Helen Thomas, the pioneering female journalist who questioned 10 U.S. presidents from her front-row seat at White House press conferences, has died. She was 92.
The Associated Press reported her death. She lived in Washington for more than six decades.
She was the first woman elected president of the White House Correspondents Association and the first female member of the Gridiron Club, a fraternity for inside-the-Beltway journalists.
Her work ethic was legendary. “She’s always the first one in the White House and the last one to leave,” Frances Lewine, who covered six presidents for the Associated Press, said in a September 2007 interview. Lewine died in January 2008.
Thomas, whose parents were Lebanese, also drew notice for her critical views of Israel. “Well, thank you for the Hezbollah view,” White House spokesman Tony Snow once retorted after Thomas suggested the U.S. should stop an Israeli military operation in southern Lebanon.
In videotaped comments in May 2010, following a White House ceremony marking Jewish Heritage Month, Thomas said Israelis should “get the hell out of Palestine” and return “home” to “Poland, Germany, and America and everywhere else.” Within days she apologized and retired from Hearst.
Honored by Palestinians
In 2012, Palestinian leaders gave Thomas an award for her career. According to an account in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, a magazine critical of U.S. foreign policy in the region, Thomas told supporters at the Virginia home of Maen Areikat, the top Palestinian envoy to the U.S., that she accepted the honor “on behalf of brave supporters of Palestinians who have taken an unpopular stand despite the personal and professional costs.”
Her long career put Thomas on the scene as history was written.
She sat at the head table at Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s “We will bury you” speech at the National Press Club in 1959, having joined other women in a successful battle for one-day access to what was then a male bastion.
Fought for Access
She was at Georgetown Hospital in 1960 when John F. Kennedy Jr. was born, 17 days after his father won the presidency. She traveled with President Richard Nixon on his 1972 trip to China. In 1974, she stood in the Oval Office as President Gerald Ford announced on national television that he was pardoning Nixon for any crimes committed during the Watergate scandal.
At UPI, Thomas fought for access and openness and chronicled day-to-day White House news with the terse language of the wire-service reporter.
“The presidency awed me, but presidents do not,” Thomas wrote in “Dateline: White House,” her 1975 memoir. “Perhaps I have always expected too much of them, but I believe that when they reach the highest office in the land, they should live up to the greatest honor that can come to a person in American political life. Some have stood the test better than others.”
Thomas quit UPI and became a syndicated columnist at the start of George W. Bush’s presidency in 2001, and her dislike of the 43rd president -- particularly his decision to invade Iraq in 2003 -- became evident in her writing and questions. Once guaranteed a question at presidential news conferences, she was rarely called on by Bush.
“Her loathing for Bush is palpable,” Jack Shafer, media critic for Slate.com, wrote in March 2003, citing the “snarky speeches she delivers in lieu of asking questions.”
On one of her few opportunities to question Bush, in 2006, Thomas asserted that he had wanted to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein from the time he took office.