June 7th, 2010
06:07 PM ET

The Helen Thomas I've known

Dave Schechter
CNN Senior National Editor

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/POLITICS/06/07/pol.helen.thomas/story.helen.thomas.cnn.jpg caption="Hearst correspondent Helen Thomas was the longest-serving White House journalist." width=300 height=169]

It was the spilled lamb juice that endeared Helen Thomas to me.

We had a mutual friend, Fran Lewine, who I knew as an assignment editor and field producer in our Washington bureau. For many years before joining CNN Fran was a White House correspondent for the Associated Press. Her chief competition often was Thomas, who reported for United Press International. They traveled the world together and were two of the women who broke down barriers that discriminated against women journalists in the nation’s capitol.

Fran honored me for several years with invitations to the next-day performance (casual dress for the audience, as opposed to formal wear the night before) of the annual show by the Gridiron Club, a costumed song-and-dance send-up of Washington politics and personages by many of the leading print journalists. Helen often was a featured performer while Fran sang in the chorus.

The treat afterwards was being Fran’s guest at a dinner hosted by Helen at her favored D.C. restaurant, the Calvert Café, perhaps better known as Mama Ayesha’s.

Helen is of Lebanese descent and the menu at Ayesha’s is Middle Eastern themed.

My wife could not join me one year so I took my then 9-year-old daughter Maayan. In preparation for the trip, we bought her a new dress. I recall a couple of layers of white fabric.

As the waiter leaned over to serve slices of lamb, hot juice dripped off the tray and into my daughter’s lap. She was near tears and as I dabbed her dress with water, Helen came over and offered Maayan assurance that the spill did not look bad and could be cleaned.

The dinner coincided with the Oscar awards show and, after almost all of the guests had left, Helen asked the waiters to bring out a television. I have this wonderful memory of Maayan sitting between Fran and another veteran woman journalist, watching the Oscars while Helen and I sat behind them having a drink and talking politics.

A few years later Helen published an autobiography and Fran arranged for an autographed copy that I gave to my daughter.

Helen and I were among the eulogists at a memorial service after Fran died a couple of years ago. I was the youngest speaker and the only man and Helen was a tough act to follow. I reminded her of the lamb juice and the dress and told her how Maayan had a soft spot for her after that night. Helen asked that I pass along her regards.

I called Maayan, now 19, with news of Helen’s retirement. Helen’s opinions on Middle East issues were no secret but we were saddened and stunned by the comments that led to her resignation. As Maayan said, it’s too bad that a lot of people will remember how Helen left and not her years of dedicated reporting from the White House and fighting for equal treatment of women journalists.

Filed under: 360° Radar • David Schechter • Opinion
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