Saturday, July 20 — I was Helen Thomas’ boss. Not for long, but long enough to create some wonderful memories.
Thomas, who died today at 92, was well established as the White House bureau chief for United Press International when I signed on in 1991 as Washington bureau chief. In UPI’s hierarchy, she “reported” to me.
By 1991, Helen, of course, needed only to report to herself. Even in the TV era, she was as well known as any journalist in America. That, of course, was due in part to TV: Because of her press corps longevity, she was the one seen on TV ending White House press conferences by saying, “Thank you, Mr. President.”
(The next best known Unipresser was Lucien Carr, the national news editor. Carr, a featured player in the Beat Generation, had been convicted of killing a man who had made sexual advances. Jack Kerouac was charged as an accessory for allegedly helping dispose of the body. As a closeted gay man when I worked for UPI, I shied away from Carr.)
UPI was on shaky grounds financially. Once part of the E.W. Scripps empire, it was on its third new owner in a decade, Dr. Earl Bryant, who during my brief stay was charged (and eventually convicted) of fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Thomas was clearly the franchise, and why she even stayed with UPI came down to one thing: loyalty. (She finally quit in 2000 when UPI, on its long descent from a premier news service, fell into the hands of ownership with links to the Unification Church.) In return, she did what she wanted, which was to cover the White House and travel with the president. Despite her age, no one wanted to see her go.
I met Helen briefly when she made a rare trip from the White House to UPI’s 14th Street headquarters to attend my meeting to introduce myself to the staff. She was very gracious, but she no doubt rightfully sized me as someone who didn’t have a clue about what he’d gotten himself into.
She couldn’t have been more supportive, though. The next time we met was outside the office of President George H.W. Bush’s press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater. I’d gotten word that UPI was being kicked off Air Force One because of unpaid bills. My strategy came down to one thing: Ask Helen to go with me hat in hand to beg for one more trip. I’m sure the last thing Helen — well known for her independence and aggressive questioning — wanted to do was ask the administration for a favor. But she did it, knowing it was the only way to save face for UPI, which was still accorded a spot in the all-important White House pool of reporters.
Fitzwater came through, but with a condition. He would allow only one Unipresser to travel with Bush on his upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia. Until then, two reporters (and often a photographer) went because … well, as Helen explained to me, a president might get shot and you didn’t want your reporter in the bathroom when it happened.
Helen was then about 70, and Saudi Arabia was 24 hours each way. But she was determined that she, alone, would make the trip.
She, of course, did just fine, filing stories regularly — stories for a fading news service that undoubtedly would have gotten no use whatsoever by our ever-shrinking list of clients had they not had her byline on them.
I received a call about 9:30 on a Saturday morning from Helen, whom I knew was due back sometime that weekend. She was calling from the White House bureau.
“When did you get back?” I asked.
“Oh, about 3:30,” she said, meaning the one in the middle of the night.
“I’d have called sooner, but I didn’t want to wake you up.”
She’d stayed at the White House the rest of the night filing a story and seeing what she’d missed.
I left UPI after just six months, when UPI cut salaries 35 percent. During that time, UPI had never kept its word to pay the rent for my small apartment. And after about four months, it tried to lay me off along with a number of other employees. I only escaped because a friend of a friend convinced the editor of one of our biggest clients, the San Francisco Examiner, to call my boss and tell him I was (somehow) indispensable. But I knew it was time to move on, which I did, finding a gig as a visiting professor of journalism at the University of Oklahoma. Sad to say, I earned as much there in a semester as I would have earned at UPI the coming 12 months.
Part of my charge there was to run a journalism conference, and I decided a look at the recent Persian Gulf War would be a good topic.
I invited Helen to serve on a panel, and to my pleasant surprise she accepted. I held my breath that a big story wouldn’t give her an excuse to back out. She came through, traveling from D.C. to Norman, Okla., doing her panel and heading back, all within 24 hours.
UPI went bankrupt, and I stayed in Oklahoma as a magazine publisher. But I kept in touch with Helen. Over the years, she took under her wing a student of mine from OU who had Washington ambitions; we chatted when we found ourselves at a student journalism conference in New York when I was serving as general manager of The State News at Michigan State University (her advice to students was be prepared to do anything because journalism was changing quickly); she gave me an interview on the City Pulse radio show on the Impact. By then, she was a columnist for Hearst Newspapers and an outspoken critic of the second George Bush and his war in Iraq.
But my favorite memory was very personal. I returned to D.C. for a family wedding in 1992 that happened to coincide with my Dad’s 80th birthday. The family conspired to surprise my Dad by subjecting him to a “This Is Your Life” production. We rented a room in a restaurant in Georgetown for lunch, with the show to follow.
I saved the biggest surprise, though, for my Dad and my family. While we ate, Helen waited behind the scenes at the bar (having a drink or two, I am happy to say as a journalist).
Then, at show time, Helen Thomas walked in, holding a scrapbook.
“Max Schwartz, this is your life!” she declared.
Helen, yours was a great life. Thank you for sharing a small part of it.
(Berl Schwartz is editor and publisher of City Pulse.)