I was the last White House press secretary Helen interrogated. But I certainly didn’t get it as tough as my predecessors did or any of the 10 Presidents she covered in a remarkable career that spanned seven decades. Helen was relentless in the pursuit of answers. Marlin Fitzwater, press secretary to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, tells of a call from Helen asking him a question at 3 a.m. When Marlin asked why she had called him, Helen responded emphatically, “Because no one else will!”
She asked every question the only way she knew how–directly. I remember the first day I called on her. She was perched in the middle seat of the briefing room’s front row. In a room where every other seat was assigned to a media organization, her seat was assigned to her by name. It was at that moment that I knew I was really the White House press secretary. But Helen’s volleys left little time to bask in the glow.
Helen, who was 92 when she died on July 20, was a trailblazer because she simply found it contrary to the vision of this country that women weren’t covering the world’s most influential leader. Because of that passion, her life became a series of firsts. She was the first woman assigned to the White House to cover a President, the first female officer of the National Press Club, the first female member and president of the White House Correspondents’ Association.
Reporters I talked to say her friends were like family to her, that she acted as both a mentor and a mother to others who covered the President. Throughout her pioneering career she never lost a sense of who she was, remaining the same humble, down-to-earth working reporter every day she went to the White House.
Gibbs was President Obama’s White House press secretary from January 2009 to February 2011
This text originally appeared in the August 5 issue of TIME magazine.
Next Charlie Trotter