Helen Thomas, provocateur of presidents

Helen Thomas | White House photo

WASHINGTON -- Helen Thomas, the legendary White House correspondent who pursued the facts from 10 U.S. presidents, died Saturday. She was 92.

She succeeded in making life miserable for at least 10 presidents. One White House press secretary described her questioning as torture -- and he was one of her fans.

Word of Thomas' death was spread in an email from the Gridiron Club, a venerable association for Washington journalists.

"Former Gridiron Club president Helen Thomas, our first female member, died Saturday morning at her Washington apartment after a long illness," Gridiron's Carl Leubsdorf wrote. "She would have been 93 next month."

Thomas frequently reminded colleagues that, "You're only as good as your last story." She  authored three books: "Dateline: White House" in 1975 , "Front Row at the White House" in 1999 and "Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President: Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House," in 2002.

To say Helen was controversial is an understatement, but it goes with the territory. Even her trademark red dress was controversial. She bought it after President Reagan repeatedly ignored her at press conferences. The first time she wore it he remarked about her pretty red dress and allowed her to ask a question.

It grew into a tradition for Helen to ask the first question at White House press conferences. She got into trouble when she put the dress on her UPI expense account. Those who understand it, will know she was a downholder with great honor.

Thomas chronicled the presidency beginning with the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Nov. 1963 while UPI White House correspondent Merriman Smith stayed in Dallas to finish reporting from the scene. Thomas boarded Air Force One to witness the oath of office administered to Lyndon Johnson while Johnson's wife and Kennedy's widow watched.

In a speech at the Orlando Public Library in 2009, Thomas said the Kennedy assassination was the greatest tragedy she ever wrote about.

"It changed the nature of the presidency forever," she said. "He was my favorite. He wanted great things for our nation. He wanted us to go to the moon. He created the Peace Corps."

I first met Helen when I was a reporter in the Raleigh Bureau of United Press International. She had come to town to as a speaker at Meredith College. I last saw Helen in Orlando when she spoke at the Orlando Public Library. She autographed a treasured copy of "Down To The Wire," about UPI's legendary bankruptcies.

President Bill Clinton called Thomas "a symbol of everything American journalism can and should be -- the embodiment of fearless integrity, fierce commitment to accuracy, the insistence of holding government accountable. All of that in the spirit of the First Amendment and the free press it protects."

Thomas saw her career come to a premature end in 2010 even though she was well beyond retirement age.

She became the target of outrage and controversy when she told an amateur videographer outside the White House that Israel should "get the hell out of Palestine."

Thomas later apologized for the remarks but did not back down from her opinion.

"They do not reflect my heartfelt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance," she said in a subsequent column. "May that day come soon."