Bill Plante remembers Helen Thomas

(CBS News) Helen Thomas -- one of the most familiar figures in the Washington press corps -- passed away yesterday. She was 92. Our Bill Plante (himself a very familiar face at the White House) worked alongside Thomas for some time. He has this remembrance:

Helen Thomas always wanted answers from the President of the United States.

"Mr. President, when you holding a news conference?"

As the White House correspondent for United Press International for 40 years, and then as a columnist, Thomas confronted 10 presidents with bulldog persistence.

"Why did you really want to go to war?" she queried President George W. Bush.

She was a pathbreaker for women in journalism. Born to Lebanese immigrants, Thomas grew up in Michigan. After college, she moved to Washington -- and in 1943, went to work as a writer for United Press.

Remembering Helen Thomas
Veteran White House journalist Helen Thomas dies

Her big break came in 1960, when she became the first woman reporter at the White House to cover the president -- and not just the first lady.

She went on to be the first female president of the White House Correspondents Association, and the first woman admitted to another Washington journalism institution, the Gridiron Club.

President Johnson once complained that he first learned of his daughter Luci's engagement from one of Thomas' stories.

But her own engagement -- to Associated Press reporter Doug Cornell -- was only revealed after Pat Nixon spilled the beans to a room full of their colleagues.

Helen Thomas laughed easily with one president after another, but that never stopped her from asking them hard questions.

I sat next to Helen in the White House briefing room for years, on the receiving end of countless asides and opinions. One of her favorites, usually delivered sotto voce during a press briefing, was, "How the hell do they expect us to believe that?"

Helen Thomas was tough, cantankerous, and opinionated. Her opinions ultimately got her in trouble.

A lifelong champion of the Palestinian cause, she said in an impromptu 2010 interview that Israel should get out of Palestine.

After apologizing for the remark, she retired.

In a statement, President Obama said, "She never failed to keep presidents -- myself included -- on their toes. What made Helen the dean of the White House press corps was not just the length of her tenure, but her fierce belief that our democracy works best when we ask tough questions and hold our leaders to account."

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