Yes, Helen Thomas was ornery, at times curmudgeonly and not the most subtle of White House correspondents. Yes, she was a much-admired gender trailblazer in an overwhelmingly white-guys profession a half-century ago. And yes, she had a blind spot for the Palestinians and an antipathy towards Israel that ultimately proved her career undoing three years ago.
But make no mistake: More than any other White House journalist of her era, Helen is responsible for turning the daily White House briefing into an appropriately adversarial institution. That will be her enduring legacy -- emboldening reporters to challenge more aggressively the self-serving spin every administration peddles.
At my maiden White House briefing in the summer of 1968, I was introduced to a mandarin of the presidential press corps. He offered me a little friendly advice: "Son, here's how it works -- they tell us what's happening and we write it down and put it in the paper."
Fortunately, that benign, unchallenging view towards power died with Watergate -- and Helen was the primary executioner.
She was furious that a couple of whippersnappers named Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had scooped the White House press corps on the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon. But she was even more enraged that Nixon's courtiers had repeatedly lied to her and her colleagues -- and that the press had all-too-willingly swallowed their baloney.