WASHINGTON — Decades ago, she was a pioneer breaking down barriers for women in journalism. For years, she was in the front rank of the White House press corps posing blunt, often uncomfortable questions to the world's most powerful leaders. But it was her own blunt answer to a question that abruptly ended her career.
Helen Thomas, the dean of the White House press corps, announced Monday that she would retire, amid a controversy over her comments that Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and go "home" to Germany, Poland and elsewhere.
Thomas, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, covered the White House for almost half a century — mostly as bureau chief for United Press International, but in the past decade as a columnist for Hearst Newspapers. For years she had the honor of asking the opening question at presidential news conferences.
After becoming a columnist, Thomas lost that privilege. But she continued to ask questions during televised news conferences and was often sharply critical of Israel — so much so that the late Tony Snow, as press secretary for President George W. Bush, once dryly thanked her for offering up "the Hezbollah view."
After decades of trailblazing, Thomas ended her career humbled and apologetic.
"I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians," Thomas, 89, wrote on her website. "They do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon."
Thomas, who grew up in Detroit, was well known as a critic of Israel. As a Hearst News Service columnist she had described Israeli settlements as illegal "colonies" and in a column last year was critical of U.S. support for a state "that oppresses a helpless people with its military power and daily humiliation."
On May 27, during a White House commemoration of Jewish Heritage Month, Thomas gave an impromptu interview to a website called RabbiLIVE.com. Thomas, asked if she had any comments on Israel, responded, "Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine."
"Remember, these people are occupied, and it's their land," she said. Asked where Jews should go, Thomas said, "They could go home."
On Monday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called the remarks "offensive and reprehensible."
The White House Correspondents' Association, which Thomas helped open up to women and served as its first woman officer, issued a statement.
"We are saddened by her recent comments, but we commend her for a trailblazing career, and we wish her the best," it read. The group planned to meet Thursday to discuss who will get Thomas' coveted seat.
Thomas covered 10 presidents in her sprawling career, most of which was spent as a reporter for the news wire United Press International. She came to the White House to cover President John F. Kennedy at a time when women reporters were largely expected to write about the first lady's social calendar, fashion and manners.
But Thomas and a cadre of female colleagues fought to open Washington's media institutions to women. In 1971, when the National Press Club voted to admit women, Thomas was the club's first female member. She was the first female member of the Gridiron Club, a bastion of old-school Washington journalism, and the club's first female president in 1993.
As the senior wire reporter in the White House press room, Thomas often was granted the first question at the briefing. (And she often ended presidential news conferences with the traditional, "Thank you, Mr. President.")
Her style was direct, persistent and repetitive. At news conferences, presidents called on her by name. To her delight, Boris Yeltsin did, too.
Her questioning of President George W. Bush on the Iraq war made Thomas a thorn in the side of that White House, and a hero of the antiwar left. She was introduced to a new generation through a cameo appearance in comedian Stephen Colbert's searing critique of the press at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. In the video, Colbert tried to dodge Thomas' questions but could not shake her.
"She was always the first person there in the morning and she was the last person to leave at night. She felt the White House was her personal responsibility," said Ron Cohen, who supervised Thomas at UPI.
"It's not the way you'd like to see a journalism legend end her career. Somebody as wonderful as Helen should have gone out with bands playing."
Other colleagues described the news of Thomas' retirement as bittersweet.
"She made a really bad remark. Look, she's 90 years old. People just don't have the same filters," said Ellen Ratner, bureau chief of Talk News Radio. "I just think people have to give the woman a break. It does not excuse what she did, but you know how many of us in this business have said things that we regretted?"
Information from the Washington Post and Tribune Washington Bureau was used in this report.