“Pray for me, Helen,” President Richard Nixon said to the reporter Helen Thomas on August 8, 1974, as he went to resign from office.
Did Thomas, who died on Saturday at 92, then bow her head to pray for the outgoing president? We’ll never know.
But the “pray for me” anecdote comes from Thomas herself, which suggests she probably didn’t take the command as a presidential order, an entreaty or even an expression of intimacy.
“Pray for me, Helen” would have struck her as nothing but a quote. A quote, to Thomas, was a commodity to be pocketed, framed and deployed—in her reports for 57 years to the United Press International or in her hit-or-miss late-life columns for Hearst Newspapers.
Played right, a quote could become the real reporter’s ace: a scoop. Thomas piled up more of these during her hot streaks than most reporters get in a lifetime.
Reporting is an odd job. People who talk to reporters aren’t talking to people, they’re talking to recording devices and pens and eventually—filtered and sifted—to readers and viewers.
For all the efforts over the years to turn Thomas into a character, or a trailblazer for women, or an obstreperous ideologue (as she became toward the end of her life), she saw herself, at UPI, chiefly as a channel. She asked what she imagined were the peoples’ questions and returned to the people with answers.
By wearing an unmistakable press badge whenever she was working or might spontaneously go on duty—at a White House social event, for example—she made sure that people like Nixon, John Kennedy and Barack Obama kept her and her profession at the top of their minds, too.
So why did these presidents talk to her? Why did they let her into their clubs? (Kennedy said he’d resign from the Gridiron Club, an elite media society, unless Thomas and other women were admitted.) Why did they give her guest-of-honor status at White House press conferences? Why did they josh around with her, give her birthday cakes, show her their emotions and entertain her savage questions?
Because no one tuned in to the powerful better than Helen Thomas. And even when they knew what they were saying was being scrutinized, interrupted, chronically doubted and weighed against their earlier pronouncements and gaffes, they—that’s Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, the Bushes, Clinton and Obama—could not resist Helen Thomas’ ferocious, near-scalding attention.
Thomas’ heyday—let’s say 1960 to 1990—was also the heyday of the White House press corps. Before Facebook, YouTube town halls and other feints at online transparency allowed administrations of both parties to snub the press, White House reporters were imagined to be the emissaries of all of us who cast a vote for president. Thomas and others were expected to pose those questions that we were unable to ask, because we weren’t in the room and would be too frightened to ask if we were.
On Saturday, Mark Knoller, the veteran White House reporter for CBS News, tweeted a brief elegy that said, in part:
“Pity the poor WH press aide who would try to tell Helen, ‘You can’t stand there.'"
Helen Thomas stood there. She stood in the front row as long as they let her. She asked the first question at the press conferences as long as they let her, too; and then she followed up and followed up again, like a fast-loading pistol.
How are we meant to talk to our leaders? With deference, coquettishness, bonhomie, formality? Helen Thomas, lifelong questioner, had the answer.
"Why did you really want to go to war, Mr. President?” Thomas once asked George W. Bush of his decision to invade Iraq.
That is how you talk to a president.