. She’s at the White House every day, and I hope she’s there till her last day, sitting in the front row at a press conference, giving some president holy hell.

The women paying tribute to Helen included co-hosts Janet Donovan and Christine Warnke, Vicki Bagley, Lynn Sweet, Donna Shore, Christine Delgary, Greta Brawner, Martha Joynt Kumar, Kelly McCormick, Mary Ann Akers, Gloria Dittus, Donna Leinwand, Nikki Schwab, Jan Smith Donaldson, Edie Emery, Stephanie Green and Amy Argetsinger.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol Joynt is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.