Ironically, her views on Israel made the woman who knocked down doors quite eager to lock them behind her. It was widely rumored -- and reported by Slate magazine -- that she kept pro-Israel New York Times columnist Bill Safire out of the Gridiron Club for years until he turned 70. When Slate asked her about this, she replied, "I don't think I'll talk to you anymore," and hung up.
Thomas spent much of her career as the "epitome of a wire service stenographer," then-New Republic writer Jonathan Chait wrote in 2006. Contrary to myth of the dogged journalist, she wrote mostly puff pieces -- about Democratic presidents. She only became a left-wing icon when, as a columnist, she started ranting at the George W. Bush White House.
Indeed, NPR's media correspondent, David Folkenflik, observed in his obituary that Thomas "put a premium on shoe-leather reporting out of view." He fails to mention any stories Thomas actually broke.
The New York Times managed to identify a scoop: Her reports of her phone conversations with Martha Mitchell, the emotionally disturbed wife of Watergate-era Attorney General John Mitchell. Mrs. Mitchell had a habit -- owing in part to her reported alcoholism -- of getting drunk and telephoning whoever would listen to her rants. Most reporters stopped exploiting Mitchell once it became clear how ill the woman was. Not Thomas. She happily transcribed the calls, even reporting how Mitchell's young daughter was begging her mother to get off the phone with Thomas. "Don't talk to her, she's no friend."
Still, as time went by, the awards poured in as Thomas became a Washington institution, with cameos in Hollywood movies and even "The Simpsons." But the "odd thing about her awards and citations," Chait noted, "is that they almost never mention any specific contributions she has made to journalism save for being female and, well, old."
Or as journalist Andrew Ferguson once put it, "Everybody admires Helen, though nobody can tell you why."
The best answer I can come up with: She had a long tradition of existence.