WASHINGTON — Helen Thomas, whose keen curiosity, unquenchable drive and celebrated constancy made her a trailblazing White House correspondent in a press corps dominated by men and later the dean of the White House briefing room, died Saturday at home in Washington. She was 92.
Her death was announced by the Gridiron Club , one of Washington's leading news societies. Ms. Thomas was a past president of that organization.
Ms. Thomas covered every president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama for United Press International and, later, Hearst Newspapers. To her colleagues, she was the unofficial but undisputed head of the press corps — her status ratified by her signature line at the end of every White House news conference, "Thank you, Mr. President."
Her blunt questions and sharp tone made her a familiar personality not only in the parochial world inside the Washington Beltway but also among TV audiences across the country.
"Helen was a true pioneer, opening doors and breaking down barriers for generations of women in journalism," Obama said in a statement Saturday. "She never failed to keep presidents — myself included — on their toes."
Ms. Thomas' energy sustained her well after the age at which most people have settled into retirement. President Bill Clinton gave her a cake on Aug. 4, 1997, her 77th birthday. Twelve years later, Obama gave her cupcakes for her 89th.
But in May 2010, Ms. Thomas announced her retirement from Hearst amid an uproar over her assertion that Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and go back where they belonged, perhaps to Germany and Poland. Her remarks, made almost offhandedly days earlier at a White House event, set off a storm when a videotape was posted.
In her retirement announcement, Ms. Thomas, whose parents immigrated to the United States from what is now Lebanon, said she deeply regretted her remarks and they did not reflect her "heartfelt belief" that peace would come to the Middle East only when all parties embraced "mutual respect and tolerance."
Ms. Thomas grew up in Detroit. Her career bridged two eras, beginning during World War II when people got their news mostly from radio, newspapers and movie newsreels, and extending into the era of 24-hour information on cable television and the Internet. She resigned from UPI on May 16, 2000, a day after it was taken over by an organization with links to the Unification Church. Weeks later, she was hired by Hearst to write a twice-weekly column on national issues. She spent the past 10 years of her working life there.
When Ms. Thomas took a job as a radio writer for United Press in 1943 (15 years before it merged with the International News Service to become UPI), most female journalists wrote about social events and homemaking. She worked her way into full-time reporting and by the mid 1950s was covering federal agencies. She covered Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1960, and when he won she became the first woman assigned to the White House full time by a news service.
Ms. Thomas was also the first woman to be elected an officer of the White House Correspondents' Association and the first to serve as its president. In 1975, she became the first woman elected to the Gridiron Club, which for 90 years had been a men-only bastion of Washington journalists. She also wrote half a dozen books.