WASHINGTON — Helen Thomas, the opinionated White House correspondent who used her seat in the front row of history to grill 10 presidents and often exasperate them, lost her storied perch Monday in a flap over calling on Israelis to get “out of Palestine.”
Thomas, 89, who made her name as a bulldog for United Press International and was a pioneer for women in journalism, abruptly retired as a columnist for Hearst News Service. The announcement, in a terse statement by Hearst, came after videotaped remarks she made to an independent filmmaker spread virally through the Internet.
She apologized, but White House spokesman Robert Gibbs denounced her comments as “offensive and reprehensible.” Her press corps colleagues with the White House Correspondents Association issued a rare admonishment calling them “indefensible.”
Thomas joined UPI in 1943 and began covering the White House for the wire service in 1960. Fiercely competitive, she became the first female White House bureau chief for a wire service when UPI named her to the position in 1974. She was also the first female officer at the National Press Club, where women had once been barred as members.
“Helen was just a vacuum cleaner about information,” said author Kay Mills, who took dictation from Thomas as a young UPI staffer and wrote “A Place in the News: From the Women’s Pages to the Front Page.”
“She made sure she had everything,” Mills said. “She may have been covering Jackie Kennedy and a birthday party for one of the children, but I’ll tell you, the desk had every bit of information it ever needed.”
When the Watergate scandal began consuming Nixon’s presidency, Martha Mitchell, the notoriously unguarded wife of the attorney general, would call Thomas late at night to unload her frustrations at what she saw as the betrayal of her husband, John, by the president’s men.
She retained her place on the front row of the White House briefing room after joining Hearst in 2000 and remained persistent to the point of badgering.
A daughter of Lebanese immigrants, she did little to hide her pro-Arab views. During George W. Bush’s presidency, her questions to both the president and his press secretaries were almost exclusively about the war in Iraq.
She sharply questioned President Barack Obama two weeks ago.
“Mr. President, when are you going to get out of Afghanistan? Why are you 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,'” she said.
Former Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said journalists had privately expressed discomfort over Thomas’ role with what they perceived as her advocacy from a plum spot in the White House press room.
“Helen had a special stature that she earned,” he said. “That’s what’s so sad, in that she diminished what she earned.”
Her retirement was set in motion by a website, rabbilive.com, that relaunched only last week after having previously existed to beam religious services to military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rabbi David Nesenoff, an independent filmmaker from Long Island who runs the website, said he approached Thomas outside the White House after being there for Jewish Heritage Day on May 27. He said he was there with his teenage son and a friend, who were both wearing yarmulkes, and approached Thomas to talk.
He asked whether she had any comments on Israel. “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” she replied.
“Remember, these people are occupied and it’s their land. It’s not Germany, it’s not Poland,” she continued. Asked where they should go, she answered, “They should go home.”
“Where’s home?” Nesenoff asked.
“Poland, Germany and America and everywhere else,” Thomas replied.
Thomas had been scheduled to speak at the June 14 graduation of Walt Whitman High School in the Washington suburb of Bethesda, Md., but Principal Alan Goodwin wrote in a Sunday e-mail to students and parents that she was being replaced.
“Graduation celebrations are not the venue for divisiveness,” Goodwin wrote.
Writing on her website Monday, Thomas said, “I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians.”
She added: “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.”
In an interview, Nesenoff said his website has received more than 1 million hits since the interview was posted last week.
“It wasn’t angrily said. It was just said. It was insulting and hurtful,” he said of Thomas’ comments.
He said he has another excerpt that will probably be posted soon, although he would not reveal what was said.
A statement signed by officers of the White House Correspondents Association said: “Many in our profession who have known Helen for years were saddened by the comments, which were especially unfortunate in light of her role as a trail blazer on the White House beat.”
Time and again, Thomas issued a caveat about her work: “In my career you’re only as good as your last story.”
In her case, that last story turned out to be about her.