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Helen Thomas, First Amendment Defender

No one will ever accuse Helen Thomas of being intimidated by the power of the presidency. During 39 years covering the White House for United Press International (UPI), the iconic newswoman became a formidable figure in her front-row seat at White House news conferences, asking the first question and, with a nod from the man at the podium, ending with her signature “Thank you, Mr. President.” Her polite tag line notwithstanding, Thomas’s questions were anything but genteel. Acerbic and oppositional, she grilled and sometimes angered nine presidents—asking Ronald Reagan why he had opposed every piece of civil rights legislation and delivering this challenge to George W. Bush on Iraq: “Why did you really want to go to war?” Says Thomas unapologetically: “I didn’t go into this business to be loved or even popular. No man is above the law, not even the president.” Today, at 87, she remains a stalwart defender of the First Amendment as a columnist for Hearst Newspapers. One of nine children of Lebanese immigrants, Thomas says her nosiness (and undoubtedly her nose for news) led to her first job, as a copygirl for the now-defunct Washington Daily News, where she was promoted to cub reporter. One of the first women in a then male-dominated profession, Thomas didn’t just break news; she also broke countless gender barriers. And while she no longer has a front-row seat at formal White House press briefings, her presence is still felt in Washington—and across the nation. Thank you, Madame Reporter. 

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