September 11, 2007

Helen Thomas wore this red sweater during an intense questioning of President Bush. (Gift, Helen Thomas; James P. Blair/Newseum collection)

From the Newseum Collection: The Lady in Red

As the curator of collections at the Newseum, I get to touch a lot of artifacts. Some are ancient; some are fragile; some are priceless. All are fascinating. They are a tangible way to get inside and understand a story.

One of my favorite pieces in the Newseum collection is a sweater from columnist and former United Press International reporter Helen Thomas. It is a simple, red turtleneck, but it tells a great story.

Thomas has been a fixture of the White House press corps since 1961, when John F. Kennedy became president. For decades, she offered the traditional sign-off — “Thank you, Mr. President” — when press conferences ended. When President Ronald Reagan said that reporters wearing red had a better chance of being called on, Thomas and others complied.

In 2000, Thomas left UPI for Hearst Newspapers, where she now writes a syndicated column. She no longer offers a sign-off. In fact, as of March 20, 2006, Thomas had not been called upon by the president in three years. That changed the next day.

On March 21, 2006, Thomas was wearing the red turtleneck when President George W. Bush did the unexpected: He called on her during a press conference. She warned him that he might regret his decision, but they entered into an exchange of questions and answers about the U.S. invasion of Iraq that broke a lengthy dry spell.

“I didn’t really regret it,” the president said after answering her question. “I kind of semi-regretted it.”

I love that a sweater can prompt me to learn more about a journalist, her career and how a press conference works. More about the history of a relationship. More about a sweater.

Thomas’s sweater, along with one of her red dresses, will be on display in the Newseum’s News History gallery.

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