WASHINGTON - Former White House correspondent Helen Thomas, who reported on every US president since John Kennedy, died on Saturday at the age of 92, The Gridiron Club and Foundation said.
Thomas, who worked the White House beat for 49 years for United Press International and Hearst newspapers, died after a long illness, Susan Hahn of the Washington journalists' organization said in a statement.
Thomas grew up in Detroit, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants. Middle Eastern affairs were a strong interest and impromptu comments about Israel and the Palestinians in May 2010 were her undoing.
Asked by an interviewer from the website rabbilive.com
if she had any comments about Israel, Thomas responded, "Get the hell out of Palestine." She said Jews should "go home, to Poland and Germany, America and everywhere else."
After the interview spread on the Internet, her comments were criticized by the White House, the White House Correspondents' Association, the co-author of one of her books and the agency that handled her speaking engagements, among others. Shortly after, she announced her retirement, two months short of her 90th birthday.
In a February 16 interview on “The Joy Behar Show” on CNN in 2011, Thomas told Behar that once World War II ended, the Jews “didn’t have to go anywhere really because they weren’t being persecuted anymore. But they were taking other people’s land.”
She was slammed by both sides of the political spectrum. Later that year Thomas, who was a correspondent since the presidency of John F. Kennedy, stood by her original comments and accused Jewish lobbyists and politicians of distorting her remarks.
Thomas later issued a statement: "I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. 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."
However, follow-up remarks about how “the Zionists” own Congress, the White House, Hollywood and Wall Street caused further uproar, and prompted the Society of Professional Journalists to drop an award named for Thomas, who was a fixture on the White House beat for decades.
Asked on Behar’s program is she considers herself anti-Semitic, Thomas, whose parents were Lebanese, said, “Hell no, I’m a Semite.” Of the Jews she said, “They’re not Semites. Most of them are from Europe.”
Asked if she regretted making the remark that ended her career in Washington, she said, “I have regrets that everybody’s misinterpreted it and distorted it,” singling out former George W. Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer and Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman.
“We have organized lobbyists in favor of Israel, you can’t open your mouth,” she said. “If you say one thing about Israel, you’re off limits.”
She was especially rough on former President George W. Bush, who in 2003 she described as the "worst president ever," and the Iraq war, which she felt the media had abetted by not challenging Bush strongly enough on it.
In 2009 she asked President Barack Obama, "When are you going to get out of Afghanistan? Why are we continuing to kill and die there? What is the real excuse and don't give us this Bushism 'If we don't go there, they'll all come here.'"DEAN OF WHITE HOUSE MEDIA CORPS
Thomas was assigned to the White House in 1961 by UPI in part because of the great interest in first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, as well as the new young president.
She would go on to become the dean of the White House media corps and her front-row center chair in the briefing room eventually had a plaque with her name, the only seat so designated.
Thomas established a number of firsts for women journalists in becoming one of Washington's best known reporters. She was the first woman officer in the White House Correspondents Association in its 50-year history, becoming its first woman president. In 1975, she broke the 90-year all-male barrier at the Gridiron Club, an organization of leading Washington journalists, and became its first female president in 1993.
She also supported scores of women starting out in the news business.
Thomas became UPI White House bureau chief in 1974, the first woman to head a wire service bureau there. She stayed in that position until 2000 when she joined Hearst.
Thomas's career began as a copy girl on the Washington Daily News
and she joined what was then known as United Press in 1943.
Thomas first came to public notice during the Watergate era when she started receiving late-night phone calls from Martha Mitchell, the wife of Attorney General John Mitchell, discussing the scandal.
"I have witnessed presidents in situations of great triumph and adulation, when they are riding the crest of personal fulfillment, and I have seen them fall off their pedestals through an abuse of power or what President Clinton called 'a lapse of critical judgment,'" she wrote in the memoir "Front Row at the White House: My Life and Times." Thomas married a professional rival, Douglas Cornell of the Associated Press, in 1971. He died in 1982.JTA contributed to this report.