Without Helen Thomas is no longer UPI


May 21, 2000|By Ronald E. Cohen

THE LAST time United Press International turned a profit was 1961. Imagine. Still alive after almost four decades in the soup -- soup frequently so deep the monthly red ink number read a cool $2 million.

Well, "alive" might be a trifle overstated.

For 15 years, a succession of owners who gave thrilling new meaning to words like stupidity, cupidity, mendacity and convicted federal felon, destroyed the venerable news service.

Speculation about its imminent death raced periodically through the legion of impossibly loyal alums, dubbed "Downholders" a mongrelization of "Hold Down Expenses" -- taken from the unofficial battle cry of the penurious, cash-starved agency founded in 1907 to do battle with its bitter rival, the fat, rich and sometimes lazy Associated Press.

Yet, even as staff was slashed by more than 1,500 and once-fat client rolls plummeted toward single digits and an Internet-only existence, it seemed the patient somehow might -- comatose and on life support -- outlive the last Downholder. Where's Dr. Kevorkian when you need him?

But last week, far too late for UPI to cling to even its last shred of dignity, the wooden stake finally found its target.

On Monday, it was announced the bones of the once-great news organization had been sold, for the fifth time in 18 years, by a consortium of Saudi Arabian royalty. The dubious winner was an organization that includes among its holdings the Washington Times , founded by controversial Rev. Sun Myung Moon. No terms were disclosed, but the Saudi princes doubtless beamed with relief as they raced for the exits.

Billionaires don't get that rich by being profligate for very long.

And next day Helen Thomas, UPI's most famous -- and only -- remaining asset, left the company she had served and adored for 57 years with a dignified, classy resignation speech. It had been snatched by owners she could not, would not, work for. Her leave-taking was far more gracious than the statement by UPI CEO Arnaud de Borchgrave (who -- wink wink, stunning coincidence -- used to be head honcho at the Washington Times).

Helen, he told the Washington Post, left big shoes. But "Everyone is dispensable."

Helen dispensable? Heresy.

She is the first lady of American journalism, whose piercing questions and bulldog tenacity had bedeviled every president since John F. Kennedy. Perhaps to fellow reporters, home was an apartment in Washington or a split-level in the 'burbs. To Helen, home was the UPI cubicle in the White House press room. She was there before dawn, staying until it was clear even she could wrench no more scraps of information that night.

Ah, the memories:

Helen Thomas, often clad in red "because presidents tend to notice you when you're colorful," who as the senior wire service correspondent ended every White House news conference with, "Thank you, Mr. President." The famously long-winded Bill Clinton remarked when learning she was leaving that without Helen's valedictory some presidential news conferences might never end.

Helen, short-legged, shouting questions as she chased long-legged former Michigan football star Jerry Ford down the tarmac toward Air Force One -- keeping up, somehow, and simultaneously taking notes. Mr. Ford once called her "a fine blend of journalism and acupuncture."

Helen, no admirer of Richard Nixon, caught by a photographer at the moment of his resignation, hand cupping her chin, a frightened look that almost said, "What hath we wrought?"

Helen, then 51, uncharacteristically speechless when Pat Nixon scooped her by announcing -- at the retirement party of AP White House rival Doug Cornell -- that he was the love of Helen's life and they soon would be married.

Helen, never hesitating to criticize a president but always profoundly respectful -- and protective -- of the awesome office.

Helen, first woman president of the National Press Club, the Gridiron Club, the White House Correspondents Association; Helen in cameo roles in Hollywood films about fictional presidents.

Helen, recipient of late-night phone calls from Martha Mitchell, wife of Nixon's attorney general, bizarre one-sided conversations that landed on front pages across the country and turned out to be the early warning clarions of the Watergate cover-up that cost Nixon his presidency.

Helen Thomas and United Press, inextricably intertwined for 57 years. No more.

Perhaps her old pal, ABC's Sam Donaldson, put it best:

"The White House will probably survive. But UPI cannot. Helen is and was UPI."

Ronald E. Cohen, national editor of Gannett News Service, worked for UPI for 25 years through 1986, including stints as Washington news editor, bureau chief and managing editor -- positions in which he ostensibly was Helen Thomas' boss.

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