Former White House correspondent Helen Thomas, a trailblazing journalist who reported on every U.S. president from John Kennedy to Barack Obama but was forced to resign after calling on Israeli Jews to go back to Germany, died on Saturday at the age of 92.
Thomas, who broke many barriers for female journalists during her 49 years on the White House beat for United Press International and Hearst newspapers, died after a long illness.
As the senior news service correspondent at the White House, Thomas ended dozens of presidential news conferences with the familiar phrase “Thank you, Mr. President.”
She was known for her straight-to-the-point questioning of presidents and press secretaries in a manner that some considered dogged. Others, including many fellow reporters, considered her style in her later years to be too combative and agenda-driven.
President Barack Obama in a statement praised “her fierce belief that our democracy works best when we ask tough questions and hold our leaders to account,” and noted that in her long tenure Thomas “never failed to keep presidents — myself included — on their toes.”
Thomas was often combative in dealing with the White House, particularly when she felt she was being denied access. Reuters White House reporter Steve Holland recalled that early one morning during Clinton’s presidency, she was spotted kicking the locked door to the White House press office, demanding to speak to the staff.
In the last 10 years of her career, Thomas was a columnist for Hearst, a job that allowed her opinions to surface more than in her work as a hard-news reporter for UPI.
Thomas grew up in Detroit, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, and will be buried in that city. Middle Eastern affairs were a strong interest for her, and the impromptu comments about Israel and the Palestinians in May 2010 were her undoing.
Asked by an interviewer if she had any comments about Israel, Thomas responded that Jews should leave Palestine and that they should “go home, to Poland and Germany, America and everywhere else.”
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 heartfelt 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.”
After the interview spread on the internet, her comments were criticized by the White House, the White House Correspon-dents’ 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.