USA Today column: Helen Thomas paved way for my career

USA Today column: Helen Thomas paved way for my career

Helen Thomas in her trademark red dress.

Paul Singer/USA Today

When I joined the dying wire service United Press International at the end of the 1990s, the only real asset we still had was Helen Thomas.

And since the wire was (eternally) up for sale, Helen agreed to stick around. In 2000, the sale was announced: UPI was purchased by News World Communications, a news affiliate of Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.

For Helen, already about 80 years old, the next move was obvious. She announced her resignation -- but not her retirement. She said she wished everybody well but didn't feel the need to stay and work for the Rev. Moon.

As the sole congressional correspondent and the low guy on the totem pole, I attempted to follow suit. I called my boss and told him I was going to quit and try to get a job with The Associated Press.

"Don't quit," he said. "I'm putting you on Air Force One."

Sure enough, a week later, myself and another young guy named Mark Kukis became the White House bureau of UPI, backed by Kathy Gambrell and Pam Hess -- all good reporters with skills and decent clips, but none with the kind of household name you would expect to replace one of the legends of journalism.

I have long contended that when the Titanic sank, the biscuits from the kitchen bobbed up to the surface. So it was with us, the biscuits: Singer, Kukis, Gambrell and Hess.

Helen was as kind and gracious in her departure as she had been as a colleague. As she was leaving, she told us, "Don't let them push you around." She knew that UPI was dying and that the White House saw little reason to continue to treat us as a first-line international news agency, but she still believed in us.

Shortly thereafter, President Clinton held an East Room news conference. I sat in Helen's seat, and Clinton called on me -- "Go ahead, Paul" -- for Helen's question, and my parents swooned because the president knew my name. The president did not actually know my name. He just read the script provided him. But that's OK -- parents swooned anyway.

Several people told me I did a fine job but should have worn Helen's red dress.

We cleared out the UPI booth in the White House press room and delivered Helen's stuff to her, including the manual typewriter that now served as a door stop ("UPI 1" was the label stuck to it).

In a few months we would be out of the booth; Helen's front-row seat would be reassigned to "Helen Thomas" instead of UPI; and the four biscuits gradually drifted away from UPI to other, more stable and mainstream employers.

But for that one year, we lived in Helen's shoes, and her shadow. We had all the perks and privileges provided to a top-flight news agency even though UPI had been mostly dead for a decade.

They were Helen's privileges. We flew Air Force One; we traveled the globe with the president; we embedded with the presidential campaigns; and we stayed up all night filing stories about the least decisive election night in our nation's history.

And we were standing not on the shoulders of our once-great news agency, but on the shoulders of Helen Thomas. She had single-handedly carried the brand and ensured that those of us who came after her would have a place to sit in the White House press room.

In that way, Helen made my career possible. And I am grateful to her.

I only wish I had stolen the typewriter.

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