Homage to Helen of Washington
While some people camped out over night to get tickets to a Michael Jackson concert, the opening of “Star Wars” or worship at the Cathedral of Saint Tennis Shoe, I stood in the “line of history” for almost five decades to meet Senior White House Reporter Helen Thomas. Growing up in our home in Washington, DC, my dad appointed her our kind of “royalty.” Her columns became decrees, with some of them contributing to the mission statement for my social activism.
When my dad would come home from serving parties at private clubs, in the homes of Beltway elites and K Street cocktail parties, he would note with great excitement that there was a woman in the press corps who was “wrecking their nerves.” Her historical acumen, political savvy and journalistic integrity were proving to be a bane to their existence. The Beltway Boys and K Street lobbyist tried everything to discredit and dishonor her including trying “to boil her in vats of sexism.” But despite their decades-long efforts, she continued to crash the glass ceiling with the cape of tenacity draped across her shoulders.
In 1961, Thomas became the first female member of the White House Press Corp and from that point forward unbolted every door slammed in her face. She segued seamlessly from covering celebrity profiles and social issues, to foreign policy, the encroaching tentacles of K Street and the tenures of ten presidents from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama. Prior to joining the White House Press Corps, she covered the Department of Justice, FBI and Capitol Hill. Fierce and factual, her goal was to get relevant and straight forward answers to tough questions and translate them into how the country was being run, who was running it as well as insisting upon clarification applied to the policies and laws by which it was being run. While many inside the Beltway continued to bend the bough of ethics and operate without even a molecule of a conscience, she maintained an insistence upon integrity that made the “Thank you, Mr. President” with which she closed out each press conference more than a salute to etiquette.
In September of 2009, I moved to the front of that line in which I’d waited since 1962 and met her. She and Congresswoman Barbara Lee came to Mills College where they engaged in a riveting conversation focused on President Obama’s promises and agenda brimming with hope and new possibilities. Her book Listen Up, Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do had just been released and served as part of the focus for the conversation as well. I arrived early to the event to ensure that I would get a seat and upon arriving, sat out in the lobby across from a woman who engaged me in conversation rather quickly. It turned out that the woman, Abby Johollo, was her travel companion and attendant. We quickly found ourselves immersed in a conversation about her homeland of Sierra Leone and discussing her country’s comeback from the ravages of civil war. She ended up escorting me into the reception and introducing me to Ms. Thomas, who spent the next fifteen minutes attentively talking to me, when I told her the story of how long I’d stood in the line of history waiting to meet her. We talked about my “invisible” father hearing denigrating remarks uttered, as he served cocktails and canapés, some of her most memorable moments covering ten US presidents and Mama Ayesha’s iconic restaurant in Washington, DC; a favorite for us both.
Awed by the presidency, but not the presidents, her fierceness, intelligence and precise knowledge of US policy made it possible to navigate through the quagmire of presidential politics like no reporter had before. Lyndon Johnson, whose relationship with the press came with a serious tension, could not believe that in addition to heady challenges from Civil Rights leaders and the enormous opposition to the War on Vietnam, the likes of Helen Thomas was one of the contending forces in his life. Eventually she would find herself declaring Johnson one of the best presidents ever for his work on the “War on Poverty.” From President Johnson and “Bush the Younger” to Obama, she saw how bills and legislation were misapplied under the guise of wars we were told were essential to Democracy. Thousands of those battered and barely breathing men and women have come home from wars, only to be “discharged” by policies that did nothing to help them keep their homes from being foreclosed upon or faced with the utter treachery of navigating the terrain of health benefits entwined in Kafkaesque bureaucracy.
After the conversation there was a book signing. I purchased multiple copies and invited her to join me in the coming months at my brother’s home in DC, where I often held dinner parties when I went home. In 2010, when I came I invited her to have tea, for my brother was ill and hosting a dinner party at his home was not an option. She said, “Oh, no my dear, no tea. You are joining me for dinner at the Press Club to listen to the State of the Union Address.” There I sat next to this living textbook in what truly was an historically and socially surreal moment. She deftly navigated me through the nuances of every statement the president uttered and clarified the relationship between the reality of the related policies and the rhetorical cushioning used to position and align himself with his then hope-filled message.
After the speech, several people spoke to me and commented on how they had not seen me in such a long time. Well, I didn’t know any of these people and was absolutely perplexed by their claims of knowing me. Later my brother Vincent commented that they had to know me, because I was at the table with Helen Thomas.
She insisted that I call her Helen and the protocol of my strict black southern upbringing made that difficult. We were not allowed to call anyone a generation or more above us by their first names. But she would not accept anything else. So Helen it became, and friends we did as well. On subsequent trips, we shared lunch at her apartment and drank tea infused with Meyer Lemons I brought her from my garden in Oakland. Upon being condemned and subsequently terminated for making remarks critical of Israel, she told me that some who had bestowed awards and honors upon her, asked that she return them; I was appalled and infuriated.
Every couple of months, I’d call and she continued to introduce me to new chapters in the “textbook.” The last time I visited, I took her to dinner at DC’s renowned Eatonville. She was enthralled by how creatively appointed this iconic culinary and literary tribute to 20th century writer Zora Neale Hurston was and talked at length about the deep regard and respect she had for owner Andy Shallal.
During the months that followed, our conversations were brief, for I could hear her struggling to muster the energy to discuss our mutually held outrages about American exceptionalism and the steady rise of the waves of Fascism licking at the shores of the Gulf, Atlantic and Pacific. But her mind nor spine were never fractured or crushed by the boots of power attempting to rest on her neck. We also fantasized about ideas for forging peace, in Congress and the Middle East, at a time when we both felt the bottom had fallen out of hell.
She also loved to hear about what I’d planted in my garden, a place where I will honor her during my next season of planting by naming the growing enclave of rescued orchids after her. On each visit to her apartment, there was a fresh orchid on the table. To have been a part of Helen’s life and witness this incredibly brilliant and fierce seasoned elder has given me the courage to face more daunting days. She and her legacy will remain my teacher and mentor, as I continue to stand on the shoulders of her fierceness observing the landscape being racially torn asunder, fracked and droned by some of those same men who tried to boil her in those vats of sexism.
From ancestral roots in Tripoli to her birthplace in Winchester, Kentucky to growing up in Detroit and navigating her way as an author and journalist through the congressional and presidential corridors of Washington, DC, her life reflected an unrelenting desire to see America realize the real Democracy it was once on the threshold to becoming. I’m just so fortunate to have lived at a time when hers was a voice that unhinged so many doors that shut out women. She stood among the tall trees in a stand where she neither bowed nor bent. Even from the back row, where she had been relegated by the Bush Administration for challenging the war mongering of the Bush-Cheney Cabal, she had such a strategic way of docking words on her tongue before launching them through the titanium walls of power. Whether it is declared by presidential decree or not, I will honor and celebrate August 4th as Helen Thomas Day for the rest of my days.
Daphne Muse is a writer, social commentator and poet. You can read her blogs at www.daphnemuse.blogspot.com.